Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Lookout – Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs’s new album, The Lookout, begins with a run of four very strong tracks. Opener Maragret Sands, which features backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is built on Veirs’s strummed nylon-string guitar, with delicate touches of piano and lead guitar. A minute and a half in, though, the song takes a more menacing turn during an instrumental passage underpinned by a low, droney synth (I think it’s a synth, anyway). This subtly experimental sonic approach extends into single Everybody Needs You, where Veirs’s voice is multitracked, modulated and processed with echo. Tucker Martine (Veirs’s husband and long-term producer) surrounds her with the pingy delays of analogue keyboards and snatches of electric and acoustic guitar, topped off with a descending violin phrase that answers the chorus melody. Earlier Viers songs have played with these textures, but I’ve not heard anything from her that jumps so confidently into this territory.

More traditionally Veirsian, if perhaps a little more 1970s country rock than usual, is the lovely Seven Falls. This time, the arrangement is based around pedal steel and electric guitar arpeggios (it’s a little R.E.M., actually), showing how adaptable Veirs and Martine’s approach is – each song is given just what it needs and no more, by players who have been cast for their ability to play the right thing for the song. Seven Falls itself is probably my favourite on the record, not least for the indelible line “how can a child of the sun be so cold?” The matching of a resonant, evocative phrase to a melody line that seems to amplify the lyric’s meaning, as if the phrase always existed within the tune and was just waiting to be discovered, hasn’t always been a feature of Veirs’s writing, and the increasing prevalence of this mode of writing suggests (to me, anyway) a deepening and maturing of her perspective. Writing lyrics that are simple and relatable but simultaneously acute and penetrating isn’t something many songwriters can pull off, so this recent turn in Veirs’s work is impressive.

The next track is a cover of the Grateful Dead’s Mountains of the Moon, a somewhat fey piece of acoustic psychedelia from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. It seems Veirs and Martine are both long-term Deadheads: they realised only recently that they were at the same concert at Red Rocks, Colorado, 13 years before they met, which would have been during the late 1980s, when the Dead were at their late commercial peak after the success of Touch of Grey. Rather touchingly, Veirs learned to play the song as a Father’s Day present for Martine, and she does a more than creditable job with it.

The first side ends with the brief, delicately beautiful Heavy Petals. This song feels like something Veirs could have done at any point in her career, but she’d not have sung it this convincingly; for me, The Lookout is the first Laura Veirs record where her voice, previously somewhat monotone and inexpressive, is never a barrier to enjoying the songs.

The title track begins the slightly spottier side two. A stompy, cowboy-chord track, it’s enlivened by a string arrangement that once again has that odd Tucker Martine string sound. How is he doing that? Recording the violins and violas using DIs? Running the acoustic signal through compressors and overdriving them? It’s a completely signature sound that I’ve never heard any other producer create, but it’s all over Veirs’s work from the last few albums (including case/lang/veirs).

The Canyon is a song of two halves: a meandering acoustic verse, performed on what sounds like an open-tuned and amplified nylon-string guitar, that is succeeded by an atmospheric instrumental section with an overdriven guitar riff. A cut-and-shut job like this shouldn’t really work, but actually it’s great – one of my favourites on the album. The waltz-time Lightning Rod compares its subject to Ben Franklin, “drawing fire from the clouds”. It’s another striking image. When it Grows Darkest features what sounds like electric sitar as well as prominent bass guitar and Veirs’s picked nylon-string to create a deceptive, very cool 5/4 groove. Threading a compelling melody over an odd metre, ignoring the bar lines and letting the melody just flow, is really hard; the temptation is to observe the bar lines so rigidly that the melody sounds stilted. When it Grows Darkest sounds very natural, and I didn’t work out that the song was in 5/4 until I’d heard it a few times already.

