Monthly Archives: September 2013

Where Teardrops Fall – Bob Dylan

The sneering contempt Dylan’s voice wrenches from the word ‘you’ in such songs as Positively 4th Street and Like a Rolling Stone is exhilarating, because listening to those songs involves identifying with Dylan’s rage, not with the object of it.

 Dr Pamela Thurschwell, ‘A Different Baby Blue’

So wrote my third-year tutor Pam Thurschwell in an essay for a collection entitled Bob Dylan With the Poets & Professors in 2003, published shortly after I graduated. (Once we had discovered a mutual love of Dylan and Waits, tutorials were perhaps rather too apt to come round to the topic of music.) So maybe I’m biased where Thurschwell’s argument is concerned, but I agree with her, and she does a great job in her essay exploring how it is that a progressive feminist listener to Bob Dylan can reconcile that with enjoying the music of the man who wrote Just Like a Woman and Idiot Wind, let alone Sweetheart Like You and Is Your Love in Vain?, songs that drip with unpleasant condescension to women, if not outright misogyny (and it’s not enough to argue that these songs are specific where misogyny is general, if for no other reason than that Dylan has written too many such songs for that defense to hold up).

So it’s nice to hear a Bob Dylan song that doesn’t require a certain political double-think to enjoy, a song that is exactly what it seems to be, a song without troubling subtext. A song when we can enjoy the melody and the empathetic playing of Rockin’ Dopsie and His Cajun Band (not to be confused with Rockin’ Sidney of My Toot Toot fame), brought in to the Oh Mercy sessions on Dylan’s request after failing to get anything satisfactory with the first band Daniel Lanois assembled. In Chronicles, Dylan describes how the song was cut simply, in just a few minutes, and how a saxophonist sitting in the corner who he hadn’t even noticed was there took a ‘sobbing solo that nearly took my breath away’ after the last verse, a guy who was the spitting image of Blind Gary Davis. Typical of the often fractious sessions for this album, Dylan loved it (‘The song was beautiful and magical, upbeat, and it was complete’) but Lanois was unconvinced by the take and eventually pressed Dylan into recutting it. They went with the original in the end. A good call, but what was it Lanois didn’t like? The slightly unsteady tempo? As if, in the end, that matters, when the song and performance is as strong as this.

So it’s a great song, one of several on Oh Mercy, which doesn’t sound to me like a classic, but does sound like an enormous animal waking up from a long hibernation and slowly finding that it’s just as strong as it was last year. But by Dylan’s standards, Where Teardrops Fall is almost mockingly empty lyrically; when the last verse begins ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’, it’s hard to suppress the sense that Dylan is having a little joke (although whether the target is himself or his listeners is moot).

Is this binary choice a necessity with Dylan? Does it have to be a choice between troubling content and no content? Can he write a substantial relationship song without crossing over into asshole territory? Answers on a postcard, please.

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‘What d’ya mean? Of course I’ll never regret wearing this vest’ – Bob Dylan, 1985, during the Empire Burlesque sessions. (Roman Iwasiwka)

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When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag – Laura Nyro

Laura Nryo is the last word in pop prodigies. I can’t think of anyone whose songs – and ability to deliver them – were so perfectly formed and mature at such a young age. She wrote Wedding Bell Blues at 18, and it, along with And When I Die, Billy’s Blues and Stoney End all appeared on her first album, More Than A New Discovery, released when she was 19. When I think back to what I wrote at 18…

That first album, on Verve Folkways, brought her to the attention of David Geffen, then a young wannabe agent on the make. He convinced her to take him on, got her out of her previous business arrangements, set up a publishing company with her and got her signed to Columbia. This was a good place for her to be. Great studios, some of the best producers and engineers (Charlie Calello, Roy Halee and Arif Mardin), and access to the kind of funds needed to hire the best musicians in town to play her idiosyncratic, irregular music: Chuck Rainey, Hugh McCracken, Richard Davis, Alice Coltrane and even Duane Allman are just a few of the musicians who played on her trio of classic albums from the late sixties and early seventies, Eli & the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Christmas & the Beads of Sweat.

