Monthly Archives: February 2015

Still No Clapton, Part 3 – Harder Now that it’s Over by Ryan Adams

Nearly fifteen years after its release, Ryan Adams’s Gold stands as a salutary reminder to rock journalists that they should take a breath before they reach for their superlatives. I’ve dug this quote out before but I will once again, just because of how much it amuses me: “Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Ryan Adams in 2002.

It’s also a reminder to me – not to trust anyone else’s opinion of art other than my own. Gold seemed to 19-year-old me slightly flat, slightly antisepetic, after Heartbreaker, which I really did love, but I swallowed my doubts and persisted. It had to be a great record, right? After all, a significant corner of the British rock press had dedicated itself to documenting Adams’s every pronouncement after it dropped, trumpeting him as Dylan’s heir, Springsteen’s, Neil Young’s even, all at once.

All very silly.

But while Gold might cause me a momentary pang of nostalgia-tinged embarrassment, it still has its charms, and Harder Now that it’s Over is among them. Documenting an apparently real episode where an ex-girlfriend of Adams’s was arrested over a fracas in a bar, Harder Now that it’s Over is a fairly straightforward Neil Young homage, with a killer solo by producer Ethan Johns.

Johns, son of the even more famous producer Glyn (Stones, Who, Zep, Beatles, Band, Eagles), is a talented guy. As well as production, and presumably at least some of the engineering, he’s credited on Gold with (deep breath): drums, electric guitar, chamberlain strings, lead guitar, Hammond B-3, background vocals, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, mandocello, vibes, string arrangement, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, bass, electric piano, celeste, harmonium and congas. In fact, he started his career in music as a studio drummer with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and Fish from Marillion, and his drumming is certainly fine on Harder Now that it’s Over: nicely loose (Ringo loose, not Billy Talbot loose, though he cribs Talbot’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down kick pattern), with plentiful use of ghost strokes, and a soulful feel.

But it’s the solo that stands out. Johns’ break on Harder Now that it’s Over is at the end of the song*, so it has to do a lot of the track’s emotional heavy lifting; it’s the climax, it has to round things off, and in a way comment upon what’s gone before it. On such an occasion, a guitarist can’t merely go through his or her favourite licks. Beginning with a succession of simple 2- and 3-note phrases, Johns then throws in a little double-stop phrase before a beautiful, bluesy phrase, demonstrating enviable string-bending and vibrato techniques, as well as a gift for phrasing. His playing reminds me of David Lindley’s work with Jackson Browne, and praise comes no higher. But we’ll get to Lindley, in a few days.

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Ethan Johns

*It’s more or less at the end of the song. Adams comes back in to sing the words “I’m sorry” three times, but essentially the song’s done once Johns finishes playing

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Still No Clapton, Part 2 – To Kingdom Come by The Band

This is an article about Robbie Robertson the guitar player rather than Robbie Robertson the songwriter. And so I’m obliged to start with Dylan’s quote about his one-time sideman:

The only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound

I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to the Band’s music. How many times have I listened to The Band and Northern Lights, Southern Cross? 50, 80, 100 times each? If you add in the number of times I’ve listened to the 1966 Dylan/Hawks set from Manchester Free Trade Hall, I may have as many as 500 hours or so on just this one group. I know the Band’s music well, I know Robertson’s playing well. I still have no idea what Dylan was driving at.

Playing with Dylan, Robertson’s solos were apt to be scrappy and messy. He bit hard into notes, and played without much vibrato. If he played one note and held it, you wouldn’t think, Ah, yes, the tone and control of a natural lead guitar player, as you would with, say, David Gilmour. Robertson’s attack, the lack of refinement, was the whole point. As Barney Hoskyns noted in Across the Great Divide, there has always been something of the enthusiastic amateur in Robertson’s playing.

The step change in his style occurred during the recording of The Basement Tapes. Partly because he’d played enough solos to last him a lifetime and partly because of the discipline enforced on the group by recording to a cheap mono tape machine at low volume in a clangy basement, Robertson emerged a different player. His new style was sensitive, tasteful, based on a deep feel for the song and an understanding of how and where one should play to complement, but not compete with, the singer. It is this version of Robertson that is a guitar genius.

