Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sleeping – The Band

We return once again to the Band. But they are one of my absolute favourites, so no apologies from me, I’m afraid!

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called the Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Not that the town’s elders were opposed to rock musicians in general or the Band in particular – in one interview Rick Danko revealed that the local judges and the police referred to them rather fondly as ‘the boys’. But with their first plan not viable, instead the Band decided to use the Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into an ad hoc control room. Producer of the first two albums John Simon was eased out and in his place was the incongruous red-trousered, green-haired figure of Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman’s latest boy wonder. There was reportedly some tension, particularly between the Runt and Levon Helm. One can only imagine.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to argue Stage Fright is on the same level as the Band’s first two albums. It’s not. There’s something alchemical, something magical, that exists in their early work but that is evident only fitfully from Stage Fright onwards. By this time, the Band had divided into factions: the partiers (Danko, Helm and Manuel) and the ‘grown-ups’ (Robertson and Hudson). If he hadn’t been before, Manuel was now a full-blown alcoholic; Danko was an undiscriminating user of whatever was being offered; and Levon was taking fistfuls of downers, which undoubtedly mellowed him out, but didn’t do much for his ability to get up in the morning.

Undoubtedly all of this had an effect on the Band’s cohesion and focus, but even more serious was the drying up of Richard Manuel the songwriter, who had been such a presence on the Band’s first two albums (he wrote or co-wrote In a Station, We Can Talk, Lonezome Suzie, Whispering Pines, Jawbone and When You Awake) and the increasingly humourless didacticism of Robertson’s own po-faced and overwrought songs. The lightness of touch he brought to Jawbone and Across the Great Divide would be less and less evident from hereon in.

This knowledge makes it hard to take the lyrics of Sleeping at face value; the desire to be cocooned and protected from the world was all too real for these guys. Nonetheless all the members of the group step up as players (the instrumental chorus is ecstatic, and Helm’s jazzy drumming superlative) for Manuel’s last great songwriting effort. As with the Manuel songs on The Band, though, it’s actually a Manuel-Robertson co-write, and one wonders how much the lyrics are Robbie projecting himself into the shoes of his bandmate.

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The Band, up on a roof: l-r, Hudson, Manuel, Helm, Robertson, Danko

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Just Another Day – Jon Secada

In 1984 the Miami Sound Machine released their first major-label album, the multi-platinum success of which turned singer Gloria Estefan into the biggest Latin musician in the world and her husband Emilio into one of the most successful producers in any form of pop music. For the rest of the eighties, they maintained their upward trajectory and the Estefans fully transcended Latin-music stardom, becoming truly global pop stars in the process.

In 1990, a semi-truck crashed into the Estefans’ tour bus during a snowstorm and Gloria broke her back. After a successful operation to stabilise her spine with two steel rods, she needed a year of intensive rehab. Although she managed to take part in the recording of a new album towards the end of this process, the Miami Sound Machine juggernaut had slowed somewhat and her English-language career never quite recovered from the lost momentum. In any event, the 1990s were already shaping up to be a more naturalistic decade in terms of production and presentation; the blaring horns and big bam boom of Emilio’s music was becoming old hat, redolent as they were of the Reagan-era excesses of the most excessive decade in that most excessive of American cities.

With all this to consider, Emilio began to invest more of his time in his protégé Jon Secada, who had served time as an MSM backing singer and had already co-written some ballads with Gloria, at which he showed a talent. Secada’s eponymous first album duly got a full Estefan treatment, but in a modified and subdued form. Emilio’s signature synth-brass was largely absent, Secada’s breakthrough single being notably minimalist in arrangement. Aside from the vocals (Gloria’s voice is audible in the mix, and she was present in the video for a little extra commercial punch) the track was just bass, piano, a little synth, and drum programming with a notable Teddy Riley influence (this being the back end of the New Jack Swing Era). While it sounds surprisingly skeletal today, Emilio’s touch was never less than sure back then and the single hit no. 2 on the adult contemporary chart and no. 5 on the Billboard and UK Top 40 charts. The moody black and white video with a wet-shirted Secada walking disconsolately on a beach probably helped too, but the song’s success is largely a result of canny production and Secada’s writing.

Just Another Day is a surprisingly elusive piece for a commercial ballad, the verses not seeming to follow an exact structure, chords being held for varying lengths of time, changes being more dependent on the detours taken by a meandering, unhurried melody. It’s an odd structure. In the early 1990s a lot of songs — in surprisingly disparate styles, as this was true of house as much as grunge — were structured around progressions of a small number of chords (often four), repeating in defined, frequent cycles. Just Another Day is much more slippery. How much of it is design and how much is happy chance only Secada and his co-writer Miguel A. Morejon could answer, but it does some cool things where chords that end a short section of the verse sequence get unexpectedly held a long time, and then the vocal begins a new phrase over that same chord, subverting the expectation that he’ll go back and repeat the phrase we’ve just heard. It never feels like anything overly odd is going on (we’re always in 4/4, we’re always in the home key), but it definitely rewards close listening. It gives the impression that the verses are being made up on the spot, that they’re a spontaneous outburst of emotion, which is really appropriate to the song’s mood and subject matter. Without a strong chorus to pull it all together, the song would simply have floated up into the atmosphere and the chorus is the song’s trump card. 22 years since Just Another Day’s release (yes, we are now that old), the marriage of a passionately despairing lyric and a switch to the major key is still a move guaranteed to get my attention, and this song may have been the first time I noticed the trick.

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In my head Jon Secada lives on a beach. Chris Isaak too. Possibly they’re neighbours

The author’s own music – Ross Palmer @ the 12 Bar Club, 12 June

Hi all. Permit me a few minutes of your time for a little plug.

On Thursday 12th June, I’m playing at the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street in London. This is my first solo gig in over a year, and my first properly solo gig (meaning, just me on my own – no extra musicians to help out) in a lot longer. I’m coping by practicing as much as I can and hoping that muscle memory will get me through it. I don’t drink otherwise I’d probably just have an extra beer or two before playing.

Anyway, most of my readers are not in the UK, and most of those in the UK are probably not in London, so I recognise it as incredibly unlikely that any of you would be thinking of coming along. However, I’ve enjoyed focusing on my own music over the past few weeks and thought it’d be cool to share some of it with you.

Here’s a link to some things on Soundcloud. They’re either recent songs, or recent remixes, or recent re-recordings of old songs. Anyway, the horrible lossy Soundcloud encoding process apart, they all sound pretty good (you’ll have to trust me on that). At some point, maybe even this year, I’ll try to release some of it somehow.

I’m supporting my old friend Yo Zushi at the 12 Bar, in whose band I’ll also be playing. Years and years ago, we were in a band together (Great Days of Sail). I produced and mixed his latest album, the first single from which came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s available from Bandcamp and iTunes. It got played by Steve Lamacq, which was an unexpected bonus. It’s very different from my stuff. Much rootsier, more country, more old-timey. The album is out on Eidola in July.

There are links on the right of the page to a bunch of stuff I’m involved in if you ever feel like hearing more.

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This is a picture of the gig flyer that’s up in the window of the 12 Bar.

Election results – a few thoughts

Identity is a perennial concern of the far right. Its enemies are cosmopolitanism and rootlessness. Identity in this sense is a form of communitarianism which defines people by their race and their inherited culture rather than by their individuality, aspirations and talents. It’s a kind of prison.

Jonathan Meades

I live in London now, but yeah, it’s depressing that the people of Blenheim Ward in Leigh-on-Sea, where I grew up and lived for many years, voted a UKIP candidate on to Southend Council on Thursday. I know in perennially Conservative-controlled Essex that shouldn’t be a shock, but apparently it’s not a big jump from the politics of selfishness — of ‘Fuck you, I’ve got mine’ — to the politics of hate, fear, economic illiteracy and willful ignorance represented by UKIP.

Part of me just wants to say, ‘God rot the lot of them’, and not think about it any more. But I just can’t reconcile these election results with the people I know personally from the town. Did they all stay at home? Are they all really that gullible? What the hell is going on?

 

Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis

Pacific Street – Hem (repost)

Hi there. This is a rewritten version of a post from last spring, one that in retrospect I was really unhappy with, that didn’t capture much of what I like about this song and the band who performed it, and instead got bogged down in a discussion about genre names. This version contains much more of what I wanted to say.

I heard quite a lot of country music as a child, on Music for Pleasure compilations my parents had on cassette. My mother was a Crystal Gayle fan too. Those two names will probably tell you what sort of country we’re talking about: orchestrated Nashville country, 1970s pop country, records that play in the space between countrypolitan and chamber pop, in the space between sophisticated and cheesy. It’s a difficult area to work in. You can come off precious, or bland, or bloodless. It takes a good song, a sensitive singer and skilled arrangers to pull it off. Even then, what sounds wonderful in a single-song dosage can sound unambitious — rote, even — if turned into a formula, the way Billy Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette in the late 1960s and 1970s. As good as those records are (and the best of them — Till I Get it Right, You and Me — are magnificent), there’s something disquieting about listening to them in sequence. It’s the sound of an artist being squeezed into a mould and losing their original form in the process.

Anyhow, this kind of music doesn’t get made in Nashville anymore. And as there were a great many country fans who didn’t much like it in the first place — thinking it too polished, too restrained, too produced, too far away from how Hank had done it — many don’t really care.

I like it, though. It pushes all kinds of buttons in me. And so I like Hem. A lot. Seeing them at the Union Chapel last year with Mel was one of the best experiences of my life.

Hem are a band from Brooklyn who play acoustic, orchestrated music that’s pretty clearly derived from the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, they seem slightly loath to admit it – Dan Messe, the group’s principal songwriter, recently said Hem are at heart a folk band, which seems odd since their first two albums (the beautiful Rabbit Songs and the even lusher Eveningland) are their most countrypolitan.

Countrypolitan, as exemplified in, say, the recordings Glen Campbell made of Jimmy Webb’s songs, is characterised by its smoothness, downplaying (but not excising) the traditional roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel and using instead full orchestra or large string section, brushed drums (not always, but the drums are never emphasised in the mix no matter how they’re played), fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and a gentler, more intimate vocal style than could ever be deployed in honky-tonk country music. That’s the kind of music Hem make, and no singer is gentler or more intimate than Sally Elyson. Unlike, Wynette or Patsy Cline, there’s no hint of vocal power held in reserve. Elyson sings gentle always, sometimes in a near whisper.

I’ve banged on plenty in the last year or so about sound quality a lot. Probably too much. It is important to me though. I spend a good amount of my waking hours thinking about it. Few people currently working make records that sound as good as Hem’s. Their records are engineered and mixed in ways that buck most of the current trends: they record to tape, they don’t use extravagant equalisation or heavy compression. They focus on space, balance and attention to detail. Messe, Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer are skilled players (as are their collaborators, such as Heather Zimmerman (Messe’s sister) and double bassist George Rush), but their playing is unshowy but empathetic. This music, and their approach to, is disciplined.

That maybe makes them sound blander than they are; their restraint in no way signifies a lack of passion. When making Rabbit Songs, Dan Messe sold his apartment and most of his things to pay to work with an orchestra because he wanted to get the album right. Eveningland drove the band to bankruptcy. The group and their collaborators (a large team of players, arrangers, engineers, assistants and mixers are credited on their records) clearly understand what a remarkable singer Elyson is, and so they give her voice the space it deserves, and they don’t stint when building the tracks that support it.

Pacific Street is the penultimate track from their 2004 album Eveningland. It’s less representative of their early sound than something like Carry Me Home (not a Gloworm cover) or Receiver from the same album, or Lazy Eye or Sailor from Rabbit Songs — it lacks the acoustic guitars, fiddle and the pedal steel that create so much of the mood of those records — but in its intimacy, its focus on the small moments in life and relationships, it’s wholly characteristic. And as ever, it’s beautifully performed and arranged, Catherine Popper (a former member of Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals, and the rather less subtle Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) doing especially great work on double bass.

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Hem, current line-up (l-r Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Elyson, Dan Messe). Publicity shot, © Walden

 

Soul Journey & Hell Among the Yearlings – Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch may be the greatest working songwriter (I can’t think of a credible alternative), but at least two of her albums are interesting failures rather than works of consistently high quality. They’re her second and fourth, 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings and 2003’s Soul Journey.

Soul Journey is the more easily understood. Perhaps sensing that Time (the Revelator) was a masterpiece of what Welch and David Rawlings refer to as their ‘duet music’ and that they probably couldn’t top it by doing the same thing again, they embraced a wider range of instruments than their customary two guitars (or guitar and banjo) and two voices.

Initially, this slightly bigger palette of drums, electric bass and guitar and fiddle is welcome. The sound if woody, warm and confident. Look at Miss Ohio, which opens the record is a fine song, and the rhythm section (the drums on the album were all played by Rawlings and Welch; the bass by Rawlings, Welch or engineer Matt Andrews) are very far from timid. Unfortunately they’re also very far from subtle and very far from supple. This is a rhythm section that makes Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot sound like Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey playing with Steely Dan. The ham-handedness is quite charming at first, but over the course of several more songs in this slow, four-square idiom (the unfortunate One Monkey, the somnambulant Lowlands, Wrecking Ball), it becomes very wearisome. Wayside is a bit of an exception — the feel is different, the internal balance of the drums is different; possibly Welch and Rawlings swapped roles for this one — but the writing is a bit flabby. There are more verses and choruses than needed, given the lack of melodic development.

Wrecking Ball requires a bit more comment. It is the album’s big missed opportunity. Something close to a great song, spoiled by a basic track that wouldn’t have got past a third-party producer and some sketchy, messy playing from the sitting-in members of Son Volt and fiddler Ketcham Secor. Perhaps there’s a live version out there from their tours with Old Crow Medicine Show that properly captures the swagger of this slab of heroic self-mythology; the Soul Journey version’s a pallid demo.

So that’s about half the album accounted for. What of the rest? The readings of Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor and I Had a Real Good Mother and Father capture Welch at her most intimate and raw; indeed, with the electrical noise that runs throughout the first and the general gauziness of the second, this is also — apparently — off-the-cuff, lo-fi Welch. Nevertheless, they work; the strength of the (traditional) material and the soft, unadorned performances make them among the album’s most compelling moments. No One Knows My Name (the Carter Family’s Motherless Children, with Welch’s own lyrics) is similarly effective, although a slightly bigger, more polished production.

I Made a Lover’s Prayer recalls the Ryan Adams of Heartbreaker, all mournful harmonica and flatpicked guitar. More of a mood than a song, it is perfect as the album’s penultimate track (although as we have noted, the payoff falls flat). Whether it needed to stretch itself over five minutes is another matter. One Little Song is something else again: Soul Journey’s finest, most indelible moment, and possibly the best song she’s written since Time (the Revelator). This is Welch at her sweetest, her most wry, rueful, optimistic, all at once. I know of no more perfect song about songwriting, or any kind of writing; about the fleeting satisfaction of having pulled something that you can be proud of for a while, until you’re hit by the realisation that you need to do it again, because that’s what writers do. Between them, Welch and T.S. Eliot have said everything there is to say about writing.

Welch first:

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
‘Cause everybody can’t have thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word, ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhymes

Now Eliot (from ‘East Coker’):

…and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

*

As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they’re really tiny rock songs. They’re just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments.

That’s been Welch’s standard line on what happened between Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (the Revelator) to make the latter album so distinct from the former. In a piece I wrote in the first few weeks of this blog (one I’m not too thrilled with in retrospect), I pointed to a slightly different phenomenon: Welch and Rawlings abandoned murder ballad-, mountain music-style lyrics and started writing lyrics that, while using plainspoken contemporary language, were slices out of the middle of a narrative, or were associative, meditative, hallucinatory and contemplative (I Dream a Highway is all of these things). They also reinstated verse-chorus forms, having largely abandoned them on Yearlings. This change of approach may simply have been the other side of the coin to Welch’s ‘going electric’ concept, but while that’s a cute phrase to feed an interviewer, it doesn’t really get at the substantial change in writing approach that had happened in the space of one album cycle.

Hell Among the Yearlings finds Welch and Rawlings running their original conception of their music into the ground. The majority of the songs are strophic in form, if not in lyric, and have eddying, incantatory, repeating melodies, with refrains rather than choruses. Perhaps this was a conscious attempt to bring greater authenticity to their writing, and when it works, the songs do draw strength from this employment of a cussed, nuggety form. Rock of Ages and (my favourite) Caleb Meyer are the strongest examples of this kind of thing – not coincidentally, they are the only songs from Yearlings to feature regularly in the setlists Welch and Rawlings played on their 2011 tour. I’m Not Afraid to Die is stark and haunting and is another top-class effort. But songs like Winter’s Come and Gone and Miner’s Refrain don’t quite cast the spells they attempting to; My Morphine is a little too studied to be truly spooky; One Morning’s lyrical conceit (dead soldier on horseback, turning up at his mother’s house in Lexington ‘as work I begun’, brought home by his horse — ah, bless) is closer to “End of the Trail”/El Cid kitsch than Welch perhaps realised, making the song unintentionally comic:

One mornin’, one mornin’ the boy of my breast
Came to my door unable to rest
Even in the arms of death.

Sorry, but no. This approach, this aesthetic, was misconceived, wrongheaded, juvenile even. Abandoning it was Welch’s artistic salvation. If she hadn’t done so, she’d have ended up down the same dead-end road as Cahoots-era Robbie Robertson.

So Hell Among the Yearlings, impoverished melodically by her own high standards and with a lyrical approach that too often comes over as gauche, is the only true failure in her canon, and even so it contains songs that would be career highlights for lesser talents. But the lesser albums of major talents are often as fascinating as their unqualified successes, and I revisit both albums as regularly as Time (the Revelator), an album so overwhelming it doesn’t seem to fit easily into daily life. It requires the time to listen to and absorb the whole thing. A few songs lifted from each of Yearlings and Soul Journey, added to some choice cuts from Revival and The Harrow & the Harvest, on the other hand, makes a perfect playlist.

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Gillian Welch, 2001