Twyford Down – Galliano

Before American rock music became my musical obsession, I mainly bought and listened to compilations of contemporary music, some of which was rock and some of which decidedly wasn’t.

One of the records I listened to most, which I loved wholeheartedly, was called Groovin’. It was woven together from a few different musical threads: contemporary West Coast hip hop (nothing too hard, though), slightly older East Coast hip hop, soulful R&B-flavoured pop, some very late new jack swing, and miscellaneous British tracks, most of which you could broadly call acid jazz.

The most famous group that ever got tagged with that label was of course Jamiroquai, whose Stevie Wonder-fetishising music is, if I’m forced to be polite, not to my taste at all. But if you’re not familiar with the term and want to know what the style sounded like, early Jamiroquai singles like Too Young to Die and Blow Your Mind encapsulate it pretty well: soul- and funk-derived music, led by bass and keyboards, with live drums and often lots of additional percussion.

Included on Groovin’ was a song by a band called Galliano, an early progenitor of the sound, but commercial also-rans compared to Jamiroquai, Incognito and the Brand New Heavies. I had no idea until around ten years later that the Galliano song on Groovin’, Long Time Gone, was actually a Crosby, Stills & Nash cover (and a David Crosby song at that). At the time, I liked it well enough, I suppose. But it seemed a bit earnest, in comparison to the more nihilistic gangsta stuff elsewhere on the CD or the more whimsical likes of De La Soul.

The following year, Polygram brought out a rather inferior sequel, The Essential Groove, containing tracks by many of the same artists who featured on Groovin’. Galliano were among the returnees, with another track from their 1994 record, The Plot Thickens.

This one, Twyford Down, made little impression on me, clearly, because I barely remembered it until I revisited the compilation last year. But, actually, it’s a bit of a belter.

In the early to mid-1990s, a spate of major road building under the Thatcher and Major Tory governments met with heavy, justified, resistance from protesters appalled at the disregard being shown to areas of sensitive environmental importance. The most famous of these protests was probably the one against the Newbury bypass, but Twyford Down was possibly even more significant, as the proposal to cut through the down (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) to make the M3 a continuous road drew a wide coalition of protestors, many of whom were solidly middle-class (conservative in every sense of the world) professionals of the sort the government and the right-wing media couldn’t simply dismiss as troublemakers, anarchists and hippies.

I didn’t know much of this at the time. Nor did I clock, aged 13, the references that Galliano were playing with in Twyford Down the song. OK, I got the opening quote from The Teddy Bear’s Picnic, but the resemblance of the fuzzed-out guitar riff to the style of Ernie Isley went straight over my head. As did the fact that the chorus – “Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe the time of man, I don’t know” – is a more-or-less direct quote from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. Nor did I get the similarity of the massed backing vocals at the end of the song to the chant-like incantations you hear on, for example, Roy Ayers tracks like Everybody Loves the Sunshine. All these reference points were way beyond me. When I heard Twyford Down again last year and realised quite how much Galliano owed to Laurel Canyon rock as well as black soul music, I was surprised but also delighted.

The battle for Twyford Down was lost, of course, as these battles usually are in the end. But the protesters gave the government enough of a bloody nose to contribute to the  change in road-building policy in the UK. If you build more roads, you encourage more traffic, on and on, without end, until there won’t be any more green spaces to build roads through. The policy of building of yet more trunk roads, and the egregious proposal to carve another motorway through the Pennines, were dropped by John Major’s weakened government, and has not yet reappeared.

Galliano’s song stands as a monument to a time when the environmental battles we faced, or read about in the news, were localised, small scale and did seem winnable. Would that it were so now. As such, Twyford Down may seem almost quaint today. But we’d do well to listen, recognise its mix of cold anger and warm communitarianism, and learn from it. We need such songs more than ever.

 

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Mama Roux – Dr John

Dr John’s latter-day reputation as an avuncular ivory-tickling presence on the margins of pop culture, liable to pop up on TV every so often to sing a good-humoured rendition of Iko-Iko, before disappearing back to Louisiana to play ragtime piano in a bar, is at serious odds with his early music.

Dr John was born Malcolm John Rebennack in, of course, New Orleans in 1941. He was a promising guitar player, beginning to make his way in the local music industry, until an accident with a gun (he was trying to disarm someone holding up his friend and the gun went off) left him with a damaged ring finger on his fretting hand. Unable to regain the feeling and movement needed to play guitar as he had previously, he switched to piano, and developed a style indebted to Professor Longhair.

During a couple of years of session playing in LA, he cooked up an idea. What could you do by mixing up jazz and R&B and rock with voodoo mythology and a theatrical, Screaming Jay Hawkins-style stage show? He decided, after pondering a while, that you could do quite a lot, and his old friend Harold Battiste (who was an oboe player and arranger for Phil Spector) agreed.

