Author Archives: rossjpalmer

Away from the City – new EP released today!

Hi everyone. Sorry for the lack of a post this week. I’m actually about halfway through a big one, but I’ve got quite a lot of material to pull together and structure properly and all that jazz. It’s another live album one, but it’ll be a little different to the others I’ve done. Hopefully it’ll be ready by the back end of next week.

The other thing that’s been occupying me this week is the reason I’m posting today. My partner Melanie Crew and I have just released our first joint EP, and I’ve been quite busy this week putting the finishing touches to it, doing final mixes, writing emails and blurbs, sorting out the artwork for Bandcamp and Tunecore – all that sort of stuff.

It’s available right now to stream and download from Bandcamp, and will be up on other streaming platforms in the next week or so (it’ll vary by platform – they all have different turnaround times).

It features six songs, three by Melanie and three by me, and we’re really proud of it. Two of the songs – Mel’s A Different Place and my Nobody’s Watching – were written and recorded during lockdown, so they’re really fresh. The others are songs we’ve played at our shows together over the last 18 months or so.

On Mel’s Seven Mountains and my song Restless Heart we are joined by Jon Clayton on cello. Jon runs One Cat studio in south London (which is where the upcoming James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record was tracked) and plays drums in a brilliant band called Hurtling, who I wrote about here. He’s an absurdly talented dude. Equally brilliant is singer-songwriter Adam Beattie, who plays double bass on Restless Heart. Adam is a veteran of the old Gladstone Arms in Borough, and is one of the finest songwriters around. Adam’s a part of the Band of Burns collective, who tour the UK every year, playing a mix of their original songs and Robert Burns poems that they’ve adapted and set to their own music. Finally, James McKean joins Mel on backing vocals on my song Nobody’s Watching. Nobody sings oohs and aahs quite like James.

If you’re in the UK, stay safe if you’re going to head out tomorrow. This ain’t over yet, not by a long chalk.

Take care now. I’ll be back next week.

Yet More Live Gonzos, part 1: Running on Empty – Jackson Browne

There’s a moment early in Jackson Browne’s 1977 album Running on Empty that isn’t merely an impressive production coup, although it is that. It functions as a thesis statement for the record, and simultaneously elevates it above any similar album in the rock ‘n’ roll canon.

Essentially a concept piece about a life spent touring, with new songs by Browne augmented by a number of co-writes and covers, Running on Empty was recorded entirely outside the traditional studio environment. Some of the tracks were recorded live in concert; others were cut backstage, in hotel rooms and even on the tour bus itself (a Continental Silver Eagle, since you ask).

The Road, the second track, initially sounds like a moment of pensive, quiet introspection after the adrenaline-fuelled high of the opening title track. Browne sings the song quietly, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and David Lindley’s smoky fiddle. The liner notes tell us it was tracked in Room 301 of the Cross Keys Inn, Columbia, MD *. The verses rest upon the tension created by moving back and forth between G major and a G augmented, a tension that isn’t fully released until just before the end of the chorus, where a chord is held and the singer pauses long enough for us to hear the night-time sounds of crickets through an open window. “It’s just another town along the road,” Browne concludes over a descending sequence that takes us back to G major and the start of the next verse.

The song is a meditation on the cost of a life spent always on the move, losing contact with people you care about, taking drugs you oughtn’t to, and making only superficial connections with the people you meet. It’s a cover of a song by Danny O’Keefe, but Browne sings it as if it is his own, inhabiting every note convincingly. But then, after the second chorus, as the major 7th chord fades, the crickets are replaced by cheers from an audience, and we crossfade into a live-in-concert performance of the song. It’s done so subtly that the first time you hear it, you probably won’t hear the join or realise what’s happening until it’s happened.

That cross-fade from motel room to concert hall may have been a relatively simple matter for audio engineer Greg Ladanyi (the album’s unsung hero), but the emotional effect of it, the dramatic change it causes to the song’s meaning, is huge. Yes, the song says, the life of a touring musician – boring when it’s not bacchanalian, and harmful to the soul when it is – takes a great deal from you, but it’s a price worth paying to get to play for people for an hour or two a night. It would be one thing to write a song that contained that message. Plenty of people have, including Jackson Browne. But with this song, he found a way to illustrate it, to show without telling. It’s this that I find so impressive, and this that makes the album probably the best of its type.

That said, there aren’t many live albums of its type*. Live records are more usually recorded at one show to document a set that contains at least some old material, and over the years have been so routinely touched up in the studio, or in extreme cases re-recorded so extensively, that calling them live albums might be a bit of a stretch. What we have with Running on Empty, if we take the sleeve notes at face value (and I’m inclined to, having watched the bass player on the tour, Lee Sklar, talk about Running on Empty on his YouTube channel – the guy has had such a storied career that he has no reason to embellish the truth where this one record is concerned), is very different. This is more akin to a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a rock band on the road, in which concert footage is juxtaposed with jam sessions on the tour bus and songs being rehearsed backstage.

