Monthly Archives: October 2020

“Like Friendly Wine”: California Stars – Wilco

Sometime around 1996, Nora Guthrie contacted Barking-born singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and asked him if he’d be interested in going through her father Woody’s archive of unused lyrics to see if any could be turned into completed songs. Despite initial reservations (this is Bob Dylan’s gig, thought Bragg, or Steve Earle’s or Springsteen’s or someone), Bragg agreed to take on the challenge.

However, he felt that as an Englishman, he couldn’t do the work of creating new Woody Guthrie songs on his own, and he contacted Wilco to ask if they wanted to collaborate with him. Wilco were hot off the success of Being There, and were still principally an alt. country band, with occasional West Coast influences. Not Okies, admittedly, but undoubtedly with more American soil on their boots than Bragg, however long he had been touring the US and making connections.

As documented in Kim Hopkins’s feature-length documentary, Man in the Sand, the sessions for Mermaid Avenue became fractious towards the end. There were some disputes over writing credits, and Jeff Tweedy wanted final say over the mix of the record, which Bragg felt was a bit much given Tweedy’s status as invitee to the project. A quote Tweedy gave to Greg Kot is revealing:

“I enjoyed working with Billy. He had a good sense of humor, the ability to laugh at himself. And at the same time, I was always suspect of him, as being somewhat full of [expletive]. I never did understand why we were recording songs about brown-shirted fascists clobbering people in the streets of Italy during the ’30s. […] For Jay [Bennett], it was an atrocity that some of Billy’s mixes would make the record. Instead of balancing instruments and allowing it to be an environment where it sounds like a singer and a band, his was very much a vocal solo mix, with a very far-away, easily palatable band. So squishy and soft and perfect. To me, the recordings we did for Volume 1 were very raw, almost crappy sounding. Whereas his didn’t sound crappy, they sounded chintzy. This faux glitz was on them, and to us that was antithetical to the idea behind the record.”

Bragg and Tweedy’s uneasy compromise was that Bragg would give Wilco the tapes to produce their own mixes, and Bragg and his long-term producer, who glories in the name Grant Showbiz, would mix it too. If Bragg preferred their own mixes of Bragg’s songs, those would be the mixes used on the record.

Once both parties had created their mixes, Bragg felt that he and Grant Showbiz had put together a great mix of Wilco’s California Stars, too, and he wanted that to be used on the album, rather than Wilco’s. The finished record does not indicate which mix was used for California Stars, but whichever it was, the song still stands as a highlight, along with Bragg’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Ingrid Bergman, Birds & Ships (for which Bragg brought in Natalie Merchant to sing the lead vocal) and Another Man’s Done Gone, which Bragg wrote, Bennett arranged for piano and Tweedy sang. If the songs written by Tweedy and Jay Bennett aren’t quite up to the level of Bragg’s (which could just be a personal-taste thing, or perhaps Wilco had bled themselves a bit dry working on Being There), California Stars stands up alongside any of Tweedy’s work, and quickly became a fan favourite that they still play at just about every gig.

It’s a lovely song, with a weary lope. At the same time that it gains a spring in its step from the idea of being home in California, it contains in its heart a sadness that the singer is not there but must keep working, keep moving, keep staying away. It may be a song about California by an Okie, but it’s a song for anyone, anywhere, who is not where they most want to be.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness at 25

After last week’s little round-up of Morrissey-related discussion and analysis, here are my thoughts on a work by another of my generation’s problematic favourites: Billy Corgan and his band, the Smashing Pumpkins.

In fairness, I should say that I don’t see Billy Corgan and Morrissey as being in the same category of problematic fave. As far as I know, Corgan has an obsession with New World Order-style conspiracy theories that are at least adjacent to the fashy right, and he’s got some very conservative views on healthcare and climate change, but I’ve never heard him traffic in the same kind of bigotry you get from much of the conspiratorial right, some of whom have moved from anti-government, libertarian positions into more or less open fascism in the last seven or eight years. That said, I’m by no means keeping up with what he says or does; I just see when something he does makes it on to those websites that aggregate music-related news.

None of which changes a note of the music he made in the 1990s, although if there are former fans who don’t want to listen to it anymore because Corgan hangs out with Alex Jones and opposes universal healthcare, I do understand and sympathise. There’s no moral imperative to separate the art from the artist. The reverse is not necessarily true either, although again I sympathise with anyone who won’t listen to Ryan Adams, Mark Kozelek or Michael Jackson now (to take three examples of musicians whose work has meant a lot to me and who I find I just don’t want to listen anymore).

