Disturbing music

The Quietus published a great piece yesterday in which contributors wrote about the pieces of music they find most disturbing. There’s some good choices in there, and some properly creepy stuff.

Inevitably, there’s lots of black metal – not my thing, but as long as neither the fans nor the bands are killing anyone or burning any churches I bear it no ill will. There’s lots of avant stuff: Nurse With Wound and Residents and Diamanda Galas. Unfamiliar with the latter’s oeuvre, I listened to all 11.44 of This is the Law of the Plague from her Plague Mass live album. It’s hard work, but it is undeniably powerful in its intense sincerity. Her brother died of Aids and Galas’s fury at the moralising of the Catholic church (and its recourse to spurious biblical authority to justify its callous disregard for the suffering of Aids victims), is evident in her every word and ululation.

There are some idiosyncratic choices, too. I mean, I get finding What’s New Pussycat distasteful. I get finding it annoying. But disturbing seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Lists like these are often pointless clickbait, and contain little insight or depth. This one’s good, though, because the subject is interesting, and I imagine its something many music fans have spent time thinking about.

Like many people, I have strong emotional reactions to music, and I can definitely think of music that has disturbed me. That moment where the Mellotron voices come in at the end of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me still sends a shiver up my spine. It’s the way their inhuman blankness and mechanical vibrato supplant all the warmth and humanity of Gaye’s preceding performance, ending the song on an ambiguous, doom-laden note. Some of the more extreme moments on Radiohead’s OK Computer unnerved me when I first came into contact with them: the brutally compressed bass guitar that gatecrashes Exit Music; the eerie noises of Climbing Up the Walls, and Thom Yorke’s feral screams that bring the song to an end. When I first heard Nirvana’s In Utero at, what, 12 years old, it was all too much for me: I could put no name to the emotions the songs expressed. I put it away in a drawer for about a week before coming tentatively back to it and slowly coming to understand it, as best someone who’s never shared those experiences ever could, anyways.

But if asked what music I find most disturbing, I’d have to, like Bob Cluness in the Quietus article, plump for György Ligeti’s Requiem.

Like many, I was first exposed to Ligeti’s music when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much about the film disturbed me. I find the idea of space oppressive, bordering on terrifying. The idea of nothing – of nothing on a cosmic scale – is close to unimaginable, and whenever I come close to imagining it, it scares me all the more. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, moments like that shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL and his oxygen supply severed, are just horrifying.

And to add to the dread, Kubrick chose to set some of the heaviest, tensest moments in the film (the encounters with the monoliths on the moon and near Jupiter, and the stargate sequence) to Ligeti’s music: Lux Aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères.

These pieces are exercises in micropolyphony. Polyphony (“many voices”) is the simultaneous use of two or more independent lines of melody (as opposed to a melody with supporting harmonies, whether vocal or from accompanying instruments). Micropoyphony (a technique developed by Ligeti) is the use of many independent lines, each moving at a different speed or in a different rhythm, so that individual melodic lines themselves become hard, or impossible, to discern, instead creating a kind of cloud of sound, resembling a cluster chord except for the fact that it constantly moves. Ligeti’s music is disturbing on a second-by-second basis because it seems amorphous, because its shape is impossible to discern, because we can never get a handle on it: try to follow one voice and you’ll be defeated as others swarm around it, merge with it, transform it.

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!)

György Ligeti, quoted in Jonathan W Bernard’s article Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti

I am in awe of Ligeti’s ability to create this music. It’s is the closest music has come, maybe the closest any artform has come, to grasping and properly invoking the infinite, or God, or whatever you want to call it. I wonder if listening back to his creations unnerved even him.

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Grant Hart RIP

It’s not just that Turn on the News deserves to have been heard by a bigger audience than it has by virtue of its sheer quality. It’s that it, like other songs I can think of, doesn’t make sense as a cult song. It’s just bigger than that.

If it had been written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA rather than by Hüsker Dü for Zen Arcade, it would now be a rock ‘n’ roll standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it’d be up there in the band’s catalogue with London Calling. It’s Rockin’ in the Free World, five years early, and Neil Young would have been mighty happy to have written that riff and that chorus. It has the melody, the power, the drama and the timelessness of any classic rock warhorse you care to name.

Turn on the News was written by Hüsker Dü’s drummer, Grant Hart, who died yesterday of cancer. Hart wrote a huge number of the band’s greatest songs (Pink Turns to Blue, Keep Hanging On, Green Eyes, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely – just to name the first five that come to mind), and his songs are just as treasured by the band’s fans as those by Bob Mould, even if Grant never got the mainstream exposure in the years since Hüsker Dü broke up that Bob enjoyed with Sugar.

He recorded less prolifically than Mould and his records tended to only turn up on little indies without any promotional budget, but from the EP version of 2541 (a song covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Forster, who both know a thing or two about writing good alterna-pop) to the rather bonkers but occasionally inspired The Argument from 2013, an album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, he never lost his way with a melody.

