Monthly Archives: July 2014

That’s the Way Love Goes – Janet Jackson

I wasn’t a huge fan of this when it came out. Janet Jackson has never been a particularly commanding vocalist, and with That’s the Way Love Goes being sung softly against a very prominent groove, the record didn’t seem to contain much Jackson at all. I was, what, eleven at the time, without a good stereo of my own to listen to it on, so I only heard the song on little radios and in my parents’ car; with the low end being inaudible in that context, a lot of the point of the record was lost with it. And truth to tell, the song was thematically a bit adult for the 11-year-old me to really relate to.

Now, I find myself really taken with the sexy, unhurried groove. Musically, the track still contains traces of new jack swing (of which Jackson’s producers Jam and Lewis were early pioneers, along with Teddy Riley) but crossed with the more naturalistic (often sample-based) sounds of the then-infant genre of hip hop soul. The triplet swing is still hinted at, but the drum sound is more natural, more expensive-sounding, less brash, than it would have been in the late 1980s. Early NJS had used the Roland TR-808 to program complex, layered grooves that would have been very difficult if not impossible for a single human drummer to recreate. That’s the Way Love Goes samples its drums instead, from James Brown’s Papa Don’t Take No Mess, then augments them to make them bigger (the time stretched, quantised, heavily compressed and as a result somewhat shaky Brown groove is clearly audible in the mix though). It sounds more grown-up than true NJS had done; muted earth tones rather than stark primary colours.

The drums aren’t the only signifier of adult sophistication, though. The jazzy guitar, playing lead licks in parallel fourths on what sounds like a big-bodied archtop guitar (an updated Breezin’-style George Benson kind of thing) and chord voicings with 6ths and major 7ths, does much to define the mood of the record.

But ultimately, it’s Jackson’s voice – very confident and intimate, soft and gentle without leaning too heavily on the breathy half-whisper that was already a cliché in slow jams and bedroom records – that really sells it. It deservedly won her a Grammy for Best R&B Song; she’s won six Grammys in total, but That’s the Way Love Goes is the only one to win for songwriting. All things considered, it’s probably her best single, despite strong competition from her Control hits.

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The Best Sebadoh Record

Abstract
The best Sebadoh record is not III, not Bubble and Scrape, not Bakesale, Harmacy or The Sebadoh. It’s not Sebadoh vs Helmet or Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, either. There is no ‘best Sebadoh record’.

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Yesterday I picked up tickets for Sebadoh’s London show later this year. I’ve never seen them before and Lou Barlow was and remains a pretty major influence on me as a musician, so I’m fairly psyched about this. I caught the New Folk Implosion line-up at Reading in 2001 and they were really good, but that’s the only Barlow-related gig I’ve ever seen. The ‘Doh pulled out of Glastonbury 1999 (as did Elliott Smith, curse my luck), which was the only previous time I was going to see them. I avoided the resissue-promo/nostalgia tours. So this is it. Jason Loewenstein, new drummer Bob D’Amico and Lou Barlow, at Dingwalls. Yeah, looking forward to it.

So I’ve been listening to Sebadoh since Thursday, more than I have in a long, long time.

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on their catalogue and all I really need with each new record is one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all, a couple of songs to add an iTunes playlist. Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a better version of Morning’s After Me (the original was from the Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel multi-artist concept/compilation album) and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Yeah, he’s still got it.

Once you’re in this mindset, it changes the way you hear the back catalogue. You get less concerned with creating lists and taxonomies and Top 5s, and more with the overall shape of an artist’s career. You become aware, perhaps, that there are different accomplishments in music. I reckon Barlow’s one of the best songwriters of the last 25 years or so. He’s probably never written a genuinely great song (a Heard it through the Grapevine, a Strawberry Fields Forever, a Someone to Watch Over Me – something of that calibre), but he’s written dozens of really good ones. I’m not sure whether that’s a greater achievement than managing to focus all your talent into one flawless song. The pop fan in me says it isn’t; the rock fan says it is. No surprise there.

If he ever made a great album, I think it’s the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby, a sorely underrated record I’ve talked about here before. The nature of Sebadoh as a band, with its shifting line-ups and sometimes strained attempts to run itself as a democracy, always made it unlikely that they ever would make a sustained, consistent and great work of art. Lou was too likely to mawkishly overshare or indulge in another anti-Mascis rant; Eric Gaffney was too likely to come unglued (working out what distinguishes a good Gaffney song from a bad one is an entertaining, hilariously difficult enterprise) and unleash an Elixir is Zog rather than an Emma Get Wild.

