Category Archives: Music

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Tenderness – Jay Som

Of course lo-fi yacht rock is a thing.

It’s not the only style that Melina Duterte essays on Anak Ko, her most recent album as Jay Som, but in the shape of the second single Tenderness, it is perhaps the most striking.

Duterte started uploading home-recorded bedroom indie rock to Myspace in 2006 at the age of 12, progressing to uploading bedroom shoegaze to Bandcamp in 2012. Her previous albums – 2016 debut Turn Into and Everybody Works from 2017, both entirely self-played and self-recorded – are charming enough, and promising from a young artist. Duterte is a fine multi-instrumentalist and a creative producer, and writes appealing, slightly Juliana Hatfield-ish melodies. And if her drum tracks are sometimes a little wonky compared to her assured guitar playing, that’s all part of the records’ DIY vibe and feel.

On Anak Ko, though, Duterte’s gets her self-recording methods down to a fine art, and widens her songwriting palette so that, while everything still sounds a little bit like the Sundays or the Cocteau Twins, a wider array of influences creep in from outside the dream pop universe: the huge, J Mascis-like solo at the end of Superbike, for example, or the Steely Dan chords of the aforementioned yacht rock jam Tenderness.

Anak Ko features a wide cast of musicians on a Jay Som record for the first time, including members of her live band. On Tenderness, the contributions of drummer Zachary Elsasser are key. As I said, Duterte’s own rhythm tracks on her first two albums are integral to the vibe, but even lo-fi yacht rock has to be impeccably smooth or it’s not yacht rock but something else entirely; Elsasser’s hi-hat patterns, triplet figures gesturing towards a shuffle without quite coming out and playing one, is straight out of the Jeff Porcaro playbook. Duterte’s own bass and guitars are similarly smooth.

Tenderness isn’t the only impressive track on Anak Ko. I’m hugely fond of Superbike, (which I heard for the first time while Mel and I were having coffee in KEXP’s gathering space during a trip to Seattle last September) and Devotion’s intricate tapestry of chorused guitars and almost gamelan-like keyboards; the latter is also an example of how to successfully use heavily reverberant vocal tracks in the context of a generally drier overall mix.

Duterte’s work is still perhaps stronger on texture and atmosphere than it is on melodies that stick (the best part of the title track is the 90-second instrumental section in the middle; the vocal sections either side are slight in comparison), but each Jay Som record  seems to me to be getting stronger and more focused. Duterte is an artist to keep an eye on.

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.

Highway 61 at 55 (recycled bonus content)

Casting around in my archives, I found this, the start of a piece I wrote in 2015 about Highway 61 Revisited to mark its 50th anniversary but never published. Well, this year it turns 55, and Dylan released a new song this week, so I guess it has some kind of relevance. Guh, who am I kidding? Here’s an old thing because I couldn’t think of a new thing.

*

This August, Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan turned 50. With the possible exception of A Hard Day’s Night, it’s the first true masterpiece of the rock era (by which I mean, I guess, the post-Beatles era) to reach that milestone. Which makes the record’s continuing vitality even more remarkable. Highway 61, unlike, say, The Times They Are a-Changing does not feel like a museum piece – it still explodes with life, from the very first snare crack of Like a Rolling Stone to the final refrain of Desolation Row.

Writing about this record is hard. The stories have been told and retold a thousand times (Google any one of these phrases if you want them: “it’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you”; “long piece of vomit”; “that cat’s not an organ player”). The songs, the lyrics in particular, have been analysed by everyone from the callowest teenage rock critic to the sagest literary professor. Normally I look for stuff that’s either less well known or something that’s not usually picked to the bone by music critics, often because it had a truly mass audience and so hasn’t been become the sole domain of Mojo and Uncut readers. What more is there to say about Highway 61, 50 years on?

Here are a few stray observations. I can’t make a coherent post out of them or find a through line, I’m afraid. They’ll have to remain disconnected little comments.

1.

Much of what has been said about Highway 61 and about Dylan in general is less than helpful. The Christopher Ricks tendency to treat Dylan as a poet rather than a songwriter divorces his words from the music and from the sound of Dylan’s voice as he performs. Most of the key pleasures of Highway 61, for me at least, are musical. The shuffle of Bobby Gregg’s drums on It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, that crisp organ sound on Like a Rolling Stone, the interplay of tack piano and pianet, the grain of Dylan’s voice. Highway 61 is not a text; it’s vibrations in air. To receive it and interpet it solely through its words is to miss out on at least half of the experience.

2.

As an adjunct to that, Highway 61 is the best-sounding record Dylan ever made. Sure, we know he was looking for that “thin, wild mercury sound”, and that he felt Blonde on Blonde captured it better. But isn’t Blonde on Blonde a bit too thin? Doesn’t it sound weedy, placed next to Highway 61‘s big meaty snare sounds and R&B-flavoured bass?

3.

