Monthly Archives: April 2016

Communication – The Cardigans

Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*

It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. However good they are, there’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t. But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.

The Cardigans’ discography is spottiness incarnate. Lovefool is enduringly perfect (it’s the bassline. Dear lord, that bassline); My Favourite Game is enduringly regrettable. Every album has some great moments (even Gran Turismo had Erase/Rewind), but all of their albums have clunkers and a bulk of material that’s neither really here nor there.

But Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is different. Communication wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy, although much of Long Gone Before Daylight was – the drums, for example, sound 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not 1973.

The record is beautifully arranged. The band are cast in supporting textural roles, other than guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play rather a nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice Bonham-inflected kick drum work (the influence of Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. He could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with Hot Rods for a smaller sound. The band merely provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement – only really getting big and prominent in the final chorus, but otherwise nicely supportive to the mood and atmosphere of the song – and Persson’s vocal.

Which is where a song like Communication succeeds or fails. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines (whatever they may mean to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her), and gives such force when the band plays its two huge arrangemental aces: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill and the song seems suspended in mid-air for a second until the rest of the band comes back in.
It’s a glorious moment. It’s a big moment, in some ways too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out.

Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find mass relevance. Maybe some music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.

Cardigans

*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion

**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.

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High Highs – Cascades

When it was released earlier this year, in the second week of January, Cascades by High Highs seemed pretty but insubstantial. It made intellectual sense; I could hear what they were shooting for, and why radio programming directors would feel that this song would fit on their playlists, but it didn’t make emotional sense to me as I listened to it, hurrying to Hither Green station in hat, gloves and heavy overcoat, or scurrying up St Martin’s Lane towards the office in hat, gloves and heavy overcoat, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not a song that makes most sense during an English winter. After a couple of weeks of listening to it, I found myself getting a bit bored and I moved on.

Listening to it again more recently, when we’ve had some actual springlike weather (not this last couple of days, mind), I find it makes much more sense to me. Nothing’s changed musically. Those opening guitar arpeggios still smell strongly of the Alan Parsons Project as played by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. There’s that all-encompassing reverb haze that is the unvarying production norm of contemporary indie. The drums are rigidly four square, with a disco pulse underpinning, again entirely in keeping with current fashions.

But Cascades’ washed-out late-summer mood makes much more emotional sense now. It’s a song for those days when the afternoons are still warm enough to send you in search of shade and a cold drink, but when the evening brings a refreshing coolness. Every day we get closer to summer, it feels more appropriate to me.

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A cool Adriatic evening, last September

Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

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Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

Kathryn Williams/Astrid Williamson @ Sydenham Arts, 15/04/16

Two artists I’ve seen play before, in the same venue, at different gigs, in 1998 and 2001 – half a lifetime ago.

Astrid Williamson I saw, billed only as Astrid, supporting the Unbelievable Truth at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre. I was, I guess, 16. I’m 34 now. I’ve written about my teenage enthusiasm for the Unbelievable Truth’s first album before; it took me up to London in the company of two schoolfriends on a Sunday night to the university I hoped to be attending 18 months later to see my first sit-down concert (as opposed to the stand-up-and-bounce-around sort of show – I’d been to several of those).

In the intervening years, I’d not thought often about Astrid Williamson, whose music struck me as pleasant but unremarkable. Back then, her label seemed to be hoping that a mix of adult-oriented songwriting with gentle beats would appeal to the Beth Orton fans. It was too limited a market, probably; it didn’t happen. Her days of being pitched to a pop audience ended.

Last night she played nothing that could really be construed as a pop song, though the market dictates that she release singles and try to get airplay. She mentioned some success she’s having with 6 Music, and the song she said is going to be her next single, Scattered, was the highlight of the set for me: a soulful piano ballad in 6/8 time with, in its recorded version, an emotionally raw vocal. I can’t see it getting much daytime airplay (frankly it’s much too raw vocally; naked to the point where the listener will turn away if unable to embrace it), but it’s a fine piece of writing, the best thing I’ve heard by her.

Headliner Kathryn Williams was promoting Little Black Numbers – her second album, and the one that brought her to wide attention through a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the last time I saw her play. Not a comfortable performer back then, she talked so much between songs that she ran out of time to get to everything on her set list. These days she’s still apt to chat nervously between songs, but in all other ways is a more accomplished performer. In the last few years she’s regained her early-career form after a few years of drift in the mid-noughties, a period unrepresented in her set on Friday; instead it was heavy on songs from Crown Electric and new album Hypoxia, with a couple of very old songs from Dog Leap Stairs and Little Black Numbers.

Hypoxia, is the result of a commission from New Writing North to write some songs inspired by Sylvia Plath, and on the evidence of those she played live, it’s a strong record, full of tangled and frequently dark emotions. Mirrors, which saw Williams, layering vocals with a loop pedal, is one of the finest songs she’s yet written. Cuckoo, a sort of centrepiece song for the record, written from the point of view of Plath’s mother, was particular affecting, although the shouty thing she did midway through the song was a little distracting (it felt too much like a conscious piece of performance to me).

What’s great from the perspective of this fan, though, is to see her taking risks, expanding her palette emotionally, musically and lyrically. I drifted away from Williams’s music in around 2003, and in retrospect it seems a response to a period in her work where she’d stopped moving forward. As I wrote here, Little Black Numbers saw a lot of the rough edges of Dog Leap Stairs being smoothed away, and this coupled with an over-reliance on stock chord sequences tended to make much of her music sound and feel similar. Over the course of Old Low Light, Relations and Over Fly Over, the lack of variation, risk and challenge in her music became palpable.

Possibly she felt the same, as after Leave to Remain (for me the third in a sequence of rather underwhelming records; fourth, if you count covers album Relations) she found new collaborators and left her long-time band behind. Which was tough on Laura Reid and David Scott (her rather excellent former cellist and guitarist), but Neil MacColl, Ed Harcourt and Adrian Utley seem, in their different ways, to have inspired her to reach beyond the comfortable and easy. Hypoxia is extremely uneasy, and reminds you that it was only familiarity that has made Dog Leap Stairs seem familiar and comfortable to me; when I was 16 or 17, it seemed boldly adult and rather unknowable, full of emotions I had no experience of, or even a name for.

I left the gig feeling like Williams’s last two albums are probably the best work she’s ever done, and that the next one may be even better. It was a lovely, intimate gig in a beautiful venue (St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham), and Sydenham Arts did a fantastic job bringing it all together.

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Nada Surf live @ the Electric Ballroom, 11/04/16

Let’s start with the stop-press. I went to a gig last night and thought the sound was good.

Yes, that’s right. I have no complaints about the sound whatsoever. It was loud and full and rich and present, but controlled and not at all harsh, despite the volume. My ears were ringing only slightly immediately after the show last night, and not at all by this morning.

(Contrast that with the 48-hour tinnitus symphony I suffered through after last week’s Posies show at the 100 Club.)

Happily the show was every bit as good as the sound mix. Nada Surf’s thing – tightly written songs, vocal harmonies, guitars at that sweet spot halfway between jangly and crunchy – is not the most complicated thing in the world, but nonetheless they make it look so incredibly easy. All four members are very capable musicians. All of them pitch in with harmonies. Whatever tempo they’re played at, songs are dispatched without fuss, one after the other: bang, bang, bang. 18 songs in the set, four more in the encore, and a couple of acoustic singalongs by the merch table afterwards. Not much more than 90 minutes from first note to last. Guitarist Doug Gillard, formerly of Guided By Voices, added unshowy lead guitar and when he and Matthew Caws struck up the chiming harmonised intro of Jules & Jim, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle-pop heaven.

The set contained a good mix of material. New album You Know Who You Are is a bit of a grower, and a more than decent addition to their canon, but they didn’t go too hard after the new material, instead blending it in with established favourites. They opened with Cold to See Clear, but otherwise limited the new songs to the lovely Believe You’re Mine, Friend Hospital (repository of a couple of Caws’s dafter lyrics), Animal and Out of the Dark. Those aside, the songs were drawn more or less equally from Lucky, Let Go and The Weight is a Gift.

Personal highlights for me were Weightless (also a favourite of Mel’s), which saw the band switching impressively between its 12/8 main section and slow 4/4 passages, the aforementioned Believe You’re Mine and Jules & Jim, See These Bones (also a highlight of the Islington show – as Sara remarked to me, though, Caws is now telling the story of his visit to the Capucin monks’ ossuary in Rome as if he’s getting a bit tired of it), What Is Your Secret, Do It Again (cool bass riff, and massive cymbal-smashing awesomeness in the choruses) and Concrete Bed, essayed in the band’s trademark no-fuss style.

Nada Surf are a band I could see play many more times without getting bored. They’re so damn good at what they do, and I like what they do very much.

https://i0.wp.com/theupcoming.flmedialtd.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Nada-Surf-at-Electric-Ballroom-Filippo-LAstorina-The-Upcoming-4-1024x683.jpgMatthew Caws and Ira Elliot, onstage in London, 11/04/16 (photo: Filippo L’Astorina)

 

The Posies @ the 100 Club, 06/04/15

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to be among the lucky souls who saw Jon Auer play at the Islington, a gig that is probably among the best half-dozen or so I’ve ever been to. It made me reconnect with his music in a big way, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years listening to, not just his music, but power pop-type stuff generally.

As a teenager I was really into the idea of bands that mixed “proper” songwriting (meaning, I guess, Beatles-derived chord changes) and vocal harmonies with loud guitars and prominent drums, and the Posies did that as well as anyone since their illustrious forefathers Big Star (so well that Auer and fellow founding Posie Ken Stringfellow became members of the reconstitued Big Star, though if you’re reading this, you almost certainly know that). But that Jon Auer show got me really excited by the possibilities of that kind of music again, so seeing the Posies when they came through London again was hard to turn down.

The press photos that I’d seen used to promote the tour only showed Auer and Stringfellow, so I was half expecting a duo show. Instead it was Jon and Ken with drummer Frankie Siragusa, an LA-based multi-instrumentalist and producer. No bassist, but lots of parts being triggered by Stringfellow from his keyboards (and possibly pedals – I couldn’t see his feet from where I was).

Auer and Stringfellow seem hugely excited by playing with Siragusa, and sure enough, the dude can drum. He’s a bit of a monster, in fact. Unfortunately the mix privileged his playing over everything else, making it hard to hear the guitars and at times even the vocals (the songs where Siragusa kept time on the hats were OK; the ride cymbal was pain-threshold volume, though), which made it a little tricky to follow all the details of the new songs the guys are playing on the tour.*

Even amid the clang of cymbals, the quality of the new songs – and the evolution they represent for the band – was clear. Auer’s Unlikely Places, built on top of a robotic single-note riff, was an early highlight; single Squirrel vs Snake mixed a ’60s bubblegum melody with clever wordplay, and took on greater force than its studio counterpart; The Plague (for which they were joined by singer Gizelle Smith) welded together several hugely different sections into a seamless whole; and The Sound of Clouds was pensive, near-weightless and utterly lovely. All are in their different ways unlike anything they’ve done before.

The older songs were great, too, even without a bass player. Dream All Day got an early airing, Throwaway and Please Return It (two old favourites of mine, and the former a new favourite for Mel) were paired in the middle of the set, and Burn & Shine was a showcase for Siragusa’s fine drumming. He pretty much aced what must have been a hugely demanding song to be playing nearly 90 minutes into a set that had already thrown him some challenging material.

My favourite on the night, though, was The Glitter Prize, from 2010’s Blood/Candy, another song with Gizelle Smith guesting. The 3-part harmonies were glorious, and sent me scurrying off to iTunes to pick up an album I hadn’t got round to yet. The recorded version is superb, too. Its mid-tempo 4/4 groove puts me somewhat in mind of Fleetwood Mac, as does the mix of male and female harmonies – co-writer Kay Hanley (formerly of Letters to Cleo) also sang on the track. It’s an unusual sound for the Posies, who normally rely purely on the Auer/Stringfellow vocal blend.

I’d seen the Posies from far away at the Reading Festival, and I’d seen Auer close up at the Islington, so yesterday I payed particular attention to what Ken Stringfellow was doing. He’s a quite terrific singer, able to push his voice into screamy rock territory, sing full-throated top-line harmonies à la Graham Nash and dial it down to a delicate, intimate whisper, but his versatility last night on the guitar and keyboards was hugly impressive, too. Which reminds me, I should really dig out his first solo album, Touched – a record I’m rather fond of but haven’t listened to in full for a couple of years.

Quibbles with the sound mix aside, it was a fine show, and it’s great to see Auer and Stringfellow playing with so much enthusiasm after what must have been a horrible year for them**. It’s not an easy task to carry an audience with you for 20-odd songs when most of the crowd have never heard over half of them, but the guys managed it. I’m already enjoying spending time with their new record and looking forward to the next time they’re in London.

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Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Never stop, guys.

*The tour is in advance of the release of new album Solid States. They are selling pre-release copies at the merch table though.
**This past year their drummer Darius Minwalla and former bass player Joe Skyward have both passed away.

 

 

Kashmir – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin were formed out of Jimmy Page’s desire to create a supergroup, a behemoth, a world-conquering monster that could cast all opposition aside, and everything they did thereafter was done while conscious of the fact that they were Led Fucking Zeppelin, Destroyer of Worlds.

So Kashmir, then, is the self-consciously epic centrepiece of their most self-consciously epic record, Physical Graffiti, a double album from 1975, roughly the halfway point of their 11-year career.

Eight minutes is not an eternity, even by the standards of rock music, but it’s long enough for a band to develop quite a head of steam, and Kashmir does depend for its effect partly on accumulated momentum. Yet it’s far from being a mere musical bulldozer; Zeppelin always swung far too much to rely on power only.

The song’s principle motor is the relationship between Bonham’s simple drum pattern in 4/4 and Page’s exotic guitar riff in 3/8. Bonham maintains a common-time pattern, with a ‘heartbeat’ semiquaver bass drum (albeit one that begins on the one, rather than the semiquaver before the one), while Page’s guitar climbs from A to D and then after four bars (if you’re following the guitar riff) or three (if you’re counting with Bonham) the pattern repeats itself. The tension between the two parts – the constant rising and falling of the guitar, chord changes and emphases falling in different places in each bar – leaves the listener just a little unsure of where they are.

But then we come to John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon. In the band’s more ambitious pieces, Jones’s role was to provide the colour. As the band only very rarely used name session musicians (Boogie with Stu was a notable exception: “Stu” is Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart), Jones’s resourcefulness was often tested. In the case of Kashmir, he wrote string parts for both orchestral players and Mellotron, which he played himself. The Mellotron strings are audible in the bridges (“All I see turns to sand”, etc.) over the F and G chords – they’re the bits that sound most Arabian (geography not being the band’s strong point, or perhaps they didn’t know what Himalayan music sounded like). Live, Jones combined both parts on his Mellotron, played a bass line on the organ pedals and ditched his bass guitar early. He was the band’s most musicianly member: a former choirboy (rumours persist that at the height of Zep’s success he considered quitting the band to become choirmaster at Winchester) who can play about 17 instruments, and who played with a discipline and solidity that underpinned the rawer, sloppier virtuosity of Page and Bonham. He’s always there in the background, doing something vital but unshowy.

But what everyone remembers about Kashmir, ultimately, is the power of Page’s DADGAD-tuned riff and Bonham’s drums. They are what make the song one of Zeppelin’s crowning achievements, of which Page, Plant and Jones are all justly proud.

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Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, both pulling what I like to think of as “the Led Zeppelin face”