Monthly Archives: July 2019

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

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*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?

My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker

Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma in 1929 on 23 December. So he and I share a birthday. I wish I also shared his musical talent and movie-idol looks, but oh well.

Baker was raised in a musical family. His father, Chesney Sr, had been a professional guitarist, but was forced by the Depression to take a regular job. His mother was a pianist who worked in a perfume factory. Their son gravitated to the trumpet. Not initially planning a life as a working musician, Baker left school at sixteen and joined the army. After two years in Germany between 1946 and 1948, Baker returned to the US, planning to study music theory, but he soon dropped out of school and re-enlisted, and was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco as a member of the Sixth Army Band.

During this time, he began playing at San Francisco jazz clubs, which led to dates with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, and eventually a recording contract for his own quartet. In 1954, Baker released Chet Baker Sings, his first record featuring his vocals as well as his trumpet. Many jazz critics, while admiring his playing, gave him short shrift as a singer. They viewed his vocal recordings as a cynical move by his label to mould a gifted musician but marginal singer into a teen idol off the back of his James Dean-like image.

It’s true that Baker’s voice was unlike many heard within jazz up to that point in the music’s history. His voice was very small and intimate, with only the tiniest hint of vibrato. More troublingly for purists, he didn’t sing with a jazz sensibility. Knowing and working within his limitations as a vocalist, he played no games with the melody or phrasing of a tune, singing each song as one might sing a lullaby to a baby, or to a lover in the middle of the night. His own lack of experience as a singer is foregrounded: when he reaches the big note (“stay, funny Valentine, stay“), Baker hits it, but seems somewhat surprised, and lets it trail off where a confident singer would have held it and added vibrato as a flourish.

My Funny Valentine has been recorded by basically every singer who has ever worked in jazz or vocal music. There are classic versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, underappreciated recordings by Matt Monro and Johnny Mathis (anticipating no one so much as Jeff Buckley) and head-scratchers by Seal and Nico. Baker’s may still be the definitive version, though. Its vulnerability, partly born from Baker’s lack of experience as a singer, partly just a function of who he was, makes it utterly unlike the assured versions by Frank and Ella, but all the better for it.

Baker’s story, unfortunately, is not a particularly happy one. He began taking heroin in the early 1950s, which led him into some unfortunate places. In 1966, a drug deal he was trying to make went wrong and he received a severe beating from the dealer. Several of his teeth were knocked out, ruining his embouchure and leaving him needing dentures and forcing him to learn a new technique – more or less from a beginner’s level – in order to play at all. Nevertheless, by the late 1970s, Baker was again a working jazz musician, but now working and living almost exclusively in Europe.

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Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

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*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.