A key text for me has always been To Kingdom Come. The second track on the Band’s debut, Music from Big Pink, contained the only Robertson lead vocal (until Islands‘ Knocking Lost John) in the Band’s catalogue and the only extended lead guitar break on the whole of the first album. As such, it debuted all the facets of his new style: a superlative tone, a mastery of structure and repetition, a much more prominent vibrato, and a string bending technique that begins to anticipate the great Jerry Donahue (who widened the folk and country guitar player’s vocabulary immeasurably with his arsenal of contrary-motion bends and double-stop bends that go up by different intervals). Most evident, though, is the soulful influence of Curtis Mayfield, audible in the R&B/gospel licks that Robertson was now interweaving with his bandmates’ vocals. He retained enough bite that you still knew it was him, but what was gone, at least from his recorded work, was the frantic quality that his playing had in the early years. Leaving this behind, he truly became the mathematical guitar genius Dylan had praised so highly a couple of years before.

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Robertson, latter days with the Band

Some of the author’s own work. The author is not Robbie Robertson unfortunately:

Still no Clapton – 5 More Favourite Guitar Solos, Part 1: Start Choppin’ by Dinosaur Jr

When I was 15 or so, my three touchstone guitarists were Jonny Greenwood, Joey Santiago and J Mascis. All three were respected lead guitar players, but they made their reps by employing cool textures and melodies rather than a constant stream of slurred sextuplets. All three made a lot of noise a lot of the time – bound to appeal to any 15-year-old grunge fan – but all of them could turn out a tune, too. And none of them played a pointy guitar. This was – remains – important stuff. I can’t think of any guitarist I really admire (possible exception: Page Hamilton from Helmet) who plays/played a superstrat. They’re just not cool.

Mascis’s first solo on Dinosaur Jr’s 1993 single Start Choppin’ remains my absolute favourite of his. I’ve memorised every second of both of the song’s solos, but the first one is the real classic, the one that shows the full range of techniques at his disposal: messy oblique bends and vibrato unit abuse (the guy played a Jazzmaster, remember – the vibrato unit on a JM is only for the brave or the foolish), but also a great ear for melody, an instinct for phrasing and the ability to speed up and down the fretboard if the mood took him.

He starts off, in typical Mascis style, with ear-grabbing noise: an old Chuck Berry-style lick turned into something huge and nasty by the addition of an enormous bucket of gunky fuzz. It isn’t until you think his solo is going to collapse in on itself entirely and take the song with it that he pulls out the fancy stuff. That short passage after the rhythm guitar switches back to the main riff and the drummer switches to 16ths on the hats is masterly, and shows that Mascis has it in him to compete with the real technicians if he wants to; it’s just that he rarely does. He has a style: Neil Young, plus distortion pedals, plus dexterity. This is why the guy is still high profile enough for Fender to release not one but two guitars bearing his signature, a full 22 years after his band’s commercial heyday.

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Angry Johnny’s awesome artwork for the Start Choppin’ single

A Thousand Kisses Deep – Jackson Browne

I first heard Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep, from 2001’s Ten New Songs, while staying at my friend Yo Zushi’s flat after a recording session in London, six or seven years ago. It hit me immediately as a wonderful song, and this is not a reaction I have had that often to Cohen’s music, much of which I like, but almost all of which I have to feel my way into slowly over repeated listens. Late at night after a long, draining day, as semi-background music, in a city that I knew well but no longer called home, it sounded remarkable.

The next time I listened to it was at home, after acquiring my own copy, on my big old hi-fi (God rest it, wherever it now may be). The spell was broken. The song was still a multi-layered thing of wonder, but it stood revealed as, like so much of his post-seventies work, a risible piece of recorded music. His semi-spoken vocal wasn’t the problem, and neither was the arrangement. It was the execution. Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s collaborator (producer, backing singer and occasional co-writer) on Ten New Songs, had put together the backing tracks to all the songs, but on what sounds like the cheesiest, chintziest keyboard that Casio manufactured in the mid-1980s. It wasn’t what had been played, but what it had been played on. Up loud on my big hi-fi speakers, the recording’s deficiencies were no longer ignorable.

But still infatuated with the song, I went fishing for covers. Surely hundreds of singers had wanted to get their teeth into so meaty a text as this? And surely one of them was a recording worthy of such a piece of writing? Searching the song title on iTunes showed that while relatively few artists had attempted the track, among the ones who had was an A-lister. Jackson Browne. His version comes from a live album called Acordes con Leonard Cohen from 2006. It was recorded at a Cohen tribute concert in Barcelona, with Browne one of the few English-speaking artists on the bill (most of the songs are sung in translation). How and why Jackson Browne ended up on the bill, I couldn’t say.

Browne has always been a better writer than a singer, so I was really curious to hear how he’d do singing someone else’s material. To my surprise, his version allowed me to fall in love with the song again. Performing this song, singing Cohen’s words, the eternally boyish Browne sounds altogether deeper and darker, going to places as a singer I’d never heard him go before. He burrows into the song and explores all of its possibilities from the inside, sometimes just savouring the sound and feel of the words. There are still elements of Cohen’s version I prefer; Browne gives it a good go, but he can’t match the sense of condescension, menace even, that Cohen brings when delivering lines like “You win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak”. Nevertheless, Browne’s reading of the song is thoroughly creditable, and the magnificent band utterly transfigure Robinson’s arrangement (again proving that what she’d written was good, but that she and Cohen had erred in not cutting the record with a real band), particularly Javier Mas with his reading of the instrumental of the instrumental hook on the bandurria

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Jackson Browne

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Sharon Robinson & Leonard Cohen

The author’s one-take guitar-&-vocal performance of a recent song

Southern nights – Glen Campbell

I have appreciated so many genres of music coming up, so I’m not too far away from what comes at me later on

Allen Toussaint

One of those genres apparently was the smashed and blissful psychedelia of records by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, to judge from Toussaint’s own recording of Southern Nights from 1975.

Allen Toussaint is a towering figure in popular music. Working in a Coal Mine, Mother-in-Law, Lady Marmalade and Southern Nights are all his. He produced Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Nevilles and Irma Thomas. He arranged horns for the Band. His songs have been covered or sampled by scores of artists.

Given that it became a signature song of sorts and given that Toussaint will forever be associated with the second-line sound of New Orleans R&B, Southern Nights was a very strange record indeed, and not one you’d necessarily think would catch on. Its beat is kept only by a hi-hat. Toussaint’s voice is sent through a Leslie cabinet. The arrangement is dominated by an overlapping tapestry of pianos: an untuned upright, a couple of electrics and a big old grand. The familiar riff that would power the Glen Campbell version is underplayed to the point where you could miss it entirely. This was a very personal dreamlike sound, not a production looking to be a hit record.

Glen Campbell had felt those Southern Nights, too, and Toussaint’s idiosyncratic and personal record touched him. His own recording of the song, though, went a very different way. 1976, when Campbell began work on what would become the album Southern Nights, was just about the peak of the disco era and the records being made in New York, with their huge low end and hissing hi-hats, were making country music sound very white, very small and not very swinging. Campbell’s Southern Nights, then, was one of those country records that attempted to come to a sort of rhythmic accommodation with disco. While some attempts to do this (Dr Hook’s When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman, say) came off cynical, or even desperate, the success of Southern Nights is that it sounds genuinely overjoyed, while retaining just a little of the wistfulness of Toussaint’s original. In fact, with its horns, soulful backing vocals, offbeat guitar and playful swing, it sounds much more like a Toussaint record than Toussaint’s own recording did. It’s a fitting tribute from one master to another.

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Glen Campbell

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Allen Toussaint

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones

It’s obvious why a young Tom Waits fan would have picked Rickie Lee Jones out of the four-for-£20 rack in Leigh-on-Sea’s Fives record shop 10 or so years ago. Jones, I knew, had been in a relationship with Waits at the start of her career, and I’d heard that her music mined similar territory to Waits’s, with storytelling lyrics drawing on a life spent within a Los Angeles beatnik demi-monde that had somehow still magically existed in the era of The Long Run and the Nervous Breakdown EP.

I was disappointed. While it contains some great songs, Rickie Lee Jones’s debut is a bit of a mess. The heavy-hitting Warner Brothers production team, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, had assembled an awesome array of instrumental talent* to play on her album, the same session kings that also featured on mid- to late-seventies records by LA titans like Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Randy Newman (including Newman himself). But as with Joni’s Wild Things Run Fast, the result – heavy on tinkly electric piano and, gasp, slap bass – was polite and bland. On low points like Young Blood, musicians run through their licks but seem to exist in a different world to Jones’s vocal. I can’t imagine the demo to that one wasn’t hugely superior.

(In full disclosure, the Waits records of this era that use electric band arrangements, such as Blue Valentine, are a similar turn-off to me; if Waits is in jazzbo mode, I want double bass and acoustic piano and nothing else will do. I love those sounds in the context of Steely Dan and Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, though, so make of this what you will.)

That wasn’t the only problem, though. Jones wasn’t writing uniformly strong melodies (her songs have never really found favour with other performers, especially compared to those of a certain other songwriter I should probably stop mentioning at this point) and her drawled vocals sometimes sounded less like jazz and more like pastiche or like an idea of jazz. In fairness, this was her debut and she hadn’t had time to grow into herself or her persona yet; even with as sympathetic producer as Waronker at the helm, she couldn’t help but come off as callow.

