Six Degrees of Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman
It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it's not. It's the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we've deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
In March of 1968, Steven Demetre Georgiou — who gigged around London coffeehouses as Cat Stevens and had released a few pop albums — contracted tuberculosis and nearly died. A long convalescence followed, during which time Stevens's brush with mortality led him to investigate vegetarianism, yoga and world religions (come 1977, he would become a devout Muslim and change his name to Yusuf Islam the next year). When he emerged in the... new decade, with his mind and body rejuvenated, he set about doing the same for his career, stripping his music back to its basics. He released the modestly successful Mona Bone Jakon in spring of 1970, but it was a composition covered by reggae crooner Jimmy Cliff, "Wild World," that brought success to Stevens.more »
Tea for the Tillerman followed later that same year, with his own version of "Wild World" on it, and Cat Stevens achieved chart success on both sides of the Atlantic that had eluded him previously, and he found himself on a swelling folk wave alongside fellow singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King. Tea for the Tillerman found Stevens putting to verse the mortal struggles he had suffered in that hospital bed and was rewarded with top-10 placements and a gold record.
Questing and dissatisfied with the material world, Stevens sought spiritual succor and such a search powers Tillerman's themes. Innocence hardened into wisdom, love turning to heartbreak, Stevens details such change yet couches that angst in some of the finest hooks of his era. How else can a barbed line like "It's hard to get by just upon a smile" go down so easy on "Wild World"? Other classics like "Where do the Children Play?" and "Father and Son" detail the empathy gap between generations and the speed of progress that widens such a chasm. How hard it remains in the kinetic 21st century to take the sage advice "to be calm when you've found something going on, but take your time, think a lot, why, think of everything you've got" and apply it.
The Wild World Beater
One of the first Jamaican artists signed to Island, Jimmy Cliff had a modest hit with "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" but it was his cover of Stevens's composition "Wild World" that really did achieve success the wild-world over. Soon after, he became a movie star via his startling turn as hungry singer turned bandit Ivan Martin in The Harder They Come. For many people, The Harder They Comesoundtrack introduced them to the... particular strain of laconic pop music cut in the ghettos on the tiny island of Jamaica. Cliff's tough vocal tracks comprise half of the soundtrack, the other half given over to a fine selection of rocksteady and early reggae cuts recorded by producer Leslie Kong and his stable of artists: The Melodians, The Maytals, and Desmond Dekker. This influential OST laid the groundwork for all of reggae's future successes in the world market.more »
The Fellow Soundtracker
After the successes of 1970, Stevens had nine of his songs buoy the soundtrack to the pitch-black existential humor of Hal Ashby's 1971 comedy, Harold and Maude. A similar set of circumstances also befell Canadian poet-turned-songwriter Leonard Cohen, when his stark, cycling songs provided the soundtrack to the Robert Altman's iconic anti-western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, released that same year. Cohen's debut had been an Altman favorite while shooting in Vancouver and... became part of the temporary soundtrack when cutting the film. Much to his luck, Cohen was a fan of Altman's quirky, underrated film Brewster McCloud and allowed his music to be licensed for the film. As barren, dark and untamed as the western town depicted on screen, Cohen's harrowing poetic music provides the ideal soundtrack to a perfect film.more »
Tea for Sill
Judee Sill story's is a heartbreaking one. Misunderstood during her lifetime, it's only in the intervening decades since her overdose death in 1979 that she has received her due. Her last demos were polished with the help of Jim O'Rourke in 2005, her songs have been covered by the likes of Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen, and her music even appeared in Greenberg. In her verse, she too struggles... with religion and redemption, the binary of spirit and flesh, informing her ornate lyrics with references to the mystical Christina sect of Rosicrucianism. Her self-titled debut was helped by the likes of Graham Nash (who produced her single "Jesus Was a Crossmaker"), but for her follow-up, 1973's Heart Food, Sill handled all the arrangements herself. The result is one of the most exquisite and fully-realized singer-songwriter efforts of any decade. From the ethereal ballad "The Kiss" to the driving piano of "Soldier of the Heart," from the doo-wop of "Down Where the Valleys are Low" to the elegiac liturgical epic of "The Donor," Sill too grapples with life and what might lie beyond its boundaries.more »
The New Cat
When Sam Beam's debut The Creek Drank the Cradle quietly crept into stores in 2002, things such as astute songcraft, simple presentation, and quiescence were antiquated notions in alternative music. Beam's recording project, Iron & Wine, appeared out of nowhere and skipped over buzz-garnering genres like noise, punk, techno, hip-hop, and electro, instead reaching back to embrace the quality work of now-uncool artists like Cat Stevens. Gentle as a lullaby, soft as... a whisper, come dusk, this is mesmeric, unadorned music, something that remains outside of eras and epochs. "The Rooster Moans" has Appalachian ghosts in its throat, the blues creep up inside of "An Angry Blade," while "Southern Anthem" has roots in ecclesiastical gospel. Put down assuredly to four-track in his home studio, Beam relies on his poetic lines and considered acoustic playing (with the barest additions of banjo, slide guitar, and double-tracked vocal harmonies) to carry the album.more »