Monthly Archives: August 2017

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

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More thoughts on Tim Hardin

If that title makes this post sound like a sequel, it is – to a piece I wrote four years ago and wasn’t all that pleased with.

Last night I played Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe for an audience. I’ve never performed Hardin’s music in front of anyone before, and I picked it not because I thought anyone would know his version, but because they might know Rod Stewart’s, and Mel and I were looking to leaven a long duo set of our original stuff with a few songs people might know. I mentioned that Hardin’s recording was a smaller, more intimate record than the version Stewart cut for Every Picture Tells a Story, and that I would be playing Hardin’s take on the song, just in case they thought I’d stopped because I’d forgotten how it went.

Many artists who take on Hardin can’t resist the urge to urge to elongate and inflate the original text. Hardin’s songs in this day and age can seem alien – so terse, so concise. Five of the 10 songs on Tim Hardin 2 are less than two minutes long. When the average pop song is at least 90 seconds longer than that, Hardin’s ultra-minimal work can come over a bit like a demo that someone else will be taking and polishing up: repeating some bits here and there, raising the key, pushing the tempo.

Yet few versions of Hardin’s songs improve at all on the originals in any respect. Brief as they may be, Hardin’s recordings aren’t short of emotion or ideas; quite the reverse. It’s more that he refused to repeat hooks or choruses for the sake of catchiness if there was no emotional reason to do it. The bit that everyone remembers from Reason to Believe (“Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”) only happens once in Hardin’s recording; the second time it comes round, Hardin doesn’t sing and lets the orchestra carry it. He then sings the first verse again and simply stops at the words “Still I’d look to find a reason to believe”, letting them hang in the air.

I love that about his recordings. It’s so rare in pop music that someone makes understatement and reserve the whole cornerstone of their musical approach. Hardin’s work in its context is revolutionary – his first two albums (which contain Reason to Believe, Black Sheep Boy, It’ll Never Happen Again, How Can We Hang On to a Dream, Misty Roses, If I Were a Carpenter, Red Balloon and Speak Like a Child) were released in 1966 and 1967, years when pop was entering its psychedelic phase and was going maximal.

However untogether he was in his life away from music, Hardin trusted his instincts and refused to follow the herd. Within eighteen months of his first record’s release, a whole movement of singer-songwriters and rootsy rock bands (under the direct influence of The Band and Bob Dylan, a public fan of Hardin’s work) would themselves move away from the high-volume, bright-colour aesthetic of psychedelia towards something more minimal and organic. They were simply rediscovering what Hardin had known all along: the power of speaking quietly when everyone else is shouting.

tim-hardin-1

 

Glen Campbell RIP

Your childhood favourites never leave you, and thanks to albums like this, Glen Campbell was one of mine:

Country Scene cover

This cheapo Music for Pleasure compilation from the early eighties began with Galveston and ended with Rhinestone Cowboy*. Thirty years later, both songs, and especially the former, remain incredibly important and precious to me, and I genuinely can’t hear Galveston without tearing up. Next time I listen to it, it’ll have to be in private.

Glen Campbell was not a young man, and he had been unwell for some years, so we shouldn’t get maudlin here. But we should take a moment to remember the absolutely towering contribution he made to popular music.

I’m sure I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know about Glen Campbell. After years of playing guitar on sessions and cutting singles trying to get a break, Gentle on My Mind made his name in 1967. His interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s songs (Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston – Campbell had an instinct for choosing the best songs) in the years that followed cemented his reputation as one of the foremost interpretative singers not just in country, but in any kind of music. No one who took on Wichita Lineman or By the Time I Get to Phoenix improved them (not even Isaac Hayes – sorry, James, if you’re reading this). You can’t improve perfection.

He had a TV show and tried his hand at acting with some success. He cut gorgeous duets with Bobbie Gentry and Anne Murray. In his session days, he played guitar and bass on Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra records as part of the Wrecking Crew – and toured with the Beach Boys, too. Even now he’s still underappreciated as a guitarist.

If there was one positive to come out of his Alzheimer’s-stricken final years, it was the sight of Campbell performing in front of adoring audiences, old and young, some of whom had only heard of him through his 2008 covers album, Meet Glen Campbell, on which he covered the likes of the Foo Fighters, Green Day and Paul Westerberg. Their appreciation of him was sharpened by the knowledge that he was slipping away. No artist deserved a victory lap more.

Glen-Campbell-Capitol-Archives

*It also took in Anne Murrary’s Snowbird, Crystal Gayle’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue and Talking in Your Sleep, Don Schlitz’s own recording of The Gambler, Billie Jo Spears’ Blanket on the Ground and Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. It’s amazing how much lasting happiness can be derived from something that only existed because someone at MfP saw a quick, cheap way to make an easy profit.

 

 

Attics of My Life – Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, ft Amy Helm

I guess if anyone has earned the right to take on Attics of My Life, it’s Larry Campbell.

Campbell is a cornerstone of a certain kind of American roots music, the kind for whom Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are themselves cornerstone records. At 61, he’s half a generation younger than the guys who inspired him, and he’s spent a lifetime learning from them, studying them and gradually becoming a trusted lieutenant for more of them than you care to name.

Let’s name some, just so you know he’s legit: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Hot Tuna, even BB King – Campbell has played guitar for all of them. That’s his bona fides.

In 2015, Campbell and actress and singer Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife of 20-odd years) released a record together, the first time either had had their names on the front cover of any record. Their version of Attics of My Life, honed in concert over several years (they’ve performed it often with Phil Lesh, so it has the blessing of one of the masters, if that kind of thing makes a difference to you), closed the album.

Attics was the big vocal-harmony song on American Beauty, the track where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary made on Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Lesh took in their achievement on that song was clear. Jerry Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Robert Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you’re hearing the guys push themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.

Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. I think Campbell and Williams’s version of the song gets its power from a few sources. Firstly, Campbell’s adaptation of the music for one guitar is clever and flawlessly executed. Second, Campbell and Williams are substantially older than the guys in the Dead were when they cut Attics; Campbell is 61, Williams, I guess, in her fifties. Campbell’s oaky voice sounds its age. That adds another dimension to a lyric that is about the difference made over the course of a life by the grace and affirmation bestowed by another. Thirdly, whoever Hunter had in mind when he wrote those words (whether a lover, or some kind of spiritual or universal grace), when Campbell and Williams sing it, it’s impossible not to be conscious of their relationship and put out of your head the idea that they’re singing to each other.

Campbell, Williams and a guesting Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s late Levon Helm, who recorded Tennessee Jed on his final album) sing the song beautifully, slowing the tempo, caressing each note and breathing as one. It’s cover version as holy writ. It gives me chills.

Larry Campbell Teresa Williams

Music Critics have Stopped Yelling at Clouds

When I was younger, a big part of why I read music writing was to have my biases and prejudices reinforced by reading a negative piece about a band I didn’t like. At the time (late nineties), there were plenty of music writers, at least in the UK, willing to oblige, including more than a few who made this kind combative writing into a shtick.

Whether or not I agreed with their published opinions week to week, I usually enjoyed the writing. It wasn’t just that it seemed invigorating and funny. It went deeper than that. Music fandom seemed much more tribal then, and the need to actively police the boundaries of your tastes much more pressing. It was only natural that, to do this, you’d need to vigorously put the boot in on stuff that you found wanting as well as simply praise the things you liked. Or you’d need to read other people doing it on your behalf.

Now, in truth this stuff doesn’t tend to have a great shelf life. Bands oftentimes have longer careers than writers, unless you’re Robert Christgau or something, and yesterday’s roiling controversies look like piffling little storms in teacups just a few years on. So it’s not a huge surprise that this kind of writing has all but disappeared from pro (which in Internet terms means ad-supported) and amateur publications. The few practitioners I was aware of who made it a significant part of their online personas 10 years or so ago are no longer being published on a regular basis. The trend is more towards the evaluative and the pseudo-objective, with serious (non-click bait) writing as concerned with how a new work fits into the arc of a given artist’s career, or the music landscape in general, as it is with critiquing the music itself. And when you can hear the record for yourself with a click or two and form your own opinions, why would a writer spend time doing that? Who would want them to?

This kind of writing feels like a mature and sensible response to the situation we have now. And it always behoves writers to remember that a) opinions about art are only opinions, and b) even given that, little music that we hear will strike us as either really great or really terrible. Most of it is in the middle, and contains something redeeming, whether it’s in the quality of the mix, the attention to detail in the arrangement, the technical proficiency of the singer or whatever.

For me, I can only find it within myself to be angry at records that seem insultingly cynical, and that’s fairly rare*. More than ever, too, I’m aware that new artists (and writers) are for the most part a decade younger than me. Maybe their first album isn’t very good, but if there’s something in it, there’s always the chance that they can take it, develop it and grow. Who would have known in 1982 that Talk Talk would one day make Spirit of Eden?

On the I Love Music message board over the last couple of days, a few regularly published music writers have been discussing all this stuff, with some really interesting perspectives thrown up by those who are “in the game”, so to speak, work with editors regularly and are affected on a day-to-day basis by issues like: will X record company put us on a blacklist for panning their new artist’s debut, and, will running a “meh” review get us more clicks or fewer than a more obviously positive or negative review. These are issues I feel grateful not to have to face. Taken all together, they make it pretty clear that massively negative reviews haven’t just disappeared because music writers as a breed have gotten more fair-minded. There’s a complex web of issues here.**

For what it’s worth, I still enjoy reading negative reviews and opinions about a band or artist if the writer has done the work of engaging with their music and isn’t just being controversial to generate clicks, or infamy. That said, as I get older and more reflective myself, the less knee-jerk tone of modern criticism does seem to be a net gain.

*I think Mercy by Duffy was the last time a single actively made me angry on this score, and that was 10 years ago. But still, the effrontery of it was outrageous. A straight rewrite of Rehab and replace the “No, no no”s with “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s. It was breathtakingly cynical, especially when performer and cowriter openly admitted the album was already recorded but was missing a first single. Hall of shame stuff from performer and writer Steve Booker.

**A few days ago, Pitchfork ran a review of the new Arcade Fire record where the writer seemed wounded personally by the band’s new music. He professed only to like one or two songs, and those not without reservation. It reads like, at most, a 2-star review (out of five), yet the published score out of 10 was 5.6. Like I said, a complex web of issues going on here. It’s been a while since I read that negative-seeming a review on a big online music site, though.