Songs you've got to hear.

Songs you've got to hear.
Jan. 6 2005 2:40 PM

Lighten Up

A Bright Eyes single that's not too angsty, and other recent gems.

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Bright Eyes"Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" (Saddle Creek) Click here to listen to "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)."For a week last month, Bright Eyes' "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and "Lua"—advance tastes of their two forthcoming albums—were the No. 1 and No. 2 best-selling singles in the country, which has less to do with the Nebraska band's sizable cult following than with the near-total collapse of the American singles industry. As usual, 24-year-old Conor Oberst, the band's only full-time member, is blustering about hardening his heart while singing like he couldn't possibly feel any more wounded. (The signature tremor in his voice takes a while to get past.) Still, "Take It Easy," a collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello of the Postal Service, is a new kind of song for Oberst. He's started to play with electronic beats, and working with new wave technology like the whistling keyboard in the background here allows him to demonstrate that he appreciates the unconflicted pleasures of pop hooks, which his angst has tended to crowd out in the past.

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Bettye Swann Bettye Swann (Astralwerks) Click here to listen to "Don't You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)?"Hank Cochran wrote it as a country song in the mid-'60s, and Ronnie Milsap had a big hit with it in 1989, but Bettye Swann's 1969 deep-soul take on "Don't You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)?" gives the song an extra sting of codependency and violence. Swann specialized in transforming country hits into R & B knockouts before she quit the music business altogether in the early '70s. Bettye Swann, a new collection of her 1968-1970 recordings with producer Wayne Shuler, also includes stunning versions of "Stand by Your Man" and "Today I Started Loving You Again." (She recorded the latter as a duet with Buck Owens, too, but an interracial country love duet was too hot for Owens' record label to handle.) Swann's voice is desperately sad, almost resigned—she's not fighting back, just asking where her lover's cruelty comes from.

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Cristina Doll in the Box (Ze) Click here to listen to "Is That All There Is?"In 1980, Cristina Monet reworked Peggy Lee's 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?"—a sort of existentialist recitative—as a louche, slurred piece of disco comedy, Brecht in a mirror ball. Composers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were not pleased. What happened isn't clear, but Cristina's version promptly vanished from the market and reappears for the first time on this new reissue of her debut album, Doll in the Box. The cover does take rather a lot of liberties with the original text (Lee sings about being disillusioned by a childhood trip to the circus; Cristina substitutes a nightclub: "There were bored-looking bankers dancing with beauuutiful models ..."), but the big change is the way Cristina delivers the song's melodramatic monologues. Instead of Lee's subdued self-pity, Monet rants like a motor-mouthed party girl with shrunken pupils. But her irreverent parody magnifies the essence of the song: the way disappointment can curdle into bitterness.

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Holly Golightly Slowly but Surely (Damaged Goods) Click here to listen to "The Luckiest Girl."Singer-guitarist Holly Golightly rose up through the blues-inspired British garage-band scene (she sang for years with Thee Headcoatees), but her solo records evoke the late-'60s moment when British Invasion pop vocalists like Dusty Springfield and Lulu attempted to get with the times by experimenting with psychedelic arrangements and Moody Blues songs. Golightly, though, prefers eerie, depressive R & B obscurities to rock hits. Slowly but Surely includes covers of Billy Myles' "My Love Is"—a "Fever" sound-alike—and Memphis Slim's morbid blues "Mother Earth," and her original songs play her voice's wide-eyed enthusiasm against her lyrics' deadpan cynicism. "The Luckiest Girl" is smooth and sinister, and the organ solo (by someone identified only as the Bongolian) and the sitar part that bursts into the recording every time it needs a touch of color are pure acid grooviness.

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Masada 50 7 (Tzadik) Click here to listen to "Hath-Arob."Avant-garde composer-saxophonist John Zorn's jazz quartet Masada was originally intended to be a short-term project. But the group turned out to be creatively fertile enough that it's kept reworking a book of Zorn's tunes (written in the modes of traditional Jewish music) for over a decade, documenting its evolution with a series of live recordings. Trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron are the ideal foils for Zorn, drawing out his fondness for both squealing fragmentation (the cartoon music and abrupt "jump cut"-style changes in tone that built Zorn's reputation) and straightforward, elegantly tuneful homage to the jazz greats of the '60s, especially his beloved Ornette Coleman. "Hath-Arob" (recorded in 2003 at a monthlong Zorn retrospective in New York) features an arrangement about Ornette: a kaleidoscopic breakdown of a Coleman-style theme, including this playful deconstruction of the brisk, emphatic restatements with which Coleman's classic quartet used to end their recordings.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

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