So, Smashing Pumpkins, then.

When Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out in 1995, I was 13 and a newly converted fan of alternative rock music – open to anything with a big drum sound, heavy guitars, gloomy lyrics and a good tune. I was knew and liked Today from Siamese Dream, and so was keen to hear more by this band with the silly name. A guitar magazine I bought in October 1995 contained a long interview with Corgan where he talked about recording the album, went through the guitars and amps he used, and explained and demonstrated some of the songs’ riffs. It was super interesting, and he came over very well. Corgan was a great interview back in the 1990s; garrulous and full of himself, sure, but analytical and reflective about the state of rock music and his place in it, and full of creative ideas. I duly got a copy of the record from the library and dove in.

Melon Collie is, obviously, far too long and baggy as anything. The Pumpkins were always a maximalist band, and for me they are – and remain – a difficult band to listen to at double-album length. Corgan’s voice, which emanates entirely from the throat and head and so has little warmth and resonance, is not necessarily a problem on Gish, Siamese Dream and Adore, as on the former two he is sunk quite low in the mix, and on the latter is mostly singing more softly. On Melon Collie, though, he’s mixed more prominently and he made some questionable choices with his delivery, particularly on Tonight, Tonight, where he’s all over the place – sometimes sneering and declamatory, sometimes soft and intimate, sometimes both within the same line. There’s no emotional throughline to the vocal; it sounds carelessly comped from a set of takes with wildly different timbres and moods, although perhaps he just sang it that way. Either way, it ruins the song for me. He’s also pretty hard to take on Zero and Bullet with Butterfly Wings, but I think more intentionally so; one may cringe at a line like “God is empty – just like me!”, but at least his sneering delivery supports the juvenile sentiment.

OK, so now I’ve trashed half of the album’s best-known songs, is there anything I do like? Actually, quite a lot – at least half of it. Jellybelly is one of Corgan’s most crunching riffs, and Jimmy Chamberlin is on fire on that one. Here is No Why – Corgan’s affectionate tribute to a teenage goth, who may or may not be himself – is monstrously anthemic, with a fantastic guitar solo. To Forgive and Galapagos are two of his best ballads. An Ode to No One commits entirely to its bratty premise, with another great drum performance from Chamberlin. Muzzle sees Corgan at his most outward looking and has a gorgeously chunky rhythm guitar sound (might be James Iha rather than Corgan – it’s quite organic sounding in a medium-gain Les Paul/Marshall-y way, in contrast to the usual Corgan rhythm tone, which is very high gain with a suprising amount of low end from a Strat, suggesting some extensive EQ use).

On disc two, highlights for me include the opening one-two punch of Where Boys Fear to Tread and Bodies, which both have great riffs, the gentle In the Arms of Sleep and the very-much-not-gentle Tales of a Scorched Earth, which has a riff somewhat similar to Jellybelly and a heavily distorted vocal. The high-gain treatment essentially turns his voice into an aggressive texture in the mix rather than the focal point of the song, which actually works quite well. The epic Thru the Eyes of Ruby is perhaps not much of a song to spread over seven and a half minutes, but the main riff is enjoyably preposterous – even Queen might have felt it just a bit too grand and pompous – and I can’t help but smile at the audacity of it.

Which just leaves Corgan’s masterwork, 1979. The way it was put together, blending loops and samples with live, organic performances, was indicative of the path Corgan would follow on Adore (which is my favourite Pumpkins album, though again, it’s half an hour too long), but it works brilliantly on Mellon Collie, not sounding out of place at all; more than that, it’s the very heart of the album. For all that Mellon Collie was Corgan laying to rest his own teenage years, 1979 remains so indelible because of how it universalises the coming-of-age experience. I never rode around the Chicago suburbs, bored and looking for some kind of adventure, but I feel like I lived every moment of that song. Managing to evoke your own fondly remembered but highly personal lost adolescence and make it resonate with everyone listening, making them feel that they went through it all too, is a hell of a thing for a writer to pull off. Corgan’s acted like a terrible brat at times in his career, but he gets forgiven a lot. 1979 is a big reason why.

Twenty-five years on from its release, I’m inclined to look indulgently on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness‘s flaws – its grand ambitions, lyrical missteps and musical over-reaches. Nevertheless, it’s for me – far more so than the White Album – the archetypal double album that would be better as a single. So here’s my 12-song, single-album tracklisting.

  1. Tonight, Tonight (but I’d force Corgan to redo the vocal)
  2. Jellybelly
  3. Here is No Why
  4. To Forgive
  5. Muzzle
  6. Galapagos
  7. Where Boys Fear to Tread
  8. Bodies
  9. In the Arms of Sleep
  10. Tales of a Scorched Earth
  11. 1979
  12. Thru the Eyes of Ruby
The increasingly goth Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan newly shorn. 1995, I guess.

Note: I’ve not said very much about James Iha or D’arcy Wretzky in this piece, and frankly, that’s because I’ve no idea how much of a role they played. It’s well documented that Siamese Dream was basically played entirely by Corgan and Chamberlin (producer Butch Vig has confirmed as much). Mellon Collie seems to have been a more collaborative affair, with Wretzky playing bass on most, if not all, the basic tracks, and Iha credited with rhythm and lead. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Corgan took the lion’s share of the solos, and safe to assume most of the flashiest ones (for example, that glorious solo on Here is No Why) are Corgan’s work.

Hatherley, Koram and Lemmey on Morrissey

Not too long after the fantastic Bad Gays podcast on Morrissey (an audio essay by writer Huw Lemmey) comes a Politics, Theory, Other podcast featuring Kojo Koram and Owen Hatherley. Hatherley also wrote an excellent essay a few months ago on Morrissey’s journey from a figure on the anti-Thatcher left (a complicated, small-c conservative left) to – well, how far can I go without risking being sued? – what he is today.

I was only five when the Smiths broke up, so obviously I didn’t grow up with them, and I never got into them as a teenager, either. My loyalty was to indie music from the US. The Smiths to me lacked muscle and aggression – their music didn’t provoke that physical rush in me that, for whatever reason, I needed as a younger teen – and by the time I was seventeen or eighteen I’d formed the opinion that Morrissey was too arch, too fey, to speak either to me or for me. I liked musicians who said what they meant and meant what they said, even if as a result their lyrics were either hopelessly obscure at the one extreme or completely artless at the other. Morrissey always seemed to be hiding something behind a persona several layers deep, which he was constantly drawing attention to, inviting listeners to peel him like an onion. That was a game I was uninterested in playing.

As such, I didn’t really hear the fascination with violence in Morrissey’s lyrics that Hatherley keys in on in his essay, and neither did I hear how Morrissey’s romantic longings derived their effect – for fans at least – from the way he masked his sexuality while leaving in enough queer coding for those who knew where to look for it. I wasn’t among those who were looking, and anyway, nothing in my own childhood experience had taught me to pick up those clues. I simply didn’t need Morrissey in the way other kids did.

It was the intense identification from the fans who did need him that allowed Morrissey to shrug off the accusations of racism made against him in the early nineties by musicians including Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh and some writers in the press, most particularly the late Dele Fadele. (These – and the circumstances behind them – are well documented, so I won’t go over them again here.) Many (I would guess most) Smiths fans were (and are) instinctively anti-racist, even if not always in a considered, conscious way, and found it hard to reconcile the uncomfortable treatment of British Asians in Morrissey’s early-1990s solo material with his eighties work with the Smiths, and so took refuge in the idea that, like a British Randy Newman, Morrissey was merely adopting a character, depicting racism to critique it and satirise it.

His behaviour in the years since – his comments about the Chinese, his support for For Britain, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage, his derogatory remarks about politicians including Diane Abbott and Sadie Khan, his statement that “everyone ultimately prefers their own race” – has put him well past the point where that level of self-deception is tenable for his anti-racist fans. Peel the Morrissey onion enough and what’s revealed is just another tedious expat Little Englander, parrotting all the usual far-right talking points. The only distinguishing thing about this particular tedious Little Englander is that this one has a home in Los Angeles rather than the Costa del Sol. Lemmey, Koram and Hatherley have his number.

Roscoe/Head Home – Midlake

Here’s a new piece on a song and band that I originally wrote about on this blog soon after I started it. It’s a horrendously bad piece of writing that still gets traffic, so I’m taking it down and replacing it with this.

Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther is an unassuming record – a blend of folk rock and West Coast FM pop with lyrics from the perspective of some rustic 19th-century homesteader, played by a group that had started life as a jazz band, and sung by Tim Smith in a voice that strongly recalls Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It was released to middling reviews, with most of the positive notices coming from smaller review websites. Pitchfork, by contrast, gave it a slightly bemused 6.8 out of 10, wondering why a band that had previously dealt in “synth-age psychedelia” had retreated to mid-seventies semi-acoustic rock, while Robert Christgau named it “Dud of the Month” in his MSN column.*

But Van Occupanther connected hard with its audience. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that it was one of the big three indie rock records of that period, along with Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut and For Emma, Forever Ago, the first Bon Iver full-length from Justin Vernon. All three shared an aesthetic in which men were men, living in self-sufficient isolation in wooden cabins, thinking big thoughts and hunting for their food.** All three began to influence indie and unsigned musicians immediately.

Frankly, I had some reservations about the cosplay aspects of what these guys (and they were all guys) were all up to, and I found myself unable to warm to Fleet Foxes and For Emma, Forever Ago, not liking Vernon’s fuzzy multi-tracked falsetto, and feeling that Pecknold had constructed an impressive sound but forgotten to write any actual songs. Midlake, though, were a different matter. Yes, Tim Smith’s lyrics may occasionally have seemed like a way of avoiding having to write about the contemporary world, but the band was hot as hell, and Smith and second guitarist/vocalist Eric Pulido harmonised expertly.

Even better, The Trials of Van Occupanther included a couple of absolutely killer singles in Roscoe and Head Home.

Roscoe emerged first, a minor-key chug over which Smith builds the world of Van Occupanther while lamenting not having been born with a “more productive name like Roscoe”***. Filling the song with references to mountaineers, stonecutters, building houses and fixing roofs, and fixating on the idea of village as community – implying a contrast with an atomised, corrupted present day – Smith finally lands on what amounts to a thesis statement for the whole album:

1891
They roamed around and foraged
They made their house from cedars
They made their house from stone.
Oh, they’re a little like you
They’re a little like me
We have all we need

So yeah, perhaps Midlake did set us on the road to Marcus Mumford playing stadium indie while dressed as a 19th-century frontiersman. But what makes Roscoe work is the playing of the band, which combined precision and bite (drummer McKenzie Smith is crucial in this regard: he switches frequently between hats and ride to propel the song while preventing monotony as we wait for the chorus, and his quick-handed fills avoid rock cliche), the unexpected tributaries of Smith’s vocal melody, which is instantly accessible but surprising, not quite doing what you think it’s going to, and the harmonies of Smith and Pulido, which are astutely arranged and executed.

Roscoe continues to be Van Occupanther‘s signature song, but as a huge Fleetwood Mac fan in the midst of his most intense period of Fleetwood Mac fandom, Head Home was my immediate favourite, and on balance probably remains so, even while I can see why people went crazier over Roscoe.

Head Home is the song where those FM comparisons are most justified. It has all of the Rumours-era ingredients: the Mick Fleetwood bass-drum groove, a gnarled Lindsey Buckingham-esque solo from Eric Nichelson and super-tight harmonies from Smith and Pulido (the falsetto harmony from, I think, Smith does a creditable job of recreating a Christine McVie part above the Buckingham and Nicks vocal lines). But it’s not a slavish imitation. It’s taken at a brisker clip than you’ll usually hear from the steadily mid-tempo Mac, which along with more of McKenzie Smith’s dextrous, jazz-trained fills gives it a slightly panicky, nervous energy, and it’s filled with Tim Smith’s usual lyrical preoccupations. However naively romantic and, it has to be said, juvenile a sentiment like “Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks, I’ll be satisfied” may be, it’s not something you’d get from a Stevie or Lindsey song. It’s far more akin to Robbie Robertson’s writing on Cahoots, when his idealised vision of America between Reconstruction and Great Depression became a fetish.

Its somewhat gauche lyric aside, Head Home is a thrilling six minutes because of the quality of the performances, both vocal and instrumental, and the cumulative effect of those harmonies rising above Nichelson’s surprisingly tough electric guitar during the long coda.**** Nowhere else in the Midlake canon did the band manage quite the same combination of power, melody and sophisticated vocal arrangement. It’s quite glorious.

Four years after Van Occupanther, Midlake released The Courage of Others, the band’s last album with Tim Smith as the lead singer and main songwriter. It was a more subdued affair than its predecesor, in thrall to early-seventies British folk rock (Fairport’s Fotheringay casts a long shadow over first single and album opener Acts of Man). While not containing anything as immediate as Roscoe and Head Home, I think The Courage of Others is probably Midlake’s finest moment – it’s more consistent than Van Occupanther in style and quality, and without the second-half drop-off that hobbles the earlier record.