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 is, then, the standout moment on the album, Chuck E’s in Love aside. Certainly it’s the song that has the biggest emotional wallop. Recorded live at TBS a month after the main tracking sessions for the record, and like After Hours (the other song recorded this supplementary session) featuring only piano, vocal and strings, it benefits hugely from its sparse arrangement and straightforward vocal performance. Jones sounds, appropriately given the song’s themes, more at home here. I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

So many successful songs work this way, because the writer paired the right phrase with the right snippet of melody. Maybe some tunes are so charged with inherent meaning that they lead the writer to pick the correct lyric to pair them with. Fortunately for Jones and for her listeners, when this tune spoke to her, she listened.

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RLJ, Best New Artist Grammy in hand, doesn’t need to care what I think of her debut record

*Let me run through some of the credits for you: Dr John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Steve Gadd, Buzz Feiten, Andy Newmark, Jeff Porcaro, Willie Weeks and, inevitably, Michael Boddicker. Some of these guys are among my favourite players ever. I’ve written about almost all of them in glowing terms elsewhere on this blog.

A House is Not a Motel – Love

Meeting LA at its north-western corner is the eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, which lie between the Los Angeles basin and the San Fernando Valley. Laurel Canyon, a rural idyll ten minutes from Hollywood and The Strip, became widely populated after it was settled by developers in the 1920s, who built weekend and vacation properties for wealthy Angelenos intending to spend their leisure time hunting up in the mountains. Later, in the 1960s, Laurel Canyon later became a kind of countercultural centre, as the major names (and many minor names too) of the folk-rock scene bought the funky cabins that used to belong to Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Louise Brooks. Billy James, of Columbia Records, lived there. Mark Volman of the Turtles. Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, members of the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas. Even Frank Zappa.

In 1967, Arthur Lee was one of those musicians. The leader of Love, a moderately successful folk-rock band with increasing leanings towards the orchestrated and the psychedelic, Lee was a well-known, striking figure on the LA scene. The son of a black father and white mother, Lee’s very appearance set him apart in the overwhelmingly white world of rock and roll music in the mid-sixties, and his ornery personality and drug-fuelled paranoia merely added to his isolation. He spent most of his time in his house on Mulholland Drive, listening to the sirens and the traffic noise from the city below, obsessing about what the hell was going on down there.

What was going on down there was a crackdown by the police – begun in the summer of 1996 and said to have been instigated at the behest of local business owners – on the kids who hung out in the coffee shops and drugstores and on the street corners of the Sunset Strip, with a curfew instigated for kids under 18. The folk-rock scene had inherited the Strip after it was abandoned by the film stars and gangsters that had made it their playground in the 1930s and 40s, and for a while young musicians and the kids who constituted the scene mingled freely (“There was a magical quality to it,” said Billy James; “like a carnival midway,” said musician/photographer Henry Diltz). But in 1967, concerned about what looked like it might be becoming a countercultural uprising, the new Republican Governor of California – a former actor by the name of Ronald Reagan – doubled down. Police were not sparing with their use of the side-handle.

Lee, like most of his peers, was appalled and it was inevitable that his disillusionment, which coexisted cheek by jowl with his native cynicism, would find its way into his music as he convened his straggling, multi-racial band at Sunset Sound to record Forever Changes. Most of the band members were by now strung out on something or other (heroin and acid mainly, but coke probably figures too, this being Los Angeles) and the sessions did not go smoothly at first, requiring producer Bruce Botnik to bring in session players for the first couple of songs tackled during the sessions (Neil Young is said to have been involved in arranging The Daily Planet, too). It’s amazing they got the thing done at all.

A House is Not a Motel is one of the record’s more musically aggressive tracks, with a twisting, knotted tension that is only released by the duelling lead guitars that take over (both played by Johnny Echols? One by Echols and one by Lee or Bryan MacLean? – the two guitar tracks have a very similar tone, suggesting that maybe they’re two of Echols’s takes playing simultaneously). While A House is Not a Motel lacks the orchestration that is the album’s defining musical characteristic, in its mix of fingerpicked acoustic guitars, intricate drums, lyrical paranoia and screaming lead guitars, it’s quintessential Love.

It’s become part of the record’s legend that Forever Changes failed to sell in great numbers. This is partly an exaggeration; the record did stay on the Billboard chart for 10 weeks, and was a top 30 hit in the UK. Given that Love seldom played outside the Greater Los Angeles Area and band relations were so low that Lee turned down most of the opportunities the band were offered, that wasn’t a bad showing. Today, though, with its utterly idiosyncratic mix of psychedelic rock, acoustic fingerpicking, orchestral pop and mariachi brass, Forever Changes is universally regarded as a masterpiece, one of the very finest LA records and a towering achievement that casts a long shadow over everything Lee did subsequently.

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The author’s own West Coast-style twin-guitar folk rock: