Monthly Archives: February 2019

Mark Hollis RIP

Anyone hearing The Party’s Over in 1982 might not have seen it coming, but Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis was a rare thing in pop music: a genuine original. Over the course of five albums, from The Party’s Over to 1991’s Laughing Stock, he guided Talk Talk’s evolution from Duran-aping synth-pop B-leaguers to avant-garde experimentalists.

Throughout it all, Hollis never lost his compositional savvy, even as the structures of the songs became looser and more extended. You can’t write It’s My Life, I Don’t Believe You or Life’s What You Make It and be deaf to the charms of melody. Nevertheless, the Talk Talk that made Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock placed more emphasis on mood, atmosphere and texture than immediately accessible tunes. Consequently, even as their art became more powerful and distinctive, the group began to fade commercially, and found themselves sneeringly dismissed by critics who didn’t like (or in some cases even get) what they were doing.*

Mark Hollis passed away on Monday at the age of 64 after a short illness. Tributes poured in from musicians and fans, a real gamut-running selection, a who’s who of the last 20 years of music. Talk Talk do seem to have inspired a particularly passionate devotion in a lot of people. It’s not just the gorgeous, detailed arrangements and the loving care lavished on instrument sounds by engineer Phill Brown. It’s the vulnerability of Hollis’s voice, I think. An unusual voice – quavery, a little thin, a little forced-sounding, and consequently very human. His voice made more sense the more records the group made: by Spirit of Eden it was impossible to imagine any voice inhabiting those songs but Hollis’s.

After Talk Talk released their final album, Hollis made one solo record (after a gap of seven years), and was then basically done. He wanted to concentrate on being a father and couldn’t do that as a working musician. What an admirable choice to make, and how admirable the resolution he showed in sticking to it. Hollis’s life in music was exemplary in many ways, and perhaps in that way most of all.

RIP, Mark.

*Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock both made the top 40 of the albums chart in the UK, but the group had no hit singles with new material after Life’s What You Make It. So it’s not true to say that SoE and LS sunk without trace, which is an implication I’ve seen a lot over the last few days.

**The 1992 Rolling Stone Albums Guide gave Spirit of Eden precisely one star – “Instead of getting better or worse, this band simply grew more pretentious with each passing year”

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Never Any Clapton, Part 1 – Dying Days by the Screaming Trees

Hi there. I haven’t done a series on guitar solos for a long old while, so here it is, back for 2019.

Let’s start with a big one.

Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Screaming Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, recorded an album’s worth of material with Don Fleming, but the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot and started again with George Drakoulias. Not only that, they were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and relations were often fractious. Even more troublingly, singer Mark Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Kurt Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were merely the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But Dust was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period for Lanegan, and it shows. At times, as on opener Halo of Ashes, he sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive (“I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave”). At others, as on the grandiose Dying Days, he takes stock of what he’s experienced, what he and his community has lost (“I walk the ghost town that used to be my city”), and vows to celebrate it and carry on, to celebrate it by carrying on. Containing an acoustic intro, gospel-style choir vocals on the choruses, Benmont Tench’s churchy organ and electric piano and loads of fat distorted guitars, Dying Days was a stadium-sized farewell to a whole era.

To play a guitar solo suitable for such an anthemic musical setting and such conflicting emotions – and to hit the right notes about loss and brotherhood – the band called in fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.

A devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, McCready has a style that relies heavily on bluesy pentatonic licks, played in this case on a Stratocaster with a big tone (moderate gain, tube amp turned up loud and, I’d guess, Vaughan-style heavy strings). When you break down his Dying Days solo, it’s pretty standard blues-rock stuff: an ear-grabbing bent double stop to start things off (played with a noticeably strong vibrato, and picked and repicked six times over the course of two whole bars), a few pentatonic licks up and down across the neck, and finally a big squealing bend on the high E string to finish off as drummer Barrett Martin plays a triplet fill to send the song back into the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but McCready plays it with absolute conviction and commitment.

Dying Days, like Dust generally, got great reviews from the critics, but pretty much went nowhere commercially. Seattle’s moment has passed even as the Trees were recording its epitaph. Guitar-heavy neo-classic rock with psych, blues, gospel and country influences was not what the kids wanted in 1996. Yet Dying Days makes little sense as a song known only to a handful of devotees; it’s too big for it, too widescreen. It’s Let It Be crossed with Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower – something at once apocalyptic and comforting, highly personal yet universal and elemental.

It’s to Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s credit that he handed this one over to McCready. Connor definitely had his moments as a lead player (he liked his wah-wah pedal, and used it well), but really he was a songwriter, and he couldn’t have brought to it what McCready could. A special song deserves a special solo. Through some kind of alchemy that happens only rarely, when simple phrases and melodies achieve an emotional potency that’s out of reach to most musicians most of the time, Mike McCready pulled that solo out of himself.

Dust

Double Live Gonzos, part 5: Live – Donny Hathaway

Welcome to the series finale! It’s been fun reconnecting with some old favourites. I’m going to finish with the record I know least well of the bunch. I’ve known it for a mere 18 months. My apologies for keeping you waiting for this: I was ill one weekend, then away the next, so I’ve been scribbling this 20 minutes at a time during lunchbreaks. Anyway, it’s been fun. Maybe I’ll pick five more and do this again next year.

“It’s unlikely any party we ever attend will be as great as that documented on these recordings from two shows,” said Quietus writer Wyndham Wallace discussing Donny Hathaway’s 1972 live album, simply called Live. I’d reserve that particular accolade for Exile on Main Street, which sounds like the greatest party in the world going on in the room next door. Wallace does identify the key to Live, though – its communality. Sentimental I may be, but nothing gets me like music bring people together, and no live album documents that happening more clearly, or more movingly than this.

A 50-minute single-disc album, Live‘s songs were culled from two separate shows: one at the Troubadour in LA in August 1971, and one at the Bitter End in New York two months later. The band was nearly the same for both shows: Fred White (later of Earth, Wind and Fire) on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, Mike Howard on rhythm guitar and Earl DeRouen on congas. Phil Upchurch played lead guitar at the Troubadour, replaced by Cornell Dupree for the Bitter End gig.

The players are superb throughout, especially White and Weeks, and Hathaway is in excellent voice. More interested in singing good songs than in furthering his rep as a writer, he concentrates mainly on material by others, tackling Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, John Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. All three of those songs were less than a year old, yet You’ve Got a Friend and What’s Going On are greeted with rapturous applause and screams of recognition from the audience. Clearly they had become classics in a matter of months.

The album begins, audaciously, with What’s Going On. It was a brave move to cover a song of this quality by a singer of Marvin Gaye’s talent, and you might think that, however sturdy the song is as a piece of writing, a live version sung by someone other than Gaye and lacking the strings and horns of the original recording would be just a shadow of the song we all know. It’s a testament to Hathaway and his band that you’d be wrong. He and the band pull it off handsomely.

The power of the Motown sound was simplicity. Other than James Jamerson, the players stuck to simple parts, executed flawlessly. Hathaway and his crew only numbered six players (his electric piano, two guitars, bass, drums and congas), so they all had what any Funk Brother would have considered a luxurious amount of space, and they filled that space wisely. James White plays some expansive drum fills later in the song,  while one of the guitarists (Phil Upchurch?) adds melodic interjections based on the backing vocal arrangement, in call and response with Hathaway’s vocal. Willie Weeks, meanwhile, pays due respect to Jamerson by more or less recreating the great man’s celebrated bass line. No extra stuff necessary.

Towards the end of the song, the band play a jazzy four-chord turnaround. This bit of harmonic playfulness serves as a prelude to the pair of long instrumentals that dominate the album, The Ghetto and Everything is Everything (Voices Inside), on which the band will really show what it can do instrumentally.

The first of them is The Ghetto, which may be familiar to those who don’t know the original track as the hook on Too Short’s 1990 single of the same name.

The live performance, taken just a hair faster than the album cut, is dominated by Hathaway’s Wurlitzer electric piano, but Weeks’s kinetic bass, Mike Howard’s guitar comping and Earl DeRouen’s congas play vital supporting roles, all growing more agitated as the track developments. After Hathaway’s impressive solo ends, he introduces DeRouen, the keys and guitars take a backseat, and DeRouen, Weeks and White take the spotlight. After a couple of minutes, DeRouen and White break it down further, beginning a three-minute break during which the pair play in a Afro-Latin style (I want to say Cuban, but I lack the ear to identify the particular style), before Hathaway, assuming the role of the music teacher, teaches the men and women in the audience two lines he wants them to chant for him: the simple, familiar “the ghetto” for the men, and “talkin’ ’bout the ghetto” for the women. As scholar and Hathaway fan Emily J Lordi points out in her book on the album, Hathaway’s music is full of moments like this, and the very reason that The Ghetto and Everything is Everything (Voices Inside) have words at all is that Hathaway knew how powerful a communal experience they could become in concert.

To skip forward a track (we’ll come back to Hey Girl), Hathaway’s reading of You’ve Got a Friend works in the same way: its power lies in the extent to which the audience becomes part of the performance and enact the very message of the song.

At the chorus, responding to how many people are singing along with him, Hathaway doesn’t sing the melody in the chorus; he steps back after the first four words, lets the audience carry it, enjoys the moment and sings a little harmony and a little counterpoint. He sounds like he’s singing the whole second half of the song through a huge grin. He encourages the audience to carry on singing the title phrase during the outro and , satisfied with what he’s hearing, remarks “this might be a record here”; this despite having been asked by Atlantic not to mention that the shows were being recorded.

Hathaway and Roberta Flack had recorded a duet version of You’ve Got a Friend around the time he played the Troubadour show in October 1971. It was released in May 1971 (the same day as James Taylor’s), and it’s perfectly good, but it doesn’t capture the communality that makes the performance on Live so powerful and life affirming. How could it? Hathaway and Flack were just two people. At the Troubadour on that August night in 1971, Hathaway was joined in song by hundreds, who let him know unequivocally that he had a friend too. What a song, and what a singer.

Hey Girl is the final track from the Troubadour half of the album. If the album has a weak moment, it’s probably this. Hey Girl, a tricky composition by Earl DeRouen full of restless modulations, seems a little gauche in the company of songs by Gaye, King and (later) John Lennon. The modulations, impressive on a music-theory level and played with aplomb by the band, don’t mask the fact that the tune is hard to get a handle on, and the lyric lacks any hook phrases you can hang on to, other than the title. Why it was used and, say, the Bitter End recording of Leon Russell’s A Song For You* wasn’t is a bit of a mystery.

The second half of the album was recorded over several shows at the New York club the Bitter End. Unlike the Troubadour, the Bitter End was a dry venue (no alcohol on the premises), and, posits Cornell Dupree, who took over from Phil Upchurch on lead guitar, this is likely a big reason that the New York audience was rather more restrained than the Troubadour crowd. Nevertheless, Hathaway and his band were again in excellent form.

The first track on this side is Little Ghetto Boy, written by Earl DeRouen and Charles Howard. The song is dominated by its long verses, and has no real chorus, so initially seems as evanescent as Hey Girl, even while Hathaway’s delivery becomes more and more passionate. But when the verses are eventually supplanted by the band singing in unison “Everything has got to get better”, while Hathaway ad libs freely around them, it’s the moment of focus, of catharsis even, that Hey Girl lacked, and so it’s much more successful, both as a song and as a performance.

We’re Still Friends is a heavy 6/8 blues (somewhat akin in feel to Led Zeppelin’s Since I’ve Been Loving You, but a little lighter on its feet), decorated by Dupree’s spine-tingling lead guitar. It’s one of only two tracks on the album on which Hathaway has a writing credit (the other is The Ghetto), which may explain its presence on the album, but it earns its spot through a really strong performance, and a vulnerable vocal from Hathaway that switches mood repeatedly; sometimes the singer’s acknowledgment of this “strange and wonderful” friendship seems straightforwardly celebratory, but at other times it seems a mask for a despair that the singer can’t bring himself to acknowledge.

Jealous Guy, from John Lennon’s Imagine album, had only been out a few weeks when Hathaway and his band tackled it at the Bitter End. It’s a radical reworking of the song, as radical as the reinvention Lennon gave it when he turned Child of Nature (written in Rishikesh while on spiritual retreat) into Jealous Guy, a song of quasi-penitence addressed, as most of his songs were in the 1970s, to Yoko Ono.

Hathaway gives Jealous Guy a slow quarter-note feel with, bizarrely, barrelhouse piano interjections. It shouldn’t work. The effect should be bathetic. It almost is. Yet somehow, the audacity pays off, and it works brilliantly. The only thing I don’t like about the performance is the moment when he sings “I don’t want nobody looking at you”. Lordi praises this as undercutting the hypocrisy of Lennon’s text by exposing it, but to me it’s too obvious a strategy. I feel like it’s clear in Lennon’s recording, and Bryan Ferry’s, that the singer is merely excusing his behaviour rather than truly trying to atone. This tension at the heart of the song is better left implicit. Nonetheless, Hathaway’s vocal performance is impassioned, and the arrangement is wonderfully imaginative.

Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) finishes the album. Although it’s positioned as the closer on the album, and works well there, the full live album from the Bitter End reveals it was actually The Ghetto that closed the set. Nonetheless, it’s a 13-minute soul-jazz party, with four solos from Hathaway, Mike Howard, Cornell Dupree and Willie Weeks (the “baddest bass player in the country”), whose solo is a masterpiece of tension building. Dupree is excellent, too – fluid and lyrical, in contrast to Howard’s tense and rather dissonant passage, full of bent notes on his guitar. At times, Hathaway can be heard, off mic, singing the “I hear voices, I see people” refrain. Perhaps the New York audience was less familiar with him than the LA crowd, but they don’t join in. It’s a bit of a shame, but still, it’s a pretty amazing way to close the album, and reminds us again of the breadth of Hathaway’s musical vision – to label him merely (merely!) a soul singer when he operated at this level as an improviser is absurdly reductive.

Unlike the other live records I’ve written about, this one has made me work. I’m far less familiar with Donny Hathaway than I am with the rest of the artists I’ve written about, and to put what I was hearing in its proper context, I’ve gone through his studio records, his other live albums and read a bunch of articles and books. (That’s part of why this has taken longer than I planned.) I’ve seldom been more glad I’ve put the effort in though. Hathaway, it seems to me, is undervalued as an artist, and often excluded by rock writers and canon-formers in favour of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.

Sure, in a hard-headed analysis he maybe didn’t operate at Gaye’s level as a record maker, at Wonder’s level as a writer or Franklin’s level as a sheer vocal force, but still, a music-critic discourse that makes insufficient room to celebrate and analyse the gifts and accomplishments of Donny Hathaway (and if you want proof of that, Lordi’s book is the first and only book on the man) is excluding an artist of rare achievement.

hathaway live

*This would surface on the posthumous 1980 live collection In Performance.