Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Murder of Maria Marten – Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

Shirley Collins was already a folk-music veteran in 1971, having released half a dozen records since 1959, including the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes with Davy Graham (1964) and Anthems in Eden (1969) with the New Music Consort and her sister Dolly on portative organ. She was a – probably the – leading figure among the younger generation of folk-revival musicians. As a teenager she met Ewan McColl and Alan Lomax, with whom she went on a song-collecting trip to America. While she doubtless absorbed McColl and Lomax’s passion for and commitment to the folk music of Britain and North America, she did not contract the fatal disease of dogmatism. Collins may be emphatically a folk singer in the literal sense – a living link in Britain’s chain of song and not a singer-songwriter like Sandy Denny or a hybrid writer/interpreter like Anne Briggs – but her most celebrated recordings are forward- not backward-looking.

The third and last of the three revolutionary albums in her discography is No Roses, the first release by the newly formed Albion Country Band, a group formed by Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchins, who wanted to carry on the work begun on Liege and Lief. Although Richard Thompson was becoming more interested in writing original material than performing the old songs, he was along for the ride on lead guitar, as was Simon Nicol on a rhythm guitar and the Fairport rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. But also present were players of the concertina, fiddle, crumhorn, ophicleide, Northumbrian smallpipes, hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer and a variety of other decidedly non-rock instruments, and a who’s who of singing talent, including various Watersons and members of the Young Tradition. All in all, there are 27 credited musicians on the record.

The Murder of Maria Marten tells the story of the Red Barn Murder in Suffolk, for which William Corder was hanged. But the record is less notable for the performance of the song than for what it represents. Fairport even at their most traditional featured the band’s original material and an instrumental approach more rock than folk. In contrast, No Roses sees folk and rock trying to come to some sort of accommodation with each other but with neither willing to cede any ground to the other. The effect is jarring. The fade out from the full-band performance (with a backbeat and chord changes) to a verse sung to accompaniment of a hurdy-gurdy drone is a crude arrangemental device; Richard Thompson and fiddler Nic Jones solo over each other, deaf to each other’s playing. The rock musicians, schooled in Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, are forced to improvise bars of 5/4 to work with the winding, serpentine melody.

So folk wins in the grand tug o’ war between folk and rock, then? Well, in this case, yes, I think it does. Perhaps because Collins worked at the trad end of the British revival, she was happier to see the rock musicians adapt themselves to suit her, rather than the other way round. But even though primacy is given to folk over rock, few records have so adeptly blended the sensibilities of the two.

Both folk and rock embody certain tensions and paradoxes. Rock music is individualistic and has from its very beginning been in cahoots with the industry in the pursuit of money. It’s usually conservative in musical form and instrumentation, and often reactionary in its attitudes to women, gay people and immigrants. Unless a rock ’n’ roller outs him/herself as a socialist, it’s usually safe to assume they’re a free-market liberal with a small social-democratic cherry on top. (Except the Ted Nugent-style libertarians, who are just straight-up crazy.) Yet rock music has often been the focus of grassroots communitarianism and activism (albeit usually at a far lower level of commercial success and social visibility than that of mainstream music-industry rock) since the first hippies let their freak flags fly.

Folk music, on the other hand, has been identified with socialist, even communist, sympathies since early in the twentieth century, and going back further. Song collector Ceceil Sharp was a Fabian and folk-sympathising composers Vaughan Williams and Holst were part of William Morris’s Socialist group in the 1890s; later figures such as Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl were forthright communists. Yet the impulse to conserve and big-C Conservatism are separated by a line all too easily crossed when your cast of mind is instinctively hostile to progress, and so folk music has never been without its political reactionaries (see the Strawbs and their despicable Part of the Union – a no.2 hit in 1973, recognised and embraced as the piece of propaganda it was by the Daily Mail right).

So folk and rock share this internal tension between the progressive and the conservative. Perhaps it was this that facilitated the successful blend of form and feeling that we find on No Roses. Certainly I know of no subsequent records that do what this one does so well: apart from the airy jazz excursions of the Pentangle, ‘folk-rock’ has usually merely been a band consisting of a singer-songwriter with a 4/4 rhythm section and at least one acoustic player amongst the guitarists. The Albion Country Band was something very different, and for a time something very worthwhile.

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Shirley Collins, with banjo

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Gillian Welch, living in the now

Queen of the fakes and imitators
Time’s the revelator.

 Gillian Welch, 2001

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch largely abandoned the in-character, past-tense storytelling of her first two records and begun writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible ‘now’.

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch turned herself into (in my view anyway) the best songwriter in the world.

Are these two things related? And was the relationship between them causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Playing music that places original songs within a traditional form and sound is not easy. At worst, it sounds like a pose; if the performer can’t bridge the gap between who he or she ‘really’ is and what they claim for themselves in song, the audience can become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers in Rolling Stone was negative about Revival:

[The album] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.

Christgau even more so:

She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.

But these were uncharitable and unimaginative reviews, saying more about the reviewers than about the record. After all, Christgau never complained that John Fogerty hadn’t really been working for the man every night and day and he never claimed that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville train. In fact, while neither Powers nor Christgau heard it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and the album contained several undeniable successes.

What was really going on here was a willed failure on the part of some of her reviewers to suspend disbelief, a stubborn refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet. Consider an analogy: no actor can convince a viewer that she is the character she portrays on stage or screen if the critic simply refuses to let go of the fact that they recognise her face and know her real name long enough to actually engage with the performance. Yet Welch’s middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – became something of an albatross.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings (a record that still feels like the most thin and spotty album she’s made) and Time (the Revelator), her masterpiece, Welch had not only improved as a writer but had also significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it – because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival – but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (the Revelator), just meditations and recollections. And when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given a piece of it, from somewhere out the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April 14th Part 1:

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

This is a world away from ‘We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust’.

*

So if it’s clear that her lyrics did change between Revival/Yearlings and Time (the Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody on Welch’s part, and the singing and guitar playing of her and partner Dave Rawlings was also highly impressive for a debut. But for a songwriter whose arrangements tend to be kept to two guitars and two voices, the only thing left that she could improve was her lyrics. And they did improve: more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April 14th Part 1 is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world (mobile telephones, vans, bands playing low-rent shows), and Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on April 14th: the assassination of Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a ‘ruination day’?  What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies? Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless. In the world that the songs have established these were not exactly unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined.

By Time, she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave their questions unanswered. April 14th Part 1’s sister song, Ruination Day Part 2, does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. In Ruination Day Part 2, the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising these issues and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this way and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time, it does feel just a little like she’s playing with stereotypes and well-worn stories, although the lyrics do not particularly harm the songs, which would be compelling on their musical merits alone.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on the Band’s second album – and no one has come close to matching his work in that idiom), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the ‘awkward truth’ that ‘to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness’. Welch has come nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. I’d argue that her decision to do so, conscious or not, was an important step in the creation of her magnificent early-noughties work. Time (the Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but it’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record.

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Gillian Welch, in the now. ©John Patrick Salisbury

Download single launch/Clapton Print and Zine Fair Links

Hi all. Just some links that may be of interest to those of you thinking of coming along on May 4th or 5th. Do check out the links: much good stuff is to be found.

Mat Riviere

SW London and Surrey Zines Collective

Yo Zushi

Zoe Taylor

Ross Palmer

Board of Fun

33chatsworthRd

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Little Differences/Can You Explain – Free download single, coming soon!

Hi all. I contribute occasional articles to a blog called Board of Fun, which has been putting out free download singles every month or so for the past little while (Yo Zushi, James McKean and Sean King so far). The next in the series is going to be a couple of my own songs, Little Differences and Can You Explain.

Both songs were recorded at home in a one-man-band stylee, although Can You Explain features a guest vocal by my good friend Christopher Martin – not the singer from Coldplay, but the singer/percussionist from Brooking & Martin and former Carterhaugh drummer. Chris and I have been playing music together since the bronze age or thereabouts, so it’s been really cool to work with him on this one. Just as expected, he sang the song brilliantly.

Yo Zushi, the head honcho over at Board of Fun and another guy I’ve been working with for years, has very kindly been putting together a video for Little Differences, which I’m really looking forward to seeing in its finished form. When it’s ready I’ll be sure to link you to it.

In the meantime, this is just a heads-up to let you know that I’ll be playing a set to launch the single at the Dentist in Homerton on Saturday 4th May. This will be my first solo show in over three years! At the same show, Yo will be launching the first of three new albums he’s planning for this year. The record’s called Smalltime and it’s full of the high-quality Zushi pop you’ve come to expect from him. Our special guest on the night will be Mat Riviere, who’s been receiving raves from NME and Artrocker amongst many others. Don’t miss it!

As if that wasn’t enough, the second issue of the Board of Fun zine will be available too, as part of a very special weekend-long launch (on May 5th, the same venue will be hosting a zine fair, featuring the new BoF issue and much more). Another date for the diary!

I’ll be back tomorrow with some links and more info. In the meantime, put 4th May in your diaries and note down this address: 33 Chatsworth Road, Clapton, London E5 0LH. Doors are at 7.30 and entrance will be £4 on the door or £3 in advance. For more information, go to

facebook.com/33chatsworthRd

launch gig

Richie Havens – RIP

Been doing far, far too many of these lately.

Richie Havens was a singer and a guitarist, a much better singer than most guitarists and a much better guitarist than most singers. His propulsive, ultra-percussive, heavily syncopated approach to guitar playing is instantly recognisable once you’ve heard it, and his voice just ached with passion and sincerity. Listening to him sing today, his lack of pretence, his lack of a front, brings you up short. Richie Havens was just himself; he wasn’t playing at being anything or anyone else. Although he strikes me as the kind of man who was probably not big on judging others, it serves as something of a rebuke to a generation of singers who are either unwilling to commit to any genuine emotion or can only emote in primary colours.

His guitar playing – in which his acoustic guitar was usually open-tuned, and held at such an angle that he could fret bar chords with his thumb over the top of the neck – came from the same folk-jazz school as that of Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, but even more than those guys he turned the seemingly mundane act of strumming with a pick into an art form. Watching the footage of his set at Woodstock reminds us once again of how intricate his guitar playing was, how free he was within the beat. For those of us who maybe haven’t given enough thought to our strumming technique (and I count myself amongst them), watching him play is inspiring, if a little intimidating.

Farewell to another one-off.

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Richie Havens. Note the left-hand thumb

George Benson – Give Me the Night

The CVs of George Benson and Quincy Jones are so absurdly overstuffed with accomplishments in jazz that their pop records can seem like mere trifles in comparison. Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning trifles.

Just another day in the office for Q, who won 27 Grammys during his career and more lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees than I can list. In fact, he’s probably won another award since I finished typing that last sentence. But for Benson, making the first record to be released on Quincy’s new label Qwest, this was the peak of his second career as an R&B singer and hitmaker, begun four years earlier with an early vocal performance, a cover of Leon Russell’s This Masquerade (a song that, in truth, Karen Carpenter had sung better. But she sang everything better than everyone else, so there’s no disgrace in that).

Benson had thitherto been known as a virtuoso jazz guitarist, who had played on Miles in the Sky and Songs in the Key of Life. He employed a picking technique adapted from gypsy jazz, and had a way with hyperspeed octave lines that even Wes Montgomery would have envied. If he veered towards the commercial end of jazz, it was by instinct, not because he couldn’t hang with the heavy players. He could play his arse off. But still, if around the time of Breezin’ (1976) you’d been asked which contemporary jazz player might also become a pop star, Benson would have been a good guess, a guess proved right when Benson recorded The Greatest Love of All for the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest. I’ll quickly declare a prejudice here: The Greatest Love of All is high up my list of the worst songs of all time. Absolutely loathsome from the first bar to the last. I’m a forgiving guy and don’t hold it against George, Whitney or anyone else who’s committed the aesthetic crime of recording that most mawkish of instant showstoppers, but I’d be very happy never to hear that song again.

Jones clearly recognised a kindred spirit in Benson and so picked him as the first artist for Qwest, setting his A Team to work on the new boy’s next record: engineer Bruce Swedien and songwriter Rod Temperton, the blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. A typically strong Temperton song, Give Me the Night employed the arrangement style developed by Jones for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. Prolonged contact with Benson’s pop work might induce hyperglycemia, but as a one-off single Give Me the Night sits halfway between the revelation of Off the Wall and the apotheosis of Thriller.

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George Benson, octopus hands

Never Goin’ Back – The Lovin’ Spoonful

The conventional narrative tells us that country-rock was the invention of Gram Parsons and his pre-Byrds outfit the International Submarine Band, and that their debut LP Safe at Home was the first country-rock album, finished in 1967 but not released until spring 1968 (by which time Parsons had joined the Byrds, featuring on their seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo, contributing Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years From Now but having a far greater influence on the band’s sound than the songwriting credits and his limited number of lead vocals suggested).

Of course, conventional narratives often leave out thorny little details. Stephen Stills has long argued that the Buffalo Springfield were the true pioneers in the melding of country and rock, and not without some justification. No one seems to speak up for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s efforts in this area, though. From the very beginning of their career in 1965, country music was a recurring strand in the band’s sound. Johnny Cash covered John Sebastian’s Darling Companion (from 1966’s Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, which was recorded a few months before the first Buffalo Springfield album) at his performance at San Quentin prison without changing a single note or inflection in the arrangement. Country licks bubbled up constantly in guitarist Zal Yanovsky’s playing, and Sebastian had a grounding in folk, blues and country that made its way into his original songs as well as influencing his choice of material to interpret.

By the release of Never Goin’ Back, Sebastian had left the band and been replaced as lead singer by the group’s drummer Joe Butler. In addition to this, Yanovsky had been exiled for telling the police the name of his dealer after a marijuana bust (Yanovsky was a pariah in the whole music community for this transgression and he split for his native Canada as a result). In fact, the version of the band that cut Never Goin’ Back contained only Butler from the original line-up. If Darling Companion had been a rock and roll band playing a country song and doing it straight, Never Goin’ Back was a more artful combination of country and rock. The stabs of overdriven guitar from the second verse onwards (and the cowbell!) may signify rock music, but the song itself with its straight-outta-Nashville chord sequence, mournful acoustic guitar intro, its pedal steel its and lovelorn lyric is stone country. But it’s not hammy; there’s no theatrics here, and there’s no gimmicks. They’re not shooting for the same thing they did when they cut Darling Companion but the band’s collective love for country music – and their desire to play it straight – remained, and perhaps it’s because of this gimmick- and attitude-free approach to country material that they are still the key overlooked players in the evolution of country-rock.

I’m not suggesting that the Spoonful did anything as fanciful as ‘invent country-rock’. Even if you do think that genre labels like that have validity, it’s always a simplification to lay that kind of achievement at the door of any one artist. Just having a quick think about it, country songs had always been a part of the Beatles’ repertoire, so they’ve got a prior claim, and I’m sure there are umpteen country records from the fifties that had something close to a straight-eights rock beat rather than a shuffle. Then there’s the Everly Brothers’ entire body of work. But credit should go where it’s due, and the guys in the Spoonful never seem to get a mention in this debate. In fact, they’re overdue for a reappraisal more generally.

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The Lovin’ Spoonful – unacknowledged country-rockers