Monthly Archives: June 2014

I Think He’s Hiding – Randy Newman

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with extra days at work and such, and I’m going to be even more pushed for time over the next week or so. I’m heading home tomorrow morning to sunny Essex for the always-excellent Leigh Folk Festival so my usual Sunday post is going to have to be early. Next Friday I’m heading to Umbria with Mel for a long weekend of hilltop villages and awesome food. I’ll post something on Wednesday or Thursday before I go, but then you’ll be on your own until the following Wednesday or Thursday when I’m back and settled back into a normal working routine. In the meantime, I’m aware I’m falling back on favourite artists I’ve written about before, but it helps me to keep up a reasonable pace if I can write about something I’ve already listened to many times and digested properly. And any great artist deserves whole books, not just a couple of blog posts! I could write about some of these folks every week for a year, although I don’t know how many of you would still be here if I did.

Randy Newman has no heir in popular music. He stands alone. There may be songwriters who are funny, some who have his sense of the grotesque (Tom Waits owes his post-Swordfish career to just one Newman song: Davy the Fat Boy); there are people who can write orchestra movie soundtracks, others who can write one-off title songs to order. Newman can do it all. And of the funny songwriters, there’s none funnier, not Steely Dan, not 10CC, not Terry Allen, not Warren Zevon (perhaps the closest rock has come to a second Randy Newman, though he had nothing like the musical range of the original), and certainly not those who explicitly set themselves up as comic songwriters.

As the late Ian McDonald argued, Newman’s first album, from 1968, finds him already fully formed as an artist. The control of the orchestra was there. The talent for satire was there. The compression of meaning and incident into viable rock lyrics was there. It won him the instant admiration of his peers. They all seemed to appreciate that this guy was doing something they couldn’t, and many tried recording his songs. Harry Nilsson, who didn’t need to take songwriting lessons off anyone, cut a whole album’s worth.

But his songs defy those who would cover them. As good as Newman’s words are on paper, they come alive in performance, but only his performance can bring them to their full potential. As croaky and ungainly as his voice may be on a technical level, he’s alive to every possibility of the phrasing and delivery in the words he writes.

In the early seventies, Clive James wrote a series of columns about rock music for Cream magazine, concentrating mainly on lyrics. He tackled Dylan, the Beatles, Sandy Denny, the Band, Randy Newman and Van Morrison among others. His highest praise, in terms of lyrics, was reserved for the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Newman. I’ll leave the analysis to him: he’s covers it all, more clearly than I could.

Consider I Think He’s Hiding: Newman has got his attentive absorption of cliché and his definitive sense of order both working at once. The clichés, delivered in a voice strangling with piety, create a world of pin-brained religious fear and smug certitude. The redeemer, alias the Big Boy, is called upon to return and sort the elect from the damned. But underneath the cretinous invocation of the holy name, Newman’s irony is subversively at work. ‘Come on Big Boy,’ sings the narrator: ‘Come and save us.’ There is a flurry of melisma on the word ‘save’, giving an idiotic air of devotions confidently sung in church or synagogue. ‘Come and look at what we’ve done,’ he adds, and we can hear Newman’s own judgements coming to the fore – he isn’t entirely impressed with mankind’s achievements. But there’s a capper: ‘With what you gave us.’ So the fault’s the Big Boy’s. After all, it’s the Big Boy who’s claiming to be omnipotent.

James is not going overboard here. Everything that he finds in the lyric is in there, and that’s a hell of a lot of content. Most impressively, Newman’s not beating us over the head with 10-dollar words; there isn’t one word in the verse he quotes with more than one syllable.

Newman’s solo albums would never again be as orchestrated, as 1940s-sounding, as his debut; from his second album onwards, he’d work within an idiom that more obviously had something to do with rock music. Yet his lyrics would remain as sharp for at least a decade, slackening only at the end of the seventies. And even after that, he retained the power to shock and surprise, as on, for example, Trouble in Paradise’s Christmas In Cape Town, another in a long line of devastating anti-racism songs. I’ve written about that album elsewhere. Click here for more Newman talk.