All of these albums are essential. My favourite is probably New York Tendaberry, which has fewer famous songs than the other two, but is a richer, more elusive and ultimately more rewarding album qua album. Eli is the one to get for great standouts and, truth to tell, a little filler (but those highlights include Emmie, Lu, Eli’s Coming, Stoned Soul Picnic so who’s grousing?).

Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, the last of her three great albums, is something else again. The most diverse and in some ways the most difficult of the classic trio, lacking as it does the unifying themes and mood of New York Tendaberry and the sheer volume of transcendent melodies on Eli, Christmas wrong-foots you by throwing in songs like When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag and her transcendent version of Up on the Roof amongst all the difficult stuff. Songs like Map to the Treasure are commendably ambitious in musical form, but lack the assuredness of the knotty, emotionally complex material on, say, Gibsom Street, from New York Tendaberry, or the lightness of touch present on Eli.

But When I Was a Freeport is a no-arguments career highlight. You’ve got to love her vocal on this, and lines don’t come much better than ‘I’ve got a lot of patience, baby, and that’s a lot of patience to lose’ and I never fail to smile at the ‘whew’ she inserts before the last (very Dylanesqe) ‘drag-uh’. It’s a mystery to me why she didn’t end the album with this song – no ending to the first stage of her career could have been more fitting.

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Not quite up on the roof – Laura Nyro, poet of New York

Everything You Know is Wrong – The Production Club, featuring Lou Barlow

A look at Wally Gagel’s discography is instructive. Before 1999, he worked frequently with the likes of Sebadoh, Superchunk, Juliana Hatfield, and Tanya Donelly – all the Boston-area stalwarts. The relative commercial success of Belly and Folk Implosion was the closest he got to the mainstream.

After appearing on the American Beauty soundtrack through the inclusion of a Folk Implosion song, though, his work gets more and more high profile: the Eels, Muse, New Order, even the Backstreet Boys. Now he mixes Rihanna (and has mixed Jessica Simpson and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus) records and has steady employment engineering iTunes Originals sessions for a certain internet-only music distributor, which actually sounds like quite a fun gig (working with a very wide range of artists across pretty much every conceivable musical style – most engineering types would find that kind of challenge exciting, even if they weren’t wild about the individual artists).

It’s a long way from the rough and ready early Folk Implosion and Mary Lou Lord EPs.

When Gagel parlayed his new-found industry clout into a record deal for his own project in 2003, he already had the profile that would have allowed him to reach up and out to big-name guest stars, and maybe score a few minor hit singles on the back of the star’s name recognition. It says a lot about him, then, that instead it was his old crew that Gagel asked to come in to front his songs, and Jon Doe from X, Emm Gryner, Donelly, Lou Barlow and Hafdis Huld (from 4AD band Gus Gus) duly answered the call.

The music is good, if not massively original. If you can imagine a halfway point between contemporaneous Moby and Chemical Brothers records, that’s about where the Production Club’s Follow Your Bliss sat. It frequently sounds tailor-made for soundtracking Hollywood action scenes, making his current employment very easily explicable. Its quieter, sparer moments were stronger, giving space to the vocalists to communicate their own personalities.

My favourite amongst these more vocal-led tracks was Everything You Know is Wrong, featuring Lou Barlow and Emm Gryner. It sounds, unsurprisingly, like the Folk Implosion – in fact, it most closely recalls Natural One, from the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s Kids, which had been a minor hit single in the US in the mid-1990s. Same sort of tempo and rhythmic feel, same kind of sparse, drum-led arrangement, but a more fully realised song, one enhanced by Barlow’s improved vocal abilities; over the second half of the nineties, Barlow had matured into a fine singer, most noticeably on the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby and the final Sebadoh album before their 14-year hiatus (The Sebadoh). So much more confident was Barlow, in fact, that in the video for this song he stands up front at the microphone alone, smartly attired, specs-less and sans guitar, while Gagel – the primary artist and composer – sits at the back playing the drums. For old Folk Implosion fans who hadn’t got into the New Folk Implosion – with its full-band sound, Sebadoh-lite acoustic guitars and generally soporific air – this was a nice little nostalgic blast.

