Monthly Archives: June 2013

That’s Why I’m Here

No, not the James Taylor song. Writing about music fulfills some kind of need in me, I suppose, or I wouldn’t be here. And I know that writing about something helps me to figure out what I think about the subject I’m discussing. It might just be because the fact of wanting to write a post about a particular record forces me to listen in an active, engaged and critical way so I don’t embarrass myself, but I think there’s something about the process itself that takes me further into the topic than I ever get from just sitting and listening, however intently.

So that’s some of why I’m here. But I do have a more altruistic reason, or at least a reason that’s outward-looking. There are so many large-scale websites devoted to the discussion and reviewing of music: Pitchfork, obviously, but also Drowned in Sound, Popmatters, AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Quietus, the online presences of Rolling Stone and Spin, the digital editions of the print newspapers (some of which devote more effort and resources to arts reviews than others, but they’re all there), the websites of magazines like Mojo, Uncut, NME, and on and on. But none of them provide the sort of criticism that I particularly want to read. I go on the AV Club website for film and TV reviews – I never read their record reviews.

The sort of criticism I like to read goes deeper than the writing you find in these places: sometimes it may focus on the culture music exists in, lives in and feeds off; other times it may be take the form of a close response to the musical matter and be aware of how small musical events change the way the listener hears the piece; it might get technical about production (recording techniques, mic placement, equalisation, panning, compression, time-domain effects); it might be a stream of random associations and allusions and images that the music calls to mind. I try and do all of these things, depending on my response to the song at hand. Sometimes I throw out all of that and just pass on cool ways to tune a guitar, mic a drum kit or double-track heavy guitars. I don’t premeditate that much. Not having a website structure to fill (at least for now) allows me to post at my own pace and discuss whatever I want. There’s supposed to be a utility to it though. In my own head, I’m providing a service here, passing on knowledge and weird little insights that you’re not going to get from the bigger music sites and aggregators simply because they have these rigid structures that don’t really allow for randomness. They chase novelty because they need traffic, and they can only concern themselves with older music or films or TV when they’re celebrating some kind of landmark anniversary.

These self-defined structures don’t completely throttle worthwhile criticism. There’s a tremendous skill involved in being able to listen to a new record over the course of a week, absorb it, internalise it, sort through it and its implications and its associations and come up with a short review by the end of the week that will plug a 200-word hole in some website’s music-review section. It’s incredibly hard to do it with such a short turnaround and say anything worth the time it takes to read it. Inevitably, few writers can pull it off. Most are just plugging the holes in the structure, they’re not engaging in the practice of criticism. But there are writers who consistently manage to say something engaging and insightful and knowledgeable about new music, even while their editors are barking at them about deadlines.

So it’s been a conscious choice to avoid the new, the current, the novel. It’s covered as well as it can be in so many other places, and avoiding chasing after the new stuff allows me the time to really hear something before forming an opinion. It allows me not to have to pick a side instantly. There’s no such thing as objectivity when forming a response to music. Here I don’t pretend otherwise, but I try to be honest, I try to be fair and I made a decision to write about things I like, things I could perhaps turn other folks on to.

A couple of days ago, I posted about different artists’ covers of What You Won’t Do for Love, which is one of my favourite songs. And I felt a little bad about it afterwards, as I broke my own rule of being positive to do it. What I really wanted to do was indulge in another post celebrating the greatness of Bobby Caldwell’s original, but this time round I did that by snarking at some other artists who didn’t measure up. There’s endless material for snark if all you want to do is point and laugh at bad cover versions. I’ll name no names and point no fingers. A well-written slam might be funny, and provide pleasure to the reader, but only at the cost of the creator.

Now, artists who do bad work should be kept honest by bad reviews, but it helps if those reviews are constructive. Otherwise you’re not being a critic; you’re just throwing tomatoes at some poor musician in the stocks. And I wasn’t being constructive enough the other day, so I’m going to cut that shit out now.  I’m here (in the more general sense of the term) because I’m a lucky, lucky man. I have no right to be. And after an event like I had, it’s only natural to have your perspective changed a bit. But after a while, the routine of everyday life – of having to earn money, fulfill obligations to family, friends, employers and so on – can easily make the world seem like a grind again. Not uncaring or cruel necessarily, but like a big grey machine that I’m just a small part of. And it makes me start thinking like I did back before I got ill. In this little corner of the internet, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about detailed celebrations of the awesome.

