Monthly Archives: January 2014

Love’s Enough – David Ackles

“I won’t get maudlin,” Ackles promises midway into the second side, locking himself in the barn as the dappled stallion gallops to join his brothers and sisters on the open range with his mane flying free in the breeze.

Robert Christgau, review of David Ackles’ American Gothic

From the facetious tone of his review, I guess the Dean found Ackles to be mendacious and phoney rather than incompetent. Quite why Christgau thought himself qualified to judge musicians’ motivations without knowing them personally, I’ve never been able to determine. While, like Christgau, I find American Gothic an unsatisfying record by a songwriter of lesser artistic value than most of his peers (both the more commercially successful ones and the unsung heroes; Judee Sill came out in 1971, Heart Food in 1973), his review seems gratuitously mean now, with Ackles long dead from cancer, and with far greater and more mendacious threats to popular music living, breathing and walking amongst us.

Plenty of other people have loved his work. Elton John’s a professed fan. Bernie Taupin, too – so much so that he produced American Gothic. Phil Collins picked Down River while on Desert Island Discs. Elvis Costello mentioned him on stage while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ackles mostly went unnoticed in his career. Christgau’s one of the few to have noticed and dismissed him.

Ackles was nothing more than a likeable and humble guy with a bent towards musical theatre, Weill and Copland, a rather corny sensibility not entirely unlike Neil Diamond (whom in the latter’s more restrained moments Ackles rather resembles vocally). How much you like Ackles may well depend on your tolerance for sprechgesang and being told rather than shown how characters think and feel (the biggest problem with the title track, although it does end with the killer line ‘They suffer least that suffer what they choose’), but he’s unlikely to enrage you; the enthusiasm of his bigger fans is likewise perplexing.

Other than the delivery and the pedestrian nature of the lyrics (would that Ackles had possessed a flair for comedy and a taste for the macabre or grotesque like Brecht, Walker, Waits or Newman – the album title might have been a better fit for the music therein), the biggest problem with the record is the fussy arrangements, conducted by a soul sympathetic to them – Robert Kirby, known for his work with Nick Drake, and whose work has always been a bit twee, a bit callow.

Love’s Enough is sparer, could have been cut by any artist in any era with only minimal changes to the arrangement and production to make it suitable for its time. In the eighties, its almost inaudible brushed drums would have been replaced with enormo-super-mega-giant-bashing-away-in-a-cave drums. In the fifties it might have had the benefit of Gordon Jenkins’ or Nelson Riddle’s attentions. But the song would have been affecting either way.

Tonally and lyrically, Love’s Enough doesn’t fit on its parent album – it’s a very hard gear change after the opening title track – but without it the album would sink under the weight its ambitions. A moment of quiet reflection, in an intimate register, on a recognisable situation, Love’s Enough is a classic of sorts. I can’t recommend American Gothic to all but the very curious*, but its finest ballad deserves the audience that Elton, Bernie, Elvis and Phil have tried to win for their hero.

 

*Oh all right then, I do like Oh, California. I’m not made of stone.

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Rear cover of American Gothic (after Grant Wood)

Here’s some of my recent work on Soundcloud. Click on my name in the top-left corner or the word soundcloud in the top-right corner to go to the site and hear more songs.

Normal blog stuff to resume on Thursday

Hi. Hope you’re all having a good weekend. I got back from a break in Paris yesterday but the next couple of days are going to be busy too – I’m playing a gig with Sumner tomorrow night and rehearsing this evening, so my first opportunity to post something is going to be Thursday. I’m going to try to write in little moments of downtime, but realistically won’t finish anything before then, I think – if I do, it’ll just be a pleasant surprise!

So check back Thursday when our adventures will continue…

https://www.facebook.com/events/723936610950744/

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Graffiti on a wall, halfway up Montmartre

Dog Leap Stairs – Kathryn Williams

For any artist who sticks around for a while, record-making gets to be routine after a time. Just like anything else. But debut records aren’t routine by definition. Their stories usually stand out a little. So it is with Kathryn Williams’ Dog Leap Stairs, which had me spellbound for a year or so after its release in 1999.

With the British music press then briefly focused on a trend they dubbed the ‘new acoustic movement’ (NAM), it was a good year to be a singer-songwriter putting out a debut, so Williams’ timing was right, but the fact that the artists who got national-press exposure of the back of NAM were largely horrible helped, too.

The story behind Dog Leap Stairs has been told often, so let’s get it out the way quickly. It was reportedly recorded for £80, and was released on Williams’ own Caw label. She worked in a greengrocer’s shop, a baby-wear shop and as a cleaner to make ends meet in a pre-minimum wage world. She gained precious exposure through a Nick Drake tribute concert at the South Bank, by the clever ruse of not destroying the song she covered (Saturday Sun), and was the subject of a laudatory write-up and interview in The Times from Caitlin Moran, which is how I, and I suspect much of her early audience, came to hear of her.

A new singer-songwriter with the right influences would have been interesting to me, but it was the DIY nature of her career and her lo-fi recording methods that really got my attention. As a 17-year-old aspiring musician who was cynical about the music industry and his own chances of making a successful living within it, anyone who managed to bypass the industry and attract attention on their own terms was an example to me, a hero even. So I was duly smitten with Dog Leap Stairs.

Fifteen years later, it has lost some of its magic for me. I’d love to be able to claim it’s a masterpiece, and its relative modernity wouldn’t be a barrier to that: I claimed precisely that for Nina Nastasia’s Dogs a couple of weeks ago on this blog. It’s just that Dog Leap Stairs feels too insubstantial for that. It’s only half an hour, and 10 songs, long, but identifying weaker tracks (Night Came, What am I Doing Here?, Lydia) is very possible, and occasionally the lo-fi nature of the recording is double-edged: while Handy benefits from its lack of polish, and you feel like you’re in the room with Williams as she sings to you, Leazes Park, creepy as it is, would have benefited from its drums being plainly audible, rather than an indistinct, barely perceptible background presence.

So why am I talking about a record that I seem to have a lot of reservations about? Well, for its flaws, it was a significant gateway to other artists. But, furthermore, I do think it’s a strong, distinctive, very likeable album.

It has a more pleasing overall shape than Williams’ others by virtue of a couple of outlier songs that don’t share her usual chord sequences (the reliance on simple C/F/G- and D/G/C-type chord sequences that crept in on second album Little Black Numbers has been a major limiting factor on her songs, surprisingly so for an acknowledged fan of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Kurt Cobain, all of whom, in their different ways, expanded the vocabulary of chords and progressions in pop music), or familiar patterns in their tunes. Someone coming to Dog Leap Stairs after having heard Little Black Numbers and third album Old Low Light would likely be surprised not by the album’s lack of sonic clarity, but by the sometimes spiky, unconventional songwriting of Something Like That and the aforementioned Leazes Park.

It’s the last four songs that elevate Dog Leap Stairs above Williams’ other work, and way above the mulch which came out at the same time (the likes of Starsailor and David Gray). Stripped of the fake reverb in which Night Came almost drowns, with Wiliams’ fingerpicking unsteady and somewhat unsure, her voice sometimes dropping into near inaudibility, Handy has an extraordinary presence. Dog Without Wings, meanwhile, is as graceful song about love going wrong as you’re likely to hear; a song that manages the feat of incorporating a glockenspiel without sounding twee.

Fade is the album’s best song, and was the album’s ‘push’ track. Produced, like Leazes Park, by PJ Harvey collaborator Head (as a demo for a record label who wanted to sign her; a good reason not to put too much faith in the ‘recorded for £80’ legend), Fade has Dog Leap Stairs’ most fleshed-out arrangement, with jazzy drums and piano, and a beautiful, sighing chord sequence in the verses (Cmaj7, Em, B7, Em), but once again the lyric is elliptical and sometimes sinister: ‘there’s nothing more sexy than watching someone who doesn’t know their being watched’, Williams concludes at the end of the second verse. The vocal is uncertain, sometimes off key, but I doubt she could deliver a more resonant, haunting one today, no matter how much more conventionally strong her voice has become in the last fifteen years.

The album concludes with a live version of Madmen and Maniacs, an open and vulnerable recording of a song that is itself a plea for openness and vulnerability. It’s a lovely end to the album, the small burst of applause surprising on this most introspective and solitary-sounding record.

It seems extremely unlikely that Uncut’s prediction, ‘In 30 years’ time they’ll be cooing over Dog Leap Stairs with the reverence currently afforded to Nick Drake’s albums’, will come to pass. But now, after confident-sounding single Heart Shaped Stone made the BBC Radio 2 B list in late 2013, is a good time to remember the songwriter Williams started out as, and that her journey, which has in truth been disappointing to this early fan, isn’t over yet and may still lead somewhere exceptional.

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Kathryn Wiliams

From Russia with Love – Matt Monro

Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again?

There are many fine Bond themes – Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, We Have all the Time in the World, Nobody Does it Better – and a few shockers (All Time High, Die Another Day, Another Way to Die, Licence to Kill, For Your Eyes Only, The World is Not Enough). My favourite is seldom heard unless the film to which it was attached is rebroadcast: Matt Monro’s From Russia with Love.

Monro made his name with the BBC show band, before which he’d driven a bus, meaning he’d for ever be saddled with the nickname ‘The Singing Bus Driver’, but he was a quick study and a natural talent, soaking up all he could from his time at the BBC and his stint as vocalist for Winifred Atwell, who gave him his stage name. But his initial burst of fame didn’t last and, by the late fifties, he was working as a song plugger in relative obscurity.

His second big break came from an unlikely source: Peter Sellers. He was making a comedy record with George Martin, and Martin wanted a singer to record a Sinatra pastiche that Sellers could study and copy, with a view to making his own version. Monro, with his Sinatra-like voice, was hired. But Sellers liked Monro’s version so much that he decided to use it to open his record, billing him as Fred Flange. Dispirited by this lack of recognition at the time, Monro wasn’t aware yet of how lucky he was: he’d impressed the man who would soon be the most powerful record producer in the country. They’d hit it off personally too, so soon the two of them were working together on a new run of Matt Monro singles. Portrait of my Love was a big hit and he came second in the 1964 Eurovision, but the key moment in their partnership had come the previous year, when they’d recorded the title song for the second Bond film, From Russia with Love.

From Russia with Love (the song) was written by Lionel Bart, arranged and played by John Barry and his Orchestra and produced by George Martin (one hears echoes of the work he was doing with the Beatles at the same time: wide stereo separation, rejecting the idea of the stereo field as a representation of musicians on a stage, for example: the drums are wholly in the right channel), so the record had some heavy duty talent on it, and it was these guys who were doing the job of defining what we think of when we think of Bond songs. Dr No hadn’t had a theme song, and as the second movie in the series, From Russia with Love laid a lot of groundwork unwittingly.

Most of it’s here: a sense of arrangement and harmony more classic-cool than contemporary, inventive arrangements, big orchestrations, a charismatic lead vocal, and most importantly, a sense of foreboding. The sped-up piano* in the left channel (another quintessential Martin touch), recurring throughout the song, hangs over the record like a question mark, and for a song about returning to a lover, when Monro sings ‘I fly to you from Russia with love’ at the song’s climax, it sounds ominously like a threat. All that’s missing is the thunderous brass, which would become inextricably associated with the Bond franchise after Goldfinger, but which was, presumably, not composed with that in mind.

Monro’s performance is a classic. This man had the publicly acknowledged respect of Frank Sinatra (‘his pitch was right on the nose: his word enunciations letter perfect: his understanding of a song thorough,’ said the master on Monro’s death), and it’s easy to hear why. Obviously indebted to Frank but not a slavish imitator, Monro was blessed with a voice that was both an authoritative light baritone and a classy tenor, but Sinatra had it right when he remarked that Monro understood the songs he was singing. His performances are thoughtful. You sense that he (and Bart, and Barry and Martin) knew this song had slightly sinister undertones (they’re there in the score as well as the words), and, alive to both text and subtext, he hints at all possible meanings without coming down too firmly one way or the other. A lesser singer and the song might have devolved into winking camp or sung through it, oblivious; Monro was too rigorous and disciplined to allow that.

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Matt Monro – so much more than a singing bus driver

* Recording geeks may be interested to listen to the left channel, containing the sped-up piano, at 1.04. Hear a chipmunk voice? That’s someone (possibly Barry) saying, ‘Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again.’ Back in the analogue days, a lot of things made it to the master that would be simple to clean up nowadays. This is a prime example.

Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish

Jellyfish seemed poised for big things in the summer of 1990, until a darker, more aggressive noise from up the Pacific Coast elbowed them aside. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC: they looked like Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing.