For many old-school fans, this is the point of the band. Barlow’s songs don’t work without Gaffney’s, or Loewenstein’s. Repeat sentence, change the order the names appear in. Listening to the band is like listening to the White Album writ large; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the best stuff is made better by rubbing shoulders with the questionable. But fans are strangely apt to respond positively to one small era of the band’s history and disregard the rest. III is the oft-cited early 1990s lo-fi sprawlathon that launched a thousand home-taping imitations; Bubble & Scrape the last hurrah of the Gaffney era; Bakesale where the band turned up the drive on the guitars and Jason matured into a songwriter capable of providing an energetic, humorously aggressive foil to Barlow. But these fans, whether they champion III, Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale or, in those rare cases, Harmacy, will all agree that The Sebadoh was a stinker (I actually like it a lot) and that Bob Fay couldn’t drum, and they’ll usually have little time for what came after/before their favoured era, sometimes repudiating it entirely. The band have achieved elder-statesmen status now so the consensus opinion is mellowing a little, but 10 years ago there were a lot of former ‘Doh fans who didn’t want Barlow around reminding them of the confused awkward teenager they used to be when they listened to this stuff.

For me, that’s not what this band was about. If you like Sebadoh, how can you not appreciate Jason Loewenstein, who’s been a far more effective long-term foil to Barlow than Gaffney ever was? A punk rock kind of guy with a useful sideline in smoky ballads, latter-day band recording engineer and all-round decent dude, Loewenstein got stronger and stronger as the band went on. There’s no one record containing top-level work from the three principal songwriters who have been members, either because they weren’t in the band at the time, or because they had only just joined, or because they were just a kid drafted in at a moment’s notice. Many things made Sebadoh great, not all of them present at the same time, and so there’s no defining Sebadoh record, and neither is there a best one.

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Early Sebadoh: l-r Eric Gaffney, Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein

Dear Boy – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ram, released in the spring of 1971, is the highpoint of Paul’s Farmer McCartney phase. It’s not as home-spun and lo-fi as his debut, McCartney, and its mood is strange kind of low-key anger, giving it more kick than its predecessor. Too Many People sees the singer taking aim at those “preaching practices” (Lennon assumed McCartney was talking about him). Dear Boy, which we’ll get to shortly, takes someone to task for not appreciating what they had (Lennon, again, saw himself as the subject).

The early seventies saw McCartney in self-imposed exile on his farm in Scotland. Some biographers have suggested that Paul had a nervous breakdown during this time, while others have seen it more as an alcohol-fuelled episode of depression. The cover shows McCartney holding a ram by its horns; perhaps the subtext of this was less about his contentment with his lot up on his farm and more about what McCartney himself was wrestling with.

What I love about this album is how relaxed McCartney sounds, simply pleasing himself, while tackling weighty subjects and moods. None of the slightly forced jollity and cheap hookiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is here present, but the author’s lightness of touch (a trademark of his from And I Love Her onwards) is fully intact. The songs on Ram are as strong as anything he wrote in the latter days of the Beatles if you’re willing to meet them on their own terms and accept that they are designed to be minor pieces, not grand Hey Jude-style statements. And as always with McCartney, there are melodies here that lesser songwriters would kill to have written.

Yet Ram, famously, was not particularly well received by critics on its release (sample review from John Landau: “incredibly inconsequential… the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock thus far”; sample reviews by Robert Christgau: “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it” and “Ram is a bad record”).

This was blatant nonsense, and when I listen to the album I find it hard to believe that anyone with any sort of ear for music could fail so completely to get any of it. It seems like they must have been expecting McCartney to look outwards more in his early solo career – to address the world and its ills in the way Harrison and Lennon had. McCartney’s music must have seemed insular, whimsical and self-satisfied in comparison. But it’s not valid criticism to dismiss a work because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what a record should be. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in his essay on the Beach Boys, Retire the Fences, Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album. Ram seems to me as determinedly, modestly small-scale (and yes, as whimsical) as Paul Simon’s first solo record, which Christgau loved. So why the problem here?

Dear Boy – with its gorgeous harmonies and surprising chord change from Fmaj7 to Bmin7 in the verse – is my favourite track from the album, but there’s an awful lot to like here: the wonderfully daft Heart of the Country (“I want a horse, I want a sheep, I want to get me a good night’s sleep”); the proto-Waits Monkberry Moon Delight; the Beach Boys-esque Back Seat of My Car (though, in fact, the Beach Boys songs that this song most resembles all post-date Ram); the gnomic opening trio of Too Many People, 3 Legs and Ram On.

A recent double-album reissue and accompanying rapturous reviews. Jayson Greene’s 9.2 review in Pitchfork was typical in its assessment of the record’s overall quality, but atypically shrewd in its view of Linda McCartney’s role in them:

The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.