And so I apologise for my lapse into snark the other day. It won’t happen again. And let me just say, to make things up to Go West (who came in for a good amount of the snark), that I enjoy Call Me as much as any one else who’s ever ridden through sunny Vice City on a big-ass motorbike while wearing a pastel suit and blasting Flash FM.

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Tommy Vercetti is an innocent man.

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Music can’t die as long as I can listen to Starless and Native New Yorker

I was going to write a piece today prompted by Sophie Heawood’s article in the Guardian this morning (‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’) so here it is. But only kind of.

Unfortunate though it is to admit, contemporary pop music has left me pretty cold for around a decade now, but for me my playback equipment is a long way down the list of things that are wrong. Like Heawood, I have also disposed of my old separates system, but I still listen to music on the best speakers I can afford in the best quality files I can get hold of. And I have, at least for now, kept all my CDs and records in case I one day have the space again to house a proper hi-fi set-up. But as hard-drive space gets cheaper every year, there’s no reason to suppose that lossless files won’t be the invariable norm in a few years and the old MPEG-1 Layer 3 consigned to history’s dustbin.

What’s sad to me, contemplating contemporary pop and rock music, is that when I do hear something I like, I tend to tire of it quite quickly – the trends towards total rhythmic quantisation, the tuning of every vocal part without listening to it first to hear whether it actually sounds in tune or not, and the brutal and unmusical over-compression of every element within the mix, and of the stereo mix at mastering, have led to the creation of an art form that does little for me, whose pleasures are exhausted quickly. I tend not to be able to live inside these songs.

I love being able to live inside a song. And thankfully it still happens pretty regularly that I find something that takes me somewhere entirely new. Recently I have been spending a lot of time wandering around the apocalyptic blasted-heath landscapes of King Crimson’s Red, the album’s final track, Starless, in particular. It’s an incredibly sad song, it sounds like the world ending. Strangely, though, I find a lot of comfort from this exhilarating, harsh piece of music.

While I freely admit a bias towards early-nineties alt. rock and seventies singer-songwriters, relatively few of my absolute favourite songs are by my favourite artists (a list which is heavy on those seventies singer-songwriters and nineties rock bands). Instead, there would be a lot of one-off disco, country, hip-hop, soul records by artists whose work I am less familiar (who are in some cases only useful to me for one song). Let me tell you about one of these records, the track that, if forced to, I’d nominate for the title of best record ever made.

A few years ago, on a freezing January Sunday, I first heard Odyssey’s Native New Yorker. I remember a lot about that day: meeting my then girlfriend in town for lunch, going for coffee afterwards, then cycling home in the cold. There was nothing exceptional in these activities; I remember them only because of what happened next. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and caught up with some websites I visit regularly. Some folks had been discussing Use It Up and Wear It Out on Freaky Trigger (where Tom Ewing reviews every UK number-one single as part of a feature called Popular. Years after starting, he’s in the mid-nineties now). I’d heard that song without taking much notice of it, but the big claims made on behalf of Native New Yorker by a couple of the regular commentors prompted me to have a listen to it on YouTube. I then downloaded the LP mix and listened to it 11 more times. In a row. One after the other, for over an hour, drinking it all in, the best (my apologies to Nile Rogers and the Bee Gees) disco record ever made. A great song (by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randall), brilliantly played, sung, arranged, recorded and mixed. A song I could live inside of for ever. A warm-hearted, urbane, bittersweet evocation of a place, a tribute so wonderful it actually makes me somewhat disinclined to ever visit it, in case the real thing was a let-down after years of living in Odyssey’s version of New York City.

The goal of any music fan must surely to be to find the songs that make you feel this way. I’m not suggesting that Sophie Heawood’s disenchantment with music would be magically fixed if she adopted a steady diet of New York disco and English prog. What works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else, and there’s no reason why it should. But despite the predictable cynicism and jeering of the comments below the article (a good way to lose your faith in humanity is to read the comments of any newspaper article – the internet really does bring out the worst in people), I suspect Heawood’s realisation that the music she’s listening to every day is doing nothing for her is actually a commonplace one.

Whether the article would have been better placed in the Culture section, or used as the basis of an informal podcast discussion, is perhaps a worthwhile discussion. But the article’s basic premise is her lived experience, and as such can’t be denied by any amount of snark from the 690 people who’ve commented thus far. If they’re happy with their everyday music-listening experience, that’s great. I am too. Good luck to Heawood in improving her own.

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Top: King Crimson (l-r, Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp, John Wetton)

Bottom : Odyssey (l-r, Lillian Lopez, Tony Reynolds, Louise Lopez)

A necessary duty – I listen to all the various covers of What You Won’t Do for Love so you don’t have to

What You Won’t Do for Love, then. I’ve written about it before, as long-time readers may know. A perusal of the search terms that have led some folks here in the last couple of months suggests that a lot of people know the song, but don’t know who sang it, Boz Scaggs sometimes being assumed to be the artist responsible. I can understand why: apart from the obvious stylistic similarity, Caldwell even sounds like Boz vocally on some of his songs (My Flame, for instance). But as far as I know, Scaggs never has recorded What You Won’t Do for Love. It’d be like Neil Young recording Horse With No Name, or Dylan doing Eve of Destruction (except What You Won’t Do for Love is perfect, glorious and unassailable, while Eve of Destruction is miserable, wretched and laughable).

Loads of artists have taken it on, though. So here’s a run-through of some of the more notable versions. I may do a second post with more of these. I’m including full covers only, by the way. No samples.

1) Jessie Ware

The most recent take I know of is a Jessie Ware bonus track. A floaty version. I miss the bedrock of a groove on this version and the chirping synths, blipping and beeping all over the stereo field, are distracting. Her inclusion of a very South London delivery of ‘can’t let go’ (with a long ‘a’) in the middle of a vocal on which she otherwise affects an American accent is likewise apt to take me out of the song. There was an idea worth pursuing in this arrangement, she’s not a bad singer, and a less chill-out-in-the-juice-bar remix might improve things, but a thumbs-down from me for this.

2) Alexander O’Neal

This should have been a no-brainer slam dunk of a record. A great soul song and a great soul voice. But unfortunately this song isn’t really suited to the production its given here, which takes a weird 1988-in-2008 kind of approach. Alex slinks over the top of it, but the track is leaden and uninspiring.

3) Natalie Cole and Peabo Bryson

The right kind of backing track on this one, but the groove is a little on the slow side, making the song drag unnecessarily, and the arrangement is a touch too Jazz FM. Worthy, tasteful, very well sung (the harmonies are great) but a little dull.

4) Michael Bolton

Of course Bolton’s had a go at it! Singing, as always, like he’s in a rare form of dire physical pain that prevents clear enunciation, this is still restrained by his standards: the drums sound like they were recorded in a room rather than a cavern and the guitar solo isn’t too garish. Nevertheless, for this most subtle and understatedly adult of love songs, Bolton’s approach is ham-handed and free of nuance

However, if you’re of the mind, Timeless: The Classics Vol. 2 also contains his takes on My Girl, Tired of Being Alone, Sexual Healing, Let’s Stay Together, Ain’t No Sunshine, Whiter Shade of Pale and, um, Like a Rolling Stone, by his old buddy and sometime songwriting partner (yes, really) Bob Dylan. Those of you who want to hear Mike deliver his own idiosyncratic brand of casual ultraviolence on unsuspecting pop-music standards now know where to go.

5) Go West

I have rather more fondness for this than it deserves, since it was the first version I heard (back in the mid-nineties) when it was a reasonably big hit in the UK. Listening now after a good few years, it sounds very, very cheap. Brass section from a keyboard, drums from a box, Peter Cox’s vocal sung as if he was tensing his entire body and clenching his jaw too. But it’s endearing in a way Bolton’s version isn’t, possibly because of that very British make-do-and-mend spirit, in comparison to the high-budget glossiness of Bolton’s effort.

So there is no substitute for Caldwell’s original…

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His ship’s not sinking, he’s the king of wishful thinking, he’s Peter Cox

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is fifty years old

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is fifty years old. May 1963. That’s a hell of a thing. In the next ten years, a lot of my favourite records are going to hit that milestone. That’s a hell of a thing, too, one I’m having a little trouble processing.

So what does Freewheelin’ sound like, fifty years on, on a Saturday morning, in England?

It’s one of those records where my relationship with it has grown more complicated over the years. The first two Dylan records I bought (as an 18 year old, I think) were Freewheelin‘ and Before the Flood (which seemed like a good way to hear a bunch of Dylan’s most famous songs and get to know the music of the Band, too – good plan in theory, but fortunately I gave the Band another chance). Before the Flood sounded flat, uninspired, lacking in power for a record of a tour famed for its energy and force. Freewheelin’, in contrast, seemed marvellous – witty, playful, heavy, alive.