Even if you don’t know the album, you may well know the title track, which was one of Browne’s biggest hits. It’s played so cleanly that during its running time we may well forget that it’s a live recording (from a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion), but there’s an edge to it, a power, that Jackson Browne’s studio records sometimes lack. The Section  – Russ Kunkel on drums, Sklar on bass, Craig Doerge on keys and Danny Kortchmar on guitar – are in fiery form, with Sklar and Kunkel a thrilling blend of power and agility, while David Lindley’s scorching lap steel guitar eggs Browne on to really let go in his vocal performance; when he cries out “I don’t know about anyone but me” halfway through the track, there’s an edge, a grain, to his voice that feels raw and genuine, as if he’s just being carried away by the music.

The other famous moment from the record is the medley of Browne’s The Load Out and a cover of Maurice Williams’s Stay, during which backing singer Rosemary Butler (who along with Doug Haywood does yeoman work throughout) takes a verse, before David Lindley does likewise, bringing the house down with his best doo-wop falsetto.

It’s easy to forget about The Load Out, to enjoy it just as a prelude to the warm, funny climax of the record, but it’s one of the record’s most important songs. The Load Out (and Rosie from earlier in the album) is as concerned with the roadie’s experience of the touring life as that the musician’s, and it has an eye for detail (“I can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs and that’s a sound they’ll never know”) that raises it above the many, many road songs that got written in the seventies. So many of those songs talk only of the alienation of life on tour. The Load Out acknowledges the loneliness, the endless time to fill, but is ultimately about the camaraderie between musicians and crew, which is why when it segues into Stay and Browne sings that they want to play just one more song, it works so perfectly.

Jackson Browne himself produced Running on Empty, and what makes it successful, apart from that crucial decision to record outside the concert venue as well as in it, is his choice of material. Browne wrote only two of the songs by himself, unusually for him, and included four covers (The Road and Stay, and also Danny Kortchmar’s R&B-flavoured Shaky Town and a version of Cocaine with new lyrics by Browne and Glenn Frey).

Browne is an excellent writer. These Days, Jamaica Say You Will, Late for the Sky, Somebody’s Baby, Running on Empty and many more all stand as testament to that. But his decision to forgo his own material and bring in work by other writers that fit the album in mood and subject, like The Road and Shaky Town, was astute and refreshingly free of ego. Better to have 10 songs that belong together and form a musical and conceptual unity, whoever wrote them, than to have 10 disparate songs that all feature solo writing credits for the artist. Likewise the co-writes, particularly the gorgeous Love Needs a Heart (by Browne, Valerie Carter and Little Feat’s Lowell George), and The Load Out (by Browne and Bryan Garofalo) are crucial to the album’s success.

I’d never completely dug Jackson Browne at album length until getting familiar with Running On Empty. Previously, I figured that Browne’s greatest hits would suffice for me, having not been impressed by much on Late for the Sky other than the title track. There’s something, and I don’t use the word lightly, magical about Running on Empty, though. As a document of a truly special band whose greatness is as apparent during a casual post-show jam as it is in front of 20,000 people at an outdoor arena, there’s simply nothing like it. The songs are, perhaps with the exception of You Love the Thunder, all first rate, and Browne is on great vocal form throughout. If you’ve never really heard his albums, start here.

RoE2
Browne and Danny Kortchmar, recording Nothing But Time aboard the Silver Eagle bus

*That is, albums of new material recorded live rather than in the studio. I’ll be writing about a couple over the next few weeks. Maybe not sequentially though. I might break things up with some shorter posts. The next one, when it comes, might be lengthy, as I’ve got some rather cool stuff to put in it.

 

 

 

 

Building a pedalboard

At the end of last year, I decided it really was time I put a pedalboard together, as I seemed to be absolutely the last guitarist in the world not to have one, and it was getting to be a little bit embarrasing being that guy at soundcheck taking precious minutes to plug all his pedals in.

I grew up in a time when pedalboards were still a rarity among non-pro guitarists. No one I knew used one – mainly because as teenagers we didn’t have the money for enough pedals to require a board. In fact, in my high school band, we didn’t even have a tuner pedal between us – just a distortion pedal each. (Our tuning was, naturally, rather approximate, but we were plenty distorted.) Then, for a while in the late 1990s, those early digital multi-effects pedals by Digitech and Zoom* were the big thing – again, no board required if a multi-effect unit is your only pedal.

Since most of the gigs I’ve done in the last few years have been playing guitar for James McKean, though, it made sense to have a small, lightweight and portable pedalboard for gigging, rather than carrying four or five pedals in a rucksack along with sundry cables, patch leads and a power supply, and then having to faff around with them between soundcheck and showtime.

Little did I know then that we’d only get to play one gig all year because of Covid-19. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have available, I suppose.

Anyway…

I settled on one of the smaller Pedaltrain boards, the Metro 20, as I decided I’d limit myself to five or six pedals: a tuner, a distortion or two, echo, modulation and reverb. For added portability and flexibility at gigs, I decided to go with Pedaltrain’s Volto rechargeable battery pack, which supplies more than enough current for six pedals, easily lasts the length of a long rehearsal and mounts on the underside of the board, saving space up top. It uses a USB charging cable but it comes with a wall adaptor, too – extra points for flexibility.

I also picked up some new pedals as I was lacking a reverb unit and a satisfactory compact distortion. I also just felt like freshening things up and having some new gear to get me excited about creating the pedalboard. Some of the pedals I settled on have been on the market a few years, and others are recent-ish releases.

First up, I needed reverb. My original choice was:

TC Electronic Skysurfer
This is a budget option I bought without trying out, thinking it would probably do well enough for live applications, since for recording I either use the spring reverb on my Vox AC15 or add reverb in the box when mixing. Unfortunately, the Skysurfer wasn’t the pedal for me. Even dialled right back, the reverb sounds were still over the top, with a clangy, metallic tail even on room settings – what’s the room made out of? Tin?

So, I decided to write that one off and replace with:

Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Neo
The EHX Holy Grail family of reverb pedals is extensive, but I decided to go with one of the nano-sized pedals, as they have such a small footprint, yet contain a lot of features.

It came down to a choice between the Holy Grail Nano and the Holy Grail Neo. The difference is that the Nano has hall, spring and Flerb settings, while the Neo ditches the Flerb and replaces it with plate reverb setting. Flerb is a flanged reverb – quite a cool sound, but not one you’d need often, so the Neo won the day for me. The sounds are very musical and refined, with the plate and spring ‘verbs sounding particularly good to my ear. I tend to use reverb subtly most of the time, so the hall setting probably won’t get much use, but in all it’s a really usable, good-sounding bit of kit.

I also needed some distortion. I used to get dirty sounds from a 120-watt all-valve Peavey head turned up loud, but sold that amp when I moved into a flat in London and replaced it with the AC15 I mentioned earlier. At that point, I bought a Blackstar HT Dual pedal for high-gain stuff, as even with the preamp and power sections dimed, you’ll barely get an AC15 into Keith Richards territory, let alone Jerry Cantrell land. Also, you’ll be completely deafened and find yourself beseiged by angry neighbours with pitchforks and flaming torches; for a 15-watter, the AC can go mighty loud when provoked.

The HT Dual is a fun, versatile pedal that sounds quite amp-like, and the dual-channel thing makes switching between crunchy overdrive and high-gain, super-saturated lead stuff easy peasy. Unfortunately, it weighs a metric ton, is the size of at least two ordinary pedals and needs a dedicated 22v supply. Its absence from the pedalboard left me needing two new pedals: an overdrive and a higher-gain distortion. The solutions I chose also came from Electro-Harmonix, as I’d been won over by the small footprint of their nano pedals. I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Soul Food is, EHX tell us, an emulation of the Klon Centaur overdrive, an example of which can easily set you back a couple of grand on reverb.com. Whether the Soul Food is that close to a Centaur, I’m not qualified to judge as I’ve never used one, but the economics are compelling: the Soul Food is around £70 new, which is not a lot for a very good overdrive. It’s refined enough with the drive turned down below midday that you can use it as an always-on tone shaper, it’s really responsive to dynamic playing, and if you turn the gain up full it will spit and snarl convincingly in a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of way. It allows the tone of the amp and guitar to shine through, so it feels surprisingly close to amp drive.

It is quite low gain, though, and won’t take you into proper distortion. For that I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
Sitting halfway between a fuzz and distortion, the Flatiron Fuzz is, EHX say, their take on the good old Proco Rat 2. To my ears, it’s not as throaty as a Rat, with more high end on tap if that’s what you’re after, but it’s a really fun, quite versatile pedal for ’90s-style rock guitar sounds. It’s also smaller and ligbter than a Proco Rat 2. Electro-Harmonix’s demo video has their dudes comparing it to the Rat (while of course saying they prefer the Flatiron), and showing it off by playing the riffs from Song 2, What’s the Frequency Kenneth? and Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, which pretty much sums up what this pedal does. Also, it has the Flatiron Building on it, so it’s the prettiest thing on my pedalboard by a distance.

I love a good modulation pedal, and fancied having something a bit unusual in the toolbox for the right occasion. I settled on:

TC Electronic Vibraclone
This is a take on the Fender Vibratone, a speaker cabinet from the late sixties that was essentially a Leslie 16 redesigned as a guitar cab; it had a guitar speaker and Leslie rotor rather than a horn and woofer with twin rotors, like the organ unit.

I’ve never heard a pedal that really nails that whooshy Leslie speaker thing; there’s something about the way the rotors disperse sound that’s hard to replicate when you’re playing through standard drivers. However, the Vibraclone is absurdly cheap (approximately £40) and while the sound is not particularly adaptable (there’s no depth/intensity control; just drive and speed), it’s a sound I happen to like very much. When I first sat down with it, I came up with the main riff for my song You Won’t Need to Cry, and it’s all over a bunch of songs from the upcoming Yo Zushi album I’m producing at the moment. For most gigs, I’d probably leave it off the board and sub in my old Marshall tremolo pedal, which is a lot more flexible, but it’s a fun one to have at home. One small negative: the TC boxes are rather big – bigger than a Boss pedal chassis.

So in full the pedalboard is: Boss TU-3, EHX Soul Food, EHX Flatiron Fuzz, Marshall EH1 Echohead Delay, TC Electronic Vibraclone and EHX Holy Grail Nano. At some point I might look to upgrade the delay to something more comprehensive, with a dotted eighth note setting in case I ever want to play Run Like Hell or Where the Streets Have No Name.

This post is not sponsored by Electro-Harmonix, and neither am I. I am open to offers, though, if they’re reading this.

*I still have somewhere in my cupboard of random audio crap a Zoom 509 – a late-1990s digital multi-effect pedal, with chorus, phasing, flanging, harmonising, ring modulation and a simple doubling effect, like a slowish slapback. The presets were all, of course, unusably heavy handed except for two: a relatively useful octave-down effect and a combination phaser and tremolo effect that I used to use on a few songs I played in old bands. Seemed pretty cool at the time, but I imagine it would make me cringe now.

Spirited Away – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Over the last few years, the majority of live shows I’ve played have been as a guitar player in James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

I’ve written about James before, but to save you reading an old piece, we met at university some 20 years ago, and we’ve been playing music together more or less ever since. After his old band, the ‘A’ Train, broke up, James began making solo albums, and I’ve been helping him to do it: recording, mixing, playing instruments, co-producing and generally lending a hand wherever I could.

The last James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album was recorded over a number of separate sessions at my flat, James’s flat, my dad’s house and One Cat studio in London (operated by Jon Clayton of Hurtling), with the personnel different on every song. It hangs together remarkably well as an album, but this time, James wanted to record all the basic tracks live at One Cat as a five-piece live band, with Jon engineering, and keep overdubbing to a minimum. The idea was that we’d then have a unified sound throughout the whole record (mission successful), which could be more or less replicated live (mission successful), and get the whole thing done quickly (mission less successful).

The band was/is a really good one (even though I was in it). On drums we had Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) and on bass Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union), while ace singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic and sang.

On most songs, that’s the entire instrumental palette, but we also had Basia Bartz of Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band playing violin on two songs, while Nick Frater helped us out with some brass sounds on another couple of songs. James and I handled most of the backing vocals on the record, but we also had extensive contributions from my partner Melanie, as well as Matt and Chris from the band, James’s brother Dan McKean and north London singer-songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Despite being a five-piece band with two lead electric guitarists and a fair amount of harmonies, the results don’t sound very much at all like the Eagles, which given that band’s critical and cultural standing these days, most will take as good news.

While the basic tracks all sounded good and James and I slowly worked on getting lead vocals, harmonies and extra things like synth and violin parts recorded, progress on final mixes was slow until the coronavirus crisis. After I was furloughed by my company, I had more time to work on musical projects than I’d had in the seven years or so since I started my job. I was really able to focus, cranking out a mix or two per day and sending them to James for notes.

The album is now completely mixed, and is being mastered as we speak. Before it comes out, though, James is releasing a four-song EP based around one of its tracks, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is one of my favourites on the album. I felt at the time we recorded it that it had the best basic track of all the songs on the album. Given the relative complexity of the song (it’s in the guitar-unfriendly key of Bb and has a fair number of changes), I was very happy with how we played it. It had good feel and good tempo.

James sang an excellent lead vocal and worked up a great backing vocal arrangement (I added some voices to his to make the backing vox thicker and wider), and Basia’s violin, largely scored by James, adds a huge amount to it. We recorded her parts at my house on the morning after Super Bowl LIII, and it was somewhat challenging. Not because I was hungover, you understand; I’d been poorly all week and was feverish during the game itself, sitting under a blanket and shivering uncontrollably while drinking coffee. The next morning, sleep deprived and generally feeling terrible, I was not at the top of my game, but the tracking went well, luckily!

The EP’s three other tracks are largely James’s work, recorded and mixed by himself at his home. Don’t Have Far to Go has had a long life, having originally been recorded by the ‘A’ Train. In this incarnation, it’s a Dylan-esque acoustic strummer with a verse/refrain structure. I think I like this version better than any previous take on the song, and a line James wrote somewhere around twelve years ago – “In this age of documentary are there stories left to tell?” – seems so appropriate to our times it’s as if he wrote it yesterday.

The Falls is, I think, a super-charming old-timey song inspired by the film Up, sung from the point of view of the elderly Carl. Matt plays double bass on this one, and James’s finger-picking acoustic part with all the right jazzy passing chords is great. The final track is James’s version of one of my songs, Nothing Means More, for which he reused and remixed my backing track, adding his own lead and backing vocals. At the time I wrote it, I thought it sounded more like one of his songs than the kind of thing I usually do, and I was really honoured he wanted to record it. He’s done a cracking job with it, and it’s great to hear a proper singer have a go at something I wrote for my little voice to sing.

Spirited Away is available to stream and download from Bandcamp, along with James’s other releases.

More news on the release date for the full album soon.

 

 

 

 

So here we are

Silence means consent. Silence is complicity. Silence is violence. These words ring in my ears, castigating me, every day. I imagine many of us have felt that way this week.

It may sound trite, or just a cop out, but this week I’ve not wanted to post anything here. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, with protests and riots still happening across the US, and with solidarity protests also taking place in Europe, writing about old music – or even offering my own take on what’s going on, like anyone needs a lecture on race from a white British guy – has seemed utterly inappropriate. I’ve rather preferred to read, learn and reflect on what is happening (the protests, the riots and the responses to them both), but without drawing attention to myself.

I understand the wish to demonstrate which side you’re on – and I’m most assuredly on the side of the protesters – but much of what I’ve seen on social media this week, from both white individials and corporations looking to score PR points, has a performativity to it that could be dismissed as merely silly if it weren’t actively unhelpful. These are serious times; we can’t afford silliness. When hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk congregating and protesting together in public during the middle of a pandemic that’s so far claimed 380,000 lives globally because this racist police murder is just one damn murder too many, when news coverage is filled with police battering peaceful protesters and leaving them bleeding on the ground; ramming SUVs into barriers behind which stand unarmed, innocent people; and marching through city streets like Imperial Stormtroopers while the president agitates to deploy the armed forces against the citizens they exist to protect, the times could scarcely be more serious.

The response we have seen from the police, elected officials and above all from the White House is deeply concerning. That peaceful protesters have too often been met with violently disproportionate policing tactics is not deniable, unless you believe that any level of protest automatically warrants being beaten with sticks or violently shoved to the ground and left there to bleed. If that is your view, I doubt anything I can say can change your mind or that there’s anything we ever could agree on – including, I should say, the worth of the music I usually write about here.

This president has always sought to govern by division, by portraying any criticism of him as evidence of a conspiracy, and any critic of him as undemocratic – un-American, even. He revels in creating division, then whipping his side up with inflammatory rhetoric. To have a president behave that way may be offensive and indecorous, but it’s not on its own enough to make his governance illegitimate and incompatible with American democracy.

But by tear-gassing peaceful protesters to clear the way for a photo op in which he posed with a Bible he hasn’t read in front of a church he doesn’t attend; by hiding in a bunker at the first sign of trouble; by fortifying the White House so it resembles the palace of a dictator; by threatening to have the army shoot looters on sight; by allowing – encouraging – police chiefs to double down on violent suppression of peaceful protest, Trump has crossed several lines. These tactics have been used many times before, and when deployed elsewhere, we wouldn’t hesitate to call them fascist. The US has gone to war with other nations because their leaders have treated their citizens thus.

Fascism is of course not a word to use lightly, but I think we’re at the point now where it’s becoming undeniable. Trump’s racial prejudices are visceral and well documented, but whether they are evidence of genuinely fascist leanings would only truly be seen in how he reacted to having his authority challenged by a significant number of people. In the last week, we’ve seen his reaction: restricting press freedoms, pressuring politicians at state level to restrict the rights of people to peacefully assemble, and signalling a willingness to use the army against the people. In so doing, he has shown what he truly is. In Trump’s world, black lives do not matter. But really, in Trump’s world nothing matters except for whatever benefits him.

Who knows where this will end now – with the army marching down the streets of Manhattan and Minneapolis? Will the wall around the White House stay there permanently? If Trump loses in November, would he even leave office without a protracted, ugly battle played out in the courts, on Twitter, in the right-wing media and, God forbid, on the streets? These are unprecedented times, and nothing seems impossible.

All of this is is why posting about music this week has seemed inappropriate. I had thought I’d wait until the moment was less febrile, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. So I guess I’ll be back with something musical in a couple of days. In the meantime, I do recommend this podcast about police funding. It gave me a lot to think about. Stay safe, everyone.

Lost in the Cosmos – Sons of Bill

Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is the sound of a man coming apart but desperately trying to hold himself together. “Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind,” he croaks as the song begins. While we guess immediately from the sound of his voice that it’s not working well for him, Bell’s next line – “but that don’t get you back again” – is a particularly stark way of confirming it. You can be as vast and complex and unknowable as the cosmos, or as powerful and elemental as the wind, he’s saying, but it won’t mean you’re not alone.

All songwriters try to find ways to encapsulate and universalise feelings like this. The good ones do it now and then. Few can do it repeatedly. Bell was one who could, which is one of the reasons why, with only a small body of work to his name*, he remains an inspiration to musicians more than 40 years after his death.

Released in 2014 on the album Love and Logic, Lost in the Cosmos (Song for Chris Bell) by Sons of Bill is a meditation on Bell’s short, tragic life. Written mainly by the band’s keyboard player Abe Wilson, sung by his brother James Wilson and with a soaring guitar solo by Sam Wilson (the three brothers are, indeed, the sons of Bill – college professor and songwriter Bill Wilson), Lost in the Cosmos is a conscious attempt at myth-making on behalf of the overlooked driving force of Big Star in their early years. “James and I were listening to a lot of Big Star,” Abe Wilson told Rolling Stone, “and we decided that Chris Bell really needed a song of his own. The Replacements have already given Alex Chilton a song, but Chris needed some love, too.”

Slow and stately in 6/8 time, built on the simplest of chord changes and decorated with pedal steel and a melody that you swear you’ve heard before but can’t quite place, Lost in the Cosmos doesn’t sound like a Chris Bell song. It doesn’t share the quicksilver quality that Bell’s best tunes have; rather, it sounds like it’s been dug out of the earth. But it’s a moving tribute to the spirit of a songwriter who’s still sadly in the shadow of his former bandmate Chilton.

*Bell left behind half a dozen songs on the first Big Star album, #1 Record, and a solo record, I Am the Cosmos, that was released posthumously. His songs on #1 Record include In the Street (a cover of which was later used as the theme for That ’70s Show), the joyfully ebullient My Life is Right and the aching Try Again. Alex Chilton may have penned Thirteen and The Ballad of El Goodo, but Bell’s contributions – in terms of writing and arrangement – were critical to #1 Record.

The Last Dance

The title sequence of Netflix’s The Last Dance features 12 shots of Michael Jordan, compared to only two each of Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, one of Steve Kerr, and five of coach Phil Jackson, which without saying anything, says a lot.

Nominally the story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA Championship campaign, the Repeat Three-peat season, Netflix’s The Last Dance would have been better titled “The Life and Career of Michael Jordan, Superstar”. While the archive footage of His Airness in his prime is every bit as spectacular and life-affirming as you could hope, and makes a convincing case for Jordan as the greatest sports figure of all time, judged as a documentary The Last Dance isn’t quite what it could have been.

We’re not callow; we know how these things work. The price of Jordan’s participation and and those behind-the-scenes tapes was surely that the series be centred on the great man himself and that it paint an unambiguously positive picture of him. To the extent that he could, director Jason Hehir asks Jordan about his gambling and includes clips that show him to have been a domineering and imperious teammate, and Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, Jackson, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause got their brief moments in the spotlight. Hehir’s chosen structure – roughly half of each episode dedicated to the 1997-1998 campaign and the rest flashing back to either key moments in Jordan’s career or one of the five previous victorious Bulls seasons – is an elegant solution to the problem of making it about the team while keeping it primarily about Jordan. The issue is more that for a documentary that does bill itself as the story of the Bulls and is named after Phil Jackson’s name for that final, valedictory campaign, its focus on its star player means there are stories within the main story that are not fully told.

Still, the research and clearance work by Hehir’s team results in a pretty glorious assemblage of archive footage. I was a young basketball fan in the early 1990s in the UK, with no way to see games live; those I did see were recorded by a friend of mine who had satellite TV, and lent to me to watch a few days after the fact. So while I did see Jordan play in his pomp, I didn’t get to see as much as I’d have liked, and I’d forgotten so much about how dominant he was. What I find striking now is the physicality of his game – how tough he had to be and much he bulked up to compensate for the roughhousing tactics of the Pistons, the Knicks et al – and his ability to guide the ball into the basket when all routes seemed blocked, often drawing fouls when doing so. With the shoes and the hangtime and all, its easy to forget that Jordan’s hands were where the points really came from. The behind-the-scenes stuff is likewise fascinating, and Jordan – usually the most guarded and wary of interviewees – is a little more voluble than you might expect.

The Last Dance is, then, best enjoyed as a series-length highlight reel of a player of almost boundless creativity and energy, but which also has some interesting sidebars on his most noteworthy teammates and the dynamic between them.

 

 

 

Tell It Like It Is – Aaron Neville

It may sound illogical, but the million-selling Tell It Like It Is – still Aaron Neville’s signature song, 50 years after he recorded – bankrupted the company that manufactured and distributed it.

In 1966, Aaron Neville was approached by writer and arranger George Davis, part-time session saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler and teacher Warren Parker, who were partners in a new production company called Par-Lo Enterprises. Davis was friends with a musician called Wilbert Smith, who wrote and performed as Lee Diamond. Diamond had the beginnings of a new song called Tell It Like It Is. Davis loved the hook and the title, and thought it sounded like a hit, but Diamond was in trouble with the law and was sent to prison before he could write any lyrics, so Davis was left to finish the song.

Neville agreed to cut it, so went into the studio with a band that included Davis on baritone sax, Emory Thomas on trumpet, Deacon John on guitar, Tyler on tenor, Willie Tee on piano and Gentleman June Gardner (born plain Albert Gardner, but Gentleman June Gardner is such a wonderful name) behind the drums.

Delighted with the recording, Davis and Parker took it to New York and were frustrated to find no one willing to release it. So they decided to turn Par-Lo Enterprises into a for-real record label and put it out themselves. They pressed 2000 singles and signed a distribution deal with Dover Records. To ensure local airplay, and hence local sales, Par-Lo made the ill-advised decision to give WYLD’s Larry McKinley – then the most popular DJ in New Orleans – 50% of the record’s publishing.

The bribe did its job. McKinley played the hell out of Tell It Like It Is. Wouldn’t you if you had a 50% financial stake in its success? Soon other stations across Louisiana were doing the same. Dover Records reported selling 40,000 singles in a single week, just in New Orleans. Gradually the song broke across the country, topping the national R&B charts for five weeks and reaching number two in the pop charts early in 1966. All told, the single sold about two million, so Par-Lo rushed out an album, also called Tell It Like It Is.

Neville should have been set up from all this success. Unfortunately, Par-Lo and Dover were inexperienced, small-time players, trying to do business like the big boys but not quite knowing what they were doing. Dover kept plying distributors with freebies long after it stopped being necessary, giving away 300 free copies for every 1000 actually sold. Soon, wth Dover making only two-thirds of the income they should have been making and Par-Lo only making half, as they’d given McKinley 50% of the publishing royalties, neither record company Par-Lo nor distributor Dover could pay the bills they’d amassed for pressing, shipping and promotion, and they had no money left to pay the taxman, either.

With all of Dover’s and Par-Lo’s assets seized by the IRS, Neville was left, again, without a label or all the money due to him. Perhaps that’s why he’s rerecorded Tell It Like It Is several times (a decent version from the 1970s, with Neville backed by the Meters, was the first one I ever heard; my mum picked up a cheapie Aaron Neville compilation that included it), but the original, the one he cut at 25 that saved him from a life spent drifting between longshoreman jobs and petty-criminal scams, is still the finest. Indeed, it’s a classic, a belter, one of the very best.

I’m indebted to an OffBeat Magazine article for the backstory to this wonderful song. For fans of New Orleans music, OffBeat is a treasure trove.

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.

True – Operators

I first became aware of Dan Boeckner on hearing the album he made in 2012 with Spoon’s Britt Daniel under the band name Divine Fits (A Thing Called Divine Fits). By that time, Boeckner had already been a member of Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, but since I’d been essentially divorced from and uninterested in indie rock in the noughties, he was a new name to me. The hook for me with Divine Fits, who I caught up with a couple of years after the release of their sole album, was the presence of Britt Daniel, as I was a new convert to Spoon, with a zealot’s devotion.

Daniel’s work on A Thing Called Divine Fits was good, but Boeckner’s was better. Spoon are the ideal vehicle for Daniel’s songs and voice; there’s something alchemical that happens when he sings over Jim Eno’s drumming, and Eno wasn’t involved with Divine Fits. Boeckner is a very different vocal presence to Daniel. Daniel has a wiry, edgy intensity, his nasal vocals always a little ragged, as if he may blow out his voice any moment. Boeckner has more of a conventional rock star thing going on vocally; my friend Sara, who’s responsible for my Spoon fandom, called Boeckner “that Bono guy”, and there’s something in that, something of the same messianic fervour.

After Divine Fits, Boeckner began a new project called Operators. The band released their first EP, imaginatively titled EP1, in 2014. Opening track True seemed to get the push to radio; at any rate, it was the song I heard on KEXP, and it’s one I still come back to now. The band’s mix of vintage synths, sequenced and acoustic rhythms, and passionate vocals is not especially unique – there are echoes especially of sundry DFA* productions, but also early Depeche Mode and, on EP1’s other tracks, OMD – but it’s hard to deny once everything falls into lock step, 40 seconds or so into True.

There are lots of cool production and arrangement touches, courtesy of the band’s programmer and synth player Devojka, who’s also a vocal presence in the choruses (most of the high-pitched vocals comes from Boeckner’s voice run through an octaver, an effect they duplicate in live performance) – Operators are definitely a band, with the contributions of Devojka and drummer Sam Brown crucial to the effect.

Anthemic electronic pop,  worth your time.

 

*Although in one interview Dan Boeckner contrasted his band’s relatively stripped-down approach to LCD Soundsystem: “You don’t have to be James Murphy with $50k worth of vintage gear onstage to make something that sounds interesting.”

**Not that Sam Brown, Another one.

Indian Queens – Nick Lowe

I’ve come up dry this week. I’ve been busy doing mixes for James McKean’s next record, as well as stuff by Yo Zushi, Mel and myself, and I’ve hardly listened to music other than the stuff I’m working on. I’ve pulled this one out of my archives. It’s about a record I’ve written about before, but you’ll forgive me, I hope. Stay safe and well.

The study of place names is a means of studying history and topography. The place-name element “ford”, as you would imagine, means a shallow a river crossing. Catford is the place where cattle crossed the river; Oxford, the place where oxen did likewise. “Ham” means a village or dwelling. Lewisham (the “Lewis” bit deriving from “læsew”, meaning meadow) means a village, or house, in the meadow. Birmingham is the dwelling place of the Beormingas, the followers of a leader called Beorma. A “hurst” is a wooded hill; Chislehurst means literally “gravel hill”. The ubiquitous place-name elements “chester”, “caster” and “cester” all derive from “castrum”, the Roman word for a fort.

Know a bit about place names, and already you know whether the place is built by a river or on a hill, whether it’s inland or coastal, wooded or farmed, and even how long it’s been there.

What are we to make, then, of Indian Queens in Cornwall?

By all accounts, the village was named for its inn, called at various points The Indian Queen and The Indian Queens. The pub had a small porch and displayed as a sign the portrait of an “Indian” queen. An inscription on the porch told the story of a Portuguese princess who landed at Falmouth and slept one night at the inn on her way to London. Her Mediterranean appearance gave the locals, who had little context for any skin tone other than the three basic British types (milky white, ruddy red for those who work outside, and midday beetroot for heavy drinkers) the impression that she was Indian. Whether they meant by that a West Indian, a Native American or South Asian is, again, debated. Some fanciful types even like to imagine the woman in question was not Portuguese but was, in fact, Pocahontas on her way to be shown off to London society.

Indian Queens is the title of a song by Nick Lowe, from his 2001 album, The Convincer. At the time, Lowe was only 52, but in the cover image, as he sat cigarette in hand, resplendent in silver quiff, blue blazer, cufflinks, pinstriped shirt and pale tie, he looked closer to the age he is now (70). Thanks to his tobacco-thickened voice, he sounded older, too, which is appropriate for Indian Queens, as a younger singer would have trouble selling this story of an itinerant sailor who’s been all around the world, making mistakes everywhere, and now longing for the village of his youth.

Indian Queens, evocative and intriguing though the name is, plays little part in the song itself. Lowe could have chosen anything that fit the metre. But character sketches like this song live or die on the little details, and the fact that our narrator comes from a small village in Cornwall with a somewhat improbable name is a exactly the kind of thing that brings both character and song to life.

I love Lowe’s work on The Convincer. It’s a low-stakes record, but in paring his sound and lyrical approach down to their barest essentials (the economy of language in Indian Queens is massively impressive – he sketches situations and characters in just a line or two of simple, mainly one-syllable words), Lowe made what might be the best album of his career sound like something he just dashed off in a couple of evenings with his mates. The man’s a damn genius.

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.