Rebennack wanted another friend, Robbie Barron, to assume the Dr John persona, but Barron’s manager convinced him it would be a bad career move. So Rebennack, clad in a headdress that would never go over these days, took on the role of Dr John himself. His creation, Dr John Creaux, was a sort of witch doctor/voodoo priest, presiding over a band made up of LA session pros, some of whom were fellow NOLA transplants.

Gris Gris, Dr John’s debut album, was recorded at Gold Star in Los Angeles, where Spector and the Beach Boys did much of their work, but it could scarcely be further away in sound or mood from sunny LA pop. With its sound world of mandolin, bass clarinet, multitudinous percussion instruments, snaky bass grooves and sparing use of keyboards and electric guitars, the songs on Gris Gris sound like the accompaniment to a sinister ritual taking place deep in the Bayou Sauvage. Backing singers chant incantations and Rebennack slips in and out of English and Cajun French, as he wheedles you into trying his potions and gris gris, warning you all the time not to cross him. Three of the album’s seven tracks are eerie quasi-instrumentals with vocal chants.

Mama Roux is one of the album’s two relatively traditional songs – the tracks with the most connection to what Rebennack has done since his fifth album, Dr John’s Gumbo, remade his image and sound and cast him as a more cuddly, good-time kind of figure (I’d love it if he’d gone back to his voodoo-doctor roots when asked to provide the theme to the TV show Blossom, but alas no). The rhythm track isn’t straight two-and-four stuff on a drum kit (like the other songs on the record, it puts equal weight on shakers, congas, timbales, talking drums and other assorted percussion), and the ridiculously deep bass comes from organ pedals rather than a bass guitar, but it’s essentially an R&B tune at heart. If you like the weird edge it has, check out the whole album. It’s one of a kind.

Spurs reach the Champions League final

Please forgive me one of my very infrequent football-related blogs.

To say that I’ve been waiting a long time for my team, Tottenham Hotspur, to reach the Champions League Final (the European football equivalent of the Super Bowl) is at once a vast understatement and an enormous untruth. Yes, I’ve dreamed about Spurs reaching the final of the major European cup competition it since I began following football 29 years ago, the season English teams were allowed back into European competition after the five-year ban. But saying that I’ve “waited for it” implies that I thought it might actually happen.

I didn’t.

For most of the 29 years I’ve followed Spurs, we’ve been a punchline for a certain type of football supporter (usually the type who support Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or – for different reasons they’d not want to admit to – West Ham). Not because we were terrible, but because we were either mediocre or good but not quite good enough. We had a habit of losing games that were winnable, and of being just threatening enough to consistently provoke good performances from the teams above us in the league but not good enough to ever actually beat them.

Rival fans have had a lot of fun at our expense down the years when we’ve lost big games, crowing about St Totteringham’s Day and Spursiness, and quoting Alex Ferguson’s “Lads, it’s Tottenham” team talk. I’m sure many will find the joy of Tottenham fans today laughable, and mock us for not acting like we’ve been there.

But we haven’t.

Under Chairman Daniel Levy, Spurs (while wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of lower-league football teams), have operated on a much lower budget than the Liverpools and Uniteds of this world, refusing to change our wage structure, scrapping hard to keep our best players but knowing that ultimately they’d move on to a club that would pay them more and offer them a chance to compete for the league and Europe’s big prize. As well as losing our best players because they wanted to get paid and win things, we seldom attracted top managerial talent, for the exact same reasons; as recently as five years ago we were managed by “Tactical” Tim Sherwood, who had no more qualification to be coaching Spurs than I did.

So for any passing Chelsea, Arsenal or United fan, this is why it means something to those of us who’ve been following Spurs for more than the last few years. Because we remember when Spurs Monthly ran the cover story “The Big Catch!” because we’d signed Newcastle winger Ruel Fox. Because for a couple of years we played Gary Doherty every week. Because we always knew we’d one day lose Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Carrick, Sol Campbell and Gareth Bale to teams with more money and more on-the-field prospects than us.

Getting Spurs to this point has taken roughly 15 years, since the start of the Martin Jol era, with many setbacks along the way (the aforementioned Tim Sherwood). It would be disingenuous to say we’ve done it on no money, but our rise has been a very different story to Chelsea’s and Manchester City’s. It’s been a gradual process, one that involved making Spurs European regulars via the UEFA Cup/Europa League, then top-four contenders, then Champions League regulars. Slow and steady, a little more every year. As such, you have to credit not just Daniel Levy and the brilliant Mauricio Pochettino, but also Jol and Harry Redknapp, and players such as Ledley King and Jermain Defoe, who endured the ups and downs along with the fans.

Right now – a brand-new stadium and a Champions League final – this might be as good as it ever gets for Spurs. We might lose the final, our brilliant manager Mauricio Pochettino might go elsewhere, Christian Eriksen might refuse a new contract, Harry Kane might one day snap his ankle ligaments beyond repair. You have to enjoy the moment while you’re in it. So that’s what we’ll do. And those of us who recall 1991-2004 will enjoy it all the more.

Come on you Spurs!

Image result for mauricio pochettino
It means this much.

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.

 

To Each His Own – E.B. The Younger

To Each His Own is the debut solo record by Eric Pulido, guitarist and vocalist from Midlake, recorded under the name E.B. The Younger.

Midlake never settled on a sound. Every record the Denton, Texas, band have made has reflected their then-current interests and influences, often in such an unguarded way that to have accused them of being derivative would have seemed merely churlish. There was a naivity in the way they appropriated sounds and moods and atmospheres from other acts – the Thom Yorke quasi-falsetto of original vocalist Tim Smith, the Grandaddy-isms of Bamnan and Slivercork, the Fleetwood Mac harmonies of the group’s Van Occupanther era, the stark and austere Sandy Denny-style chord changes that are all over The Courage of Others – that stopped it feeling cynical. It just felt like they were sharing their enthusiasms with you.

To Each His Own takes this tendency to an extreme, not settling on a sound for more than one song at a time. It shares with much of current indie a backwards-looking focus, but the object of Pulido’s retrospection changes every few minutes. On lead single Used to Be, for example, the guitar sounds and synth chords make it sound like a forgotten mid-1980s Don Henley single. CLP calls to mind Paul Simon’s St Judy’s Comet. The lovely Down and Out, with its sighing major seventh chords, sounds like Lindsey Buckingham in his Law and Order phase covering an old Neil Young song. Don’t Forget Me would have fit nicely on Nilsson Schmilsson. The title track that closes the album gets really meta; it sounds like Tim Smith-era Midlake.

To Each His Own goes down easy on a musical level. It’s beautifully played (it features the talents of Midlake guitarist Joey McClellan and drummer Mackenzie Smith, as well as members of the Texas Gentlemen) and arranged, and Pulido is an appealing singer. Its best songs (my pick is Down and Out) are well worth your time, whether or not you have ever liked any of Midlake’s work in the past – this is substantially different stuff to anything Midlake have done up to now.

While Pulido does a fine job of recreating the sonic signifiers (lightly strummed acoustic guitars, damped drums, tight vocal harmonies, a range of acoustic and electric keyboard tones, and even synths) of 1970s and early 1980s soft rock, he sometimes struggles to find a lyrical mode that suits the compositions while living up to his influences. “If it’s wrong I don’t want to be right” is the kind of banal comment that Rupert Holmes would have congratulated himself for writing, yet it’s the key hook of On an Island. When the Time Comes muses on the point of getting a record deal when “ramen only costs a dime”, and rhymes “Got no regrets I care to mention” with “Can you direct me to my pension?” – which goes to prove I suppose that writing witty, lightly ironic lyrics of the kind Nilsson, Warren Zevon or Paul Simon sprinkled throughout their songs is harder than it looks.

But then, Pulido struggled at times on the last Midlake album, Antiphon, to write in Tim Smith’s antiquated, rustic idiom, too. He’s a talent. A listen to Monterey, Down and Out or Don’t Forget Me makes that pretty clear. How much you get from To Each His Own may depend on whether you pay particular attention to lyrics or not, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. If he finds the lyrical mode that best suits him, he could make something special.

Chemikal Underground & the Delgados

There’s a 30-minute documentary on Chemikal Underground available on the BBC iPlayer right now.

Chemikal Underground, despite its name, was not an acid-house label. It’s an indie label, formed by the members of the Delgados in Glasgow in 1994. After putting out their own single, they released records by Bis, then signed Mogwai and Arab Strap. The programme is worth seeing to get the story of how you accomplished that with minimal funding in the mid-1990s. Frankly, the Delgados worked miracles to get uncommercial and pretty uncompromising music heard – and available – across the UK and worldwide.

However, with its abbreviated running time, the documentary showed very little of the Delgados’ own music, which for me was much the best to have been released by Chemikal Underground between the label’s formation and the time it dropped of my radar, around 2004-5.

Early single Monica Webster and the group’s first album, Domestiques, suggest a band in thrall to American indie, vocals submerged behind relatively rudimentary guitar thrashing. Peloton saw the group dialing down the distortion, revealing their vocal melodies and allowing Stewart Henderson’s bass to become the band’s crucial instrument. While they still got noisy on occasion (Repeat Failure’s wind-tunnel guitars are a pretty dead-on shoegaze recreation), the album’s key track was probably opener Everything Goes Around the Water, which employed a more widescreen soundworld of woodwinds and strings, and fused multiple sections, feels and tempos to create a sort of homespun avant-pop.

The band’s third album, The Great Eastern, saw them perfect that sound, albeit by ditching a little of what had made them endearing in their early years. The band brought in an outside producer for the first time in Dave Fridmann, who’d become a big cheese in indie music after his big three late-1990s successes: Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young (the latter I see got some tepid reviews on release, but it seemed to me at the time to be enormous).

Fridmann did what Fridmann does (and I hate what Fridmann does sonically), but these were songs that were on the whole suited to the Fridmann aesthetic. The group’s songwriter/vocalists, Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward, had composed a set of long, multi-part songs geared towards a maximalist approach to arrangement, and while I’d question some of Fridmann’s mix choices, the arrangements he and the group created were magnificent, full of cellos and violas and elegiac brass. In an era where an orchestral arrangement on an indie record usually meant 200 violins straining to make the banal sound important, the Delgados’ approach (the gradual accumulation of small details to achieve a massive end result) was hugely refreshing.

With their next album, Hate, the Delgados arguably overreached themselves. At times, Fridmann’s sonics are unbelievably ugly (it’s an ear-scrapingly difficult listen on headphones, compressed and distorted beyond any reasonable endurance), but there are songs there every inch as good as those on The Great Eastern – opening duo The Light Before We Land and the title track may be the best things the band ever accomplished, and Pollock’s Coming In from the Cold has probably the album’s most appealing melodies, allied with a breezier, less claustrophobic mix. Undeniably difficult, Hate‘s insistence on avoiding lyrical cliche and embracing darkness make it worth hearing, even as its excesses make it a less satisfying record than its predecessor.

The Delgados called it quits after 2004’s Universal Audio, which stripped back the group’s Fridmann-era bombast and returned to their indie-pop roots. At that point, I stopped paying attention to Chemikal Underground, so I can’t speak to their releases in the last 15 years. But I do wish that someone involved in the making of the BBC documentary had spoken up in favour of the band’s own music, as for all the screen time given to Woodward, Pollock and the group’s yeoman drummmer/sound engineer Stewart Henderson, they were much too modest to speak up for themselves.

great eastern

Jules and Jim – Nada Surf

Eight albums into their career, Nada Surf are more quietly impressive than ever. Not quiet in a musical sense, as their music is often driven by saturated, beefy distorted guitars, but in a low-key, no-bullshit kind of way that’s best demonstrated by their live shows, in which they smash through one song after another with no extended jams and no self-indulgent between-song waffle.

The band formed in New York in 1992 as a collaboration between singer-guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, who had gone to the same French-language school together (the families of both spent time in France and Belgium when they were kids). After a couple of false starts, they found drummer Ira Elliott and began recording low-budget EPs and playing shows. At one such show at the Knitting Factory, they ran into former Cars singer Ric Ocasek, who was by then an in-demand producer (his production discography includes the Bad Brains’ Rock for Light and Weezer’s Blue Album), and gave him one of their self-released cassettes. Ocasek later called the band to say he wanted to produce their first album, which no doubt helped to get them hooked up with Elektra.

Problem was, while their debut scored a hit, it did so in the form of Popular, a sub-Weezer novelty in which Caws recites advice from the 1964 guide for teenage girls on how to achieve popularity in an increasingly hysterical voice. Having not heard it at the time (it wasn’t really a thing in the UK), I’ve got to say, it’s as bad as it sounds. Worse, it pegged them for many as a derivative or even a novelty band; better not to have a mainstream hit at all than to have one that will follow you around like a bad smell for the next ten years. By the early noughties, the band members were back to working day jobs.

With admirable persistence, they set about rebuilding. After getting themselves a deal with solid indie Barsuk (John Vanderslice, Death Cab, Rilo Kiley), they released three super-solid power-pop albums in a row: Let Go, The Weight is a Gift and Lucky. Power pop is not a cool style of music, especially at the moment, but it’s one I’ve always had a huge soft spot for, and Nada Surf are great at it. Matthew Caws has a sweet and supple voice, his songs always have strong melodies and big choruses, and the rhythm section supply the “power” side of things admirably. As does the fact that Caws knows how to get a sweet guitar sound with his Les Paul Custom.

Jules and Jim is from 2012’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, which took the band’s winning streak to four. The song is an Alex Chilton-ish minor classic, with one of their most glorious choruses. Although, really, it’s just one hook after another. The band are now a four-piece (when playing live, at least) with the addition of guitarist Doug Gillard, also of Guided by Voices, and when I saw at the Electric Ballroom a few years ago and Gillard and Caws struck up the song’s chiming harmonised intro, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle heaven.