It still seems like that, in places. Sometimes. The standout songs on Freewheelin’ – Blowing in the Wind, Girl from the North Country, Masters of War, A hard rain’s a-gonna fall, Don’t Think Twice, it’s All Right – are so much a part of our culture that it’s been a good few years since I sought any of them out to listen to (more than a decade, probably). That leaves us with the rest: the Down the Highways, the I Shall be Frees, and the Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chances. They’re less impressive, and this is where things get more complicated.

‘Authenticity’ in music is itself a tricky notion, one I have less time for with each year that passes. But a sensibility that looks for and delights in ‘the authentic’ can be nuanced rather than boneheadedly literal, and it’s not correct to think that the listener that pursues the ‘authentic’ requires their artists to simply do the same thing over and over. Artists – singers, songwriters, especially bands (since they are a blend of evolving personalities and tastes and sensibilities) – contain multitudes, and their creativity is not going to be one-dimensional. Most listeners get that.

Yet, the early Bob Dylan persona – the wandering Okie hobo, the second coming of Woody Guthrie – is clearly a conscious creation, is clearly for want of a better word inauthentic. Exposure to more Dylan records than simply his New York folk albums will lead you to conclude that Dylan doesn’t sing these songs in his own voice, in the literal sense, and that he didn’t write them in his own voice either. Whatever that may have been at this time (I have a hunch that the voice he uses on Corinna, Corinna is the closest Dylan got to his true vocal self on those early records but that can’t be proven) it’s not the rough, sandpaper timbre he adopts to sound older, to sound tougher, to sound more rural. (As for the voice in which the songs are written, that’s an even more complicated question, but by the time you get to the early acoustic-psychedelic songs like Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Chimes of Freedom and so on, you’re dealing with something for which there were fewer precedents, something that feels more like it sprang from within Bob Dylan himself.)

Listening to these songs, one is continually brought up short when Dylan’s folksinger drag act makes itself too obvious: on each repeat of the line ‘Honey just allow me one more chance’, at the sound of his out-of-tune guitar (what you saying, Bob – real cowboys don’t tune up first?) on Down the Highway, on the vowel sounds of the high notes on Masters of War (‘…build the death planes‘), the studied folksy archaisms and rusticisms (‘it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall’, ‘if’n you don’t know by now’, ‘the light I never knowed’ – and just how many roosters crow at the break of dawn in the Village?). It’s a canny impression, but its falseness slowly dawns on the listener, and once it’s rumbled, it’s hard to hear these songs the same way again.

Dylan himself got sick of playing this character, sick of the demands of his folk audience, and so perhaps the skeletal, big-haired, absurdist speed freak – dandified and somewhat camp – character of the Bringing it All Back HomeHighway 61Blonde on Blonde period was more true to the real Dylan. Or perhaps he’s simply a talented actor with a flair for totally immersive performances who’s never given his audience a glimpse of the real him in over fifty years.

None of this is to say that Freewheelin’ isn’t an essential listen. It is, with three or four timelessly classic songs, songs that transcend their contradictions (and the phoniness of their performances on this album). But for many, the deliberately rough, ‘protest song’-singing Bob Dylan is the only Dylan they know, an endpoint, a Dylan perpetually marching on Washington with Joan Baez, singing Blowing in the wind or The times they are a-changing. But it’s truer to say that this was just the beginning of his journey. It’s worth bearing in mind that he was 21 when he arrived in New York and 23 when he made this record. He was, in other words, a kid – just as full of self-delusion and nonsense as any other kid, unsure of who he was and who he wanted to be, fearful of getting found out, of having to live up to others’ expectations, working more from instinct and hope than experience and knowledge.

Freewheelin’ is the first significant staging post in Dylan’s career, which is not to say that his artistic progress was linear with his work improving in quality at every stop on the way. For me Dylan peaked in 1965–66, with several other major mini-peaks thereafter. So while it’s nice to mark the occasion of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s fiftieth anniversary, I hope for a bigger celebration in a couple of years’ time when it’s the turn of Highway 61 Revisited to reach that milestone.

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Bob Dylan & Suze Rotolo, New York, 1963