Author Archives: rossjpalmer

The Very Greatest Best Hits of… – the single-artist compilation album

This began as a piece to mark the 40th birthday of R.E.M., which I gather from Twitter was on Sunday. It went somewhere else.

I’ve spoken before, many times, about growing up as a music fan in the pre-internet era. I don’t know how many readers I have who are younger than me – probably only a very few regulars – but it can’t be stressed enough how different it was to now.

New music was a scarce commodity then, at least if you were a kid like I was. I earned £11 a week from a paper round when I was 14, so if I wanted to buy a new record while also keeping a bit of cash aside for stuff like guitar strings and my share of band rehearsal costs (a very reasonable £21 for a five-hour session at Maple in Southend, Essex), I’d have to squirrel away a few pounds here and a few pounds there for maybe three or four weeks to afford a new CD. Since not every store had a listening post, purchases were often blind, and if you didn’t immediately like the record you chose, you’d have enough invested in it to really work at getting it.

Being impatient to get my hands on new music more often than a dozen or so times a year, libraries, record fairs and second-hand record stall Gumbi’s (which stood in a covered market on an insalubrious road close to Southend high street) became important resources to me. I was definitely not above getting CDs from the library and taping them, but I was enough of a completist about the bands I liked that if I was into an album I taped from a friend or a library copy, I’d eventually buy it anyway.

In this world, the single-artist compilation disc – a form that is practically obsolete now – was a really useful way to get a handle on an artist’s body of work without blowing all your cash on one abum that may be patchy at best, or overhyped and rubbish at worst. Consequently, I picked up more than a few as a teenager, from wherever I could get them cheap.

It was at Gumbi’s that I found a copy of The Best of R.E.M., released by the group’s former label IRS after the band’s success with its second Warner Bros. release, Out of Time. It was £7, near enough half the price of a new CD (which tended to retail at around £12 back then in HMV or Virgin). Not having any alternate versions or rarities like Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, The Best of R.E.M. was greeted with a sniff and a shrug by reviewers and long-time fans, and probably bewilderment by newer fans, who wondered why the only song on it they’d even vaguely heard of was The One I Love, but to me it was a godsend. It handily distilled R.E.M.’s here-be-dragons IRS era into 16 songs – one from the EP Chronic Town, and three each from the five albums they released between 1983 and 1987.

Murmur, the first of those, would go on to become an absolutely foundational record for me, one of my favourite albums ever, with Fables of the Reconstruction close behind. I’d still put Murmur in my top ten favourite records ever. It pulls of an absolutely stunning trick – while a fully formed work in its own regard that captures the band’s absolute quintessence, it pulls all over the place, with influences drawn from folk-rock, country, gospel, post-punk, bubblegum and straight-up, honest-to-goodness 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll.

Representing such a record as Murmur or Fables in just three tracks is a tough job, and if I was going to pick three songs to encapsulate Murmur I’d drop Talk About the Passion and replace it with Sitting Still or Shaking Through. And yeah, the Fables picks give little hint of that record’s bone-deep weirdness. And I Believe but not Begin the Begin or These Days? Huh? But still, the compilation did more than just open up the band’s back catalogue to me; it was a window on a world that seemed distant and strange because I had few first-hand memories of it.

Single-artist compilations are held in low esteem by many music fans; if an artist’s work is worth hearing, it’s worth hearing as they intended, goes the argument. Album by album, perhaps even in the order they came out. But actually, that’s not how most music fans engage with music, and never has been. For Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 in the second half of the seventies, read Spotify’s This is Eagles* playlist now.

A Spotify playlist has the same utile value for the consumer as the single-artist compilation album did, in that it gives him or her a simple way to get the measure of an artist that they’re not familiar with. But what the compilation has over the Spotify playlist – or indeed those double-CD best ofs that became common in the late 1990s – is concision. Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 has 10 songs in it. Spotify’s This is Eagles playlist has more songs on it than I can count, and one of them is Chug All Night**. OK, so some great single-artist compilations were long (Neil Young’s Decade ran to three discs for its vinyl release), but they were the exception; most avoided doing the skilled compiler’s work of reducing an entire oeuvre to a dozen or so songs. A well-compiled best-of on one disc or two sides of vinyl is the platonic ideal of the form for me.

Ultimately, even the most perfunctory, will-this-do compilations raise a fascinating question for the listener: are these songs just the tip of the iceberg, or do they represent everything this artist did that’s worth hearing? For a music fan just getting to grips with an artist’s body of work, what could be more exciting than getting the chance to find out that answer for themselves?

Best of

*Spotify becoming the only person/thing that has ever referred to the band as simply “Eagles” and not “the Eagles” other than Glenn Frey.

**Anyone who lived through A Good Day in Hell – The Official ILM Track-By-Track Eagles Listening Thread on I Love Music remembers Chug All Night, an otherwise forgotten Frey song from their debut, with a combination of hilarity and horror.

Bill Withers RIP

Bill Withers died today of complications related to a heart condition.

Just 14 years separated Bill Withers’s 1971 debut studio album, Just As I Am, and his final record, Watching You Watching Me, which has been more or less written out of history (Withers referred to his career as only being seven years long). His life as a professional musician was neither abbreviated by tragedy like Marvin Gaye’s and Donny Hathaway’s, and nor did it comprise dozens of albums over five or six decades like that of a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. At a certain point, after his relationship with his label Columbia had soured to the point that he didn’t enjoy it anymore, he just walked away.

That makes him essentially singular. Fred Neil, who Withers covered on Just As I Am, pulled a similar move, but Neil was never famous like Bill Withers was. Withers would have known that he’d have been welcomed back any time he chose to make a comeback, and been certain of a recording contract and sell-out theatre tours. He chose to stay home. The documentary Still Bill, released in 2009, showed that he still made music, but he was content to share it just with those closest to him. He professed not to miss performing.

No popular musician, it seems, was as unaffected by his success as Withers. He grew up in a West Virginia mining town, a childhood stutter setting him apart and making it hard for him to make friends. His father died when he was 13, and his grandmother helped raise him, as he explained when introducing Grandma’s Hands on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and in several performances on TV. He spent a spell in the navy and was working for an aircraft manufacturer when Sussex Records released his first album and its deathless single Ain’t No Sunshine broke. He was in his mid-thirties, a fully formed adult, sure of himself and not liable to be taken in by anyone’s bullshit. The cover of that first record shows Withers standing outside the factory with his lunchbox in his hand, like knocking off an album with a couple of instant classics was something he just did over a couple of lunchtimes.

That average-Joe quality is key to Withers’s enduring appeal. As Questlove said in a Rolling Stone profile of Withers, “He’s the last African-American Everyman… Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” His music was, like the man himself, without pretension or fuss. He’s the only major soul figure (at least, the only one I can think of) whose music is based primarily on (and is reducible to) strummed acoustic guitar, and his melodies were seldom ornate or intricately decorated. Anyone can sing Lean on Me or Grandma’s Hands. OK, there was that famed lung capacity that gave us the 18-second held note in Lovely Day and the “I know, I know, I know” bridge in Ain’t No Sunshine, but Withers’s voice was not virtuosic. It was warm, soulful and profoundly relatable. It spoke truth, and made that truth powerful through its restraint and simplicity.

We need that voice right now, more than ever. It will live on.

Here’s a truly wonderful performance of Ain’t No Sunshine from the BBC’s archive. Everything about it is perfect. It is, I should say, my profound and long-held ambition to one day be as cool as the bass player we see 1.15 into the song.

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 at 20

I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.

DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.

It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.

Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.

Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.

In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).

For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the most widesscreen Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.

From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.

Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.

Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.

For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a  piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.

LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**

At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.

Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.

I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).

Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)

I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:

This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.

Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.

There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.

Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.

Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.

The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.

Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work. I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there’s four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-eque experience.

ADW Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.

*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.

  1. Son of Sam
  2. Everything Reminds Me of Her
  3. Everything Means Nothing to Me
  4. LA
  5. Stupidity Tries
  6. Figure 8
  7. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
  8. Color Bars
  9. Happiness/The Gondola Man
  10. Pretty Mary K
  11. I Better Be Quiet Now
  12. Can’t Make a Sound
  13. Bye

**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.

***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.

****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

 

 

Lockdown – end of week 1

I had some really sad news yesterday. Dr Habib Zaidi died of coronavirus in Southend General Hospital. He had been my family’s GP since we moved to Leigh-on-Sea from Maldon in 1987. He was a such a kind man, and an excellent doctor. He was 76 years old, and didn’t need to still be seeing patients at his age, at a time when a global pandemic is killing thousands every day. But, as his daughter (who is also a GP in the same practice) has said, it was a vocation for him. He felt a responsibility. I can’t really put into words how much I admire and respect him for that bravery, and how sad I am at his passing. It was his wife, also a GP at that practice (everybody in their family works in the medical profession), who first recognised the symptoms of heart failure in me, so I quite literally owe the Zaidi family my life, and this is pretty hard to process.

How is everyone doing?

Mel and I are doing OK, all things considered. We’re five days into the official lockdown here. Restrictions are manageable. We’re allowed to go outside once a day for exercise, so I’ve been going out for a 40-minute walk before work when there aren’t many people around and it’s easier to maintain a safe distance from anyone who is out jogging or walking their dog.

As of Wednesday, my established routine will be out the window, though. The company I work for is furloughing most of the staff, including me, and applying for a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme grant, which should cover 80% of my salary for the next two months, but enforce idleness upon me. I realise that compared to, say, the US the scheme in place here is a fairly comprehensive one, and one that is likely to prevent hundreds of thousands of people being laid off, including hopefully me. But still, like everything else that’s going on right now, it’s disconcerting. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do. I’ve been in my job for seven years, around five of which have been full time. I’m usually out of my house 11 hours a day, so I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands.

The NHS is running a volunteer scheme, but as I don’t have a car the roles open to me are limited. I’d basically just be calling people to say hi. Not that doing that isn’t important, but talking to people I don’t know is definitely not my strength. I’m going to look into locally based charity schemes to see if there’s anything more concrete I can do in my community.

Other than that, I’ll be aiming to finish mixing the EP I’m making with Mel and the album I’m making with James McKean, and furthering the album I started with Yo Zushi just before Christmas. It’s likely that I’ll blog more, and try to write more songs too. I want to hope that by the end of May, when the 2-month furlough period ends, the worst will be behind us, I’ll be able to go back to work and we’ll have some kind of normality again. But that’s probably hoping for too much. We’ve not had the worst of it here yet

What are you doing to help get you through this? Any films or music you’d recommend?

If a 10-minute distraction would help, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

Strange days

Well, these are interesting times to be living through. If by “interesting” we mean, scary and totally bizarre.

I’m not afraid of getting sick. Maybe I should be. I have a heart condition, after all. But I’m in good health – better than before my condition was diagnosed probably. The odds would be in my favour. And anyway, I’ve been sick. I know what it’s like to be hospitalised, to receive a life-changing diagnosis, to confront the possibilty of dying. None of that scares me.

What scares me is, what if Mel got sick, or a member of my family? What if my company can’t afford to keep going, or lays me off in the attempt to? What if this takes 18 months to subside? What if the economy is so broken by this that everything just keeps getting worse for everybody, and there’s no money left to even attempt something radical like a universal basic income? It’s the uncertainty that scares me.

The speed at which everything has changed is dizzying. Last Thursday I went on a day-long training course in Russell Square, met Mel for dinner then went to the Electric Ballroom to see Nada Surf and John Vanderslice. It didn’t feel like the world’s most sensible idea, but it was a first chance to see Vanderslice since I became familiar with his music seven years ago, and probably the last chance we’d have to see anyone play live for some months at least. As it turns out, none of us have gotten sick yet, and I assume we’re past the incubation point now, nine days on. If we were to get ill now, it wouldn’t be because we caught it in Camden.

That was the last semi-normal day. The next day, I worked from home. It was going to be a trial thing: we’d all work from home for two days either side of the weekend to see how it would work, whether we had the IT in place and so on. But things started spiralling, most of the businesses in central London sent their employees home, the panic buying started and socialising began to stop.

Yesterday I had to go into my office. Mel and I had ordered wedding invitations weeks ago, before any of this seriously kicked off. We don’t have a porch or anything, so we usually have parcels delivered to my office. I’d got a message that they’d arrived, and with rumours rife online that London was going to be put in Paris-style lockdown, with the army and armed police ensuring that no one could leave home except to buy food, I figured that it might be the only chance I’d have to pick them up for literally months.

Central London was quiet, but not a ghost town. The restaurants were mostly dead, but the bars and pubs were worryingly crowded. Some of the owners were obviously caught in a terrible dilemma: open up and maybe make money to pay staff, but encourage the virus to spread, or close and lose money, and bring forward the moment where you can’t pay staff anymore. I don’t envy them having to make that choice. But of course, some of the pubs that were crowded with beered-up lads practising no kind of social distancing whatsoever were chain pubs that were open because Tim Martin or some goon from Greene King said so. May history judge them them as harshly as they deserve. The news today that pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and gyms must all close tonight is inevitable and several days too late.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all this. It feels weird to be living through something so unprecedented in my lifetime, and I’ve not written anything about it all week, or anything about anything at all, truth be told. At the end of each day, I’ve been a bit wrung out, shattered. Bad things are happening to people I know (bad things economically; I don’t believe anyone I know has fallen ill yet), and there’s so little anyone can do to help. Everything feels… provisional. Planning ahead beyond the next day seems naive. I hope for the best, of course. But I’ve got zero confidence in the political decisions being made, so I’m braced for more restrictions, increasingly serious food shortages and a pile-up of bodies as our wonderful but dreadfully underfunded health service gets overwhelmed.

At times like these, music helps, of course. But so much of what it is to play music is about freedom, and freedom is of course what we have to sacrifice in order to beat this thing.

I hope you’re all doing OK, wherever you are. Isolation is the hardest thing of all. If you need someone to talk to and for whatever reason read my blatherings, you can email me. Use the contact form. Say hi. I’ll reply.

If a 10-minute distraction would help, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently.

You Won’t Need to Cry – new single out today

Well, I have to apologise for having made no progress on the last More Live Gonzos piece I was planning. Coronavirus has made this a very strange, quite stressful couple of weeks (at work, not for health reasons), and I’ve had no spare mental energy at all. I do plan to get back to it, but it may be a couple more weeks.

A few months ago, before any of us had heard of Covid-19, I recorded a couple of songs I’d written that leaned more towards indie/power pop than the kind of thing I normally do. I liked both songs and, more importantly, liked the recordings I’d made of them. They didn’t seem to fit on the EP I’m making with Mel or the album I’ve been working on forever, so I thought I’d release them as the A and B sides of a single.

The A side is called You Won’t Need to Cry. I wrote it very quickly just before new year. Mel gave me a new effects pedal for Christmas (a Leslie speaker-style modulation pedal by TC Electronic) and the song’s main riff/chord progression was pretty much the first thing I played when I sat down with it for first time. As sometimes happens when you’re playing around with ideas, it didn’t sound like a few strung-together chords – it sounded like an actual song’s intro, so I got to work.

The washy modulation effect on the guitar sounded a bit early 1980s to me, so I was thinking in those terms aesthetically, and went for a different kind of treatment than usual: a drum loop (taken from my actual live playing on Make it Last and slowed down a little), palm-muted bass and guitars, and double tracked vocals and harmonies. Mel added some extra oohs with me in the middle eight, and supplied the cover image (taken from the top of St Paul’s one night last summer).

The other song, Hard to Begin, is slightly older, written in late August last year and recorded in, I think, October or November. This one has a live drum track, quite loose and Ringo-y. I like the extended chord sequence in the verses and the general McCartney-ness of some of the changes. I guess if it sounds like anything, it’s a bit Figure 8-era Elliott Smith.

The songs are available on my Bandcamp for streaming and download (player embedded below), and you can also find them on Spotify, Google Play, Apple Music and so on.

I hope you have a chance to listen, and if you like them, please do share them.

Stay safe, everyone.

 

 

 

 

Someone to Pull the Trigger – Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet’s devotion to his song structures and chord sequences – should the solo come before or after the middle eight? What’s the perfect secondary dominant chord to enliven the verse progression? – sometimes sounds like the work of a guy desperately using craft to keep darkness at bay.

While this tendency is present on Girlfriend, it becomes more marked on the follow-up, 1993’s Altered Beast. Sweet named the record after the late 1980s arcade game instantly familiar to kids of that era (like me!) as the game that was bundled with the first version of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive as it was known outside the US) until the world-conquering success of Sonic the Hedgehog gave Sega a plausible rival to Mario and Luigi at last. The game – both laughably basic and in its final level infuriatingly difficult. Damn boxing goat warriors – sees you playing as a Greek warrior resurrected by Zeus to rescue the kidnapped Athena (quite why a goddess needs a mortal’s help is not explained. Because patriarchy, I guess). Sweet picked the title because, in his words, “you have to find these little power-up things, and when you eat them you become the Altered Beast, this other creature that’s really powerful and violent.”

So it’s a record about carrying the capacity for darkness inside you – how we cover it up and how it manifests itself anyway. Musically, it’s all over the map compared to Girlfriend, the heavier and more fuzzed-out 100% Fun and the Beach Boys-ish late 1990s duo, Blue Sky on Mars and In Reverse. Sweet tapped producer Richard Dashut, a veteran of Fleetwood Mac’s classic albums, as well as a troupe of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s: Mick Fleetwood, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and Big Star’s Jody Stephens, who play drums on a track or two each; Byron Berline, who’d played with the Byrds and the Band, who plays fiddle on the country-rock Time Capsule, and the great Greg Leisz, who’s played with just about everyone, on pedal steel. This intriguingly multi-generational band was completed by Sweet’s three regular lead guitarists, Ivan Julian, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, all veterans of late 1970s punk bands, all cast for their virtuosity and their ability to subvert Sweet’s classicism with sheer squalling noise when the moment demands.

Lyrically, the songs are frequently despairing, with the album’s prettiest song being the darkest. I’ve tried constructing readings of Someone to Pull the Trigger where the song isn’t simply a plea for someone to put the singer out of his misery (in which pulling the trigger is a way of saying “commit to doing something”), but ultimately the text doesn’t support them, and neither does Sweet’s vocal performance. He sounds lost, devoid of hope.

This song and the gorgeous Reaching Out, with Fleetwood on peerless form on drums, are the album’s sad, desperate heart. The more I listen to Sweet’s music, the more I hear the darkness below the Beatlesque chord changes, sunny harmonies and the goofy pop-culture references (in 2020, a record called Altered Beast may as well be called Pong). The clarity, as Sweet puts it, is chilling.