Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Pixies’ Bossanova at Thirty

In a piece on this blog years ago – a piece about the Pixies, as it happens – I argued that critics and fans should judge artists by their best work, while artists should judge themselves by their worst work, or at least by their average, as a way to keep humble and looking to learn and improve.

The context for that was the release of the Pixies’ Indie Cindy. It got kicked from pillar to post by fans and critics alike, but I argued didn’t spoil the band’s legacy and took nothing away from the work they did in the late eighties. I’d no more judge the Pixies on, say, Bagboy than I’d judge Bob Dylan on track three on the second side of Knocked Out Loaded.

But if we reduce the Pixies just to Doolittle and Surfer Rosa (the latter of which I’m much, much fonder of), what of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde? The latter is a weird record, one I’ve never connected with. I suspect it’s simply not very good. Bossanova, thirty years old this month, is a different case.

It starts well. No, scratch that. It starts very well. The band’s cover of the Surftones’ instrumental Cecilia Ann is the first Pixies record I ever heard, as it’s track one, side one of the 1997 compilation Death to the Pixies, and it’s absolutely great. The band barrel into it with full-bore commitment and no little precision, and it’s full of weird flourishes, synths and ghostly vocals and guitars that turn a surf song into a sci-fi surf song, thus setting out Bossanova‘s stall: it is, pretty much, a sci-fi surf album.

Track two, Rock Music, is the most extreme the band get on Bossanova (it’s not the album for you if you enjoy Black Francis most when he’s in veins-bulging, vocal-cord-tearing mode), but again, it’s askew. Dave Lovering plays a song called “Rock Music” with a four-on-the floor disco pulse, which is a neat little joke for those who catch it, while Joey Santiago tears some of his most angular noise out of his Les Paul, fighting Francis’s vocal all the way through. If you’re not in the mood for it, it’s a grating headache of a record, but on the right day, it sure sounds like the Pixies at the top of their game.

Velouria is unquestionably the Pixies at the top of their game. It’s built on a cool chord sequence in the verse and a grindy opening riff with that incorporates dissonant augmented intervals, but the tune is wistful and pretty, as Francis spins an impressionistic tale of a girl from the lost continent of Lemuria who’s covered in fur and lives in a hollowed-out mountain (I think. His explanation is pretty tough to follow). Once again, it has a spacey kind of feel, this time from its prominent theremin, and Lovering is in commanding form – his tom-and-snare build-ups that take the band back into the big riff are arena-ready stuff, an air drummer’s dream. It even has some Kim Deal backing vocals, which are mostly absent from Bossanova, to the record’s detriment.

Unfortunately, this is as good as Bossanova gets, and the drop-off is both marked and immediate. Charles Thompson (sorry, I know he was Black Francis then, but it seems daft to refer to present-day Thompson as the stage name he adopted in his early twenties) has said he wrote a lot of his lyrics on the fly, five minutes before recording them, but the record’s shortcomings go deeper than just the lyrics.

I think, fundamentally, Bossanova revealed a bigger problem with his songwriting. Thompson’s melody writing is just not very ambitious or creative (compared to so many of his peers, but to pick two that are most instructive, listen to Bossanova and then Pod by Kim Deal’s Breeders, or to Nirvana’s Nevermind). Without the manic energy that drove the band on Doolittle and especially Surfer Rosa, his songs can sound a bit undeveloped. There are a lot of songs here that don’t really go anywhere, with only the Talking Heads pastiche Dig for Fire, the lovely closing track Havalina and the partially successful The Happening standing out.

The latter encapsulates Bossanova‘s strengths and weaknesses. Intially it sounds like another one of the record’s plodding, clean-guitar, gated-drums, whispered-vocals songs, before 30 seconds in it takes an unexpected turn and Thompson/Francis lets rip. But the compelling verse, a twisted blues in form, is then undercut by the chorus that consists of a falsetto Francis (at least, I think it’s him; it’s pitchier than I’d expect from Kim Deal) singing the simple phrase “Beneath the sky” four times. It’s just so inert. The second time the chorus comes around, seemingly aware of the problem, he adds a monotone eighth-note countermelody, but that, too, gets wearying quickly. When the song finally fades out and the reverb-saturated Blown Away begins, it’s actually a relief.

The overall sense of the album is that of a well running dry. The Pixies had made a mini album, Come on Pilgrim, in 1987, Surfer Rosa in 1988 and Doolittle in 1989. That’s a lot of activity in a short time. The band had toured extensively, too, particularly in Europe. In early 1990, Kim Deal had recorded her first album with the Breeders, on which she wrote or co-wrote everything, and consequently she had no songs on Bossanova. She and Thompson were at daggers drawn after their previous tour. Charles Thompson had concentrated all power within the band in himself, and while he made a laudable effort to move the band’s sound on rather than just make Doolittle part II, he couldn’t find within him a set of songs on Doolittle‘s level, let alone Surfer Rosa‘s.

Trompe Le Monde has its fans (among them Foo Fighters’ leader Dave Grohl), but for most the downturn signalled by Bossanova was permanent. Nothing the Pixies did after its first three songs hit the same heights as their work between 1987-89. A record that’s equal parts anthemic triumph, flawed experiment and tedious retreading of familiar ground, Bossanova is the sound of a band losing its grip on greatness.

Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time

Over the last couple of Friday nights, Mel and I watched Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, a two-part documentary series by Alison Ellwood, who previously made History of the Eagles and The Go-Go’s. The former is punishingly overlong; the latter I’ve not seen but have heard great things about.

The history of LA rock from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies is a story that’s been told before. Recently, even, with 2019’s Echo in the Canyon. The most successful documentary about the period that I know, though, is the BBC’s 2007 film Hotel California: LA from the Byrds to the Eagles, which was directed by Chris Wilson and based on Barney Hoskyns’s book Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons. That film was visually unspectacular but really solidly researched and put together, with contributions from many of the era’s key players: musicans including Van Dyke Parks, Mark Volman, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and JD Souther; figures from the scene like Pamela des Barres and Ned Doheny; musician-photographer Henry Diltz; and managers and record-label execs David Geffen, Ron Stone, Jac Holzman and Billy James. Wilson even interviewed Marxist urban theorist Mike Davis.

Ellwood’s film is heavier on musicians than Wilson’s doc, and while there was no place for any heavy thinkers like Davis, she did get interviews from the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, from the Doors’ Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek, from Love’s Johnny Echols, from Alice Cooper, from Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, and from the Eagles’ Don Henley and Bernie Leadon.

The key point of difference, through, was her decision not to put anyone on camera except the photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde: interviewees’ reminiscences are accompanied by footage or still images of them from the time period. Ellwood has said that the intention was to make the film immersive. To me, it was somewhat distracting, at least initially, and I missed seeing facial expressions and body language.

It’s far easier to control what you say out loud than what the eyes and the body are saying. One key moment from Wilson’s BBC film is David Geffen talking about the argument he had with Troubadour owner Doug Weston over the latter’s refusal to book David Blue. As Geffen recounts the fight that led him, Elliot Roberts and Peter Asher to go into business with Elmer Valentine and Lou Adler and open the Roxy, a look of pure steel enters his eyes that’s, frankly, a little chilling. Previously, he’d come over as an avuncular presence, a hippie businessman who really did just love music and whose motives in starting Asylum were totally pure. In that small moment, he let slip the steel that made him feared and hated among those he didn’t represent. Ellwood’s decision to (with the exceptions of Diltz and Wilde) only use archive footage – very trendy at the moment – denies the viewer any similar moment of accidental revelation.

This gives it something of an “authorised biography” feeling, as does the presence of Henley, who is the most ruthless operator of all the musicians involved, never agreeing to anything unless he can control it and there is a definite upside for him. Accordingly, nothing remotely compromising got in about Henley and the Eagles, and as anyone who’s read Hoskyns’s book could tell you, there’s a lot about he and his bandmates that’s compromising.

The other, bigger, issue was that, partly as a result of its length (around three hours), Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time is somewhat shapeless and baggy.

The inclusion of Love, the Doors and Alice Cooper is both a strength, in as much as it differentiates Laurel Canyon from other films on the same era, and a weakness, in that their stories are essentially tangential to the main narrative, and take up a lot of time that could have been better spent elsewhere. For example, Ellwood barely mentions Carole King and James Taylor, which is baffling. Whether you like them or not, it’s not possible to properly tell the story of singer-songwriters in LA without dwelling at length on Sweet Baby James and Tapestry.

Ellwood is on record as a huge Doors fan, so I guess it’s understandable, but it’s also, I think, a mistake – one that’s both symptom and cause of the main problem with the film: it’s lack of an overall narrative thread.

In the latter half of the seventies, the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters drifted out of relevance and, in many cases, into severe addictions to alcohol and cocaine. But the documentary stops before that happens, which prevents Ellwood bringing the narrative to a proper close. We get to see all these musicians become big stars, then just leave them there. There’s a lot to learn about why the early period of the Laurel Canyon era (roughly 1966-1970) was artistically and spiritually fulfilling for the musicians and the seventies era was not if you just follow their stories until the end. Instead, the film just sort of stops, narrative threads blowing around in the wind.

Now, this all sounds very negative, and I should say that Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time is not a bad piece of work by any means, especially if you’ve never seen Hotel California: LA from the Byrds to the Eagles. The new interviews are interesting, the sheer amount of archive pictures and film (many of which are home-movie, Super-8 type stuff) is impressive, and the establishing shots are stunning (the evolution of cheap camera-drone technology has done wonders for documentary crews in the last ten years or so). It’s just a shame that Ellwood and her team didn’t edit it down into a tightly packaged 90-minute film that told a more coherent story.

George Harrison Chord Sequences

I’ve been listening a lot to All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh recently for a long-form writing project I’m doing, and I’ve really been hit hard by some of the songs on a musical level.

Now, I’m a George Harrison fan, but I’ve not really listened to All Things Must Pass properly in, I don’t know, over 10 years – probably somewhere around 2008 was when I got a copy and dived into it properly – and I’ve never until this week sat down and tried playing any of his songs.* While I could tell from listening that a lot of them had unorthodox chord sequences, this is the first time I’ve sat down and learned them. And well, what a way with chords Harrison had.

I’d Have You Anytime
This Harrison/Dylan cowrite, with a verse by Harrison and a chorus by Dylan, alternates between 4/4 and 3/4, and has some beautiful changes, particularly the Gmaj7/Bbmaj7/Cm7 progression that forms the basis of the verses’ 4/4 sections. Dylan, too, holds his own with the modulations from D to C and back to D via an A major. The melody reinforces the unexpected A major by moving from a C over an F chord to a C# over the A. Really good stuff from both guys.

Isn’t It a Pity
This might actually be the best chord sequence ever. I’ve learned it in a couple of keys**, and it’s just glorious. It’s the little details in the voice leading and, again, the way that the vocal melody acknowledges the extensions and colours in the chords that really makes the whole thing sing; that drop in the melody to acknowledge the flat 3rd in Gdim7 when Harrison sings “how we break each other’s hearts” is goosebump stuff. Isn’t It a Pity is really only one chord sequence repeated again and again for six minutes, but when it’s as strong as this one, it’s hypnotic rather than boring.

Wah-Wah
Put him in a rock/R&B context, and George still loved a nice chewy chord change. Wah-Wah has a few: the move from F#7 to the parallel minor; the unexpected B7 to D7; and the even more unexpected move from D7 to D9b5. Listen for those unexpected dissonant notes in the backing vocals, the flat fifth especially.

Beware of Darkness
Along with Long, Long, Long, this is my favourite George Harrison song. What a trip the chord progression is. The intro, a held B, gives you no idea that you’re about to drop down to a G7 to begin the verse, or that you’ll then climb a semitone to G#m. Overall, I guess you’d say the song is in B, so the move to G#m makes sense in the overall sequence, but when you first hear the song the shift from B to G7 and the to G#m does feel like Harrison is pulling the rug out from under you on a pretty much bar-by-bar basis. It’s a wonderfully creative and imaginative sequence, and once again, the key to how it all hangs together is the melody; the dominant note of the tune in the first part of the verse is B – the major third of G7 and the minor third of G#m, and the only tone the chords share.

Clever George.

gharrison

*I’m not really in the habit of learning other people’s songs anymore, but I’ve been playing more guitar since the start of lockdown, and have found myself reaching for a guitar to work stuff out when I hear a riff or chord change or something that grabs my ear.

**Feeling lazy, I got started by going here rather than working out for myself. I’ve varied a couple of chord shapes slightly, but I think it’s pretty accurate.

Melanie Crew and I have recently released our first joint EP! Here it is, if you’d like to have a listen: