Author Archives: rossjpalmer

More thoughts on Tim Hardin

If that title makes this post sound like a sequel, it is – to a piece I wrote four years ago and wasn’t all that pleased with.

Last night I played Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe for an audience. I’ve never performed Hardin’s music in front of anyone before, and I picked it not because I thought anyone would know his version, but because they might know Rod Stewart’s, and Mel and I were looking to leaven a long duo set of our original stuff with a few songs people might know. I mentioned that Hardin’s recording was a smaller, more intimate record than the version Stewart cut for Every Picture Tells a Story, and that I would be playing Hardin’s take on the song, just in case they thought I’d stopped because I’d forgotten how it went.

Many artists who take on Hardin can’t resist the urge to urge to elongate and inflate the original text. Hardin’s songs in this day and age can seem alien – so terse, so concise. Five of the 10 songs on Tim Hardin 2 are less than two minutes long. When the average pop song is at least 90 seconds longer than that, Hardin’s ultra-minimal work can come over a bit like a demo that someone else will be taking and polishing up: repeating some bits here and there, raising the key, pushing the tempo.

Yet few versions of Hardin’s songs improve at all on the originals in any respect. Brief as they may be, Hardin’s recordings aren’t short of emotion or ideas; quite the reverse. It’s more that he refused to repeat hooks or choruses for the sake of catchiness if there was no musical or emotional reason to do it. The bit that everyone remembers from Reason to Believe (“Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”) only happens once in Hardin’s recording; the second time it comes round, Hardin doesn’t sing and lets the orchestra carry it. He then sings the first verse again and simply stops at the words “Still I’d look to find a reason to believe”, letting them hang in the air.

I love that about his recordings. It’s so rare in pop music that someone makes understatement and reserve the whole cornerstone of their musical approach. Hardin’s work in its context is revolutionary – his first album two albums (which contain Reason to Believe, Black Sheep Boy, It’ll Never Happen Again, How Can We Hang On to a Dream, Misty Roses, If I Were a Carpenter, Red Balloon and Speak Like a Child) were released in 1966 and 1967, years when pop was entering its psychedelic phase and was going maximal.

However untogether he was in his life away from music, Hardin trusted his instincts and refused to follow the herd. Within eighteen months of his first record’s release, a whole movement would begin of singer-songwriters and rootsy rock bands (under the direct influence of The Band and Bob Dylan, a public fan of Hardin’s work) would themselves move away from the high-volume, bright-colour aesthetic of psychedelia towards something more minimal. They were simply rediscovering what Hardin had known all along: the power of speaking quietly when everyone else is shouting.

tim-hardin-1

 

Glen Campbell RIP

Your childhood favourites never leave you, and thanks to albums like this, Glen Campbell was one of mine:

Country Scene cover

This cheapo Music for Pleasure compilation from the early eighties began with Galveston and ended with Rhinestone Cowboy*. Thirty years later, both songs, and especially the former, remain incredibly important and precious to me, and I genuinely can’t hear Galveston without tearing up. Next time I listen to it, it’ll have to be in private.

Glen Campbell was not a young man, and he had been unwell for some years, so we shouldn’t get maudlin here. But we should take a moment to remember the absolutely towering contribution he made to popular music.

I’m sure I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know about Glen Campbell. After years of playing guitar on sessions and cutting singles trying to get a break, Gentle on My Mind made his name in 1967. His interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s songs (Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston – Campbell had an instinct for choosing the best songs) in the years that followed cemented his reputation as one of the foremost interpretative singers not just in country, but in any kind of music. No one who took on Wichita Lineman or By the Time I Get to Phoenix improved them (not even Isaac Hayes – sorry, James, if you’re reading this). You can’t improve perfection.

He had a TV show and tried his hand at acting with some success. He cut gorgeous duets with Bobbie Gentry and Anne Murray. In his session days, he played guitar and bass on Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra records as part of the Wrecking Crew – and toured with the Beach Boys, too. Even now he’s still underappreciated as a guitarist.

If there was one positive to come out of his Alzheimer’s-stricken final years, it was the sight of Campbell performing in front of adoring audiences, old and young, some of whom had only heard of him through his 2008 covers album, Meet Glen Campbell, on which he covered the likes of the Foo Fighters, Green Day and Paul Westerberg. Their appreciation of him was sharpened by the knowledge that he was slipping away. No artist deserved a victory lap more.

Glen-Campbell-Capitol-Archives

*It also took in Anne Murrary’s Snowbird, Crystal Gayle’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue and Talking in Your Sleep, Don Schlitz’s own recording of The Gambler, Billie Jo Spears’ Blanket on the Ground and Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. It’s amazing how much lasting happiness can be derived from something that only existed because someone at MfP saw a quick, cheap way to make an easy profit.

 

 

Attics of My Life – Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, ft Amy Helm

I guess if anyone has earned the right to take on Attics of My Life, it’s Larry Campbell.

Campbell is a cornerstone of a certain kind of American roots music, the kind for whom Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are themselves cornerstone records. At 61, he’s half a generation younger than the guys who inspired him, and he’s spent a lifetime learning from them, studying them and gradually becoming a trusted lieutenant for more of them than you care to name.

Let’s name some, just so you know he’s legit: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Hot Tuna, even BB King – Campbell has played guitar for all of them. That’s his bona fides.

In 2015, Campbell and actress and singer Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife of 20-odd years) released a record together, the first time either had had their names on the front cover of any record. Their version of Attics of My Life, honed in concert over several years (they’ve performed it often with Phil Lesh, so it has the blessing of one of the masters, if that kind of thing makes a difference to you), closed the album.

Attics was the big vocal-harmony song on American Beauty, the track where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary made on Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Lesh took in their achievement on that song was clear. Jerry Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Robert Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you’re hearing the guys push themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.

Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. I think Campbell and Williams’s version of the song gets its power from a few sources. Firstly, Campbell’s adaptation of the music for one guitar is clever and flawlessly executed. Second, Campbell and Williams are substantially older than the guys in the Dead were when they cut Attics; Campbell is 61, Williams, I guess, in her fifties. Campbell’s oaky voice sounds its age. That adds another dimension to a lyric that is about the difference made over the course of a life by the grace and affirmation bestowed by another. Thirdly, whoever Hunter had in mind when he wrote those words (whether a lover, or some kind of spiritual or universal grace), when Campbell and Williams sing it, it’s impossible not to be conscious of their relationship and put out of your head the idea that they’re singing to each other.

Campbell, Williams and a guesting Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s late Levon Helm, who recorded Tennessee Jed on his final album) sing the song beautifully, slowing the tempo, caressing each note and breathing as one. It’s cover version as holy writ. It gives me chills.

Larry Campbell Teresa Williams

Music Critics have Stopped Yelling at Clouds

When I was younger, a big part of why I read music writing was to have my biases and prejudices reinforced by reading a negative piece about a band I didn’t like. At the time (late nineties), there were plenty of music writers, at least in the UK, willing to oblige, including more than a few who made this kind combative writing into a shtick.

Whether or not I agreed with their published opinions week to week, I usually enjoyed the writing. It wasn’t just that it seemed invigorating and funny. It went deeper than that. Music fandom seemed much more tribal then, and the need to actively police the boundaries of your tastes much more pressing. It was only natural that, to do this, you’d need to vigorously put the boot in on stuff that you found wanting as well as simply praise the things you liked. Or you’d need to read other people doing it on your behalf.

Now, in truth this stuff doesn’t tend to have a great shelf life. Bands oftentimes have longer careers than writers, unless you’re Robert Christgau or something, and yesterday’s roiling controversies look like piffling little storms in teacups just a few years on. So it’s not a huge surprise that this kind of writing has all but disappeared from pro (which in Internet terms means ad-supported) and amateur publications. The few practitioners I was aware of who made it a significant part of their online personas 10 years or so ago are no longer being published on a regular basis. The trend is more towards the evaluative and the pseudo-objective, with serious (non-click bait) writing as concerned with how a new work fits into the arc of a given artist’s career, or the music landscape in general, as it is with critiquing the music itself. And when you can hear the record for yourself with a click or two and form your own opinions, why would a writer spend time doing that? Who would want them to?

This kind of writing feels like a mature and sensible response to the situation we have now. And it always behoves writers to remember that a) opinions about art are only opinions, and b) even given that, little music that we hear will strike us as either really great or really terrible. Most of it is in the middle, and contains something redeeming, whether it’s in the quality of the mix, the attention to detail in the arrangement, the technical proficiency of the singer or whatever.

For me, I can only find it within myself to be angry at records that seem insultingly cynical, and that’s fairly rare*. More than ever, too, I’m aware that new artists (and writers) are for the most part a decade younger than me. Maybe their first album isn’t very good, but if there’s something in it, there’s always the chance that they can take it, develop it and grow. Who would have known in 1982 that Talk Talk would one day make Spirit of Eden?

