Monthly Archives: March 2014

Amarillo Highway – Terry Allen

Terry Allen is a conceptual artist and country singer. This isn’t an unheard-of combination of pursuits. One thinks of Dolly Parton.
Allen has flown under the mainstream radar for pretty much all his musical career and remains little known to this day, but he is beloved of many rock critics and Lubbock (On Everything) is frequently cited by those few who have heard it as one of the finest country albums ever made, and a forerunner of the last two decades’ alt.country. He is patently not a tough guy, like Waylon Jennings. He’s no mystic hippie like Willie Nelson. There is a kinship with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely (who played harmonica on Lubbock) – they all come from Lubbock and have all tapped into the strange vibes of a seemingly singular place. But still, Allen’s hard to pin down.
If Glen Campbell’s reading of Allen Toussaint’s Southern Nights found country music coming to a kind of rhythmic accommodation with disco, Amarillo Highway’s ramshackle swagger puts a hi-hat figure straight out of New York, played with a woozy looseness you would never get in Lower Manhattan, to work on a hard-ass down-home road song that skewers the genre of hard-ass down-home road songs. It’s the album’s signature groove, recurring on several songs. It’s topped by the wonderful pedal-steel playing of Lloyd Maines, another local legend (and father of Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks) and benefits from the engineering of Don Caldwell, at whose studio Lubbock (On Everything) was recorded. The album’s production is credited to ‘Everyone on this record’, and that’s the way Don Caldwell tells it in Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air (‘everybody on the album put in their two cents, a very co-operative effort), but he’s probably being a little generous: he knew more about making a record than anyone else in the room (Maines was his protégé) and that the sessions held together at all must have been in large part because of his steadying influence.
But the great playing, arrangements and engineering wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t backed up by quality songs from Allen. And yes, the shufflin’ drums and sun-baked pedal steel are just adornments to the lyric and Allen’s canny performance: the singer’s inability to quite hit the low notes at the end of the verses undercuts his protestations of unreconstructed Texan masculinity, which in any case veer between banality and near-nonsensicality. In its affectionate parody of a certain kind of southern manhood, it’s reminiscent of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (The Great Joe Bob – fallen high-school football icon – is a character Newman is still probably kicking himself for not coming up with first), and Amarillo Highway, in common with so many of Newman’s songs, contains a lyric and a vocal that only the author could deliver properly.
Yeah, that’s a better comparison than any other country singer: Terry Allen, a Panhandling, manhandling Randy Newman.

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Terry Allen (seated right). Jo Harvey Allen (actress and artist) is seated to his left. Al Ruppersberg is standing back row, left.

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Tin Angel – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell has expressed dissatisfaction with 1969’s Clouds, dismissing it as merely an attempt to emulate the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Clouds and the first CSN album both came out in May 1969, but that doesn’t invalidate her retrospective judgement – being so close to the major players in CSN, she’d have heard the songs from their debut from their very earliest stages. Indeed, some versions of the Crosby, Stills and Nash creation myth have them singing together for the first time at her house (others say it was at Mama Cass’s).

She’s overstating, I feel – Joni’s songs rarely have anything in common with Graham Nash’s, except they both take their personal relationships (and at times, of course, their relationship with each other) as subject matter, and her work has even less to do with Stills’s, musically or lyrically – but Clouds does find her at her most Crosby-like. Specifically, the modal-medieval Crosby of If I Could Only Remember my Name. It’s a style that is otherwise Crosby’s alone, so work that sounds similar stands out. If she did feel later on that she had been trying to copy CSN, then perhaps Tin Angel is the song that she was thinking about most.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I love David Crosby’s music: the mood, the voice, the harmonies, the chords, the whole bit. And similarly, I can find the good in almost any Joni Mitchell song, so Tin Angel is almost tailor-made for me.

It’s a gloriously stark piece of work, with an elegant, elongated melody that circles round upon itself, only resolving after ten lines with a glorious Picardy third. Her guitar playing (on one of those vanishingly rare occasions when she played in standard tuning) is, as always, top-drawer. The mood, though, is one of ambivalence – the singer knows that she loves someone ‘dark with darker moods… Not a golden prince who’s come’. ‘What will happen if I try to place another heart in him?’ the singer can only ask, pointedly not ending the song on the major chord that closes each of the song’s long verses, returning instead to the minor that begins them.

Elsewhere on the album she goes too far down the mystical-medieval path (Roses Blue and Songs to Aging Children Come are missteps – no getting away from that) and there’s some overbalancing tweeness (The Gallery, Chelsea Morning) I could live without, too. But any album that contains Tin Angel, I Don’t Know Where I Stand and Both Sides Now deserves better than it has received from its own creator, and it’s still probably the most satisfying of her pre-Blue albums. If you’re a casual fan interested in hearing something of her early music, Clouds – and not the more lauded Ladies of the Canyon – is where I’d direct you.

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Joni, circa Clouds, to judge by the fringe

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Dust – Fleetwood Mac

When the white flame in us is gone,
And we that lost the world’s delight
Stiffen in darkness, left alone
To crumble in our separate night;

When your swift hair is quiet in death,
And through the lips corruption thrust
Has stilled the labour of my breath–
When we are dust, when we are dust!

Dust, Rupert Brooke

I’ve recently had a mind to investigate the Fleetwood Mac interregnum of 1970-1974, the period between Peter Green’s departure and the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks. I picked up Bare Trees (1972), largely because I recognised a couple of song titles and because of John McVie’s beautiful cover image. I was intrigued to find out what the group were doing in this period: continuing the Green-era’s soulful white blues? Trying to find their way to the foursquare California pop that would become their trademark? Or desperately groping around for a direction, under the leadership of several different guitarist/writers?

Something of all three.

The pleasure of investigating these lesser known Fleetwood Mac albums is not to listen for how different they’ve been down the years. Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Bob Weston, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – any band that has been a vehicle for songs by as many writers as this should sound different over time. The eye-opener is how often they sound like, well, Fleetwood Mac.

There’s a Fleetwood Mac groove, for one thing, established in the early seventies, several years before Dreams made it the rhythm section’s calling card – mid-tempo, 4/4, strong backbeat, 8th notes on the hats, ‘heartbeat’ kick drum. But there’s also a mood, a feel, that is present throughout their career, an introspective mood of dusk and twilight that borders on the mystical. It’s there in Green’s Man of the World, in Kirwan’s Dragonfly, in Welch’s Hypnotized, in Buckingham’s I’m So Afraid, and in countless Nicks songs (Rhiannon, Gold Dust Woman, Sisters of the Moon, Storms). Perhaps they have got extraordinarily lucky that new singer-songwriters came and went whose styles overlapped and created a thematic through line. Maybe the mood is something that the group creates and that their songwriters are able to tap into. But it’s there, and it’s kept the group recognisable and intact in spirit through all of their line-up changes (except the post-Buckingham and Nicks line-up that cut Time in 1995, but we won’t count that out of respect for their legacy).

Danny Kirwan, as mentioned above, has one well-known entry into this canon of Fleetwood Mac über-songs, but it’s not his only, or even his best, song in that vein. That distinction belongs to Dust, from Bare Trees. A startling death meditation with lyrics taken from a Rupert Brooke poem (Dragonfly’s lyrics are also adapted from a poem – Kirwan was not a confident lyricist and this method helped him to finish his songs), Dust is a delight for chord-change connoisseurs. My favourite is the drop to an unexpected F#m halfway through the refrain. Kirwan deserves to be remembered for his songs as much as for his guitar playing in tandem with Peter Green – while he was a vital part of Fleetwood Mac’s blues-band days, his talent for writing melody and creating mood through chord changes came alive when he moved away from blues harmony into dreamier, more (dare I say) British, places.

Like much of Bare Trees, Dust is a treat.

Kirwan

How I See It – Carina Round

Carina Round’s debut album was released in 2001 with little fanfare on Animal Noise. It got some enthusiastic reviews, which tended to concentrate on Round’s voice and what she could do with it, but these tended to note her as one for the future, rather than as a fully developed talent. The Sunday Times reviewer, though, was less circumspect: ‘One of the most extraordinary debut albums I’ve ever heard – absolutely brilliant.’ I suspect it was this review that I read and that convinced me to track the album down.

The First Blood Mystery is nothing if not striking. Round’s voice may seem like a standard-issue ‘UK singer singing jazz with US accent’ kind of thing on some songs (she’d had a residency at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham before making her first record) but she could take it out to places where PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, Robert Plant and Corin Tucker were more comfortable: wailing, howling, screaming, paint-stripping kinds of places. Ribbons and On Leaving, the album’s last two tracks, were extraordinarily emotionally raw, uneasy pieces of music. When listened to in the right mood, they can be overwhelming. At other times when I hear them, they seem gauche, over the top. The emotional climax of On Leaving is also marred by a horrendous flub from the drummer, one I’m surprised they lived with. I’ve edited around it – replacing the affected half-bar with one from a later repeat – to be able to listen to the song without being taken out of it right at the crucial moment. Frankly, it was a shoddy piece of record making to allow it to survive to the master.

The album’s key stretch is the 3-song run from track two to track four: Lightbulb Song, How I See It and The Waves.This is where the album’s at its most adventurous in terms of texture and arrangement, while retaining some of the shock and awe of Round’s voice. Flutes, subtle electronic touches, electric guitars and vocal harmonies go to some seldom-explored places. Round channels Diane Cluck after the first chorus in Lightbulb Song and ear-catching use is made of harmonised flutes. One track later, How I See It uses Cousteau singer Liam McKahey’s lugubrious voice for some wordless moans and it’s a fine match for the song, which somewhat recalls the band’s Your Day Will Come, How I See It, though, is a more idiosyncratic work than Cousteau’s scotch-and-fine-tailoring revivalism. Spooky folk jazz with muted trumpet suited her well, and How I See It is the song I come back to most.

But this aspect of her first album didn’t make it to her subsequent work, which got bigger, louder, shinier, rockier, more adolescently gothic and progressively more dull. She moved to LA, played the Viper Room and made her third album with Glen Ballard. She toured with Annie Lennox. Her fourth record featured Dave Stewart. The jig was up.

Listening to The First Blood Mystery is a strange experience, 13 years after the its release. I can’t think of another debut record that had so much promise where the author went on to do so little of worth afterwards. I don’t like writing about records about which I can’t be more or less unambiguously positive, but so many of my reactions to How I See It, and to The First Blood Mystery more generally, are complicated by its author’s failure to develop artistically from here. What should have been the start of something really important is instead a 30-minute one-off, seven songs that could have led anywhere and instead led nowhere.

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Carina Round

Judee Sill’s first album

The greatest 35 minutes in the history of recorded music is the first (eponymous) album by Judee Sill. A big claim, but I’ll stand by it.

To go into the particulars of her life story would take more time than I have here, but a brief summary may put her music into context. She was born Judith Lynn Sill in 1944. Her father and older brother both died when she was a young child. Her mother remarried, to a Tom and Jerry animator, and both her mother and stepfather had alcohol problems. She fell in with the bad kids at school and her situation at home became increasingly strained; she couldn’t stand her stepfather, whom she saw as mean and narrow-minded. At fifteen she ran away from home and met a boy a couple of years older who made his money as an armed robber. The pair of them held up liquor stores and petrol stations across the San Fernando Valley until they were caught and Sill, still a minor, was sent to a reform school, where she learnt to play organ, piano and guitar.

On her release, her mother by this time dead, Sill married a man named Bob Harris (not that Bob Harris) and the pair became addicted to heroin. Sill was arrested and sent to prison – a real one this time – where she was left to go cold turkey, puking and convulsing in solitary confinement. Once out of jail, she began using again, working as a prostitute to fund her habit. It was at this time that she began writing songs, songs that would eventually bring her to the attention of David Geffen, manager and mogul-in-waiting, who made her the first signing to his new label Asylum.

