Monthly Archives: February 2016

Guilty – Barbra Streisand & Barry Gibb

In the mid-1970s the music industry rose to Olympian heights after a tough few years. Records by the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton sold in thitherto unimaginable quantities and everyone involved made correspondingly astronomical sums of money. But sitting top of the heap, king of the unit-shifters, was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Not actually a Bee Gees album (their picture is on the cover sleeve, but it’s a various-artists record – the Gibbs brothers wrote only six and performed just five of the 17 tracks on the original release), Saturday Night Fever nevertheless turned the Bee Gees into the pre-eminent kings of disco, all off the back of half a dozen R&B songs they’d cut in Miami over the course of three years for various album projects.

Their success made them sought-after producers and writers for hire and, in 1980, Barbra Streisand asked Barry Gibb if he’d write an album for her. Streisand had risen to prominence in the 1960s as a cabaret belter, singing with Judy Garland and Ethel Merman for TV specials, until in 1969 she released an album of contemporary pop and rock material. She stayed in this idiom throughout the 1970s, faring best with ballads (who can deny The Way We Were?) but dismally when trying to be hip with the kids. She even managed to make Donna Summer seem uncool when the two duetted on No More Tears (Enough is Enough) in 1979.

Taking on the challenge of writing for Streisand, Gibb responded by adapting his style somewhat, slowing the tempos and allowing greater space for the lead vocal in the arrangement. The songs that Barry (co-writing some of the tracks with Robin and Maurice) gave Streisand were some of the best she’d ever had to work with, and they brought out the best in her. Singing Gibbs’s material, she dialled down the eyes-and-teeth, can-you-hear-me-in-the-back-row projecting that mars so much of her work. Most of the time when she sings, Streisand sounds imperious, a star who knows she’s a star. It’s a polarising, divisive vocal persona. Singing Guilty and Woman in Love, she sounded softer, much more human. They’re the perfect Streisand records for a Streisand sceptic like me.

Both songs are masterful slices of post-disco balladry, but force me to pick one and I’ll plump for Guilty. I’m particularly fond of Guilty’s asymmetrical phrases and the sudden jumps created by dropping in a bar of 5/4 here (in the verses) or 7/4 there (choruses) – a neat trick that Gibb would repeat in the intro to Dionne Warwick’s Heartbreaker a few years later. Gibb’s contrasting  vocal in the second verse works beautifully, and when those three-part harmonies come in during the final chorus with Barry’s moneymaker falsetto on top, it’s a triumphant moment.

Thirty years on, though, and “We’ve got nothing to be guilty of” is still a grammatical howler.

barry & babs

Clap Hands – Tom Waits

Tom Waits was an early signing to David Geffen’s first label, Asylum, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. For his debut album, Closing Time, they paired him with producer Jerry Yester, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Yester, it’s said, emphasised the folk and country elements of his music at the expense of the jazz (he has been accused of doing the same thing to Tim Buckley, with the story being that Buckley made Happy Sad the record it is over Yester’s objections). Closing Time was, then, a pretty pallid singer-songwriter record of the sort that were ten a penny in the early seventies, only a couple of songs – notably Grapefruit Moon – standing out as a cut above.

Waits’s second album The Heart of Saturday Night, recorded and produced by jazz veteran Bones Howe, was the breakthrough, the first recognisable Tom Waits album – the late-night feel, the beatnik persona, the double bass and muted trumpet, the beat poetry, and – crucially – the sly sense of humour all in place. A very strong album that still provides material for modern jazz singers (that said, I don’t need to hear another version of the title track, thanks very much), Saturday Night remains highly rated but was arguably eclipsed by Small Change, his fourth album from two years later.

His voice now more gravelly than ever (Louis Armstrong with laryngitis), Waits recorded the whole album live to 2-track tape, no overdubs – the old-fashioned way. Waits’s whole mission, it seemed, was to be in a 1940s movie, a small-time loser who coulda been a contender, complete with hat, trenchcoat, battered suit and bottle of whiskey. The problem was that although it marked him out from his Canyon Cowboy contemporaries, even in 1976 that persona was more than a little clichéd. Certainly it was leading him into a creative cul-de-sac. He lived the part so completely that he was dangerously close to coming apart: drinking too much, sleeping too little and constantly finding himself in places he shouldn’t have been with people it would have been wiser to avoid.

His songs seemed to know more about the dangers of alcoholism than he did, and it wasn’t until a year or so after he wrote Bad Liver and a Broken Heart and The Piano Has Been Drinking that he got himself clean and sober. At that point he started to move away from the extremes of that beatnik persona, spending a few years in an artistic holding pattern before re-emerging in a New York on a new label and with a new character – the disconcerting carny complete with junkyard orchestra – and eventually his second great masterwork, Rain Dogs.

Yes, Rain Dogs. Swordfishtrombones may have been his first album in his new style, but Rain Dogs is the better one, taking all the ideas suggested by Swordfish and developing them, taking them to the obvious conclusion. Swordfish tracks including Underground, Shore Leave and the title song make it clear that a suffering marimba is going to be a key part of Waits’s new sound world, but it’s Clap Hands from Rain Dogs that’s Waits’s marimba masterwork.

The arrangement is a simple one: Waits on acoustic guitar, Marc Ribot on electric lead, Tony Garnier on double bass and Michael Blair, Stephen Hodges and Bobby Previte on marimbas and various drums and percussion. Percussion instruments both found and exotic were the crucial instruments in Waits’s world in the 1980s, and few instruments are given traditional r contemporary treatments (the overtly 1980s-sounding electric guitars on Downtown Train come are shocking in their conventionality in the context of Rain Dogs – much as I like the song, I’m not sure it belongs on the album).

Lyrically, too, Clap Hands employs a simple trick. It takes the chanted nursery-rhyme vocal rhythm (and some of the lines verbatim) of The Clapping Song and refracts them through Waits’s surrealist sensibility, always resolving on the song’s title:

Sane, sane, they’re all insane
The fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame
A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame
Hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain
Clap hands, clap hands

Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime
All the way to Baltimore and runnin’ out of time
Salvation Army seemed to wind up in the hole
They all went to heaven in a little row boat
Clap hands, clap hands

If you find yourself one day in a waking nightmare world where nothing makes sense and see some children out on the street corner skipping rope, Clap Hands is the song they’ll be singing. It’s a crucial text in Tom Waits’s post-1970s work. If you respond to this – if you like the percussion, the skronky guitars and the black humour – Waits will likely be a big deal for you.

MCDWOLF EC004

 

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

Hall-Oates

BBC Radio Kent session

On Sunday 7th February I played a session on Doug Welch’s Kent Folk show, on BBC Radio Kent. I played four songs and there were some short interview segments between the tracks.

Here’s a link to the podcast. Hope you enjoy it!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03gjvb2

BBC Kent1

If you like any of the songs and want to download studio versions, click on the Bandcamp link below:

At the Lost & Found – Marine Research

I saw Marine Research play at the Garage in Highbury, London, in 1999, promoting their one and only album, Songs from the Gulf Stream. They were, along with Joy Zipper, supporting Quasi, who were just about to release Field Studies. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to: total indie-pop heaven.

At the time I didn’t know anything about them, and it was some while before I was able to piece any of the story together (this is pre-internet, remember). The band had its roots in a twee-pop group from Oxford in the 1980s called Talulah Gosh, a sort of English Beat Happening, with the dungarees, hairslides, lollipops and let’s-do-the-show-right-here enthusiasm that has  always been and remains the hallmark of twee-pop bands the world over. However, the affectations and faux-naivety that make, say, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson insufferable were strong in the Gosh, too, so they were divisive among music writers and fans. This sort of music always was; as many people were embarrassed by C86 as embraced it.

Talulah Gosh ran its course and in late 1989 the core of the band reconvened, this time calling themselves Heavenly, singer Amelia Fletcher and her colleagues dropping their rather precious stage names (she had been “Marigold”; Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price was “Pebbles”; Fletcher’s drummer brother Matthew was “Fat Matt”). While still apt to annoy music fans who want overt and easily understood shows of rock’n’roll rebellion, Heavenly demonstrated noticeably improved instrumental abilities, and were no longer the most shambolic live band in Britain. And if their music was still not ambitious for itself in the manner of the Manchester bands of the same era (or a few years later bands like Blur and Suede), the idea that this stuff might appeal to a wider group than anorak-wearing Peel listeners no longer seemed utterly fanciful.

Sadly Heavenly came to an abrupt end after Matthew Fletcher killed himself in 1996. He was only 25. Heavenly decided to call it a day. But they would reform once again, a couple of years later, as Marine Research, and with their new drummer they completed their evolution from indie shambles to surprisingly spiky guitar-pop band.

They only made one record, Sounds from the Gulf Stream, in 1999. It was a low-key, low-stakes kind of record (indie pop released on K Records is low-stakes almost by definition), but it was lyrically darker than Heavenly’s work had been, with a little bit of added aggression and a lot of very adult ambivalence about the world and relationships. Take At the Lost & Found, where’s the singer is caught between affection and disdain for someone she thinks she recognises from her past, and Fletcher imbues the final chorus with something not far from desperation:

I watch your shadow and think
Oh please, oh please
I watch your shadow that talks
And laughs and bleeds
You hunch your shoulders
And I’m weak at knees
At the lost and found

This was grown-up territory that Marine Research were now playing in. Venn Diagram and Chucking Out Time lived in the same place. All three are great, and Sounds from the Gulf Stream was an underappreciated little gem of a record.

Surprisingly for a band who, even in their mature work, were on the naive and childlike end of indie, away from the band they’ve all had suprisingly high-powered careers. Amelia Fletcher (or rather Dr Amelia Fletcher OBE) is a former head economist at the Office of Fair Trading, guitarist Peter Momtchiloff is in the philosophy department of the Oxford University Press, and keyboard player Cathy Rogers was once on TV every week presenting Scrapheap Challenge, before going to the US to present the American version with Henry Rollins (she devised and produced both shows, having previously worked on science shows like Horizon). She later packed in TV entirely and now owns an olive farm with her husband. Talulah Gosh co-vocalist Elizabeth Price (“Pebbles”, remember) won the Turner Prize a few years ago, and was last seen hammering the Tories in the press over cuts in arts funding.

Theirs has been a strange but rather inspiring group of careers.

mr pic

Marine Research, 1999 – Yes, this is the only picture I could find of the band

Recent home-recorded indie soft-of pop

Separated by Water – new single to download

Hi everyone,

It’s time for a small plug. I’ve put a new song called Separated by Water up on Bandcamp, with reliable old Crossing Oceans as a B-side (chosen over several other contenders for the nautical connection). You can pay what you like, minimum price is zero. Zilch. Nada.

Click play on the player below to stream or Download to claim your very own copy, in the file format of your choosing, with artwork. Clicking Download will open up a Bandcamp window in your browser and you’ll be prompted to enter a sum of your choosing. Fear not – 0 is acceptable.

I recorded and mixed it at home, playing all the instruments in my usual fashion, but had some help from Melanie Crew and James McKean on backing vocals, who did a wonderful job. I hope you like it!

Things that are happening round here

Just a little update on things related to my own music.

This Sunday, 7th February, I’ll be playing a live session for Doug Welch on his folk show on BBC Kent. It starts at 9pm, and I’ll be doing three or four songs and talking a bit about them. I’m really honoured to have been asked to do it, and am looking forward to it a lot. I’ll put a link up to the podcast once it’s up, which will probably Monday.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a digital-download single, which is a trailer for full album to come out in the spring. It’s a song I wrote just before Christmas called Separated by Water, and I’ve been working on it at home for the last month, which has been slow progress due to a cold I just haven’t been able to shake and which meant it was touch and go whether I was going to be able to get a usable vocal done in time (colds tend to completely destroy my voice and leave me unable to sing properly for a week or so after I actually feel better). Anyway, I’m mixing it tonight and tomorrow, and will let it out into the world on Saturday, so I’ll put a download link up here then.

As for the album, I’ve finished it, I think! Just need to find a mastering engineer, get some artwork, photos, all of that jazz. I’ve never done a full album release with an actual physical product, and I want to make sure I get it right.

Added to that, James McKean’s second solo album, No Peace for the Wicked, is mastered and ready for release on 27 March. I mixed it, recorded a lot of it, played my usual assortment of instruments on it, and will be playing at least one live show with James to launch it (and potentially more), so I’d like leave my release till after his one’s done and dusted. James’s record is wonderful – very well sequenced, with excellent songs and brilliant performances from a pretty substantial cast of London-based musicians, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve all done on it.

Expect mine to follow it in late April or May.

In the meantime, here’s a bunch of songs more or less certain to be on it.