Monthly Archives: April 2015

Long Way Down – Mary Lorson & Saint Low

Once again, I’m a little too busy with freelance work this week to put the time I’d like into the blog. Here’s a repost from around 18 months ago about a song I was listening to and enjoying earlier this week.

Distorted guitars tend to take up a lot of sonic real estate. They’re not often a great fit for songwriters whose lyrics tend towards the complicated and the wry. They haven’t been a great fit for Mary Lorson’s music since the first couple of records she made as part of Madder Rose. Since MR’s third album – the dreadfully titled Tragic Magic – when they were replaced as the main component of her arrangements by programmed beats, they’ve been almost entirely absent from her subsequent work (encompassing three records with Saint Low, one with Billy Coté, another one with Coté that was credited to the Piano Creeps, and one with the Soubrettes). The prepostorous “New Velvet Underground” tag that had been slapped on Madder Rose by certain rock critics didn’t last past Tragic Magic, and by the time Saint Low were making records in the first half of the 2000s, few were paying attention (although Lorson did manage to place songs in episodes of The Sopranos, Felicity, Alias and Skins, which may not have won her many new fans but had definite financial upsides).

This was a shame, as Lorson sounds much more at ease as a songwriter on, say, Tricks for Dawn from 2002 than she ever did with the churning guitars and drums of Madder Rose’s first couple of albums. Tricks for Dawn is low-key, jazzy and spare. Instruments are given space in the arrangements, and miked from a distance. The drums on Anything can Happen sound like they’ve been miked from the other side of the room. The hum from Coté’s Stratocaster is plainly audible whenever he stops playing for a bar or two. My own tastes run towards the dry and the close, but to everything there is a season, and this is an inviting sound, the appropriate sound, running against the grain in an era where ‘less is more’ is not a maxim that record-makers pay much heed to, a situation that hasn’t reversed in the 13 years since Tricks for Dawn‘s release.

Tricks for Dawn is not a classic record – there are a few too many songs that arrive, dwell in front of you and then depart without really going anywhere, and Lorson’s lyrics can occasionally irritate. There’s an archness to the likes of Morningless Dreamer and Friends, I Have Been Drinking (present in their titles too) that I find grating. Lorson’s songs remain obscure enough that pinning down subject and deciding whether they deserve the condescension they’re shown is often impossible .

That tone is perhaps only noticeable because of the comparative open-heartedness of the record’s finest songs. Lorson in a 2011 interview picked Anything can Happen as one of her best three songs she’s ever written, and she’s not wrong, but Long Way Down is its equal. It’s surely not a coincidence that these are the songs on which Lorson seems to have most let down her guard. When she and the guesting Evan Dando harmonise on the lines “Hold on tight to me, baby/Cos it’s such a long way down”, it’s perhaps the most magical moment on the album. Long Way Down’s two guitar solos – the second, clean solo presumably by Coté and the distorted first one by either Lorson or Dando (who is credited with “disortion and Vox organ”, providing the best clue, perhaps, as to the player) – provide, in the way of the best instrumental solos, the song’s emotional peaks and make you wish Lorson had been as unabashedly straight-talking all the way through the record rather than hiding behind internal rhymes and polysyllables. In these precious minutes, responding to the raised stakes, the chamber-pop backing of string section and horns rises above the merely pretty and becomes properly beautiful.

Mary Lorson b&w
Mary Lorson

*Potential listeners to this record should be aware that the horns and some of the guitar parts are noticeably sharp of the piano that provides the bedrock of most of the arrangements. You’ll need to be able to put up with this to get much enjoyment from this album.

Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying – Labi Siffre

I first head Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying in a BBC documentary about motor racing called Grand Prix: The Killer Years.

If that sounds like a melodramatic title, it’s worth watching the programme, which was a good deal more sober (it seems to have disappeared off YouTube at the moment though). One scene, once viewed, is unforgettable.