We live in twee-er times than the early 1970s, so perhaps the massive rise in critical and fan esteem for Ram is simply a consequence of that, but open-eared listeners (which is to say, the public, who voted in pound sterling, and sent it to the top of the album chart) understood all along.

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Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

I wanted to make a really quintessential southern California pop record from the 70s. We made it in our buddy’s basement in Boston on all vintage equipment.

Mandy Moore on her 2009 album, Amanda Leigh

Negotiating the jump from child star to adult artist is difficult. Many have been unable to pull it off. The better known you have been, the harder it is. It’s perhaps lucky for Mandy Moore that she wasn’t a Britney-sized success in the early noughties. In fact, Moore’s debut album, So Real, was received by older commentators, and tacitly by its intended audience, as a rather pathetic attempt by Epic Records to get product out into a marketplace redefined by Britney and Christina. The album peaked at a mere number 31 in the US. In the pop landscape of 1999, where promotional blitzes ensured that albums peaked high in the first week and then dropped away quickly, that was pretty close to being embarrassing. Moore was a second-division teen-pop star at best.

Flash forward 10 years to 2009. Moore released Amanda Leigh, her fifth album and second since her reinvention as a singer-songwriter inspired by the usual giants of the early 1970s: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, and so on. By now she was engaged to Ryan Adams and there was an audible country tinge to her work, too, albeit filtered through a chamber-pop aesthetic that sometimes recalled nothing so much as R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (she had duetted with Michael Stipe on a cover of God Only Knows for a film soundtrack a couple of years previously, so perhaps the resemblance was intended). Moore declared – perhaps only semi jokingly – that she’d be willing to give a refund to anyone who’d bought either of her first two records.

So is Moore’s story is a journey from ephemeral teen pop to ephemeral NPR rock? That’s a long way from the whole story. There’s a lot to like on Amanda Leigh. The production is a little too glossy – the compression a touch too obvious, the vocal and instrument sounds a touch too hyped and brittle in the upper ranges – to really make the album sound quite the way I imagine Moore wanted it to, but there’s two or three absolutely lovely ballads on this record. Everblue (co-written with Lori McKenna) is built on subdued, melancholy electric piano, a floor-tom drum part and warm bass guitar that carries the song with fat, sustained root notes. The guitar part on Song About Home explicitly quotes Joni Mitchell’s Woman of Heart and Mind, and the woodwind has a distinctly For the Roses vibe too. Moore and her co-writer and producer Mike Viola have done their homework; when Moore first dabbled with seventies singer-songwriterhood on her 2003 covers album, her song choices (Help Me, Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, I Feel the Earth Move, Moonshadow) didn’t suggest deep knowledge of the style. But someone who’s dug deep enough into this thing to be quoting Tom Scott bass clarinet lines is someone I can do business with.

Still, Merrimack River is the obvious highlight. I first came across it on a live video linked to from the AV Club (the Onion‘s film, TV and music review site). It was just Viola and Moore: one guitar, two voices, lacking the elegantly pensive string arrangement that decorates the studio version. Nonetheless the song was obviously a stunner, with a lovely chorus and enough chewy chord changes in the verse to reward repeat listening. The recorded version is a strange mix – the continuous background hum of the amplified acoustic guitar is an oddly lo-fi touch; the vocals have been rather obviously primped and possibly tuned, and the deep breaths and catches in Moore’s voice are a sometimes-distracting hangover from her pop days – but there is so much audible delight being taken by Moore in the wideness of this song’s emotional territory that it’s quite disarming.

I’m less struck on the Rundgren-/Nilsson-esque single I Could Break Your Heart Any Day, where the double-tracked Moore vocal is annoyingly chipmunk-like, but still, there’s a decent hit rate here. Inevitably, though, the record didn’t get the audience it deserved. ‘Serious’ music fans were sceptical of an adult-alternative move by a former pop star turned (part-time) singer-songwriter (and it’s not as if AAA is a genre that gets automatic critical respect), and Moore didn’t really have that many old fans to pull along with her into her new venture. But it’s worth noting that Mr Mandy Moore – the aforementioned David Ryan Adams – hasn’t written a song this good in a decade.

mandy moore live

The author’s own 1970s-style singer-songwriter doings:

Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 2

Tigermilk starts with the Belle and Sebastian ur-text and one of their greatest songs: The State I Am In. If you’re curious about the band, have a listen to this shaggy dog story of a song. Your response will tell you whether they are for you or not.

Over the quietest of strummed chords, in the softest of singing voices, Stuart Murdoch delineates the boundaries of his lyrical world and his approach to writing – a combination of knowing ambiguity and mundane specificity – in just a few lines.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995
My brother had confessed that he was gay
It took the heat off me for a while
He stood up with a sailor friend
Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day

I heard this song for the first time in 1999, when Tigermilk was released on CD, and was knocked out by it. By this time, Belle and Sebastian were already indie favourites in Britain, big enough for kids like me to know about them without having to work too hard. My enthusiasm for the band was shared by a couple of close friends, but not by my wider social circle, who found them twee, precious and wimpy. My girlfriend Mel also finds them twee and precious, and doesn’t get why I like them (or why I’m writing this post).

Belle and Sebastian were an aural palate cleanser for me then. I’d spent my younger teens listening obsessively to American grunge and alternative rock music, and while I still wanted music played primarily on guitars (I was — am — a guitar player), I needed something other than angry guys screaming and playing loud and hard all the time. I was getting it anywhere I could find it. Belle and Sebastian were just one source.

But what does this music say to me now?

When you listen to music from your youth as an adult, it can be hard to listen objectively. Every song on Belle and Sebastian’s first three albums calls up memories for me. Walking to school; sitting at the side of a public tennis court with my friend in the summer holidays waiting for my turn to play a few games; being driven by my dad to my grandfather’s funeral; walking home from Southend town centre on a cold Sunday evening not long before Christmas; writing a philosophy essay for my theology A Level course. I listened to this band a lot for about a year and a half while at sixth form and pretty much stopped when I got to university. I have almost no adult memories tied up with this band.

I put I Could Be Dreaming on my iPod on the way to work the other day and it was glorious. Belle and Sebastian songs have a tendency towards the brisk. It’s part of their charm, as it makes their songs come over like over-excited kids, an impression strengthened by their primary-colour chord changes and simple arrangements, with Grade III-level touches on cello and trumpet. I Could Be Dreaming drops the school-music-lesson instruments and replaces them with a couple of lightly overdriven electric guitars and some beautifully cheesy 1970s synthesiser and beat-group organ. The group’s playing is spirited. The song is at a tempo that faces drummer Richard Colburn with that tricky decision: do you play propulsive eighth notes on the hats or looser, swinging quarters? He went with the quavers, giving the song an oddly Krautrockian feel; Neu! relocated to the Glasgow suburbs. The twee-est group of the nineties end the song having built up a surprising head of steam; Stevie Jackson thrashes away and Colburn bashes his cymbals, while someone (Isobel Campbell?) reads out a chunk from Rip Van Winkle.

Tigermilk is a fine album throughout, with only one misstep, Electronic Renaissance — not a bad song as such, but one that could scarcely be more out place, with its Boys of Summer drum machine pattern and Pet Shop Boys synthesisers. But even great songs like I Could Be Dreaming are not without their flaws. Something about Murdoch’s lyrics, which I used to think were brilliant, now rub me the wrong way. Other people’s sexual confusion, physical abuse by a partner or sexual abuse as a child are invoked in startlingly throwaway fashion, as if Murdoch’s unaware these things do happen to real people, and that they are not trivial events or mere grist to Murdoch’s lyrical mill. He sounds, being blunt, like a child trying to seem grown up, or a sheltered young man trying to seem wordly. But he was, still, a (fairly) young man then, possibly not knowing too much of where he wrote, and this tendency is less marked in what I’ve heard in his later songs.

This lyrical weakness aside, Tigermilk still sounds charming to me, and stronger than the two albums that followed it in quick succession. If You’re Feeling Sinister is hampered by too many songs of one tempo and key (E) and a drop-off in the album’s home straight (I really don’t get the high regard in which Judy and the Dream of Horses is held). The Boy With the Arab Strap, meanwhile, has some absolute belters (Dirty Dream Number Two, the title track), some charmers (Is it Wicked Not to Care?, A Summer Wasting) and some unbelievable dreck (Chickfactor). So I’d recommend Tigermilk as the only Belle and Sebastian you need to get if you’re only mildly curious, but B&S don’t tend to attract that many casual fans — rather, an equal proportion of haters and devotees who base their worldviews and aesthetics on their favourite band’s. Years after I last listened to them seriously, I can still hear why.

Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 1

This is Stowe School.

stowe house

Stowe is a private school in Buckinghamshire in England, opened in 1923. It’s based in Stowe House, which was built by Sir Richard Temple in the late 1700s. The Temples were an enterprising bunch. As each son married shrewdly (that is, married an heiress), they became first the Grenville-Temples, then the Nugent-Temple-Grenvilles, and by the late 1800s the Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenvilles. Really. The really smart members of the aristocracy have always known there is more to be gained from making a good marriage than raising an army.

When I was about 16 and my friend told me that about a band called Belle and Sebastian, he told me that they formed at a school called ‘Stowe’. I didn’t know what Stowe looked like or where it was, but I knew there was a fancy public school called Stowe. I heard Stuart Murdoch’s wispy, somewhat feminine voice, clocked the band’s name (Belle and Sebastian was known to my generation as a rather lame anime that had been shown on Children’s BBC and was based on some French children’s novel that no one I knew had ever read), and figured I had the measure of them as upper-class, foppish and effete.

I’ve harked on before for the benefit of our younger readers how different the world was when you couldn’t necessarily find out anything you wanted to know after 60 seconds of Google searching. What I didn’t know (as if there was only one thing! I didn’t know) was that Stowe School was not the same as Stow College.

This is Stow College (now Glasgow Kelvin College):

stow college

From listening to the band properly I soon grasped that their actual milieu was Glasgow, and possibly the seedier end of it. They had made their first recordings at Stow for the students on the college’s Beatbox course. The school’s record label, Electric Honey, was run by Ken McCluskey from the Bluebells, Douglas McIntyre from Creeping Bent and Alan Rankine from the Associates. Several of the founding band members (Stuart Murdoch, Stuart David and Stevie Jackson) were already in their mid-twenties. Stuart David was only on the Beatbox course on pain of losing unemployment benefit.

Electric Honey usually released a single at the end of the academic year, but Belle and Sebastian had enough for an album. So out came Tigermilk in 1995, selling out its 1000-copy run by word of mouth and bringing them to the attention of fledgling London-based indie Jeepster, who picked them up as their first signing, and released the group’s second record, If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), which seems to have become the consensus ‘best’ B&S album.

It’s not, I think. I like Tigermilk and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) far more.

In part 2, we’ll get into why Tigermilk is the the Belle and Sebastian album you should hear if you’re not familiar with the band.

 

The Persistence of Sentiment by Mitchell Morris

I picked up Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment from the new Foyles the other day. Subtitled Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s, it’s a book about some of those artists and genres of 1970s pop that have devoted followings but not critical respect; that are guilty pleasures, so to speak, even for many who do like them.

This kind of discussion is right up my street. Soft soul and disco are both discussed in the context of Barry White (and to a lesser extent Barry Manilow), as is the music of the Carpenters. Soft soul and disco are long-standing favourites of mine, and Karen Carpenter is, I think, one of the greatest singers we’ve had in the recorded-music era. The best feature of modern critical discourse around music is that having had the chance easily to get hold of any music they want – by means legal and illegal – modern rock critics are very catholic in their listening, open to anything. As a young lad, I welcomed a gatekeeper telling me that, say, Steely Dan were awful. It meant that I didn’t need to spend my own money to find that out (only later did I find out how 180-degrees wrong that assessment was and that having gatekeepers dictate what art you should or shouldn’t consume is fundamentally problematic). So while I might argue the extent to which, say, the Carpenters are still seen as kitsch or as a guilty pleasure by anybody, there was no way I wasn’t going to buy this book once I picked it up off the shelf.

Morris is an associate professor of musicology at the University of California, so his book is understandably strong on the formal analysis of his subjects’ work (you don’t get notation transcriptions of the music being discussed in much mainstream pop criticism), but what’s most impressive is the multi-disciplinary nature of Morris’s approach. He’s alive to the intersection of music and history, and how it was lived by different segments of the record-buying audience (his analysis of the social and political contexts of this music in the introductory chapter is wide-ranging and very astute), and he’s at home deploying the terminology of literary as well as musical analysis. Letting my biases out into the open for a second, this is the kind of music criticism we need. It’s a shame that this is being marketed expressly as an academic work and isn’t going to make it into the average high-street Waterstones.

I’m particularly grateful to Morris for giving us a useful term to deploy in my own work. Discussing the differences between symphonic music, opera, art song and the other kinds of ‘high’ music of the European classical tradition on the one hand and pop song on the other, he uses the term ‘modest songs’ as a blanket term for the pop songs of the recorded-music era and the folk and parlour songs of the 19th century and earlier. It’s a term he uses in a purely descriptive way, not as a value judgement.

We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitment as music scholars have been the strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day… The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse – they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.

Morris articulates this more clearly than anyone I’ve ever read, and my sympathies tend always to lie with critics who treat all kinds of art just the same, who recognise no artificial “high” or “low” distinctions between works. I haven’t finished The Persistence of Sentiment yet, but what I’ve read so far is pretty extraordinary.

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