Monthly Archives: December 2013

Trouble in Paradise – Randy Newman

Irreverent, Snide, Acerbic, Bitter, Cerebral, Confrontational, Cynical/Sarcastic, Ironic, Stylish, Wry, Tense/Anxious

All Music Guide’s ‘Album Moods’ for Trouble in Paradise

Randy Newman has always maintained that a professional songwriter should be able to write songs, any kind of song, to order. This willingness to put his own aesthetic preferences to one side and get to work on whatever his commissioners want, coupled with his facility for the job of writing and arranging scores and songs, have made him one of the busiest soundtrack composers in Hollywood for around thirty years now. But it does lead to a huge gulf between what his long-time fans love him for and what he’s known for by a more general audience. It surprises me that to this day there’s not a Randy Newman best-of on the market featuring just his Disney/Pixar songs. Anyone buying Rhino’s 2001 retrospective The Best of Randy Newman hoping for 20 more songs like You’ve Got a Friend in Me will find themselves confronted by Rednecks, Sail Away and Little Criminals. Whether they conclude that Newman is racist, a satirist or a troll may depend on their sensitivity to irony, but still, they’ll get more than they bargained for.

Whatever happened to the old songs, like The Duke of Earl?
Hey Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking Duke of Earl?

Mikey’s

All of which crossed my mind while watching Toy Story 3 on Christmas Day, then I thought about Trouble in Paradise. I couldn’t honestly claim it as my favourite Randy Newman record (that would be a toss-up between his debut and Good Old Boys, which are both of such sustained, stupendous quality that I feel humbled in their presence, when I’m not laughing myself silly at them), but a record with I Love LA, The Blues, My Life is Good, Christmas in Cape Town, Same Girl, Song for the Dead and Real Emotional Girl deserves more press than it gets. That’s a batch of top-drawer songs, whether or not you would listen to Toto guitarist Steve Lukather’s playing in any other context.

Trouble in Paradise is an on-the-nose title for this record. Most of the characters in these songs come by their situations by their own inadequacies; given every advantage, they squander them through stupidity, selfishness and greed. They are the most despicable bunch of creations in popular music, with the possible exception of the losers, dealers, pimps and idiotic cuckolds of Steely Dan’s Gaucho. Like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on that album, Newman does give us a couple of sympathetic characters to cling on to (the put-upon Mexican maid of My Life is Good; Marie – surely not the same Marie from Good Old Boys – who seems to have left the narrator of Mikey’s, and not before time; the addressee of Same Girl, ruthless exploited by her pimp boyfriend), but the songs themselves are narrated by the assholes who abuse and take advantage of them.

The unthinking yuppie of I Love LA, the entitled Hollywood bigshot of My Life is Good (the middle section of that song – the ‘Springsteen’ passage – when Newman lets on that the narrator happens to share his first name and may or may not be himself, is one of the record’s most audacious and funniest passages), the nostalgic racists of Mikey’s and Christmas in Cape Town – these are a grotesque but recognisably human collection of individuals, and they deserve what Newman throws at them. Don’t be fooled by the argument, often used against Randy’s work from Good Old Boys onwards, that these folks are soft targets for Newman’s scorn – not much has changed in 30 years and the world is still full of these people. The shame of it is that while Newman’s doing his stellar soundtrack work, adding to his enormous haul of Oscars and Emmys, he’s not writing more songs like these, and there’s no one else who can do it like him.

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Randy Newman, some time in the eighties


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No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 5

5) Revelator – Gillian Welch (solos by David Rawlings)

I love every note that David Rawlings plays. Every clanking, honking, midrangey note. The man’s a genius.

Rawlings is Gillian Welch‘s lead guitarist, harmony singer and husband. The entity that releases records under the name ‘Gillian Welch’ is actually composed of two people: Welch and Rawlings. When singing together, their voices blend seamlessly; when playing guitar, their two approaches mesh perfectly.

Let’s start by talking guitar sounds (always a favourite place to start for me). Welch plays a Gibson J-50 from the 1950s, a spruce-and-mahogany, slope-shouldered dreadnought with the standard upside-down bridge and an enormous pickguard that looks out of proportion to the body. It’s a classic guitar with a classic tone. Rawlings’ choice of instrument is more idiosyncratic: a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop (mahogany back and sides, spruce top). This is not a typical singer-songwriter guitar. It lacks the depth, the roundedness, the woody bottom end, that you’d look for in guitar were you looking to accompany yourself solo. Archtops are thinner, more pinched-sounding, more brittle and louder. They were a response to a particular problem in the pre-amplication era: how to make the guitar audible in a big band. The answer was to incorporate violin-style construction concepts (an arched top, f-holes) to give the guitar more focus in a narrower range, in effect to make it more banjo-like. Now, I’m not a big fan of the banjo sonically, but I love what Rawlings can do with an archtop in the context of Welch’s songs, how the two guitars blend tonally and how Rawlings expertly weaves in and out of Welch’s vocals

This is the essence of being a soloist who plays with a vocalist: knowing when to play and how much to play without taking the listener’s ear away from the singer. David Rawlings walks this line brilliantly. He’s a busy player; he’s not a restrained or minimalist kind of guy. But he plays tastefully. He knows that while every Gillian Welch gig will have a few dozen idiotic guitar fanboys who just want him to play licks (these are the people who’ve sent the prices of second-hand Epiphone Olympics rocketing in the last ten years, because they can’t think of an original idea for themselves), the majority want to hear Gillian sing songs, and so he plays with that end in mind.