During the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, Roger Williamson’s tyre blew. His car somersaulted, landed upside and caught fire. The driver behind him, David Purley, pulled over, tried on his own to roll the car over and, not being able to, looked in vain for assistance. He grabbed a fire extinguisher out of a marshal’s hand and tried to put out the fire himself. As the fire worsened, he pleaded with the assembled marshals (four or five of them) to help him try to roll the car over. Wearing no protective flame-retardant clothing, they declined to help (one half-heartedly stood directly behind Purley and pushed into his back). Williamson’s car was still burning, with still no sign of ambulances or fire engines. While the race continued, Purley signalled in frustration for the drivers to stop. Still Williamson’s car burned. By this time, Williamson was almost certainly dead.

So the film was harrowing (at times, in fact, it’s hard to believe that what you’re seeing happened, and was in fact broadcast as Sunday afternoon entertainment), and few who were not themselves former drivers emerged from it with any credit. The footage of Williamson’s fatal accident was allowed by the production team to play with no overdubbed music. You hear the engines of the cars as they go past, and occasionally you hear Purley’s remonstrations with the officials, but the gravity of the moment is not cheapened by added music.

Elswhere in the programme, though, they did make use of music, and good use of it too. One song, playing underneath reaction to (I think) the death of Jim Clark, was unknown to me, but beautiful, so I googled the lyrics and found out that it was Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying by Labi Siffre, from 1972.

Nowadays best remembered for the anti-apartheid song Something Inside So Strong, It Must Be Love (most associated with Madness) and I Got The… (the deathless groove of its second half is the sampled backbone of Eminem’s My Name Is), Siffre’s career stretches back to the early 1960s, when he played guitar in a Jimmy Smith-style jazz group. He found mainstream success in the early 1970s, presumably with the same kind of audience as that of Cat Stevens, to whose music Siffre’s sometimes bears a passing resemblance. He went to the same West London Catholic school, St Benedict’s, as my uncles (and Julian Clarey); “God is the last refuge of a scoundrel” reads the latest blog entry on Siffre’s website – a Catholic education so often seems to have the opposite of its intended effect.

Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying (also the title of its parent album) is one of those simple, elemental songs that feel as if they must always have existed. It’s just some nimble guitar picking, the same melodic phrases repeated four times, with small variations in the words, and a slowly, subtly building arrangement. Such musical and lyrical economy but such an emotional effect. Siffre makes something very difficult sound very easy here. Rod Stewart, Olivia Newton John and Jimmy Ruffin have all covered it; none could resist the temptation to make it bigger (surprisingly, the loathsome Stewart fares the best). Even so, Siffre’s version is the essential one.

Labi-Siffre_low1
Labi Siffre

Harmony-singing heaven – the short and precious career of Tres Chicas

Hi all. It’s a very busy week this week, with my day off tomorrow looking likely to be not very ‘off’ at all. So I’ve dug into the archives and pulled out a post I wasn’t totally happy with about music I really like. Here’s a new and more fleshed-out version to tide you over till the weekend, when I will, I hope, be back.

Where are Tres Chicas? Seven years is a long time not to have put out a new record. Especially when they only made two albums in their initial short burst of activity.

Tres Chicas is the name adopted by its three principal members: Lynn Blakey (Let’s Active, Glory Fountain), Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine). They’re all veterans of the indie country scene of the American south. They met each other and began singing together for fun during the long period where their bands played shows on the same bill, at home and on tour, in various combinations. Their name was coined by the owner of the bar where they performed in public for the first time and it stuck.

In 2004, they released their debut, Sweetwater, on Yep Roc. This label is worthy, not cutting-edge, and has made something of a specialty of signing industry veterans (folks like Gang of Four, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, Chris Stamey, Fountains of Wayne, John Doe, Jim White, Sloan, Soft Boys, Tony Joe White – you get the idea). Sweetwater, recorded and produced by Chris Stamey, was an Uncut reader’s dream come true: a who’s who of alt. country talent. Original Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore (also Caitlin Cary’s husband) was on board, as was pianist Jen Gunderman (who’d replaced Karen Grotberg in the Jayhawks).

And it was a very fine record, too: simple, spare, a little lo-fi, a little rough around the edges, but utterly charming.

Its opening songs (a brace by the normally reliable Lynn Blakey, who is probably the dominant songwriting voice over their two albums) are plodding and somewhat stodgy, which is a shame as Heartbeat especially is a nice song held down by a drum track that trudges rather than bounces, but the album comes alive thereafter. The band work up a little sweat on a high-sprited cover of Loretta Lynn’s Deep as Your Pocket and then brake hard for a beautiful version of Lucinda Williams’ Am I Too Blue, where they’re backed by the members of Chatham County Line. This is where Tres Chicas are at their best: bringing the simplest of songs to life with their peerless harmony singing. If you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, listen on headphones. Cary’s on the left (also playing fiddle), Blakey in the middle and Lamm on the right. Three strong singers breathing with each other, listening to each other, phrasing with each other. It’s not slick, their voices don’t blend into one inseperable whole, but that’s what makes it so powerful

The good songs keep coming: Caitlin Cary’s Desire (written with Stamey and yet another Whiskeytown alum, Mike Daly) is clever and funny; In a While (written by and lead-sung by Lamm, with a Cary co-write) splits the difference between Hazeldine and early Gillian Welch. But the album’s highlight is When Was the Last Time, credited to all three band members, and featuring a spine-tingling final section where the singers repeat the opening line and title phrase in the round, their voices popping up in the left, right and centre channels while Gunderman plays a simple churchy piano and the band slowly comes back in. It’s a deceptively artful arrangement, inspired by what is probably the best song on the record, and certainly the one that most captures what’s great about this band: the warmth of the voices, the palpable feeling friendship between the band members, the sense that the stakes here are low and these people have nothing to prove to each other or to anyone else.

Perhaps such an atmosphere couldn’t be captured twice. Their second album Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl (the band’s nicknames for each other apparently – but it’s still a dreadful, unwieldy title for an actual record), recorded in London with Geraint Watkins, Nick Lowe, BJ Cole and a cast of yeoman British musicians, is a less characterful, down-home affair. It does contain a couple of masterpieces (Cary and Blakey’s languorous All the Shade Trees in Bloom and jazzy Only Broken; Blakey’s plaintive Slip so Easily) so it’s worth hearing. The moment when all three singers voices come together to sing the title phrase on Shade Trees is worth the price of admission on its own – a moment that is all the overwhelming for how long Cary’s elongated, sleepy verse has held it back. But, unlike Sweetwater, BR&OG never becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, if this is your kind of music, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. Seriously, in the extended hiatus Welch and David Rawlings took during the last decade, no one was making better country music. I’m still hoping there’s going to be more.

Tres Chicas
l-r Cary, Blakey, Lamm

Like Suicide – Soundgarden

I felt very proud to be part of a music scene that was changing the face of commercial music and rock music internationally, but I also felt like it was necessary for Soundgarden — as it was for all of these Seattle bands — to prove that we deserve to be on an international stage and we weren’t just part of a fad that was based on geography. I knew we had the ability to do that, and I also knew that the timing was important. This was the time.

 Chris Cornell, Get Yourself Control: The Oral History of Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Spin

Soundgarden were the first of the big-name grunge-era Seattle bands to release a record, the first to sign to a major and the first to get a Grammy nomination. But they were last of the big beasts to really catch on commercially. 1991’s Badmotorfinger (mixed by the incomparable Ron Saint Germain, making a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was Terry Date’s wimpy, tinny tracking on such mighty cuts as Slaves & Bulldozers) was a hit, as was single Outshined, but it was overshadowed by the mega-success of Nevermind, Ten and Dirt.

In 1993, Soundgarden began work on Superunknown with producer Michael Beinhorn. Beinhorn had developed a reputation for breaking alternative acts big following his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Mother’s Milk) and Soul Asylum (Grave Dancer’s Union). His methods were confrontational; he was, shall we say, not afraid of conflict. He had the balls to (temporarily) can Anthony Kiedis from the Chili Peppers for his drug use and hire Sterling Campbell to replace Soul Asylum drummer Grant Young’s playing, and would go on to fire Hole’s drummer Patty Schemel while producing Celebrity Skin.

While all four members of Soundgarden made it through production without getting fired,  but Beinhorn didn’t let them off easy, and he’s had some interesting things to say about them in the years since*. If they were to be the next band to ascend to the alt-rock stratosphere, they were going to have to earn it, was his attitude. He went toe to toe with Chris Cornell in an effort to get him to broaden and diversify the band’s sound and include more Beatlesy songwriting and less Zeppelinesque yowling, alienating guitarist Kim Thayil in the process, who was used to being a major source of the band’s material.

There’s still a healthy dose of yowling on Superunknown, but the riffs are beefier and less twisty and dissonant than before, Cornell sings with great imagination and musicality across those riffs and drummer Matt Cameron gets the drum sound his magnificent contributions deserved.

Cameron is one of my very favourite drummers – he’s powerful, groovy and imaginative, making the twisty-turny Soundgarden material sound like the most natural thing in the world. He’s on superlative form on the record’s last track, Like Suicide, and Beinhorn and his team (Adam Kaspar, Jason Corsaro and Brendan O’Brien) really allow him to shine.

Like Suicide illustrates a lot of the ideas I was getting at in my last post on Radiohead’s The Bends. Superunknown is a record that is frequently referenced for drum sounds; bands want to sound like this, engineers put their own work up against this. But the reason that Cameron’s drums sound as big as they do is because of the sparseness of the arrangement. Kim Thayil was never a wall-of-sound type of guitar player and his from-the-get-go decision to play a certain way had the benefit of freeing up real estate for Cameron. It just took until the band’s fourth album for full advantage of this to be taken on record. But this is the key thing: half the bands trying to get their drums to sound like Matt Cameron on Like Suicide will never get there because their band isn’t Soundgarden. Superunknown may not be the group’s best record, but it’s undoubtedly one where their unique sonic potential is fulfilled.

Like Suicide is, mostly, a half-time feel, with acres of space inside the lines for fills. For the first half of the song, Cameron keeps it tight. He plays a small kit with the snare wires off, and only plays a minimum of fills, largely laying off the toms. His masterstroke (or maybe Beinhorn’s), is the switch to the big sound at 3.30: a full-kit, large-room sound, with monstrously huge toms and a big reverb (listen to the size of the cymbals, how live they sound). At this point, he begins to cut loose and the 22-second stretch between the heavy section starting and Cornell’s vocal coming back in is one of the most exciting passages in rock music, with Cameron playing a de facto drum solo. He’s still playing the heavy half-time beat he started the song with, albeit with loads of kick drum variations, but the fills are just so creative, it takes it beyond just playing the groove. Note also how the tempo speeds up subtly when the group switches out of half time at 4.30. Absolute adherence to absolute time has never been a virtue in rock; just listen to some Zeppelin for proof.

It’s a killer end to a great album, and when Thayil and Cameron are cutting loose at the same time, it’s as exciting as rock music gets, as good as Page and Bonham during the guitar solo on Since I’ve Been Loving You. I can’t think of any higher praise to bestow on a rock band.

SOUNDGARDEN
l-r Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil

“It was kind of nightmarish. These guys did not get along” – Beinhorn in a radio interview on Australia’s Triple J

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20

Like many records that were among my favourites in the 1990s and early 2000s (that is, my teens and early twenties), Radiohead’s The Bends is not one I pull out much anymore. But the recent spate of articles to mark the record’s 20th anniversary prompted me to dig it out for a few, hugely enjoyable spins.

The first listen was pretty weird. I have so many memories connected to this album, and I’d have said it was one I knew well, but while my recall of the key elements of the songs and their structures was fairly unerring, little details did leap out at me for the first time.

First the bad stuff, to get it out the way. It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, which I loved about it in 1996-7 (The Bends and OK Computer were sacred texts to me, and Greenwood and co. sort of guitar-playing high priests), but there are times when the focus is on the guitars so much that it’s to the detriment of the overall: listen to how much more authority Phil Selway’s drums seem to have during the intro to, say, Bones than the during the intro to The Bends; to allow him to fit inside a mix utterly dominated by rhythm guitars, he’s been so heavily compressed on The Bends that not only do his drums sound tiny, they seem to drag behind the beat. Drums give rock music its drive, its weight and its physicality. A more balanced, harder-rocking mix exists within the master tapes, I’d wager. I hope one day some enterprising soul at Parlophone gives album producer John Leckie the masters and lets him do a remix (25th-anniversary edition in 2020, guys? Just an idea).

But the weight given to the guitars by mix engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie does allow us to hear how every song on The Bends is filled with amazing parts, whether it’s Greenwood’s constantly ascending octave-chord lead during the intro to Just (repeated at the end of each chorus), the pillow-soft acoustic guitar strumming of [Nice Dream], or the decelerating tremolo effect (Jonny again) in the verse of Bones. Radiohead’s early albums saw Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke expanding the vocabulary of rock guitar more than any of their contemporaries with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a veritable one-man factory of astonishing effects and textures.

Let’s take a couple of the album’s less frequently hailed tracks and look a little closer at what’s going on. The “big”‘ songs on The Bends have been dissected and analysed to death, so let’s go with Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was and Bones, a couple of album tracks you’re not likely to hear on the radio soon.

Bones sounds to me like the most confident full-band performance on the album. Some of that may be a perceptual thing, a result of the space afforded to Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass (great tone!) by the sparse guitar arrangement in the opening verse. But really, it swaggers in a way that very little else in the Radiohead canon does, and that’s encoded in the song’s DNA. Yorke and Greenwood’s later involvement in the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine merely confirmed what a listen to Bones suggests: that behind their studious exteriors lurked a couple of long-time glam rock fans struggling to get out. The vamp on A played by the guitars at the during the chorus to Bones – possibly the lowest-IQ guitar riff in existence – goes back through Keith Richards all the way to Chuck Berry, but when it’s played with that much distortion and an almost audible leer, the only provenance can be glam. If Noel Gallagher were to end up in a pub with Greenwood or Yorke, they’d be fine as long as they talked about T. Rex and Bowie and Sweet.

Elsewhere during the song, Greenwood pulls out his old favourite, the oblique bend (when a note played on, say, the G string is bend upwards by a tone to sound in unison with a note two frets down on the B string), for lead guitar interjections between Yorke’s vocal (“You’ve got to [whee] feel it [whee] in your bones”). Apart from the decelerating tremolo I spoke about earlier, none of the stuff going on in Bones is clever or unusual or groundbreaking. But, given the typically dour subject matter, the musicians seem to be having an awful lot of fun on this track.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is something else again, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently played by O’Brien and Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless Leckie got the scissors out). But it’s Greenwood’s delicate arpeggio part on the chorus that’s most telling. It’s done by playing a fifth and third on the D and B strings and letting the open G string ring out in the middle, so it only works on a few chords, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been playing variations of that riff on my own songs and other peoples’ for a good long while, in fact.

It’s another song where the rhythm section shines, too. An unfortunate by-product of modern (and in the terms I’m talking about, The Bends is modern) mixing and mastering practice is that quiet, sparse songs tend to have more weight in the low end and greater size to the drums than their louder counterparts, and Bullet Proof is a great example of this. The more you turn it up, the more impressive it sounds (The Bends and Just exhibit the reverse behaviour). Colin Greenwood’s bass line, in which he plays single high-register notes with quite a thick, sustaining sound, is particularly effective and foreshadows the pivotal role he’d go on to play in OK Computer and Kid A.

The band may see The Bends as a piece of juvenilia, or a necessary step on the path to where they wanted to go, but it shouldn’t be judged by its influence on bands with scarcely half of Radiohead’s combined imagination (you can probably guess who I’m thinking of). This is a collection of top-notch songs* topped with some of the most inventive guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear.

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Radiohead circa The Bends: Yorke kneeling in front; Colin Greenwood, O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Selway l-r

*Not Sulk

I Came in from the Mountain – Roddy Woomble

The extent to which Roddy Woomble’s voice has changed over the last 18 years is always pretty shocking to this casual Idlewild fan when I revisit the band’s early work. The sneering, American-accented vocals of Woomble’s youth are long gone. Eighteen years after the release of his band Idlewild’s debut, Captain, Woomble now has a voice of deep, rich mahogany. He has matured into a terrific singer, and a very fine songwriter, too.

