Monthly Archives: March 2016

No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the whole album with new arrangements and is performing the whole of the album on this tour, using the new arrangements put together for Paradise is There. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.*

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

natalie-merchant

* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice, and initially seemed to dismiss my comments about the musical similarity. It’s as clear as day, though, especially on River. She said to me when the first song of the second set was over that, now I’d pointed it out, the Stipe influence was plainly audible.

The Ride – Joan as Police Woman

Joan as Police Woman’s first album came out in the summer of 2006, and was the last album I bought* while sharing a house with friends in Ladywell. A few weeks after it came out, I moved back to Southend.

Real Life is a record that’s appropriate to starting a new phase in your life; it seems to have come out of a new phase in Joan Wasser’s. The record’s key lyric (in the title track, which opens the record), “I’ve never included a name in a song/But I’m changing my ways for you Jonathan”, insists that the singer is in a new and better place.

Certain reviews of Real Life made an inevitably big deal of Wasser’s relationship with Jeff Buckley, but to view her through the prism of one relationship is reductive. Over a lifetime many things will happen to most people, and all leave their mark. Real Life is sometimes a serious listen, but it’s also cautiously joyful, playful, meditative, defiant, comforting and sexy. The world is not without  good singers, tight bands, stellar songwriters and (even now, albeit only occasionally) records that sound as good as this, but the range of emotions contained on Real Life’s songs is the album’s distinguishing feature. It’s what gives it an unmistakeable authority.

Much coverage was also dedicated to Wasser’s time playing with Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. Both at the time were still pretty high-profile artists, so it was understandable, if lazy. But her own work was substantially different to both, although Antony Hegarty guests on I Defy, an album highlight. Instead, Real Life is essentially a soul record with an indie rock sensibility, and when the two strands of Wasser’s work are intertwined so completely as to be indivisible, that’s when the album is most itself. The straightforward rock songs, Eternal Flame (not the Bangles’ one) and Christobel, hint at Wasser’s past in the Dambuilders and her time backing Lou Reed and Tanya Donelly, but Feed the Light, with its uneasy vocal harmony and squealing noises, and Save Me, with its heavy groove and half-whispered, half-yelped interjections of “Save me!”, are where the Real Life is differs from the Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae records that it may sometimes superficially resemble. And of course, both Jones and Bailey Rae have moved a long way from their starting points of MOR jazz and trad. soul revivalism respectively.

But for all this, my two favourites are the ones most obviously derived from 1970s soul: Anyone (“I’m ready to start to be ready…”) with its languorous 6/8 tempo and dominant horn chart, and The Ride, a beautiful, hushed ballad based on electric piano and the sympathetic playing of original bandmembers Rainy Orteca (bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums).

The Ride is one of those perfect songs you only get once every few years. When Wasser’s voice glides from a sleepy alto to its highest register to sing the final chorus, it’s the sound of someone throwing caution to the wind and declaring themselves. It’s exhilarating and moving and triumphant.

Real Life was a stunning record, beautifully recorded by Bryce Goggin: lush and spacious, deep and rich, competitively loud but with drums crystal clear and retaining their punch. It’s one of my favourite records of the last decade, and one I still listen to frequently now.

joan

*From Morps, the record stall in the now closed Lewisham model market
**A post about Bailey Rae’s alt. rock past and time signed to heavy-metal label Roadrunner may one day happen
***He’s played with a huge range of artists, from John Zorn and Joseph Arthur – who guests on Real Life – to Clem Snide and Charles and Eddie

When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag – Laura Nyro

Hi all. I’m in the middle of a busy 2-week period with a lot of work and other things. I can’t imagine posting anything before Sunday night unless I dip into the archive. So here you are.

Laura Nryo is the last word in pop prodigies. I can’t think of anyone whose songs – and ability to deliver them – were so perfectly formed and mature at such a young age. She wrote Wedding Bell Blues at 18, and it, along with And When I Die, Billy’s Blues and Stoney End all appeared on her first album, More Than A New Discovery, released when she was 19. When I think back to what I wrote at 18…

That debut album, released on Verve Folkways, brought her to the attention of David Geffen, then a young wannabe agent on the make. He convinced her to take him on, got her out of her previous business arrangements, set up a publishing company with her and got her signed to Columbia. This was a good place for her to be. Columbia had great studios, some of the best producers and engineers (Charlie Calello, Roy Halee and Arif Mardin), and access to the kind of funds needed to hire the best musicians in town to play her idiosyncratic, irregular music: Chuck Rainey, Hugh McCracken, Richard Davis, Alice Coltrane and even Duane Allman are just a few of the musicians who played on her trio of classic albums from the late sixties and early seventies, Eli & the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Christmas & the Beads of Sweat.

All of these albums are essential. My favourite is probably New York Tendaberry, which has fewer famous songs than the other two, but is a richer, more elusive and ultimately more rewarding album qua album. Eli is where you go for standout songs and, truth to tell, a little filler (but those highlights include Emmie, Lu, Eli’s Coming, Stoned Soul Picnic so who’s grousing?).

Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, the last of her three great albums, is something else again. The most diverse and in some ways the most difficult of the classic trio, lacking as it does the unifying themes and mood of New York Tendaberry and the sheer volume of transcendent melodies on Eli, Christmas wrong-foots you by throwing in songs like When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag and her transcendent version of Up on the Roof in among all the difficult stuff. Songs like Map to the Treasure are commendably ambitious in musical form, but lack the assuredness of the similarly complex material on New York Tendaberry (Gibsom Street, say) or the lightness of touch present on Eli.

But When I Was a Freeport is a no-arguments career highlight. It’s a slight return to the style of her debut album, albeit one with a wiser, more adult lyrical sensibility. Lines don’t come much better than “I’ve got a lot of patience, baby, and that’s a lot of patience to lose”, and I never fail to smile at the “Whew” she inserts before the last (very Dylanesqe) “drag-uh”. It’s a mystery to me why she didn’t end the album with this song – no ending to the first stage of her career could have been more fitting.

lauranyro2
Nearly up on the roof – Laura Nyro, poet of New York

George Martin – in memoriam

There’s really only one thing to talk about today. George Martin died yesterday, aged 90.

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was in the story of The Beatles, and by extension the story of popular music as a whole.

In any label-funded scenario, the producer is ultimately responsible to the record label, not the artist or band. The producer’s job is to get from the artist a product that the label can sell; that’s why they’re called producers. Nevertheless, good producers nurture the artists they work with, teaching them what they know about writing, performing and arranging, or at least facilitating and supporting the artist as they pursue their own growth and development.

No producer ever did a better job than George Martin did with The Beatles. No one did it with more class or grace. He encouraged the band, supported them, gave their songs the benefit of his arranging skills, and assembled a team of incredible audio engineers for them, then allowed them to break every rule in EMI’s book in the quest for great sounds.

The man was a giant of his field, rightly held in awe within the industry, but recognised and respected for his work by the public who, however much they knew about Martin’s role in making those records, recognise that they couldn’t have done it without him.

smoking

 

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

King by Belly

Belly have reformed. Let’s start there.

I didn’t expect that to happen. I got the impression from Tanya Donelly’s somewhat sporadic musical activity in the last ten years that she was done with the music industry, and that she’d soon fade from public view altogether, as implied by the title of the EP series she’s been working on for the last few years, Swan Song. I was totally cool with that. There’s something dignified and graceful in getting out and choosing to stay out.

But there are plenty of precedents for reunited bands doing great work in their second phase: Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, The Go-Betweens, Alice in Chains, even, with a different lead singer. So if Belly are going to come back and do it for real – a new album as well as a tour – sign me up. I’ve got nothing but respect for them – I hope they have a blast and make some decent dough doing it.

It’s somewhat over 21 years since the band’s second, and so far, final album came out. King is one of those records that has stuck with me a long time. I first heard it in 1998, after the band had already broken up, and it stayed on heavy rotation on my stereo for a couple of years. Nowadays, as with most of the records that if pushed I’d pick as my favourites, I don’t really listen to it. But the announcement of a new tour (tickets on sale tomorrow – if I don’t get any, you’ll probably hear my anguished cries) made it inevitable that it would soundtrack my journey to and from work today.

I’ve written about the record very briefly before but let me recap, even more briefly. King was recorded by engineer/producer Glyn Johns at Compass Point studios in Nassau. Johns had worked on Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Stage Fright, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin (just to take the five biggest titles from his discography). Working with a guy like that was an extremely unusual move for an alternative rock band in 1995, when every record label just wanted Andy Wallace or, if he wasn’t available, one of those Lord Alge brothers with that new-fangled drum sound of theirs. Johns was as old school as it got, and his work on King made it stand out a mile.

Johns encouraged the band to record the album live: two guitars, bass and drums, all together, all bleeding into each other. Even the vocals. “Any band that can play a gig can play live in a studio,” he’s said. “There was no backup plan.”

This was not standard industry practice in 1995, and in 2016 is practically unheard of. When you record this way, every microphone contains ambient sound as well as the direct sound of whatever instrument the microphone is primarily picking up. Bass goes into the guitar mics. Drums go into the bass amp mic. Everything goes into everything else. Fine, if the band can play well. But because nothing can be edited independent of any other sound source, it’s a method of recording that forces you either to not make mistakes, or to make them and live with them.

King is full of mistakes. It’s a document of band, and a band that were, for all their many virtues, not Steely Dan. Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on Seal My Fate and Silverfish. Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible.

It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.

This sound is perfect for the set of songs Donelly had written (largely in collaboration with Tom Gorman). Less surreal and sinister than the songs on Star, King tracks like Judas My Heart and The Bees still demonstrate that quality of prime-era Donelly: a gorgeous, indelible melody coupled with a lyric that seeks to hide its vulnerability behind images and symbols, the urge to be plainspoken and honest fighting with the urge to protect oneself. Thus The Beeds can contain lyrics as imagistic as:

Now the bees behind my eyes sing beware

and as plain-spoken as:

I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold now that I’m older?
I tell you stories
That doesn’t mean you know me

At this point, the record’s slower, more interior-looking songs – The Bees, Seal My Fate and Silverfish – are my favourites, but if sparkly, guitar-heavy pop is more your thing, King has plenty of that too. Red, Super-Connected and Now They’ll Sleep are all neglected White Album-ish classics, and the title track is a grindy, initially unpromising grower that halfway through suddenly becomes something else entirely.

Star is the record that Belly will be remembered for, and its obvious why. Its best songs are extremely portable. Taken out of their context and played on the radio or placed on a iTunes playlist, Gepetto and Feed the Tree sound just wonderful. Star has some great second-tier material too. Dusted. Slow Dog. Sad Dress. White Belly. I love them all. But King? King is timeless. King is its own thing. Nothing was like it then, nothing is like it now.

belly stephen dirado

Contractually obligated Donelly-related picture of Belly on the beach (Nassau, 1995)