Ultimately though, it’s his time in Hüsker Dü that he’ll be remembered for, and that’s only natural; to say that rock music wouldn’t be the same today without Hüsker Dü is such a commonplace observation as to be a cliche. But if you want proof, just take a look at social media today and see your favourite musicians talking about what the band’s music, and Grant Hart, meant to them.

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

beast epic
*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic. A very talented mimic, to be sure, but self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

More thoughts on Tim Hardin

If that title makes this post sound like a sequel, it is – to a piece I wrote four years ago and wasn’t all that pleased with.

Last night I played Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe for an audience. I’ve never performed Hardin’s music in front of anyone before, and I picked it not because I thought anyone would know his version, but because they might know Rod Stewart’s, and Mel and I were looking to leaven a long duo set of our original stuff with a few songs people might know. I mentioned that Hardin’s recording was a smaller, more intimate record than the version Stewart cut for Every Picture Tells a Story, and that I would be playing Hardin’s take on the song, just in case they thought I’d stopped because I’d forgotten how it went.

Many artists who take on Hardin can’t resist the urge to urge to elongate and inflate the original text. Hardin’s songs in this day and age can seem alien – so terse, so concise. Five of the 10 songs on Tim Hardin 2 are less than two minutes long. When the average pop song is at least 90 seconds longer than that, Hardin’s ultra-minimal work can come over a bit like a demo that someone else will be taking and polishing up: repeating some bits here and there, raising the key, pushing the tempo.

Yet few versions of Hardin’s songs improve at all on the originals in any respect. Brief as they may be, Hardin’s recordings aren’t short of emotion or ideas; quite the reverse. It’s more that he refused to repeat hooks or choruses for the sake of catchiness if there was no emotional reason to do it. The bit that everyone remembers from Reason to Believe (“Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”) only happens once in Hardin’s recording; the second time it comes round, Hardin doesn’t sing and lets the orchestra carry it. He then sings the first verse again and simply stops at the words “Still I’d look to find a reason to believe”, letting them hang in the air.

I love that about his recordings. It’s so rare in pop music that someone makes understatement and reserve the whole cornerstone of their musical approach. Hardin’s work in its context is revolutionary – his first album two albums (which contain Reason to Believe, Black Sheep Boy, It’ll Never Happen Again, How Can We Hang On to a Dream, Misty Roses, If I Were a Carpenter, Red Balloon and Speak Like a Child) were released in 1966 and 1967, years when pop was entering its psychedelic phase and was going maximal.

However untogether he was in his life away from music, Hardin trusted his instincts and refused to follow the herd. Within eighteen months of his first record’s release, a whole movement of singer-songwriters and rootsy rock bands (under the direct influence of The Band and Bob Dylan, a public fan of Hardin’s work) would themselves move away from the high-volume, bright-colour aesthetic of psychedelia towards something more minimal and organic. They were simply rediscovering what Hardin had known all along: the power of speaking quietly when everyone else is shouting.

tim-hardin-1

 

Glen Campbell RIP

Your childhood favourites never leave you, and thanks to albums like this, Glen Campbell was one of mine:

Country Scene cover

This cheapo Music for Pleasure compilation from the early eighties began with Galveston and ended with Rhinestone Cowboy*. Thirty years later, both songs, and especially the former, remain incredibly important and precious to me, and I genuinely can’t hear Galveston without tearing up. Next time I listen to it, it’ll have to be in private.

Glen Campbell was not a young man, and he had been unwell for some years, so we shouldn’t get maudlin here. But we should take a moment to remember the absolutely towering contribution he made to popular music.

I’m sure I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know about Glen Campbell. After years of playing guitar on sessions and cutting singles trying to get a break, Gentle on My Mind made his name in 1967. His interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s songs (Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston – Campbell had an instinct for choosing the best songs) in the years that followed cemented his reputation as one of the foremost interpretative singers not just in country, but in any kind of music. No one who took on Wichita Lineman or By the Time I Get to Phoenix improved them (not even Isaac Hayes – sorry, James, if you’re reading this). You can’t improve perfection.

He had a TV show and tried his hand at acting with some success. He cut gorgeous duets with Bobbie Gentry and Anne Murray. In his session days, he played guitar and bass on Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra records as part of the Wrecking Crew – and toured with the Beach Boys, too. Even now he’s still underappreciated as a guitarist.

If there was one positive to come out of his Alzheimer’s-stricken final years, it was the sight of Campbell performing in front of adoring audiences, old and young, some of whom had only heard of him through his 2008 covers album, Meet Glen Campbell, on which he covered the likes of the Foo Fighters, Green Day and Paul Westerberg. Their appreciation of him was sharpened by the knowledge that he was slipping away. No artist deserved a victory lap more.

Glen-Campbell-Capitol-Archives

*It also took in Anne Murrary’s Snowbird, Crystal Gayle’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue and Talking in Your Sleep, Don Schlitz’s own recording of The Gambler, Billie Jo Spears’ Blanket on the Ground and Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. It’s amazing how much lasting happiness can be derived from something that only existed because someone at MfP saw a quick, cheap way to make an easy profit.