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Wally Gagel

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Dohnosaur Jr!. l-r Bob d’Amico, Lou Barlow, Murph, Jason Loewenstein, J Mascis. Well who’d have thought, eh?

Too Soon Gone – The Band

As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.

But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.

Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.

If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.

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The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right

Bye Bye Pride – The Go-Betweens

I find something endlessly adorable about the Go-Betweens. Not particularly gifted as songwriters, certainly not gifted as players or singers, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan succeeded more or less on the strength of their aesthetic. Each album contained 10 small-scale, indie-pop songs, five by each writer, Forster’s declamatory smart-arsery balanced by McLennan’s winsome sincerity, but all determinedly low-key. In such a setting, a little detail can be overwhelming in effect.

Forster is usually seen as the artier Go-Be, a sort of Brisbanite David Byrne. Yet Forster was always the wannabe musician. It was McLennan who was a keen literature student and aspiring film-maker, who had to be pressured by Forster into forming a band with him. From the off, Forster had his sound down. He’d get better at the execution, but at the start of the band’s career Forster already knew how best to deploy his limited voice and what kind of songs he could write. McLennan was still learning. He went on to become the band’s craftsman, yet his initial lack of musicality prevented him from becoming the true pop songwriter he often seemed to want to be: no amount of hard work would turn him into Paul McCartney. Even his best tunes get by with only four or five and the same number of chords.

Nonetheless at his best (and indeed the same is true for Forster) he could take his very simple building blocks, his Play in a Day chord changes and semi-spoken tunes, and make gold out of them.

By the time the release of Tallulah launched the Go-Betweens mk II – for which Forster, McLennan, drummer Lindy Morrison and bassist Robert Vickers were joined by Amanda Brown on violin, oboe and guitar – McLennan was straining at the edges of his talent, alternating between lovely pop songs and darkier, moodier pieces, generally succeeding but sometimes falling hard on his face. Tallulah’s Cut it Out is a prime example of a McLennan failure; he seemed to think that perhaps he could play Cameo at their game. He could not. Hope then Strife is a more interesting failure: semi-spoken verses, with flamenco guitar, and choruses largely alternating between two notes, backed by Brown’s violin, linked by a brief but lovely half-time section where McLennan’s hard-fought tunefulness threatens to make itself present (‘Don’t say that you agree/With the price that you pay for your captivity’).

So Tallulah was an up-and-down record for McLennan, and most of the album’s best songs are Forster’s (my pick of them is I Just Get Caught Out). But McLennan had a couple of heavy hitters. Right Here and Bye Bye Pride, for my money the last great song he wrote before the Go-Betweens broke up for the first time (his contributions on their first last album, 16 Lover’s Lane, feel hollow, facile, lacking depth – he wrote happy love songs less well than sad ones). Bye Bye Pride pairs a repetitive, Lennon-esque tune with one of his finest, most closely observed lyrics:

 A white moon appears like a hole in the sky
The mangroves grow quiet
In the Parisi de la Palma a teenage Rasputin
Takes the sting from her gin
“When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent any more”
A line from her letter, May 24
And out on the bay the current is strong
A boat can go lost

I like the details at the start of the second verse, too: “Turned the fan off / and went for a walk / by the lights down on Shield Street”. At his best, McLennan was as good a lyricist as his more celebrated partner, with a knack for accumulating detail quickly and unobtrusively.

But Bye Bye Pride is a record, not merely a song, and no appreciation of it as a recording would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Amanda Brown on oboe and backing vocals. Forster, in the midst of his rock star-as-vampire era, could not have given McLennan the emotionally open, optimistic harmonies the song needed. Sadly for long-time fans, when the band reformed, Brown wasn’t part of the crew (she and McLennan had been lovers and she was hurt that McLennan and Forster has taken the decision to the end the band without warning her first – she went on to a successful career arranging strings for R.E.M., Silverchair and others) but female backing vocals had become such an important part of the band’s sound that they needed to be supplied by someone when the band reformed. And so they were, initially by Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss (and Corin Tucker on a couple of songs) and latterly by bassist Adele Pickvance. For a band that had seemed as reliant on the chemistry between Forster and his former partner Morrison as that between Forster and McLennan, a band that had been so enhanced by the contributions of Amanda Brown, what a welcome surprise it was that their comeback albums were so strong. With Finding You, Boundary Rider and No Reason to Cry, McLennan left us with some of his finest songs before dying in his sleep of a heart attack in 2006.

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Grant McLennan, with sincere eyebrows, c. 1984?

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Go-Betweens c.1986, l-r Robert Vickers, Lindy Morrison, Grant McLennan, Amanda Brown, Robert Forster

Belly – King/Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 3

Talking about her career in music and her final Swan Song EPs in a recent interview with Mouth magazine, former Throwing Muses and Breeders guitarist/Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly described Belly’s second album King as a more ‘lo-fi’ record than their debut, Star.

Strange description, I thought. King‘s not a slick record, but it’s one that sounds like a band in a room playing its songs. It was produced and mixed by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, the Eagles – enough of a track record for ya?) and engineered by Jack Joseph Puig, at the very high-spec Compass Point studio in Nassau: a minimum of overdubs, live vocals, hard-panned guitars, natural-sounding ambiances. Donelly’s voice sometimes cracks. Gail Greenwood’s bass does not always hit the one with Chris Gorman’s kick. You can hear real-time fader and pan-pot moves. It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way.

Star sounds good, too. But it doesn’t sound like a band playing songs together in a room. It sounds like something bad going down in Toytown. It’s a very carefully constructed sound world, one which had little to do with the material reality of Belly-the-band playing instruments in a room. Which brings us back to the discussion of terminology from a couple of months back. If a ‘low fidelity’ record is simply one that isn’t slick, then, sure, maybe King is lo-fi. If a lo-fi record is simply one that doesn’t sound ‘good’, then King ain’t one in my book. If a lo-fi record is one that doesn’t sound like the music sounded before it hit tape, then King is the very opposite. It’s a hi-fi record. One of the hi-est.

And, from King, back to Good Morning Spider by Sparklehorse. GMS‘s centrepiece is a song called Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man. Happy Man is probably the best song Mark Linkous ever wrote. It’s propulsive, urgent, utterly surreal and yet somehow anthemic and universal. Linkous, something of a contrarian, decided to bury the first verse and the chorus under AM radio static and bleepy noise. The song then almost fades all the way in for the second verse, before going the other way, becoming temporarily submerged entirely under white noise and a reprise of the organ chords of Chaos of the Galaxy, the short instrumental piece that begins the track. Finally the song fades in properly in time for the second chorus.

Linkous later admitted in interviews that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage a song he recognised as having commercial potential; he didn’t want it to be extracted and released as a single the way Someday I Will Treat You Good from Vivadixiesubmarine plot had been. I’m sure Capitol were delighted. Still, when you don’t have a producer, you might be able to pull off this kind of thing once or twice before you get a stern talking to from your label.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Linkous re-recorded the song without the radio static and Chaos of the Galaxy sections, releasing it on an EP called Distorted Ghost. The version I knew and treasured was a live version that segued into Pig (called, imaginatively, Happy Pig), which was also released on Distorted Ghost. I’d burned it off a free CD from Uncut before promptly losing the CD and forgetting where the track came from (a BBC session, I think). I loved the rawness of it, and the furious tempo at which the song was played. At that speed, Linkous’ plea (that he only wants to be happy) sounded more real than ever. In 2010, he showed us how real.

But let’s not get caught up in that now. What matters for this discussion is that, for all that Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man is raw and messy, it’s not a faithful document of a real-time musical event. It’s an elaborate construction, an aural sleight of hand. Under a sensible definition of the term, we couldn’t call this track lo-fi. The term simply wouldn’t be applicable. Which only goes to show the difficulty of talking about music. You constantly have to define your terms, almost song by song. When two music fans talk about lo-fi, they may very well not mean the same thing by it. Sometimes this talking at cross-purposes is fun and thought-provoking. Sometimes it makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

If I have a conclusion – after a couple of months of kicking around these ideas occasionally – it’s that I have a personal definition of lo-fi that probably isn’t shared by music fans generally, so I have to acknowledge the more general definition too. And regarding Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider is a difficult album to pin down. Superficially it sounds more like a lo-fi album ‘should’ sound, but it achieved that sound in a variety of ways, which didn’t always have to do with just banging out songs in an honest and authentic way, which often seem to be the unspoken connotations of the term ‘lo-fi’. More than simply a rough, raw, ragged album, GMS is an artful album, even if, when exposed to the opening bars of Pig, my brother once proclaimed, ‘But this doesn’t even sound good!’

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Left: Mark Linkous and his brothers in weird, Danger Mouse and David Lynch. Right: Belly on the beach, Nassau, 1995

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, based on the version I refer to above:

Long Way Down – Mary Lorson & Saint Low

Distorted guitars tend to take up a lot of sonic real estate. They’re not often a great fit for songwriters whose lyrics tend towards the complicated and the wry. They haven’t been a great fit for Mary Lorson’s music since the first couple of records she made as part of Madder Rose. Since MR’s third album – the dreadfully titled Tragic Magic – when they were replaced by programmed beats, they’ve been almost entirely absent from her subsequent work (encompassing three records with Saint Low, one with Billy Coté, another one with Coté that was credited to the Piano Creeps, and one with the Soubrettes). The prepostorous ‘New Velvet Underground’ tag that had been applied to Madder Rose by certain rock critics didn’t last past Tragic Magic, and by the time Saint Low were making records in the first half of the 2000s, few were paying attention (although Lorson did manage to place songs in episodes of The Sopranos, Felicity, Alias and Skins, which may not win many new fans but has definite financial upsides).

This was a shame, as Lorson sounds much more at ease as a songwriter on, say, Tricks For Dawn from 2002 than she ever did with the churning guitars and drums of Madder Rose’s first couple of albums. Tricks For Dawn is low-key, jazzy and spare. Instruments are given space in the arrangements, and miked from a distance. The drums on Anything Can Happen sound like they’ve been miked from the other side of the room. The hum from Coté’s Stratocaster is plainly audible whenever he stops playing for a bar or two. My own tastes run towards the dry and the close, but to everything there is a season, and this is an inviting sound, the appropriate sound, running against the grain in an era where ‘less is more’ is not a maxim that record-makers pay much heed to, a situation that hasn’t reversed in the 11 years since Tricks For Dawn‘s release.

Tricks For Dawn is not a classic record – there are a few too many songs that arrive, dwell in front of you and then depart without really going anywhere, and Lorson’s lyrics can occasionally irritate. There’s an archness to the likes of Friends, I Have Been Drinking and Morningless Dreamer (present in their titles too) that I find grating. Lorson’s songs are obscure enough that we’re never sure who the subject of the song is, and whether they deserve to be on the wrong end of such affected superiority.

That tone is perhaps only noticeable because of the open-heartedness of the record’s finest songs. Lorson in a recent interview picked Anything Can Happen as one of her best three songs she’s ever written, and she’s not wrong, but Long Way Down is its equal. It’s surely not a coincidence that these are the songs on which Lorson finally lets down her guard. She and the guesting Evan Dando harmonising on the lines ‘Hold on tight to me, baby/Cos it’s such a long way down’ provide perhaps the most magical moment on the album. Long Way Down’s two guitar solos – the second, clean solo presumably by Coté and the distorted first one by either Lorson or Dando (who is credited with ‘disortion and Vox organ’, providing the best clue, perhaps, as to the player) – provide, in the way of the best instrumental solos, the song’s emotional peaks and make you wish Lorson had been as unabashedly straight-talking all the way through the record rather than hiding behind internal rhymes and polysyllables. In these precious minutes, responding to the raised stakes, the chamber-pop backing of string section and horns rises above merely pretty and becomes properly beautiful.

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Mary Lorson

*Potential listeners to this record should be aware that the horns and some of the guitar parts are significantly sharp of the piano that provides the bedrock of most of the arrangements. You’ll need to be able to put up with this to get much enjoyment from this album. Some days, I admit, I just can’t.