On the I Love Music message board over the last couple of days, a few regularly published music writers have been discussing all this stuff, with some really interesting perspectives thrown up by those who are “in the game”, so to speak, work with editors regularly and are affected on a day-to-day basis by issues like: will X record company put us on a blacklist for panning their new artist’s debut, and, will running a “meh” review get us more clicks or fewer than a more obviously positive or negative review. These are issues I feel grateful not to have to face. Taken all together, they make it pretty clear that massively negative reviews haven’t just disappeared because music writers as a breed have gotten more fair-minded. There’s a complex web of issues here.**

For what it’s worth, I still enjoy reading negative reviews and opinions about a band or artist if the writer has done the work of engaging with their music and isn’t just being controversial to generate clicks, or infamy. That said, as I get older and more reflective myself, the less knee-jerk tone of modern criticism does seem to be a net gain.

*I think Mercy by Duffy was the last time a single actively made me angry on this score, and that was 10 years ago. But still, the effrontery of it was outrageous. A straight rewrite of Rehab and replace the “No, no no”s with “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s. It was breathtakingly cynical, especially when performer and cowriter openly admitted the album was already recorded but was missing a first single. Hall of shame stuff from performer and writer Steve Booker.

**A few days ago, Pitchfork ran a review of the new Arcade Fire record where the writer seemed wounded personally by the band’s new music. He professed only to like one or two songs, and those not without reservation. It reads like, at most, a 2-star review (out of five), yet the published score out of 10 was 5.6. Like I said, a complex web of issues going on here. It’s been a while since I read that negative-seeming a review on a big online music site, though.

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – Joni Mitchell

More One Song Onlys next time, I hope. But now, Joni. Again.

I wrote once about the pleasures to be found in going deep into a major artist’s back catalogue and spending time with the minor records: the fiascos, semi-failures, secret successes, curate’s eggs and baffling left turns.

Joni Mitchell’s body of work – large but not vast, varied but always idiosyncratically reflective of its creator’s self – really rewards this kind of listening. To that end, I’ve been revisiting Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mitchell’s 1977 double album, trying to decide what I make of it these days.

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was not kindly received by critics or the public on its release*. While it sold enough to go gold, it was the last Joni album that did reach that benchmark, and record-store lore has it that it’s the most returned album ever, or at least one of them. Small wonder – this is a double album by Joni in her “jazz” phase. Its four sides are heavy on Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass and feature a 16-minute piano-and-orchestra song, Paprika Plains, that takes up the whole of side two. Its 59 minutes contain scarcely a snippet of melody that will stick with you after one listen.

There are, however, slowly uncoiling verse melodies that will work their way in if you listen to the record 10 or so times, if you have the patience. At 21 or 22, my devotion to Joni Mitchell was such that I did have the patience. I put in the time, and am on the whole a defender of the album, in all its bewildering excess.

More recently, though, I’ve hardly listened to it. There are Joni records that offer more immediate pleasures, and not listening to her music as much as I did in my early twenties, when I do, I want to hear my favourite stuff.

After The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell stripped back the electric jazz sound she and the LA Express had constructed over the past two records (and taken on the road – check out Miles of Aisles for a very decent document of Joni live in 1974) and rebuilt it around her acoustic guitar and new recruit Jaco Pastorius’s fretless bass guitar. This updated formula worked to stunning effect on Hejira‘s first side.

DJRD is hit and miss in comparison, but even after spending time with it this week, I find it hard to put a finger on quite why.

Partly, I think, it’s that the extended melodies of Hejira and Summer Lawns had little phrases that lingered in the memory and allowed you to hang on to the verse as a whole, a quality not always apparent on DJRD. Partly it’s that a lot of the chord sequences and strummy rhythms are samey – compare Cotton Avenue, Talk to Me, the title track and Off Night Backstreet. And partly (and I say this while acknowledging that Mitchell works at a level only a couple of other pop songwriters have ever attained), her lyrics on DJRD just aren’t quite at the level of the albums preceding it. There’s nothing here as arresting or moving as Amelia, Harry’s House, Edith and the Kingpin or Woman of Heart and Mind, let alone the more concise, melody-anchored songs of her early career, the Circle Games, Chelsea Mornings, Rivers, Both Sides Nows and Little Greens that any songwriter in any genre would give their right arm to be able to write.

When Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter came out, Mitchell had released five more or less brilliant albums in a row, plus a couple more very good ones before that. She had to strike out sometime. And this minor, flawed work is fascinating because it’s so close in form and style to Hejira, which in any fair appraisal of Mitchell’s oeuvre has to be counted as a major work, even if you’re not fond of Pastorius’s bass playing. Every great Joni record represented both a stunning collection of songs and a stylistic development from her previous work. DJRD is Hejira part 2, even with The Tenth World and Paprika Plains on it. It was the first time she failed to make a musical advance on her previous work.

I’d recommend Hejira to anyone. It’s not my favourite Joni record – over the full album length, I find the Joni-and-Jaco arrangements wearying – but the first three songs are heart-stoppingly good, and it demonstrates that the forms and structures she was working with in the mid- to late-1970s were not themselves holding her back. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, though, is one to save for when you’ve heard everything Mitchell did between 1970-1976 and wonder what it would sound like to hear a great artist losing contact with their greatness. That might sound odd, but trust me, it’s worth doing: it makes you appreciate that greatness all the more.

*The cover of DJRD largely escaped critical censure at the time. Featuring as it does Mitchell in blackface and, on the inner sleeve, dressed as a Native American, that seems scarcely credible. Forty years on, the best we can say for it is its creator seems to have remained unaware of how crass it is in concept and how offensive it is in execution.

The One Song Onlys, part 1

About a year ago, I put together a post about my favourite songs and albums. The two lists did not have much crossover; few of my absolute favourite songs are by artists whose entire body of work means much to me in the way that Joni Mitchell’s, John Martyn’s or Paul Simon’s do. That list was heavier on pop, soul and disco compared to my favourite-albums list, which was much more about mellow 1970s singer-songwriters. But even so, none of the artists on that favourite-songs list was that rare phemoneon, the One Song Only artist.

For an artist to be a true One Song Only, I have to genuinely only care for one song, and I have to have heard enough of their other work to know I don’t like or care about any of it. That’s actually pretty rare. Normally if an artist does something that you like once, it’s unlikely they’re never be able to touch you in the same way again. But it does happen. I thought it’d be fun to do a couple of posts with some examples.

I don’t like being negative about musicians and music on this blog; I write it to talk about music that excites me, moves me – stuff I like. But I can only explain why these are One Song Onlies by discussing why I don’t normally dig what the artist does. So here goes.

The Wild Ones – Suede
Britpop never meant much to me. I found it parochial, even at the time, even at the age I was in 1994 (twelve). Most of all, I didn’t like it musically. I didn’t like exagerratedly English vocals, parping semi-ironic brass sections or drummers playing two and four without any verve or authority. Some exciting players emerged in that era (Blur’s Graham Coxon, Suede’s Bernard Butler), but the bands on the whole just weren’t to my taste. Suede were no exception, yet I have a lot of love for The Wild Ones.

The Wild Ones shouldn’t work for me. On an instrumental and arrangement level, it’s really messy, and demonstrates a lot of the things that I don’t like about the band generally. Drummer Simon Gilbert will not stop playing fills and bassist Mat Osman is scarcely less restrained; producer Ed Buller resorts to making Gilbert a tiny reverb-drenched presence at the back of the mix, where he’s less in the way, and thinning out Osman’s sound (although, to be fair, all of Suede’s records in that era are bass-light). Bernard Butler was always a maximalist guitar player and, while he’s in great form here (his intro on the dobro is magical), he’s not helping to give the arrangement focus by stuffing every corner of it with yet more detail and ornament. While the band play over each other, singer Brett Anderson also goes big, pulling the deepest, bartitone-Bowie notes he can out of himself and adding a huge vibrato to his sustained notes that had seldom, if ever, been there before in his delivery.

It’s all far too much. Yet the song itself is far too much, and the gaucheness of the execution – the too-muchness of it – becomes weirdly touching, and is in sympathy with Anderson’s lyric, which grabs at hope with a desperate romanticism even as that same hope slides out of his grip. It ends up being strangely touching and it affects me in a way no other song of theirs does.

Only the Lonely – The Motels
Before products like Elastic Audio and Beat Detective, if a drummer couldn’t meet the demands of the material when a group was in the studio, the ways available to “fix” their performances were either slow and laborious (physical editing of 2-inch tape), or would be unsatisfactory for stylistic reasons (use of drum machines instead of a live drum track). If a drummer couldn’t cut it, it was easier in the long run simply to hire another who could. Same went for any kind of instrumentalist.

In 1981, The Motels’ third album Apocalypso was rejected by their label, Capitol, who sent them back to the studio to redo it. Apocalypso was released a few years back and it’s not hard to hear why Capitol took that decision. Singer Martha Davis had written an obvious hit in Only the Lonely, but it would never have sold in its jerky Apocalypso form, where the hooks fell flat due to the band’s heavy handedness and Davis’s stylised over-singing.

The group recut the album with the same producer, Val Garay, but they gave him a free hand the second time around (the argumentative Tim McGovern, lead guitarist and now former boyfriend of Davis, had reportedly clashed with Garay and taken over the previous sessions). Garay’s solution to the problem of making a new wave band commercial and technically satisfactory was to replace the band members with drummer Craig Krampf and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. This was an era in which LA labels solved a lot of problems by bringing in guys like Waddy Wachtel.

So Only the Lonely and its parent album All Four One is new wave put through the LA mincing machine – with the band’s assent. Yet, despite the cynicism of the enterprise, it’s impossible to argue that the song wasn’t vastly improved in its second incarnation. It towers over everything else I’ve heard by the group, most of which doesn’t do anything for me. It’s the combination of sleek LA session playing, Davis’s more restrained vocal (more than usual, at least) and a thoughtful lyric that fully deserved to have a great track built for it; the second verse in particular (“You mention the time we were togther so long ago/Well, I don’t remember, all I know is it makes me feel good now”) strikes me as a rather adult and hard-to-pin-down set of emotions that you rarely get in pop music.

If Davis and the group had been consistently stronger writers, the tension between the LA pros brought in by Garay and the sensibility of the songs could have led to a minor classic, full of sharp little pop songs with a weird tension in them (a little like the Cars, maybe). As it is, they’re a One Song Only group.

I’m moving house this week, but more as soon as I can manage.

Spoon @ the Forum, Kentish Town, 30/06/17

On the day I like to call Bobby Goldsboro Day, Spoon returned to London and, in their Spoonian way, crushed it. Again.

20-odd years and nine albums into their career, Spoon are a fuss-free rock ‘n’ roll machine. Their songs are sleek, minimal and always brilliantly arranged, and last night they rattled them off in a fury, with several songs segueing into one another most impressively.

They began with a great version of Do I Have to Talk You Into It, one of the highlights from new album Hot Thoughts, and any worries we had about the sound in the Forum vanished. When opening act Proper Ornaments were playing, the mix was poor, but in retrospect I think that had mainly to do with the band congesting the midrange with strummed, clanging electric guitars, which drowned out the vocals and made the snare drum a wimpy, barely discernable little tapping noise somewhere in the background. Spoon, by comtrast, are pros, and know how to arrange and play their music. They sounded pretty damn big and settled in straight away, instrumentally and vocally.

I always marvel at how good Daniel’s voice sounds live. A bit nasal and congested sounding, more than a little hoarse, his voice would suffer over the course of a long tour, you’d think, with gigs every night for days on end without a break. But no, from the first song he sounded warmed up and ready to go, and his voice remained strong all night, no matter how much he shouted or how often he jumped into his falsetto range.

Sara and I had a plan yesterday. Get in the queue early and get seats in the middle of the front row of the balcony so we could see the whole band unobstructed. Everything went exactly to plan, so we had a glorious whole-stage view all night long. While it was hard for me to not watch Jim Eno, my favourite drummer in the world right now, I tried to take in as much as I could of what bassist Rob Pope and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Fischel were up to, too.

Pope is hugely impressive. He’s always in the pocket, and even better, he knows how much impact he can have by sitting out for a while and slamming back in during a chorus to make it sound even huger. It’s a neat trick, and he did it several times last night, notably on Can I Sit Next to You (another cracker from Hot Thoughts) and They Want My Soul‘s swaggering, Stonesy Rent I Pay.

Daniel was in fiery preacher mode last night. Striking rock-frontman poses and singing I Ain’t the One while lying on his back, he was closer than I’ve seen him get before to winking at the audience, sending up the idea of being the focal point of a big rock ‘n’ roll show. He got away with it, mainly, I think, because Spoon’s music is basically sincere: its occasional forays into pastiche are done with a lot of love, and the band’s enjoyment of playing together and just being Spoon is evident all the time. His excesses seemed enthusiastic, not cynical.

Last night they tore through 16 songs, plus three more in the encore, and I was lucky enough to get versions of a lot of favourites: I Turn My Camera On, the astonishing Don’t Make Me a Target, I Summon You (played solo by Daniel as the first song of the encore), Anything You Want (Sara’s favourite, but not at its best last night – the jaunty piano hook wasn’t quite loud enough), Black Like Me, which would have been a brilliant final song, and the menacing My Mathematical Mind, which tore the roof off at the 100 Club; while last night couldn’t match the impact of that eardrum-shattering version, it was still plenty cool, Jim Eno’s backbeat as mean as it needed to be while Fischel pulled all sorts of funny sci-fi noises out of his keyboard.

Spoon have been great each time I’ve seen them. At this stage, I can’t think of a band I’d rather see in concert. They’re coming back to the UK in the autumn for more gigs. Get a ticket.

Spoon
Spoon, from the front row of the balcony