Monthly Archives: March 2015

Water Colors – Janis Ian

Janis Ian achieved national prominence at an incredibly early age. At the age of 13, she wrote Society’s Child, a song about a romance between a white girl and a black boy (and more specifically about the hypocrisy of teachers and parents who put a stop to it without ever quite coming out and saying why, and the narrator’s failed attempt to defy their wishes). Released several times between 1965 and 1967, the song was eventually a substantial hit, despite resistance from radio programmers in many markets. A lot of this had to do with Leonard Bernstein and his producer, who, impressed with the song, featured it in his CBS special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (the same show that also featured an early version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up).

Society’s Child is an honourable song, impressively written for someone so young, but it pales when set beside the best of her work from the mid-1970s, by which point she was a different songwriter entirely. Between the Lines (1975, 1.9m sold in the US, Billboard #1) was the high point, containing both At Seventeen and the astonishing Water Colors.

As enduringly poignant as At Seventeen is, Water Colors cuts deeper still. Rich with detail, heavy with sadness and regret, and possessed of a centre of completely still self-confidence, this is the work of a singer and songwriter at the top of her game. The arrangement is, likewise, considered and perfectly executed (I like the subtle nods to Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel: the descending sequence into the first verse echoes the chord sequence to America, the string arrangement in the second verse seems to quote Old Friends and the bridge, with its shift to Cmaj7 (the song is in D) again recalls America.

But while its musically enthralling (with a magnificent performance from double bassist Richard Davis, who played with such diverse jazz players as Charles Mingus, Cal Tjader and Elvin Jones), what’s most striking for me is Ian’s willingness to portray herself as behaving poorly in one of her own songs, but not with any irony towards or distance from her from her creation. Or, if one reads the song as not autobiographical, to do so knowing that’s how it would probably be heard.

In the song, Ian’s lover, aware of his own jealousy and finding it hard to be apart from his famous girlfriend while she tours, tries to end things between them. His words go beyond regretful into reproachful (his allusion to “stagehand lovers” suggests that she’s already strayed, but that may be his own paranoia). Despite his passive agression, the character is not drawn unsympathetically. The narrator, though, escalates things with a melodramatic outburst (“I said, ‘Do you wish me dead’?”) and a mean-spirited questioning of his masculinity, in which he is accused of riding her coattails. However one interprets the events, it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless and it’s a braver portrait of the artist than just about any other songwriter has ever managed, with characters so acutely drawn that I feel like I know these people from one 5-minute song.

Between the Lines, in fairness, doesn’t contain anything else as good as Water Colors, but this is the kind of song that a writer can spend a whole career trying to match without success. It is no crime to achieve perfection only once.

Janis
Janis Ian

*It’s a measure of the lyric’s quality that a different reading is very possible, in which the narrator’s anger is justified by her lover’s passive aggression. Certainly it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless in the episode the song relates.

The author’s new EP, for streaming or pay-what-you-want download:

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Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys’ songwriter, arranger, producer, lead singer, bass player and guiding artistic force) is a fragile soul, a naïve and unworldly man. It doesn’t seem a particularly deep insight to suggest that he was damaged by his relationship with his abusive, domineering father or that rarely was there a psyche less suited to full-scale immersion in the world of hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs.

The leader of a phenomenally successful band yet overawed by Phil Spector’s records from a few years earlier and increasingly envious of the critical and commercial success of the Beatles, Wilson quit touring in 1965 to concentrate on turning the Beach Boys into a genuine artistic force in the studio, while his band (brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and schoolfriend Al Jardine) went on the road to promote the group’s records. This allowed him to journey deeper inside himself as a writer and arranger. Unfortunately, it also allowed him the time and freedom to ingest industrial quantities of marijuana and LSD.