After Tim Smith left the band, Eric Pulido took over on lead vocals and Midlake followed a more democratic model on 2013’s Antiphon. Its bigger, rhythm-section led sound retained some of the 1970s prog influences evident on The Courage of Others, but while the sound was perhaps less derivative of its influences than had previously been the case with Midlake (it’s harder to play spot-the-influence with Antiphon), it lacked any songs of the quality of Roscoe or Head Home (Old and the Young gets closest), and seemed to come and go without having much of an impact.

The group haven’t, as far as I’m aware, formally disbanded, but Pulido did release a solo record under the name E.B. The Younger, which suggests we may not hear from them again. Tim Smith shared a demo for his Harp project on his website, which is very much in the vein of his Courage of Others material, but so far no finished music has emerged. The Trials of Van Occupanther and The Courage of Others deserve a revisit if you’ve not listened to them since their release. They hold up well.

Midlake circa The Trials of Van Occupanther

*”The prestige of this conjunction of pomo prog, alt-country, fantasy fiction and video-game narrativity is the silliest proof yet of how jaded indie’s tastebuds have become,” wrote Christgau.

**Vernon was the partial exception in that, while his lyrics were opaque (and incomprehensible to me at least without seeing them written down), he literally did the things Tim Smith and Robin Pecknold only sang about, recording his debut while living in his father’s hunting cabin, eating venison from deer he’d killed himself.

***Speaking as a Ross who has frequently been nicknamed “Roscoe”, I can assure Smith it’s not a more productive name than Tim.

****I saw Midlake in Oxford during their 2010 tour, with John Grant and Grandaddy’s Jason Lyttle supporting, and can attest that live they could work up quite a head of steam, as well as pulling off those vocals flawlessly.

East of Hercules – Ume

Guitarist and singer Lauren Larson from Austin, Texas, power trio* Ume is one of my favourite contemporary rock guitarists. Creative rather than virtuosic, her style brings together wiry single-note riffs and octave chords and dyads in the middle of the fretboard, occasionally using delay to add rhythmic interest without, Edge-style, making it the entire basis of her sound. You might think that a three-piece eschewing heavily distorted power chords in the lowest register of the guitar would sound a little skeletal, but Larson fills up a lot of space all by herself and when playing with the brakes off, the band sound massive.

East of Hercules, the thunderous opening track of the band’s debut 2009 EP Sunshower, has one of the most immediate of Larson’s serrated-edge Fender riffs, underpinned by her husband Eric Larson’s light-footed distorted bass. Original drummer Jeff Barrera is brick-wall solid in support, using toms to build tension in the verses and smashing his cymbals to send the song through the roof at the climax. The song’s structure, a variation on the well-worn quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic of nineties-influenced rock, may not be the most surprising, but it works brilliantly, with the band alternately surging forward and pulling back. Vocals tend to be sunk low in the mix on Ume’s early work, certainly on the heavier tracks, but, MBV-style, snippets of melody and lyric insinuate themselves over time, so East of Hercules rewards repeat listening, as do the other songs on Sunshower.

I felt on hearing Ume’s early work that they were going to get a substantial audience. It’s never really happened for them. It may seem reductive to suggest that only one band can pursue a similar sound at the same time and have success with it, but it does feel like The Joy Formidable (who released their debut EP in the same year that Ume put theirs out), who share a power-trio sound with Ume and whose singer Ritzy Bryan has a similar vocal tone and range to Larson, now occupy the only space that mainstream indie rock has for a band doing this kind of stuff. Which I guess makes sense since The Joy Formidable’s mixes tend to place more emphasis on Bryan’s voice than Ume’s put on Larson’s, and tracks like Whirring and Abacus show a willingness and a talent for playing to the back row of an arena that Ume don’t quite share, but it’s still a shame. I know which band I’d rather see in a small club.

Ume have become a little more refined over the last decade, with 2018’s Other Nature employing a tight, dry sound, a little like Radiohead around the time of In Rainbows, and featuring fewer head-banging moments. All their releases are worth checking out, though. Sunshower’s standout East of Hercules is a great place to start, and while you’re there check out The Conductor and Pendulum, too.

*They have expanded more recently into a live four-piece, with either an extra guitar or keyboard player. As far as I can tell, though, the core of the band remains Lauren Larson, Eric Larson and current drummer Aaron Perez.