I saw him play last night with Mel and her friend Louise at Kings Place (sic) in London for the first night of the Caledonian Chronicles season. 90 minutes in the company of his band and his solo-career songbook fully convinced me on both fronts. He did play a couple of Idlewild songs (one I knew – an excellent version of You Held the World in Your Arms that for me outdid the original – and one I didn’t know; Mel told me it was Quiet Crown, an old Idlewild tune, after I’d said to her that the band could have segued from that into American English), but he had little need to fall back on his band’s repertoire to keep the audience rapt. I couldn’t help but think, as I looked around, that probably a lot of the people there wouldn’t have known When I Argue I See Shapes anyway, as perversely enjoyable as it might have been to see Woomble in high-energy yelping mode in an austere concert hall.

He had a great band (featuring Sorren Maclean on guitar, Luciano Rossi on piano and Hannah Fisher on fiddle – all three sang harmony vocals), which helps, but quiet, sit-down shows in concert halls live or die on the strength of the material being played. No song demonstrates the quality of Woomble’s mature writing better than I Came In From the Mountain, from his first (now deleted, he revealed last night) solo album, My Secret is My Silence.

It’s built on the simplest chords (I, IV, vi, V) that are shuffled around in progressions that every songwriter has used at least a few times, and the verse melody is fragmentary, a few syllables at a time, as if the thoughts that the singer is searching for aren’t quite coming together. On first listen, by the end of the first verse, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t much of a song, however nice the line “because we affect each other endlessly” may be.

It’s the chorus where it comes together. It’s a simple tune, though with more movement and a wider range than the verse melody, harmonised on the second and third repeats by Kate Rusby, sometime labelmate on Pure Records. Their voices sound great together. This is the intriguing space that Woomble the solo artist inhabits. Headlining the opening night of a folk festival called Caledonian Chronicles, sitting on stage with a fiddle player, accompanied on record by uilleann pipes, duetting with Britfolk royalty, but nonetheless thinking, writing and arranging his songs like a rock/pop songwriter. Comparisons of Idlewild to R.E.M. were overstated back in 2002 when The Remote Part came out, I think. Nevertheless, there is no songwriter whose phrasing of a melody (and way of matching lyric and tune in surprising ways, so that the line contains unexpected caesuras and enjambements) more frequently reminds me of Michael Stipe.

He ruefully acknowledged once or twice yesterday that his solo career isn’t setting the world alight. Perhaps it’s because you can’t fit him neatly into either the folk box or the indie box anymore. But it’s a shame that he can’t quite fill a 500-seat hall as a solo act, as at this point it’d surprise me if Idlewild are making more vital music than he is on his own.

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A man of the mountains – Roddy Woomble

My recent EP, Little Differences. Available to stream or download

New Frontier – Donald Fagen

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build. D.F.

Fagen’s liner notes from The Nightfly

To the extent that he has an image, Donald Fagen’s will always be defined by the cover of his 1982 debut solo album The Nightfly – a super-cool late-’50s hipster miraculously still around in the present day, spinning jazz records and smoking endless cigarettes long into the night (the time on the clock to his right reads ten past four).

Fagen’s accidental memoir, Eminent Hipsters, suggests that he pretty much was the young man whose persona he adopts on The Nightfly: a precocious wannaBeat in love with the culture of jazz and outsiderdom; “sentenced to a long stretch at hard labour in Squaresville” but not yet the hip sophisticate he needed to be to fully escape it. The Nightfly is the work of a man approaching middle age, looking back on his younger self and the world he grew up in with fond affection. Compared to Steely Dan, Fagen’s old band, it’s almost cuddly.

True, it’s the creation of a well-read and impressively self-educated man who doesn’t mind making you work a bit (the video for New Frontier wisely doesn’t assume its audience will know who Tuesday Weld or Brubeck were, or what Ambush is, or how you might wear a French twist – note that the girl in the video does not have one), but the mood is friendly and warm. After the bitterly cynical and ultimately tragic Gaucho (the final Dan album, from 1980), The Nightfly is probably the only music Fagen could make without driving himself crazy.

New Frontier shows he’s still the incorrigible craftsman of old, though. There are beautiful little details all the way through it: the way the backing vocalists hang on the last word of every line, making each terminal word into a hook; Fagen’s hilarious enunciation of “wingding” (how many other lyricists would have chosen that word over the more prosaic “party”?); the guitar playing of Larry Carlton and Hugh McCracken; the little riff the backing vocalist in the right-hand channel does on “Brubeck”; the tone-cluster piano squonk just before the guitar solo; the contrast set up in the lyric between the bright optimistic future the singer imagines for himself (studying design overseas, of course) and the suburban nuclear paranoia he’s living in right now. Fagen is a guy with warm memories but a clear-eyed view of his atomic-age youth.

As he doubles down on what I hope is merely his crusty-old-geezer routine in his new Rolling Stone tour diary (his Eminent Hipsters tour diary is, while very funny, also very crusty), it’s refreshing to relisten to The Nightfly and certain songs off Aja (the title track, Deacon Blues, Josie) and hear a Donald Fagen that meets the world with neither a defiant snark nor a cane raised in the air.

Nightfly

The author’s own recently recorded work:

Medley: The Battle of Aughram/Five In A Line – The John Renbourn Group

John Mayer (the composer, not the skeezy American singer-guitarist) founded Indo-Jazz Fusions in the early 1960s with the aim of blending Indian and Western classical music with jazz improvisation. While there was a significant crossover between Anglo and Indian musical traditions in the 1960s (John Coltrane, who studied with Ravi Shankar; George Harrison, who did likewise and brought the sound Indian music to the Beatles’ vast audience; the Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc.), Mayer’s work was fundamentally different. Born to an Indian mother and Anglo-Indian father, he came at the fusion from an Indian cultural starting point, not a Western one like Coltrane or later Harrison. His thinking was influenced by his studies with Matyas Sether at the Royal Academy in London, who encouraged him to combine the techniques of Indian and Western music in serial composition,

Mayer was a first-rate violinist, and worked to support himself by playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (where his parallel career as a composer led to tension with the management), and later the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he found a happier home, having been personally asked to join by Thomas Beecham.

He stayed there until 1964, when he was approached by Dennis Preston from EMI. Preston asked him if he had anything that could be used to complete an album he was working on. It needed to be brief, and jazz-based. Mayer, spotting an opportunity, told Preston he had just the thing for him. Preston was excited, and suggested they record it the next day, forcing Mayer to stay up all night to write the piece.

Six months later, Preston contacted Mayer to tell him he’d played the piece to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who’d liked what he’d heard and suggested that Mayer write music for a whole album fusing Indian music and jazz. Ertegun’s idea was to combine Mayer’s quintet of Indian musicians with a jazz quintet led by alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Indo-Jazz Fusions was recorded by this group, known at first as the Joe Harriott and John Mayer Double Quintet, in two days in 1966. The album sold well and the group changed its name to Indo-Jazz Fusions, taking on the name of its now-famous work.

Indo-Jazz Fusions included tabla player Keshav Sathe who, after the death of Harriott and the band’s subsequent demise, went on to play in the 5-piece John Renbourn Group in the late 1970s (which also featured Pentangle singer Jacqui McShee, fiddler Sue Draheim and flautist Tony Roberts). The band’s first record, A Maid in Bedlam, continued the two-decades-old work of with melding Indian and Western musical traditions, this time by combing Sathe’s Indian rhythms with traditional British folk songs. The playing, as you would imagine, is stellar, and Sathe’s tablas work beautifully with Renbourn’s guitar.

Pentangle, with Terry Cox on drums, had been an intensely rhythmic group, but this is something else again; Sathe’s patterns are at once more organised and less free-form than the loose, jazzy ones played by Cox, but also harder to get a handle on, at least to me, with my unschooled Western ears. What first sound like improvised bar-by-bar variations on a theme instead turn out to be long intricate patterns of many different strokes (there are six gharānā, or traditions, of tabla playing, and they all have different strokes that characterise them, at least nine or 10 per school) that play out over four or eight bars, rather than the one or two we’re used to hearing in Western pop drumming. It’s a complex but addictive sound that you can get lost in, and it’s a shame that Renbourn only made two records with Sathe (fortunately, Sathe also popped up on John Martyn’s Inside Out, one of my very favourite albums).

John Renbourn grou

Sathe, Roberts, Draheim, Renbourn, McShee

John Renbourn died on 26 March 2015

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis

Mathis’s reading of My Funny Valentine is a troubling record.

My Funny Valentine (like The Lady is a Tramp and You Took Advantage of Me) comes from a Rogers & Hart show called Babes in Arms. The song is sung by Billie to her lover Valentine (Val), who is all the things she says he is: funny, dopey, but sweet. She sees him as he is, loves him anyway, and tells him so, dismissing any fears he may have about their relationship or his need to change.

The long, pseudo-medieval first verse is omitted in many recordings. The classic Sinatra take left it out. Chet Baker left it out. Ella Fitzgerald, in her 1956 reading, included it, yet the tempo she took it at suggests a desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, so she could get to the good stuff, the real meat of the song.

It’s clear why Sinatra and Baker would drop it – any male performer taking the song on would have to reckon with the gender ambiguity that resulted from a lyric written to be sung by a female character:

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend,
The picture thou hast made.
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent,
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He includes the long introduction and lingers over it, glorying in the parodic courtliness of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, while the two guitarists play interweaving lines like the left and right hands of a harpsichord player, throwing in every counterpoint idea they can think of.

But sensitive as he is to sound, he seems insensible to meaning. Mathis, in his anxiety to avoid any gender confusion that might come from a man singing a woman’s song, changes the word ‘Thou’ which begins the penultimate line to ‘I’m your’ and spoils the joke; a second ago he had a dim-witted friend. Now he’s the dimwit.

It’s an awful moment. A clanger.

What’s going on here? Could any interpretive singer with Mathis’s skill and intelligence be that deaf to the implications of a pronoun change in a song with a female narrator? Surely he would recognise that he had two good options available (drop the verse, or sing it as written and trust the audience would understand that Mathis was only reciting the original text), and that changing the lyric was the worst option possible?

Perhaps. Or maybe something else is going on here. Vocal androgyny was Mathis’s whole shtick as a young singer. His supple, opera-trained voice, with its bell-like purity, high tessitura and heavy vibrato, sounded feminine. It was capable of performing whatever whims he fancied, as the mood took: great leaps landing each time in the middle of the note, or sweeping legato slides up or down the octave.

He revelled in these qualities; his early vocal performances speak of a singer near-drunk on the possibilities of his instrument. Every phrase of Mathis’s take on My Funny Valentine displays his self-confidence. Indeed, the setting of the whole album (Open Fire, Two Guitars – it’s an apt title since double bass apart, all that is present in the arrangements are two jazz guitars and Mathis’s vocal) speaks to his, or producer Mitch Miller’s, absolute faith in his tone and technique, stripping his accompaniment back to the barest bones, letting the spotlight fall solely on that voice.

Still just 23 when he recorded Valentine in 1959 and (as he would remain until 1982) a closeted homosexual, Mathis may not have known precisely whereof he sang at this point in his life. Or, maybe he did, but was hypersensitive to charges of effeminacy and so changed the lyrics so he wouldn’t be singing a ‘girl’s song’.

Whatever the reason, Mathis’s version, as beautiful as it is, achieves its beauty by misreading the lyric, tonally as well as texturally. He flattens the song out by approaching the music from one emotional angle only. What makes My Funny Valentine a classic, most particularly in its Sinatra/Riddle incarnation, is the way that singer and arranger acknowledge and mirror each other’s shifts in tone, from playful teasing to romantic devotion and back again. This is why Sinatra’s reading remains definitive, lack of intro verse notwithstanding.

Mathis’s reading remains an enigma. He picks endlessly surprising routes through the text in the company of his two guitarists, with note and phrasing choices that are inspired and frequently thrilling. So while his reading of the song ultimately comes over as gauche (whatever the reason), Mathis’s remains one of the very finest, and most predictive*, versions of one of the greatest songs in the canon.

johnny mathis

*With the clean electric guitars, the androgynous falsetto, the voice of almost limitless potential held back only by its limited emotional palette, Open Fire, Two Guitars reminds me almost constantly of Jeff Buckley. It’s often uncanny.