After Pet Sounds (a record whose melodic grace and complex arrangements have inspired volumes of scholarly analysis) flopped commercially in the US, having already created a rift in the band by “fucking with the formula” (as the always fearlessly artistsic Mike Love put it), Wilson retreated further into drug use and found a new lyricist to work with: Van Dyke Parks. Together the pair began work on what Wilson had alluded to in the press as “a teen symphony to God”, to be called Dumb Angel.

Smile, as the album would be retitled, went unfinished, and the effort (against a backdrop of band in-fighting) nearly finished Wilson, but some of the songs found their way on to other projects: several were packaged together in sketchy demo form on Smiley Smile, which was savaged in 1967 as half-baked and slapdash, but is actually an excellent record with an almost singular atmosphere. Two of Smile’s greatest achievements, Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains, were of course known to the public anyway, having been released as singles. But the unfinished record’s other masterpiece, Surf’s Up, wouldn’t surface until 1971, and then against Wilson’s wishes; he remained scared of the work he’d created four years earlier and wished to keep it all under wraps lest its bad vibes overwhelm him again. The song, meanwhile, had taken on semi-legendary status among fans.

A 3-section suite, Surf’s Up contains some of Parks’s greatest lyrics, a stream of consciousness so pure it’s indistinguishable from surrealism, as well as three remarkable lead vocals: the initial section by Carl (replacing Brian’s 1967 effort, which was for some reason considered lacking), the middle section with Brian’s original vocal (the part that Brian had performed for Leonard Bernstein’s TV programme, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution) and the ‘child is father of the man’ section, lead sung by Al Jardine.

Obscure lyrically but captivating melodically, Surf’s Up cast a long shadow over the music Wilson made afterwards – he never again wrote songs that balanced his experimental urges and his commercial pop sense so successfully. By the late seventies he weighed over 300 pounds and was a psychological cripple. Entrusting him to a controversial (OK, let’s be frank: exploitative and megalomaniacal) psychiatrist named Eugene Landy, the rest of the Beach Boys hit the road to make yet more money off the back of Wilson’s talent, desecrating his legacy as they did so. Kokomo. Sitcom guest spots. Republican conventions. They sunk to unimaginable depths.

Wilson emerged again in the nineties, slimmed down, somewhat vacant but much more together than he had any right to be. Crucially, he was now free of the odious Landy’s malign influence (Landy had appointed himself Wilson’s co-writer and had seemingly programmed Wilson to behave as some sort of servant – ‘a good dog always obeys his master!’ Wilson once told a startled interviewer, evidently not referring to a family pooch) and was now able to begin writing and performing again with sympathetic and patient co-producer Darian Sahanaja and his band the Wondermints, finally finishing and releasing Smile in 2004 to rapturous reviews**.

So the story has a happy ending of sorts. But I’ll never get used to the version on Brian Wilson presents Smile. The mix feels wrong to me. I’m used to Carl’s 1971 vocal rather than Brian’s 1967 take, and the vocal seems to sit on top of the music. The ultimate version of the song remains the 1971 release, cobbled together by Carl from the pieces Brian just couldn’t seem to fit in place in 1967 as his mind came apart.

smile17brianvandat.l
Wilson with Van Dyke Parks, 1967

*Bernstein: “A new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’ Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, Surf’s Up is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future”

** I have to admit to more than a few reservations about Brian Wilson presents Smile. Age and substance abuse wrecked Wilson’s voice – I’m sorry, but there is no polite way of putting it – and the joins between the newly recorded music and the original material are all too audible. They have a tendency to jump out at you and prevent you listening to the thing as a whole work. Sahanaja’s work with Wilson was valiant and well-intentioned, but clocks cannot be turned back.

Prayer for the Dying – Seal

It goes without saying that the sound of pop music in the first half of the 1990s was heterogeneous, more so than we might remember or appreciate in retrospect. Eurodance, U-rated rap, revived oldies, suvivors from the 1970s, novelty records, coffee-table soul, NME favourites, metal veterans, US indie icons, 1980s holdovers and what was not yet called adult alternative – if you look at the list of number-one singles and albums in the UK for 1990 and 1991, you’ll see all these things and more.

But few sounds are as redolent for me of the early 1990s as that of Trevor Horn producing Seal. It’s not just that Seal was a big commercial presence back then (first two albums both hitting number one and spinning off seven hit singles between them), but that Horn’s sounds were always imitated by other producers. The rhythm tracks he crafted for Seal’s second album (1994) were still being knocked off a few years later by records that purported to be “trip-hop”, and I can’t help feeling 1991’s Crazy was a huge record for Wiliam Orbit*. All of which is to say that this music sounds, and feels, very much of its era when I hear it now.

Horn was a sensible guy to go to if you wanted the George Michael money, the singer-songwriter-for-adult-professionals money. Michael was in the process of abdicating his throne at the time, and he made his respect for the young pretender explicit by covering Killer at Wembley Arena as part of the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (released on the Five Live EP – the five in question being the remaining members of Queen, plus Michael and Lisa Stansfield). Horn’s work with Seal – which speaks loudly of “quality” and of the expenses that haven’t been spared – was precision tooled for Michael’s audience. But when you listen to the music Seal put out between 1990 and 1995, it’s striking that the two best songs – the unimpeachable Adamski version of Killer and the deathless Kiss from the Rose – are either not produced by Horn or don’t sound anything like Horn. Sure, Crazy is a fine record (if overplayed in its time), but perhaps Horn did Seal more artistic harm than good (limiting him to the same relatively narrow sonic palette, or at least facilitating Seal in his more conservative instincts), however successful the pair were together.

Seal II does contain a couple of stylistic curveballs – the medieval-modal balladry of Kiss from a Rose, the Joni Mitchell duet If I Could and Fast Changes, which makes it clear exactly how big a Joni fan Seal is (with its woodwinds and strummed chords it’s a dead ringer for her For the Roses-era material) – but taken as a whole, the album is deadening. It’s expensive-sounding and glossy, but involving melodies are in short supply, and Horn can’t consistently pull out of Seal the level of which he was evidently capable.

Prayer for the Dying, the lead single, is a notable exception to all this and an unqualified success. If any of his tracks deserve a revival, it’s this one. It’s not just that it’s an excellent song, sung with passion, but it’s the track on which Horn’s production and arrangemental approaches work best with the material. On top of one of those beats that place the record immediately in the mid-1990s, Horn fills up the track with delayed guitar noodles, little snatches of percussion and unobtrusive synths. It’s far from minimlist, but nothing’s allowed to step on the vocalist’s turf.

On rediscovering the track five or so years ago (I remembered it once I’d heard it, but it had been 15 years), I was at first put off by the chorus, which seemed woolly and vague, a list of warmed-over cliches. Crossing bridges. Lessons learned. Playing with fire… We’ve heard all these before.** I was probably just having a grumpy day. Mixing an inscrutable, personal verse lyric with a more universal chorus is one of the perennial techniques of modern pop songwriting, as is adopting a cliche to subvert it or twist it. Nowadays, I think the reason the song works so well is the contrast between verse and chorus, in which I hear a shift of narrative perspective (with the first verse sung from the point of view of the dying person and the chorus from that of the younger person trying to get their head around it). Seal, as is common among, songwriters, has refused to be pinned down on what precisely it all means***, and listeners will hear it their own way, which is as it should be.

In the UK at least, Seal’s music, other than Killer, Crazy and Kiss from a Rose, seems to have faded out of cultural consciousness, while the man himself makes covers albums and a set of original songs produced by (the horror) David Foster. Seal? The singer? Was married to Heidi Klum? Oh yeah, him. Prayer for the Dying stands as a reminder of what the man could do back in his garlanded youth.

Seal

*In a neat historical curlicue, in 1991 Orbit remixed Seal’s re-recorded version of Killer. It’s pretty feeble (some of the house piano Orbit inserted clashes horribly with the vocal melody), and sounds nothing like the readily identifiable Orbit style of half a decade later.

**I’m in no position to point the finger when I have written a song called Lessons Learned.

***”It is a song about life after death and a song that was intended to help those who were dying or knew people that had died to deal with the event of death.”

Recent music by the author. Downloadable on the pay-what-you-want model. Click on the logo on the  right-hand side of the player to go to Bandcamp.

In Your Care – Tasmin Archer

To be Tasmin Archer is to be a walking punchline, a one-hit-wonder, the name of one of Harry Hill’s badgers. Perhaps Sleeping Satellite made enough money that she doesn’t care, but dear God, does she deserve better. Not that the number of them matters particularly, but she had four hits. This blog is about the second of them, the important one. One of the bravest records I’ve ever heard.

In Your Care is a song about child abuse, sung from the point of view of the child. It’s a bleak,stark piece of work, confused, terrified and angry, simultaneously full of love and resentment. Although it represents the thoughts and feelings of a child who doesn’t fully understand what is happening, the song is as emotionally mature as Sleeping Satellite (a UK number-one single) was gauche. Far too strong to win support from daytime radio, In Your Care stalled at number 16, despite the fact that money made from the single was given to ChildLine.

Notable musically for Danny Thompson’s foreboding double bass playing and the empathetic drumming of Charlie Morgan, the song is made indelible by the extraordinary chorus lyric and Archer’s delivery of it: the violence of her sudden outbursts of “Son of a bitch, you broke my heart”, the devastating next line “I need a little loving to take away the pain” (which doesn’t mean to the child what it might mean coming from adult), and the final accusation: “How could you let me down when I’m in your care?”

Once heard, it’s not quickly forgotten, but not enough people heard it. And too many who did chose not to listen to something that was so uncomfortable yet purported to be pop music.

tasmin

The urge to share

Over the last few months I’ve been working a bit more on my own songs after a stint where I was working primarily on things for the Sumner, Yo Zushi and upcoming James McKean records. I’ve embedded a soundcloud player at the bottom of some posts over the last few months, but if you’re interested in getting a nice shiny download of any of the songs you’ve heard, now’s your chance. Four recently finished recordings are available as downloads in the format of your choosing (FLAC, AIFF, MP3, etc), for the monetary sum of your choosing (including for free):

As ever with my stuff, the songs were all recorded and mixed in my home, and the only musician involved other than me is the excellent Colin Somervell, who played double bass on Beware of Tomorrow and On into the Night. Folks interested in production may note that Crossing Oceans is a live recording: two mics, one take, voice and guitar, no overdubs, no edits. Just straight up, the old-fashioned way. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the thing I’ve done recently that I’m proudest of, precisely because it is so naked. Little Differences, you may remember, I’ve shared before: this version, though, is a brand-new re-recording at a brisker tempo and knocks the old one into the proverbial cocked hat.

If you like these, do share them. I’ll be back with a non-pluggy kind of post in a couple of days.

Love Has No Pride – Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 album Give it Up is the sort of front-to-back solid record that sounds better listened to in toto than it does when you pick out individual songs. The trick is how the songs draw strength from those that precede and follow them, right from the start of the record: Nothing Seems to Matter (featuring none other than Dave Holland on double bass, two years on from Bitches Brew – worlds colliding indeed) wouldn’t be so affecting if it didn’t follow the rollicking, New Orleansy Give it Up or Let Me Go. All the elements that are thrown into the mix – R&B, soul, blues, folk, country – sound thoroughly natural sitting side by side with each other, and they add up to a record that sounds substantially earthier than just about anything else being made in California at the time. Certainly anything being made in Laurel Canyon. It’s worth noting too that Raitt, more famed as a guitarist (BB King’s favourite slide guitarist, no less) and singer than writer, was solely responsible for the two above-mentioned songs, which are among Give it Up‘s best cuts.