The band’s main men – drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning Jr – were never ones to disguise their influences: they liked the Beach Boys, Queen, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and didn’t care who knew it, producing blatant homages to their heroes and performing their songs in concert. While their debut album Bellybutton combines all of these influences into something somewhat unique, their 1993 follow-up, Spilt Milk, is more of a straight love letter to Queen and the Beach Boys.

Jason Falkner (a cult hero himself) and his temporary replacement Eric Dover (later of Slash’s Snakepit, of all things) were gone by now, so the guitars – beefed up since Bellybutton, which led some to conclude they were chasing the grunge trend, a ridiculous conclusion – were played by Lyle Workman (Sting, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Frank Black) and producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Beck, Elliott Smith). There was a lot of production and arranging talent on board, but a lot of strong opinions also, which can lead to creative paralysis and a complete lack of momentum – as well as the players, any one of whom could have been the lead producer on the project, also on the team were Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten, who’d replaced Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer on their disco-era records and had serious pedigree.

No wonder it took them a couple of years to put it all together, by which time they were even more out of step with mainstream rock music than they’d been in 1990. The album received rave reviews, was praised to the skies by fellow musicians, but went nowhere commercially and ended up in the bargain bins after a few months. Such an expensive flop did not sit well with the record company and Jellyfish were effectively done. Sturmer and Manning went into production – what else? – as did Jon Brion.

Joining a Fan Club sounds bigger and grander, brasher and glammier, than anything on Bellybutton, and the song’s knotty structure and somewhat inelegant left turns work surprising well; the band play through it all with aplomb and they work up the biggest head of steam they ever managed in the studio. Unfortunately, though, Spilt Milk sounds suffocating – the low end is flabby and overdone, and towards the album’s end, you find yourself wishing for something lighter and breezier in the manner of Bellybutton. Maybe this contributed to its commercial failure, but I suspect it had more to do with its sheer unfashionability. A few years later it might have found a receptive audience among the people who bought albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple (whether Jon Brion developed his production/arrangement style before or after he worked with Jellyfish is a fascinating question, given the overt similarities between them), but at the time a wide audience didn’t exist for a pop record this knowing and meta, where every song seems to exist inside a series of quotation marks.

Andy Sturmer did have the gratification of having Joining a Fan Club reach a new audience when it was recorded in 2004 by Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi, whom he’s produced since the mid-nineties.

But I’ll take the original please.

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Any band can look silly, but only Jellyfish have ever looked this silly

Summer Breeze – The Isley Brothers

I’m going to begin this with a statistic that I find genuinely incredible: the Isley Brothers scored Billboard Top 40 singles with new material in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. In that time they’d been an R&B party band, a Motown production-line group, folky protesters, funky balladeers, psychedelic Hendrix disciples, New Jack Swingers, even hookmen for gangsta rappers.

In the 1970s, they became one of the biggest groups in the world. The original trio of Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudy Isley had long been backed up by guitarist Ernie Isley, bassist Marvin Isley and their cousin Chris Jasper on keyboards but the younger kids were now asked to join the band for real and they put out an album called 3+3 to commemorate the formalising of this established collaboration. It was an immediate smash. For a few years prior, they had been working in rock and roll as much as soul music, reinterpreting white rock songs and hippie protest songs with a gospel fervour. Appropriately so, as they were the originators and popularisers of both Shout and Twist and Shout, so they already held a key position in the history of rock and roll music. But 3+3’s funk was based on songs by Carole King, the Doobie Brothers, even James Taylor. Not to mention Seals & Crofts, authors and original performers of Summer Breeze. It really doesn’t get any whiter than that. The Isleys’ success was to cross over from the R&B world to mainstream pop radio, which you can only do by broadening your fanbase. The Isley’s did it as well as anyone ever has, and few groups have been so beloved of both black and white audiences.

The album’s secret weapon (if anything so prominent could be described as secret), was Ernie Isley’s Fender Stratocaster. The band were fortunate to have in midst possibly the heaviest guitarist in R&B at the time, both in tone and in style (Eddie Hazel being the other contender). Ernie was a friend of Jimi Hendrix and owed Jimi a huge musical debt; Hendrix had played with the Isleys when Ernie was still a child and the influence he had on the kid was soul deep. The 1970s was the era of guitar hero (exhibit A: one of the ways Chris Blackwell decided to sell Bob Marley and Wailers to a rock audience was by adding guitar solos when they re-recorded their Jamaican material), but Ernie Isley cut through the high-speed babble of slurred sextuplets by virtue of an instantly recognisable tone – fat, sustained, compressed, loud – as well as a sensual, fluid approach to lead playing. He also played the drums on the Isleys’ records, and had an endearing way of speeding up pretty much all their records. His contributions made an Isleys record identifiable before Ronald even opened his mouth. Their records were organic – homemade, almost – in an era of increasingly slick productions and the group chose their material with a sure touch. A well-compiled Isleys best-of is an essential purchase.

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Stormy Weather/Nobody Knew Her – Nina Nastasia

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.

Steve Albini

 

A really great debut, the arrival of a talent already fully formed but with the potential to grow in any one of a number of directions, happens seldom, and with vanishing rarity by singer-songwriters. Bands, if the fragile chemistry is properly captured and they’re able to write a good tune or two, are more likely to do their best work early. Singer-songwriters take longer: few would argue that Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Song to a Seagull, Neil Young, Closing Time, London Conversation, or More Than a New Discovery were their authors’ best works, or even among them. You could make a case for Leonard Cohen’s and Randy Newman’s debuts (I would). Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s best. Sweet Baby James is Taylor’s best, but it’s a low bar. Judee Sill is better than everything else ever, including her second and posthumous third. But the thesis holds, I think.

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs, though, is one of the great debut albums. I first heard it after becoming intrigued by two things that happened very close together: firstly, I read the above quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Dogs and all of Nastasia’s subsequent records. Second, I read an issue of Mojo in a hospital waiting room where Laura Marling nominated Nastasia’s work as a major influence. I’d heard nothing but good things about Marling but remained unconvinced by her songs or singing, and so was interested to hear an influence on her that maybe contained the things I did like about Marling in a more concentrated or developed form.

I certainly got that.

On first listen, Dogs sounded like a very good chamber-folk kind of record: sparse, vibey, atmospheric, beautifully arranged and recorded, and with really strong songs with surprising twists and little moments of dissonance. The more I listened, the better it sounded. Certain songs (All Your Life, Underground, A Love Song, the peerless Stormy Weather) bore their way into me.

I’m a recording geek, as regular readers will know, so Dogs is a pleasure from the first note to last. Among Albini’s stellar work, it’s a particularly great-sounding record. Listen to the strings on Stormy Weather and you’re in the room with the players, every nuance, every scrape, every creak, every change in bow direction audible. On their own, listening to these strings would be a compelling experience, but they are just the backing for Nastasia’s beguiling, winding melody and elliptical lyrics. Stormy Weather (not the jazz standard, by the way, if you don’t know the record) is a moment of perfection that makes the world stop.

Nobody Knew Her lets it all back in, noisily. I know nothing about Nastasia’s personal life, but in interviews she has alluded to a friend killed in an accident on Pacific Coast Highway, and Nobody Knew Her seems like it deals with these events, initially being sung as if by a schoolgirl (‘He won’t go out with me/I don’t care if I never see his face’), before with two hard strums and the line ‘Everyone’s talking about you’, the band slam in; and in the context of such a hushed album, they do slam.

It’s not a mawkish or maudlin song, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its meaning – I listened to the song a dozen times, probably, before the significance of the chorus (‘Bradley, Bradley, I think you got away’) actually hit me, even as the second verse makes it plain we’re dealing with a car wreck – but the significance of having the band play hardest and loudest on a song about a friend’s early death (and his passenger – a girl nobody knew) is clear.

After Nastasia sings, ‘This desk says you were here’, there’s a pause of a few seconds before the band come back in. What could have been a very cheesy moment is instead the song’s most powerful; as the last line of the song sinks in and the chord decays, we hear the guitar amp hum and some very audible handling noise. If they’d have gone for silence before the band re-entered, that might have been cheesy. Nastasia and Albini allow even this consciously big moment retain its humanity and rough edges.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard then plays one of my favourite guitar solos, a messy, passion-filled 24 bars that function as a sort of boozy, rowdy wake after a sombre funeral. It’s a performance of proper catharsis, a real cleansing. It’s not typical of her later work – instead, it’s the most ‘indie rock’ her music’s ever been – but it’s the record’s key passage, the deepest moment in a record full of them. If you like either Stormy Weather or Nobody Knew Her, you need to hear the album in full. It’s a classic.

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Nina Nastasia