The Lookout has only a few missteps – and obviously these are just my personal issues with the record, anyway. I’m one of those who think Sufjan Stevens shouldn’t be allowed near a microphone under any circumstances, so his unpleasantly strained, whispery falsetto is a major blot on Watch Fire, which would have been more successful performed by almost any other singer. The Meadow’s sparse piano accompaniment doesn’t really hold my interest, although the song itself isn’t a dead loss. I find the overdriven electric guitar tone of Zozobra distracting and a little overbearing in the context of the song. It tends to fight with the ambient feedback part in the background, which is largely happening in the same octave and carries a lot of the same frequency content as the lead guitar. The result of the two clashing parts is messy, and not in a way that I think Viers and Martine indended.

These are minor reservations, though. Overall, I’d still say this is the best Laura Veirs record I’ve heard (I should say, I’ve not heard all of them – nothing before 2004’s Carbon Glacier). With her lyrics getting more acute and deeper with each record and her voice becoming a more expressive and flexible instrument, there’s really no reason to assume the next album won’t be better still.

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Scream for Me Sarajevo

The other day I went to see Scream for Me Sarajevo, a feature-length documentary about a 1994 gig the then-former Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson played in the Bosnian capital during the siege.

Directed by Tarik Hodzic, the film is fascinating not merely, or even mainly, for the story of the concert, but for the long section at the start of the documentary where we meet a selection of attendees, metalheads now in their thirties and forties, who talk compellingly and movingly of life during the siege (which lasted almost four years and claimed nearly 14,000 lives). Interviewed separately, they all stressed their passion for music and how important it was in their lives. One man spoke of how in the brief interludes when the electricity supply in his family’s home was working he would dedicate all the time he could to playing his guitar, not knowing when he’d get the chance again.

The concert was arranged by Martin Morris, a British army major attached to the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, who took it upon himself to try to give the youth of Sarajevo an escape from the horror of their lives in the city, even if only for one evening. Although the documentary doesn’t say how he did it or whether he had any connections to call on, he eventually got hold of Dickinson and asked him to come and play a gig there. Dickinson, to his eternal credit, agreed – and then told his band that they were going to play a show in a war zone (that bit may be slightly less to his credit).

Morris publicised the show via an underground radio station, persuaded his seniors that they shouldn’t cancel it despite the enormous security risks (they didn’t get wind of what he was up to till the wheels were in motion), then flew Dickinson and the band in and tried to get safe passage for them into the city. This turned out to be harder than planned. The UN refused to fly them from Split to Sarajevo, quite understandably given the heavy shelling that day. Improvising, Morris and his street-smart colleague Trevor Gibson bundled the band and their gear into vans driven by British aid organisation the Serious Road Trip, hoping like hell none of the vehicles would be blown up.

Another filmmaker – a British filmmaker maybe – would have made this story about Bruce Dickinson riding into town on his white horse and making everything better for everyone. Tarik Hodzic is telling a different story, though. Dickinson is an important part of it, and I think it’s clear from the film that Hodzic and everyone interviewed who was at the gig have a lot of respect for Dickinson for putting himself in very real danger when he could have much more easily just stayed at home. But this is the story of a city and its people living through the most desperate of times, and of the power of music to give hope and comfort in even the most terrible situation.

New website up; EP to follow

Hi everyone. Just a quick one to let you know, if you’re interested, that I’ve got a new website up for my musical doings. You can find it at https://www.rosspalmermusic.co.uk/

I’ve also finalised the mixes for an EP that I’m going to actually release on physical media, which is the first time I’ve done this. Over the last year or so, I’ve frequently found that I’m the only guy at every show I play who doesn’t have any CDs for sale, and I figured it’s time I remedied that, so I’ve brought together a couple of songs I had up on Bandcamp as standalone tracks with two other songs never previously released in any format, one old and one new. The EP will be available on Bandcamp, Spotify and iTunes (if iTunes is still a thing – word is it may not be soon) as well as on CD. I imagine that most of the CDs I sell will be at gigs, but it’ll be available to order as a CD from Bandcamp too, just in case.

I asked an old friend of mind to do the cover art for me (the brief was for something autumnal and rural), and he obliged with this beautiful drawing of Belfairs Woods, near where we both grew up:

Last swallow mock-up

Exciting times! An album will follow later in the year – this EP is the first CD I’ve released, so as well as it being a good thing to have something I can sell at gigs, it’s also great to learn how to do all this stuff.

Back soon with a real post. Take care.

Bad last songs

About 18 months ago, I did a piece on final songs,

In that post, I kicked around the difference between an album that’s a collection of great songs, and an album that’s a great collection of songs. Extrapolating from that, I argued there’s more to a great final song than just a good song stuck on the end of an album’s tracklisting. A great final song is born out of its relationship with the rest of the record.It seems to finish the album in a way no other song could, tying it all together, reinforcing themes or moods. Maybe it offers hope and redemption at the end of something cathartic or challenging. Maybe it does the opposite, dragging the record down into the very depths, where it was headed all along.

A Day in the Life is the most obvious example of the great final track in rock’n’roll, but you might equally pick Caroline No, Gold Dust Woman, Time of the Season, Thank You for Talking to Me Africa or All Apologies. With Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues, Marvin Gaye managed two great final songs on one album, one for each side of the vinyl disc.

But not everyone gets it right. There’s something perversely lovable about finishing a record with something ill judged, bathetic or just plain goofy (yes, Hippie Boy from The Gilded Palace of Sin, I’m looking at you) – something that seems to be doing its best to undermine all the good work of the rest of the record.

My favourite example of a band who clearly found it hard to get it over the line is the Byrds, who made something of a habit of head-scratching final tracks: 2-4-2 Foxtrot (The Lear Jet Song) and Space Odyssey are just the most notable. Then there’s Joni Mitchell, who has ended even some of her very finest albums on a regrettable joke (Twisted), or over-serious attempts at writing something grand that instead come off po-faced and lumbering. The Silky Veils of Ardor, Judgement of the Moon and Stars, The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song) – the titles alone tell you you’re going to be in for a long five, six, seven minutes.

Speaking of long, I can’t be the only one who finds Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands a 10-minute punishment, or perhaps a provocation. Or who’s not at all convinced that You Can’t Always Get What You Want merits its endless intro and outro. A special class of “long final track” is the endless instrumental; Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga is a blot on the otherwise perfect Fred Neil, while the third disc of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass is given over entirely to jams, of which Thanks For All the Pepperoni is not the worst, but as the last is the least welcome. Then there’s Revelation, the less-than-revelatory 20-minute jam that takes up all of side two of Love’s Da Capo.

Those are just some off the top of my head. If you’ve got any more, comment below!

Fleetwood House? Crowded Mac? Lindsey Buckingham leaves FM; Neil Finn is in

So, Fleetwood Mac have reportedly fired Lindsey Buckingham.

As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I’d be the first to admit that they are a living, breathing rock’n’roll soap opera; nothing that they can do to each other would surprise me or any other FM fan. I fully expect Buckingham to rejoin them within the next couple of years.

In the meantime, it’s Buckingham out and Neil Finn in, along with former Tom Petty sideman Mike Campbell. Which tells you all you need to know about how special a talent Lindsey Buckingham is: it takes two people to replace him, and even then you’ve not replaced his production and arrangement talent.

That said, Neil Finn kind of makes sense. Kind of. There are definitely moments in Finn’s discography that have that spooked Fleetwood Mac vibe, that introspective mood of dusk and twilight bordering on the mystical that almost all the writers who have passed through the band have tapped into – the mood you find in Peter Green’s Man of the World and Albatross, in Danny Kirwan’s Dragonfly, in Bob Welch’s Hypnotized, in Buckingham’s I’m So Afraid, and in countless Stevie Nicks songs. Catherine Wheels from Together Alone fits, 2007 reunion single Don’t Stop Now definitely fits. I can imagine it working reasonably well.

But I just don’t think it’ll have to for long.

Emotion – Samantha Sang

Saturday Night Fever was a 1977 film, but it was released to theatres in December, so its true impact wasn’t felt until 1978.

When it was – kaboom.

The Bee Gees owned 1978. It was obscene. The Billboard year-end Hot 100 singles? By my count, the Bee Gees wrote, performed and/or produced nine of them. Nine! Their three Saturday Night Fever songs (Night Fever, Stayin’ Alive and How Deep is Your Love), plus Yvonne Elliman’s If I Can’t Have You, Samantha Sang’s reading of Emotion, Frankie Valli’s Gibb-penned title track from Grease and no fewer than three songs by Andy Gibb, all written for him by Barry. I would imagine that More than a Woman, Jive Talkin’, You Should Be Dancing and If I Can’t Have You were still picking up heavy airplay, too. Oh yeah, and the Bee Gees’ new single, Too Much Heaven, was a number one in November, only missing out on the year-end chart as it was released at the end of the year. When you consider that level of pop domination, it almost makes the Disco Sucks riot at Comisky Park understandable.

Barry Gibb had been helping out Samantha Sang since the late 1960s, when an 18-year-old Sang travelled to the UK to pursue a pop career. Gibb heard her and urged his manager, Robert Stigwood, to sign her. He did, and she released a single (Love of a Woman) that Barry had written for her, but it was only a minor hit in a couple of countries, and not a hit at all in the UK. Sang eventually returned to Australia after her visa expired.

She continued her career down under for a few years until Gibb invited her to Miami, where the Bee Gees were based. He had a song he thought she should cut, but Barry being Barry, by the time she got there, he’d written a better one. So Sang ended up cutting Emotion, and (Our Love) Don’t Throw it All Away went to Andy Gibb (who took it into the Top 10 – this was truly a year in which everything Barry touched turned to gold).

Now, I do think Samantha Sang did a very good job with Emotion, and her decision to sing it in a breathy head voice (very like Barry’s own voice) suited the material, but at this point the world was clamouring for more Bee Gees, and no one in the US knew who Sang was. So Emotion is mixed in such a way that she is virtually a guest on her own record. The bridges and chorus feature Barry’s backing vocals so strongly that Sang is nearly drowned out. That being said, her version is better than any Bee Gees-only version I’ve heard, but it’s a measure of how besotted the world was with the Bee Gees in 1978 that after this great song dropped out of the charts, its singer was all but forgotten immediately.

Goodbye Kayfabe – Nick Frater

My friend Nick Frater, the creator of a series of slightly barmy power-pop gems, has a new release – a 7-track EP (or possibly a mini album – the distinction eludes me) called Goodbye Kayfabe.

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That’s Nick in the white suit and lucha libre mask.

Nick’s music reminds me of Jellyfish’s incredibly knowing but lovingly crafted meta pop – opener Built to Last recalls that band’s Spilt Milk standout Joining a Fan Club – both songs pull off that Paul McCartney trick of having about five different sections, each hookier than the last. Lead vocals on Built to Last come from Nicolai Prowse of Do Me Bad Things (drums throughout are by DMBT drummer Tommy Shotton, who plays a blinder) but elsewhere it’s Nick, with some help from a Lewitron – Nick’s homemade Mellotron featuring the voice of another Do Me Bad Things alumnus, Alex Lewis.

Nick, as you may have guessed, is a recording nerd. For real. He’s got it worse than me. But while that may not be great for his own sanity, it means that his songs benefit from smart arrangements and well crafted instrument sounds, as well as a meticulous mix that includes loads of cool details without crowding the vocal and critical instruments. So Built to Last features a triple-tracked bass line and a Hohner Pianet doubling the guitars, More Than This (not the Roxy Music song), has a real brass band on it and a trombone solo, while Paperchase has a lot of cowbell, a bunch of Nick’s antique synths and a drum track that quotes from Ringo’s Ticket to Ride beat.

Nick saves two of the strongest tracks for the end. Remoaner, like Donald Fagen backed by ELO, has some of the juiciest chord changes I’ve heard in a long time, while the lovely Asking for a Friend (written in 10 minutes, Nick says – the best ones always are) finishes things off on a wistful note.

Nick’s put out a fair amount of music in the last five years or so, so if you dig any of what you hear on Goodbye Kayfabe, be sure to check his older releases too.