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Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

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Will You Love Me Tomorrow – Ronnie & the Prophets (Gerry Goffin, 1939-2014)

Gerry Goffin, lyricist, died on Thursday. He was 75. With his first wife, Carole King, Goffin co-wrote some of the finest popular songs of all time: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Natural Woman, Up on the Roof, Wasn’t Born to Follow, and many more. As such, he was one of the key architects of pre-Beatles pop.

Plenty of people have sung Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and the song has proven adaptable to any number of treatments: the Shirelles’ original paired Shirley Owens’s vulnerable vocal with a perky backing track; Carole King’s own version pared it down to piano and vocal; Dave Mason from Traffic layered phased acoustic guitars and organ over a half-time feel; the Four Seasons’ take on the song is quite, quite mad (diminished chords, incredibly ornate harmonies, electric sitar, verses consisting of single bass notes/bass drum, with a cavernous echo); Laura Branigan’s went for melodrama, taking it even more slowly than King did on Tapestry and underpinning her skyscraping vocal with 1980s synth pad and slightly ersatz gospel piano. I could go on

All of these recordings have their merits. The song is damn near indestructible, after all, and contains maybe the best lyric Gerry Goffin ever wrote. But none of them have what I think of as the song’s ideal arrangement. Shirley Owens’s vocal is certainly one of the best, but the emotion of her performance is undercut by the sha-la-las and the bouncy piano and drums. King sang her own song already knowing it was a classic, and it shows; the tempo is on the draggy side of stately and, being blunt, her voice was never up to the task. Mason is somewhat oleaginous, although his arrangement (half-time verse, double-time bridge) was definitely on to something.

So whose version to listen to, if you only have room in your life for one?

Maybe Ronnie James Dio’s?

Don’t laugh.

Ronnie James Dio, heavy-metal vocalist known for popularising the devil-horns hand gesture, lead singer of Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio, began his career in music in the 1950s as a trumpeter, then a doo-wop singer with a buttery tenor. One of the best-known yarlers in the business, Dio was capable of singing beautifully if the mood took him, and when he sang Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1962 with his band Ronnie & the Prophets, he sang it about it as well as anyone ever has. It’s a simple recording, not much more than a demo, but stripping down the arrangement of the Shirelles’ original gave the vocal more space (without having to slow the tempo) and allowed the words to resonate. In response, Dio delivered a quite lovely performance. I would really love to have a high-quality version of it, as the one I have sounds like it’s been taken straight from an acetate, or at best a much-played 7-inch. Just don’t think of the Holy Diver video while listening to it, or it’ll spoil the effect somewhat.

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Ronnie James Dio and his Prophets

Reassurance EP – Ross Palmer

Hi all. It’s time to push my own work on you again!

Recently I took an old recording of a very old song, put a new live drum track on it, added some extra guitars, an organ part and some harmonies and polished up the mix. The song is called Reassurance, and it is old. I wrote it when I was 20 and at university (I’m 32 now!), but as it was the first song I wrote that I thought had something about it (and people I played it to responded to it as if that were the case), it’s always been one I’m fond of. It had a Fred Neil influence in the chorus and a bit of an Elliott Smith thing in the verses. Anyway, I was going through some archive recordings to play for my girlfriend Mel, and it struck me that this recording of it I did four or five years ago had quite a decent vocal (it’s a hard song to sing, both technically and emotionally – it’s easy to get too fierce in the choruses), so I decided to polish it up and get rid of the awful drum programming (the recording was made before I’d started to learn how to record or play drums).

It’s not a song I’d want to put on an album simply because of its age, but the recording seemed worth sharing with people. So I’ve made it the title track of a 4-song EP that I put up on Bandcamp last night. The other songs include the previously released Little Differences (which is a West Coast, Fleetwood Mac type of thing), That’s Not You (which is more 1990s alternative, and has some properly distorted guitars – I love recording distorted guitars!), and Teach Me to Believe, which I wrote for Mel, early on in our relationship (it’s an old-school voice-and-guitar piece, with only an overdubbed solo and harmony).

You can download Reassurance here, either individual songs or the whole thing. It’s a name-your-price download — but if you want it for nothing, it’ll ask you for an email address. Don’t worry. I won’t spam you about gigs you can’t possibly go to because you live in Azerbaijan. I’ll keep it to updates about new songs and recordings and such.

Take care now. I’ll be back tomorrow with a normal post on something or other. In the meantime, enjoy your Saturday and I hope you like the EP.

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The beautiful artwork by Yo Zushi, long-time comrade-in-arms and champion of the song!

We’re All Alone – The Walker Brothers

This post was previously published on Yo Zushi’s Board of Fun blog, about 18 months ago. Hope you like it!

We’re All Alone was a standard almost the minute that Boz Scaggs finished writing it. Released on his masterwork, Silk Degrees, in 1976, within a year it had been covered by Frankie Valli, Bruce Murray, Rita Coolidge, the Three Degrees and the Walker Brothers. It’s been covered plenty more times since.

It’s easy to see what would attract a singer to such a song, but Scott Walker is no ordinary singer and in light of his work since The Electrician remade his career in 1978, one does have to wonder whether he sang the song with his arm twisted behind his back. Nonetheless the Walkers’ version is one of the most appealing, the track mixed drier and closer than the cavernous Scaggs version, Scott’s vocal managing to combine the warmth that Coolidge’s alto brought to the song with some of the soaring lightness of Boz’s performance.

Such AOR covers are not what Scott Walker is known for today. To the extent that he is known at all, it’s for his quartet of solo albums from the late 1960s — Scotts 1 through 4 — and the three arty, avant-rock albums he’s made since the Walkers broke up for the second time, a sound that was previewed on his contributions (including The Electrician) to the last Walker Brothers record, Nite Flights. These records are apt to leave reviewers groping for superlatives or scratching their heads.

Like many others, I often feel humbled in the presence of latter-day Scott Walker. His work is clearly that of a rare imagination and aesthetic sensibility. He creates music that wouldn’t occur to most people, and his sonic curiosity is obvious. Yet while prettiness and beauty are not the same thing, they’re not mutually exclusive either and since his music began moving away from conventional tonality, melody and rhythm in the 1990s, Walker has paradoxically limited his scope as a songwriter. For him to present a straightforward expression of an everyday feeling, like love, hope or empathy, in the declamatory, highly theatrical voice he has sung in since Tilt would be ridiculous; he knows it, so he doesn’t.

But people (myself included) like music that expresses of love, hope and empathy. Walker’s writing is now so ornate, so stagey (“Samuel Beckett at La Scala”, as one critic described it), that it can no longer be a vehicle for reflection on the small moments in life, the minor disappointments and simple consolations. Death, disease, pestilence, terrorism, the fathomless horror of existence — these are the subjects he’s left himself. And while that is radical subject matter within popular music (at least, outside of thrash and death metal), surely what would be truly radical would be a sensibility that allowed for both The Cockfighter and covers of We’re All Alone? That treated both the same? I’m not being conservative here; I’m not arguing that he should stop recording the sound of himself punching dead animal carcasses; I like that, too. Tilt and The Drift are excellent records. But his first producer, John Franz, was right when he judged Walker one of the great ballad singers and it’s a shame that we no longer get to hear him do something he was so good at.

Yet Walker is on his own little-travelled path — from teen idol to intrepid adventurer in form and sound — and it’s reassuring to know that such journeys can be made by anyone, wherever they start from. I’m looking forward to hearing the found-sound records that Justin Bieber will no doubt be making in 2050.

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Scott Walker

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 2

Previously — our author hears What’s the Frequency Kenneth by R.E.M., wonders what the hell it all means

R.E.M., it’s safe to say, had not gone collectively mad. Several things had happened since Automatic for the People. The band had decided that, if they were going to tour, it might be good to have some bigger, louder, more arena-ready material to take with them. Bill Berry in particular had been keen to make a louder record after Out of Time, but all their strongest material was acoustic, so they recorded that instead and didn’t tour behind the album. This time round, though, he was insisting the band plug back in and turn it up. Finally, and here we’re into the realms of speculation, the emergence of Nirvana et al. over 1991 and 1992 had created a very different environment to the one in which R.E.M. had last been a working ‘rock’ band; this one was more sympathetic to them, indeed looked to them as inspiration, and they likely felt eager to align themselves with it. That Cobain died in the middle of the Monster sessions doubtless put a crimp on this, but it seems reasonable to guess it was part of their thinking when they began.

Monster‘s basic tracks were cut by Scott Litt and David Colvin on a soundstage in Atlanta, with overdubs added at Criteria in Florida, Ocean Way in LA, and Kingsway in New Orleans. This was a big-budget, protracted process, and the finished album suggests a degree of overthinking. A natural response to the idea of a making a road-ready rock album would have been to cut the album essentially live, add just the minimum of overdubs, and mix it so that the vocals were perhaps a touch sunken in, with the bass and drums forward and the guitars (maybe one each side to reflect the fact that the band would tour with a second guitarist) left to glue everything together.

That’s not quite what Monster is. The guitars, on the louder tracks, are thrust to the very front of the mix, making the rhythm section sound tiny in comparison, and leaving Stipe near inaudible. The latter is not a big deal; R.E.M. had made a lot of records at the start of their career where Stipe’s vocal was low in the mix and there’s plenty of precedent for low-mixed vocals in rock, from prime-era Stones onwards. But a rock album where the bass and drums aren’t providing the tracks’ energy and ‘push’ is not likely to be wholly satisfying. Now, whether Litt and the band decided to spotlight Buck rather than Berry because the latter’s drum tracks didn’t quite come up to snuff or (more likely) because they ‘big guitars’ was the fashionable thing to do, who can say. Litt, in any case, is not a producer noted for his work with heavy bands. But it’s noticeable how much more depth and power the drums have at the start of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (track 4) than they do on the previous three songs, simply because they’re not competing with a big wall o’Buck.

So the sound of Monster isn’t that of a straightforward rock album. But neither are the songs straightforward rock songs, in either form or content. Many critics of R.E.M. have noted that their songs often lacked really strong choruses, a strange quality given that this band was once arguably the biggest in the world. This observation is overstated on the whole, and it misses the point that R.E.M. songs work by the accretion of one small hook after another, rather than by having one big killer chorus (although they’ve done that too on occasion). But Monster does have a few songs that seem to deflate a bit they get to the chorus; Star 69 and Bang and Blame are the biggest offenders, the latter really suffering because of how promising the verse is.

That’s not true of all of its tracks, though. If Monster is, Kenneth apart, better in its softer moments (I Don’t Sleep, I Dream; Strange Currencies; and Tongue, a falsetto soul ballad that succeeds in spite of the fact that Stipe is not Al Green), its last third is its strongest. I Took Your Name, with Stipe’s arch Iggy Pop-as-corporate-drone vocal, takes the sawing tremolo guitar from Crush With Eyeliner but puts it to more intriguing use, without Thurston Moore stunt casting; Let Me In – the band’s Kurt Cobain tribute – has a beautiful, incandescent distorted guitar sound and Stipe’s most plaintive and emotionally direct vocal on the record; Circus Envy thins out the guitars and lets Bill Berry push the song on, which challenge he responds to; and album closer, You, combines a thumping floor-tom rhythm with a throbbing D-minor guitar drone and an eastern-tinged riff, finishing the album on an ominous, ambiguous note.

Monster functions as a conceptual unity, too, with song after song about the nature and fluidity of identity and sexuality, Stipe’s lyrics often seeming to run counter to the music, so that one seems to be a commentary on the other. It’s worth bearing in mind the difficulty of the task Stipe was faced with in writing lyrics for a rock album after two widely praised but often sombre and meditative records. The band may have been able to take a cue here and there from their contemporaries, but Stipe couldn’t have borrowed another writer’s idiom (whether that writer had been Eddie Vedder, Thurston Moore, Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, or anyone) without it being utterly crass and inappropriate. He had to define his own themes and style for this record, and he more or less completely succeeded. That was no small achievement.

Yet Monster will forever be known as the record that second-hand shops won’t touch; the record that 4 million people bought and 4 million people sold back. It wasn’t the triumph that Automatic was, and it’s not as various as New Adventures in Hi-Fi (on which, as a bonus, the band does sound more like a band), but it deserves a way better rep than it currently has. There probably won’t be too many ‘Monster at 20′ retrospectives this year, but if there are, let’s hope they give an undervalued and brave record a fair shake.

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This is a picture of Michael Stipe and Cher – does there have to be a reason?

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 1

I’m old enough that I can remember the original releases of albums that are now marking their 20-year anniversaries. Some of you reading this will no doubt be thinking, ‘Cry me a river, Mr So Deep’. And sure, we all hit that point eventually, but it doesn’t make it any more welcome.

I remember Monster coming out. I remember What’s the Frequency, Kenneth, too. I’d liked everything I’d heard by R.E.M. up to that point (the singles off Automatic for the People and Out of Time, plus, I later surmised, Stand, Orange Crush and The One I Love, since I recognised those songs when I first heard Document and Green in their entireties), so I was expecting more of that nice big-hearted acoustic rock music, music that was sometimes whimsical, sometimes solemn, but that pulled off the trick of being emotionally generous without being drippy, and tuneful without being trite.

Instead I got a shaven-headed Michael Stipe bouncing around while gabbling a – to me – incomprehensible lyric centred around a repeating question that I couldn’t answer (being 12 and British, I hadn’t heard the Dan Rather story, or of Dan Rather himself) over heavily distorted guitar chords.

Had R.E.M. gone collectively mad? It seemed a legitimate question to ask.

At 12, I hadn’t heard much alternative rock music, and Kenneth seemed harsh and impenetrable. What rock music I’d heard was, I guess, older 1970s stuff (Queen, maybe) or glossy 1980s LA metal. The former tended not to feature great big walls of rhythm guitar, out of which details struggled to make themselves known; the latter kept its distorted guitar tracks under control and never let them tread on the vocals. So Kenneth was initially an alienating and — later, for the same reasons — fascinating artefact to me. It was still recognisably a pop song, with little hooks that got into me and wouldn’t go away (the ‘uh huh’s; Peter Buck’s extreme tremolo guitars in the choruses), but it took time to reveal itself to me; there are still lyrics I’m unsure of. A month later, Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol came out, shortly after that I heard my brother’s copy of Nevermind for the first time and suddenly distorted guitars seemed to be everywhere in my life.

This is the result of having been a bit too young when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out – the real era of the loud guitar had been and gone already. My first exposure to the music of Nirvana came when they played a clip from Unplugged on Top of the Pops the week Cobain killed himself, so I hadn’t initially associated Nirvana with heavy rock music. Really.

I started playing guitar — rather, I started saving up to buy a guitar — after a friend of mine showed me how to play the Teen Spirit chords. At that point I became a self-defined fan of US rock above and beyond any other kind of music. But earning £11 a week from a paper round, records also had to be saved up for (or scavenged from the library) so what I chose to purchase had to be something I was confident I’d really like. The works of Nirvana first, those of R.E.M. second. I felt I could trust these guys not to let me down.

Monster would have been the third R.E.M. album I got my hands on, after Out of Time (for Losing My Religion) and Automatic. Piecing together what biographical info I could, I surmised that the band had been around 10 years or so already and had influenced bands like Nirvana, who in turn seemed to have influenced Monster. Nonetheless, the jump from Find the River to Kenneth seemed big. Monster was an album that took a long time for me to work out.

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R.E.M. in 1994. New looks for Mike Mills and Michael Stipe; Bill Berry the same as ever; Peter Buck with worse hair and more beer