The last of the record’s ten songs is Love Has No Pride, by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus*, the most LA-sounding cut, but also one of the most moving. In fact, the track succeeds almost in spite of itself. Its opening lyrics are a syntactic muddle so grievous that I promptly switched it off the first time I heard it. Surely no song that started “I’ve had bad dreams too many times/To think that they don’t mean much anymore” could ever be any good? Its middle section is a lopsided 20 bars long and feels like it should finish four bars earlier.

Yet Raitt makes everything out of this song that’s there to be made and turns it into something really special. Her vocal, unaffected as always, is devastating, and her arrangement choices are exemplary: she resists the temptation to pump the song up and make it big with the addition of drums or extraneous instrumentation, instead keeping it simple and intimate. Compare Linda Ronstadt’s much showier version from a year later, which adds strings, gospel backing vocals, and half a dozen instruments. No prizes for guessing which one has more emotional heft.

Raitt’s been doing this time and again over her career. By the standards of their era and locale, even her Don Was/Ed Cherney albums (overexposed and overgarlanded at the time, but so darn likeable it’s hard to begrudge her – they’ll never be a time when I’m not happy to hear Something to Talk About come on the radio, which is just as well) from the late eighties and early nineties sound warm, organic and earthy. If you want to hear what makes her so good, though, skip Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw and go back to 1972’s Give it Up.

Check out this version, too, with Raitt guesting at a CSN show, and David Crosby on Graham Nash singing backing vocals. The old-timers proceed to show the youngsters how it’s done:

Bonnie
Bonnie, with Strat and slide

Still No Clapton, Part 5 – I’d Run Away by the Jayhawks

The first batch of these posts that I did at the very end of 2013 I called “No Hendrix, No Clapton, No Vai”, and not because I dislike those players. It’s impossible to have any feel for rock’n’roll music and dislike Jimi Hendrix. I’m not a shred fan, but I can appreciate Steve Vai’s chops and dedication to his craft, and I genuinely loved No More Amsterdam, his 2012 co-write/duet with Aimee Mann. God, even some Clapton is OK, too, though don’t get me started on his politics. We’ll be here all night and I’ll lose all my good humour.
The point of doing these, then, has been to talk in brief about some tracks I might have struggled to discuss at length in a conventional post, but also to pick out some less heralded players along the way. Sure, J Mascis and David Lindley aren’t unknowns, and Robbie Robertson is a bona-fide legend, but they’re all at least a step down in renown from Clapton and Hendrix, who simply are rock guitar for many people, or Vai, who stands for the 1980s shredders (a school of metal-ish guitarists whose extreme technical proficiency was their key selling point for many of their fans, and who are still high-profile players in guitar geek circles).
Not every great solo proclaims its greatness by being the centrepiece of a classic song, or by lasting for minutes on end, or by being the work of a celebrated player. Today’s choice is indicative of this.
The dominant instrument on my favourite Jayhawks album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, is not Gary Louris’s guitar, but Karen Grotberg’s underrated country-soul piano. The band always sounded more expansive with her on board, and her harmonies sweetened the pinched and nasal vocal blend of Gary Louris and Marc Olsen. All in all, she’s the easily overlooked Jayhawks MVP, like a great defensive lineman.
Nevertheless, Louris remained a powerful presence as lead guitarist. Louris’s playing is ultimately blues derived – most of the licks he plays, Chuck Berry played first – but the Jayhawks have always drawn strength and vigour from Louris’s lead guitar interjections. They add uncomplicated vigour, a swagger even, to a group who’ve rarely strayed all that far from medium-intensity mid-tempo country-rock.
His solo on I’d Run Away is a perfectly constructed little gem with the full range of Louris tricks: an ear-grabbing opening lick that sees him making use of the Vibrola arm on his SG for a strong vibrato, some melodic double-stop licks and a bit of old-fashioned bluesy pentatonic wailing of the type that’s been the backbone of rock guitar since Mr Berry, I guess. It’s the highlight of a song that in typical Jayhawks fashion mixes breezy music with doleful lyrics.

louris
Gary Louris, still rockin’ that Vibrola-equipped Gibson SG