Despite this tumultuous personal history (I have only time to mention in passing her bisexuality; her time spent writing for the Turtles, who discovered her living in a car; her crush on Geffen (who is gay); her shatteringly unsuccessful relationship with fellow songwriter John David Souther (who has had the good grace to admit her dazzling artistry – ‘She’s school for all of us’); her later car accidents (one of which she was rescued from by a passing John Wayne); and many other episodes besides.

But really, none of this is the point. None of this makes her music any better or worse. Knowing it probably doesn’t even really help us understand her any better.

The point is that there has never been a songwriter who handled the big stuff with as delicate a touch as Sill. The really big stuff. Existence. God. The universe. Everything.

A Christian of deep but unconventional faith (she was an avid reader of apocryphal, mystical, and Rosicrucian texts, which all fed into her writing, and perception of God), her religious songs were shot through with erotic imagery, while conversely her love songs have a holy reverence to them. Yet her music is substantial without being weighty. It’s deep but seldom heavy. It is free of the self-seriousness that characterises even the best work by, say, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young,

Sill released two albums in her lifetime of the most astonishing quality, the influences of Bach chorales and early church music clear in her chord structures, her lyrics reflecting the theosophical texts she eagerly devoured, her melodies like no one else’s in the history of popular music – the end result not that far removed from the work of her contemporary Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters sonically and formally, but elevated by a grace that none of them could achieve.

A junkie armed robber and former hooker who looked like a librarian and sang like an angel, Judee Sill was the greatest singer-songwriter who ever picked up a guitar.

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Judee Sill, conducting. Pic from Heart Food sleeve

The author’s recent EP, to download or stream for free:

Break in the Road – Betty Harris

On the whole, I prefer my soul music soft, opulent and orchestrated, a sound that tends to be associated with Chicago in the very late 1960s and with Philadelphia in the early 1970s going into the disco era. Strings, doo-wop-style harmonies, falsetto lead vocals, steady but unflashy drumming, a bass guitar groove that was infectious but happy to play second fiddle to the top line – these things that characterise soft soul are the things that really send me.

But listening to it all the time is like surviving on a diet consisting of nothing but cream cakes. A really great deep soul or southern soul record can make the orchestrated Midwestern/East Coast variety sound effete, decadent even.

Southern soul tended to do without orchestras. Its roots in gospel music and jump blues were more apparent, and while its arrangements may have often been musically sophisticated, they tended to use a small-band sound: drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, piano and organ (especially organ), and a small horn section. It was, yes, gritty- and dirty-sounding, but sanctified – it hadn’t moved that far from the church.

Betty Harris didn’t cut many tracks in her career, but her body of work is revered by connoisseurs of this kind of raw soul music. She had begun her career on Bert Burns’ Jubilee label, and in 1963 released a hit version of Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me with a gorgeous vocal, alternating between a smoky whisper and a passionate roar. Harris’s record slowed the tempo down to a crawl, but it was irresistible and was a pop hit. Despite this early success, Burns’s attention was occupied by his bigger artists and his own private life, and soon Harris was without a producer, and to make matters worse, a manager (‘Babe’ Chivian) in legal trouble.

The appearance in her life of the great New Orleans producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint must have seemed propitious. There is some debate whether a deal with Toussaint was brokered by her manager (still Chivian? A subsequent manager?), or whether Toussaint approached her and her representative after seeing her sing live at the Apollo. However it happened, Toussaint had set up a venture called Sansu with Marshall Sehorn, and soon Harris was recording for the fledgling label, usually flying in to cut a vocal on a track written and arranged for her by Toussaint, leaving before the song was mixed.

Toussaint is a towering figure in New Orleans music, a writer of numerous classics (Working in a Coalmine, Ride Your Pony, Southern Nights), a great arranger and pianist, and a likeable singer in his own right, but his magic failed to work on Betty Harris’s career. She cut a lot of fine records for Sansu, but none of them were hits, and eventually – dispirited by the lack of success and her lack of involvement in making her own records – she quit singing in the early 1970s.

Before she did, she made one last great track in 1969, (There’s a) Break in the Road, a fire-breathing monster powered along by the Meters (more about this later). It’s about as raw a soul record as has ever been made, the guitar feeding back throughout, the snare drum and horns audibly distorting. It sounds like band in a room, loud as hell. No other record I know of sounds as present, as ‘there’, as Break in the Road. It verges on psych territory, with post-Hendrix trills on the guitar and drumming that savagely pushes and pulls at the groove, with syncopations so complex that they nearly go out of control. The song spends most of its 2.45 running time on the very edge of falling apart, and it sometimes seems as if Harris and her backing singers are holding the whole thing together only by force of will.

So who is the drummer on Break in the Road? Most of the sources I could find seem agreed that the guitarist and bassist are the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr, but opinion seems split on whether the drummer is the Meters’ own Ziggy Modeliste or James Black, a fellow New Orleans funk drummer known for his work with Eddie Bo. If you listen to Hook and Sling, Black’s best-known work, there are moments in the breakdowns every bit as far out and gonzo as those on Break in the Road, so it could easily be him, however much it sounds like Ziggy on first listen (and a lot of that may be be down to the engineering and production choices – perhaps a larger part of the Ziggy Modeliste drum sound comes from the recording techniques than has often been assumed).

I wish I knew for sure who it was. What is beyond contention is that this is Harris’s finest achievement, better even than Cry to Me. And that’s saying something.

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Rock & Roll Doctor – Little Feat

Popular music is full of songs about medical practitioners. From Cypress Hill’s Dr Greenthumb to Gloria Estefan’s Dr Beat. From Aqua’s Dr Jones to Steely Dan’s Dr Wu. From the Beatles’ Doctor Robert, who helps you to understand, all the way through to Dylan’s ‘best friend my doctor’, who can’t even tell what it is he’s got. There have been Frontier Psychiatrists, Night Nurses and Witch Doctors.

But has any doctor in pop music ever had two degrees in bebop and a PhD in swing? Only Lowell George’s Rock & Roll Doctor.

George was one of the heroes of Laurel Canyon. There were several artists out of LA in the early seventies who were hugely popular with the mainstream audience (Young, Mitchell, CSNY, Taylor, King, Eagles, Ronstadt), and then there were artists who were hugely popular among other artists: John David Souther, Lowell George and Jackson Browne – guys whose songs everyone covered, who pretty much everyone believed were really talented, but who didn’t particularly catch on themselves commercially (Browne of course did later, but his first album took four years to go gold and he was never a major star like Taylor, King or Young). As late as 1975, David Geffen was still trying to make JD Souther a big name by putting him in an instant supergroup with Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. It duly went nowhere, with Furay and Souther openly loathing each other. Hillman, as is his lot in life, was caught in the middle.

Little Feat had a cult audience Souther would have envied, and like Souther, Lowell George could afford all the coke he could snort thanks to covers of his songs by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, but far too few people heard George singing his own songs, backed by his own band, several of whom were in-demand session players, like Richie Hayward – a great drummer who played with Ronstadt, Dylan, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and many more. George himself was known for his slide guitar – and he is one of the very finest, completely himself and instantly recognisable – but he was also a decent singer, much admired by Van Dyke Parks among others,  and at his best a great writer too.

He died in 1979 from a heart attack, 34 years old and weighing over 22 stone (quite a gastronomic achievement for a man who was high on coke almost constantly), leaving behind a wife and young daughter (Inara George), and a reputation that’s still not really spread beyond fans of seventies LA rock. He’s not obscure, exactly, but he’s not a cult artist either. I’ve never met a fan of Little Feat my own age or younger. I’ve never met a fan of Inara George my age either, come to that. His profile might yet be boosted as, say, Judee Sill’s has been in the last five or six years, but it’d take someone to stand up for him and argue the case.

If you find yourself caught up in the groove of this one – and really, you should – check out the live version they played in 1975 on The Old Grey Whistle Test (easily found on YouTube); if anything it cooks even more.

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Lowell George — heavy slide, natural Strat