So he knows when to play, but how about what to play? I like how little bits of jazz and rock music make their way into his work, how you can always hear in his playing that rock music is where he comes from. When he toured his David Rawlings Machine record a few years ago, he covered Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. It comes as no surprise that the guy who began the third solo on Revelator by playing a repeated aggressive, obstinate Eb over an A minor chord is a Neil Young fan. The whole song, coiled and twisted with tension as it is, has been building up to this one outburst, and when Rawling hits it it’s like an explosion. Time (The Revelator) is full of little moments like this. In fact, they crop up in all Welch’s albums. But this tiny little snippet of music, just a few seconds long, is my favourite in Welch and Rawlings’ whole body of work.

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David Rawlings – he knows how to rock and roll

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 4

Everything you’ve heard about King Crimson is true. It’s an absolutely terrifying place.

Bill Bruford

Blues rock with a contemporary grammar.

Robert Fripp, on his guitar work on Fashion

4) Fashion – David Bowie (solo by Robert Fripp)

Robert Fripp is the Dark Lord of Skronk. The King of Evil Guitar. Dare ye look upon his face?

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This is the mild-manned, gentlemanly-looking guitar wizard who fried the minds of thousands of hippies when King Crimson supported the Stones in Hyde Park a few days after Brian Jones’s death. This is the man whose raging lead guitar on David Bowie’s Fashion is still divisive 30-odd years on, and was trimmed right back for the single mix.

What makes Fripp such a glorious guitarist is his absolute lack of interest in the established grammars of lead playing. Listen to everything he recorded with King Crimson, everything he did with Bowie, with Eno, all his production work with Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall and Talking Heads – find me just one blues cliche. Find me a convention that he doesn’t pull apart just for the fun of it before putting it back together with its legs where its arms should be.

The spirit of Fripp is apparent in many guitarists. There’s some of that Frippian bloody-mindedness in Neil Young, in Johnny Greenwood, Andy Gill, Graham Coxon, Joey Santiago. But Fripp’s commitment to his path is so thorough-going as to make him an almost entirely different sort of musician. Not for nothing did he name the first King Crimson album of the 1980s Discipline. Robert Fripp would be nowhere without it. He’s the guitar hero as research scientist rather than Dionysian mystic.

But most Fripp-watchers recognise that while the reputation he has for severity and dedication to his craft and his muse is a justified one, audible in much of his playing, especially his playing outside King Crimson, is the joy of experimentation, the thrill of transgression. His solo at around 2.40 on the album mix of Fashion is the perfect exemplar of this. It’s a solo that could only be played by a tone-deaf beginner or someone who had mastered the instrument back to front and inside out. No one in the middle of those two extremes would begin to play such a solo. It has most of the elements we would associate with lead guitar playing: an ear-grabbing sound, some fast tremolo picking, interesting textures, string bends. Yet the result defies description and sounds like nothing else in rock music.

If you’re not familiar with the man or his work, stop pussyfooting – get some Fripp in your life!

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Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, David Bowie

A recent song

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 3

I’ve talked about this song before in more general terms, but this time let’s just focus on the guitar

3) Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay (solo by Jerry Donahue)
I first became aware of Jerry Donahue as one of the Hellecasters, whom I just knew as three older guys pulling cheesy poses in a guitar-magazine advert for some cable they were endorsing. It would never have occurred to me as a sixteen-year-old that any of these old geezers could have made music worth listening to, let alone that the more studious-looking one with the beard and the glasses would end up being one of my very favourite guitarists, the player of one of my favourite guitar solos.

Most of what you hear in Donahue’s guitar playing is country music, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him ‘the string-bending king of the planet”!) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

Silver Threads and Golden Needles is an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers too. Yet all have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version. Sandy Denny, when looking to record it with Fotheringay, slowed it down, put it in waltz time, and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

These are the qualities to which Donahue’s two solos respond. His string-bending is rarely better showcased: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw the ‘finished’ version of Fotheringay’s second album that came out in 2008. If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be. If there were a syllabus for lead instrumentalists, to show them how to respond to the music they’e playing and avoid clichés, this should be on it.

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Jerry Donahue (left, with Telecaster) with Fairport Convention in 1974

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 2

It occurs to me that from the title of these posts, people might think I don’t like Hendrix or Steve Vai. Far from it. I like Hendrix plenty, and I don’t dislike Steve Vai although I wouldn’t want to listen to the majority of his music. I have less than no time for Clappo though)

2) The Tourist – Radiohead (solo by Jonny Greenwood)
If you played guitar in the late nineties, you worshipped at the altar of Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead were one of those bands that transcended tribal boundaries. Metal kids liked them. Grunge kids liked them. Punkers liked them well enough too. It seemed like everyone who was into rock music, and certainly everyone who played it, liked them.

For guitar players, the interplay between the group’s three guitarists (Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Thom Yorke) was one of the chief reasons. The other was Greenwood’s furious lead guitar, which was in the tradition of such post-punker players as Keith Levene, John McGeoch, Johnny Marr, J Mascis and Robin Guthrie, and eschewed fast scalar runs and blues licks for textures, noise, dissonance, modal melodies and sheer squonkiness. True, he made use of oblique bends and octave chords – which in lead guitar terms were popularised by Hendrix and Wes Montgomery respectively – so he wasn’t inventing a new grammar of lead guitar out of whole cloth. But he was adventurous, dissonant, unconventional, angular and popular. There are hundreds of thousands of people my age who learned the Complete Works of Greenwood as 16-year-olds. Levene and McGeoch were great players, but in comparison, they are unknowns.

My favourite piece of Greenwood guitar comes at the end of The Tourist, the closing track on OK Computer, when his raging guitar solo shatters the uneasy calm of the song’s previous three and a half minutes. It’s a moment as raw and exciting as his infamous muted grunts just before the chorus of Creep. It’s often said by folks who dislike fast guitar playing that if you can’t sing along to it, then it’s not a good solo. You couldn’t sing along to the solo on The Tourist. It’s not without melody, but the importance it places on tunefulness is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness, on impurity of form (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very form resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

For a generation of guitar-playing kids, the solo on The Tourist was just the final piece of awe-inspiring guitar playing on an album full of them. And not that Radiohead haven’t made good music since, but the disappearance of Jonny Greenwood the guitar hero is a continuing source of regret to many of us.

jonny

Hurray for Jonny!

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos – part 1

Hi all. I’m working on some longer form pieces for various Christmas-related things, and I don’t want to reprint them here, so I find myself unable to write a standard post this morning. Instead I’d like to talk about guitar solos in series of looser posts over the next few days. I hope you’ll indulge me!

I’ve been playing guitar since 1995. I’ve got a bag of tricks that’s reasonably broad and eclectic. But I can’t play really fast and my string-bending technique isn’t what I’d like it to be, so to my way of thinking, I’m not a real lead guitarist – I’m a good rhythm player who can give you the odd solo.

I’d love to be a proper lead guitarist, to have David Gilmour’s compound-bending ability, to be able to summon up Hendrix-like pyrotechnics, to have the imagination of Tom Morello, the lyricism of Robbie Robertson, to be able to play slide like Lowell George or Bonnie Raitt. It’d be awesome.

I can’t do that stuff, but I spend a lot of time listening to great players, great soloists. Let’s talk about some of them. I’ve resisted any overly obvious choices, or any excessive fret-wankery, so they’ll be no Clapton (if I have to explain why, you’re reading the wrong blog), no Joe Bonamassa, no Satriani, no Vai, and – of course – no Yngwie Malmsteen.

1) Shutout – The Walker Brothers (from Nite Flights. Solo by Les Davidson)
Nite Flights marked Scott Walker’s return to adventurous music-making after an alcohol-sodden mid-seventies lull. He made some great records during this period, but seemingly only by accident, through his undiminished voice and a still-functioning ear for a good cover. But as a songwriter, he was becalmed.

His four songs on Nite Flights (the last Walker Brothers album), then, marked his return not just as a maker of vital music but as a writer of vital music. The Electrician is the song most predictive of his latter work, but Shutout is the ear-grabbing album opener, the statement of intent.

Other than The Electrician, about which a whole volume could be written, Scott’s songs on Nite Flights are built on the ubiquitous late-seventies disco beat, but this is avant-garde disco, post-apocalytpic disco. How else are we supposed to take the gnomic lyrics, of which few lines make much immediate literal sense (these lines include ‘Something attacked the earth late last night’ and ‘There were faces bobbing in the heat)?

Les Davidson was the guitarist given the job of playing the song’s solo. Having to make your guitar sound like Bad Things Are Happening is always a fun challenge, and Davidson takes an ear-grabbing approach. Rather than go for sheets of noise and texture (perhaps he would have done if it had been made just a year later), he instead goes for face-melting speed. He’s present at the start of the song, playing a howling, string-bending lick in the intro, with its piercing feedback-laden sustain, but it’s at 1.03 that he really makes his presence felt, with a solo so unexpected that you’re left stunned at the inappropriateness of it all. Within a few years, every single note of Davidson’s 27-second solo would be a cliche – every idea, every phrase, every legato run pounded into the dirt by overuse. But in 1978, high-gain, high-speed soloing was still novel (Nite Flights was recorded the same month that the first Van Halen record was released), and in the context of this sort of record, vanishingly rare. Obviously enjoying it, the producers (Scott Walker and Dave McRae, though I suspect that Scott took the lead when producing his own songs) push the solo proudly to the front of the mix, almost as a provocation.

Davidson went on to a stint in Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and has played guitar with Joan Armatrading, Donovan, Mick Taylor, Paul Rogers, Pete Townshend, Rumer and Laura Mvula. It’s this solo, though, that will be his epitaph.

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Scott Walker

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Les Davidson