Bob Dylan was not big on rehearsing the band before they cut tracks. But if you record songs with people who are still learning them, there will be mistakes and fumbles and hesitations, and the results will have an edge, a tension, that comes from the fact that it all might fall apart at any minute.

Highway 61 has more than a few moments where the players are unsure: Gregg turns the beat around briefly in Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Mike Bloomfield struggles to wring more than one idea out of his guitar on Tombstone Blues. But that same approach also brought us small miracles like Al Kooper’s Like a Rolling Stone organ riff, and this rough-around-the-edges aesthetic (is there any other record where the guitars are so out of tune so much of the time?) is a huge part of what makes it charming and engaging.

4.

Highway 61‘s stylistic diversity is its strength, yet it hangs together so well as a coherent whole. Ballad of a Thin Man may take its cue, and piano riff, from Ray Charles’s gospel number I Believe to My Soul, From a Buick 6 may sound like a thousand garage-rock bands about to plug in on the West Coast, there may be a hint of Mexican cantina to Charlie McCoy’s lead guitar on Desolation Row, but the songs are a natural fit for each other, and the album is Dylan’s most satisfying long player.

Bob with Strat

Bob in Columbia Studios, New York, 1965. Acoustic guitar lays symbolically on the floor behind our newly electrified troubadour.

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.

 

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s decision to bring forward the release of her new album from August to Good Friday may have been motivated by altruism or a canny instinct on her part (or her advisors’) that a UK in lockdown constitutes a captive audience, desperate for new entertainment. Either way, it’s we who benefit, as it’s an excellent piece of work.

Previously, I’ve been somewhat agnostic about Marling’s music. She’s a very accomplished guitarist, writing serious and thoughtful music, with a high level of intelligence and craft on display. Yet, I’ve found her habit of adopting different accents, sometimes affecting Estuarial English vowels and glottal stops on her early work, singing with a mid-Atlantic twang since her third album and subsequently developing a vibrato strikingly similar to Joni Mitchell’s, distracting at best and annoying at worst. More seriously, I’ve sometimes wondered if Marling’s ability to mimic her heroes so accurately – I remain unconvinced that Nouel from Semper Femina is actually Laura Marling at all, and not an outtake from Mitchell’s For the Roses sung by Joni herself – is impeding the development of a genuinely idiosyncratic songwriting voice.

Song for Our Daughter doesn’t dispel these concerns, so much as beneath a crop of really strong new songs. There are four of five here that are pretty stupendously good, and nothing at all that’s a throwaway.

The album begins with Alexandra, a kind of meditation on Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving from Ten New Songs. With strummed acoustic guitar chords (I’m not sure of the tuning, but I’m guessing not standard) and a slight country-rock feel, it’s a breezy opener, but one that leaves a series of unanswered questions hanging in the air: “what kind of woman gets to love you?”, “where did Alexandra go?” and “what did Alexandra know?” Annoyingly, neither Discogs nor All Music have the credits for the record yet, but I guess producer Ethan Johns is playing drums (it sounds like him anyway). Though there aren’t many instruments in the arrangement, it’s full-sounding rather than sparse, with interest created by some runs on bass, a little bit of atmospheric Hejira-esque volume-pedal guitar and some prominent vocal harmonies.

Whoever the drummer is, he or she is on similarly great form on second track Held Down, playing double-stroke sixteenths on the hat and giving a lot of propulsion to a very cool groove. The rising-and-falling bass fits in nicely, the player using a pick and, I think, a mute, with a hollow-body kind of tone. Marling’s vocal is slightly drawly in the the verses, which isn’t a style I love from her, but the pre-chorus and chorus are so great, especially when she goes high register on the line “and I just want to tell you that I don’t want to let you down”, that I’m more than happy to live with it. It’s probably my favourite track on the album’s first side, in fact, for that moment alone. Nice harmonised electric guitar in the choruses, too.

The next track, Strange Girl, is built on a cool rhythm track: a sort of shuffle on the drum kit, with percussion overdubs to create a Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard kind of effect. Again, Marling is in drawly mode in the verses – more Lou Reed than Dylan this time; “never fit the playahn”, indeed – but again the chorus redeems it. In fact, it’s been bouncing round my head for the last five days straight.

The drum kit is present again on Only the Strong, but the song is led off by a Blackbird-like foot tap – one of several nods to McCartney on the album. Marling’s fingerpicking, on classical guitar this time, is really nice. She has great time and consistency when picking. It never sounds hurried or uncomfortable.

While I have a lot of time for the song musically, I’m less sure about what Marling is getting at lyrically here. In the press materials for the album, Marling speaks of how the songs are written to an imagined daughter:

“I’m older now, old enough to have a daughter of my own, and I feel acutely the resonsibility to defend The Girl. The Girl that might be lost, torn from innocence prematurely or unwittingly fragmented by forces that dominate society. I want to stand behind her and whisper in her ear all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself. This album is that strange whisper; a little distorted, a little out of sequence, such is life.”

In which case, should we read all the lyrics in all the songs as Marling’s lessons to a daughter, or a younger version of herself? “Only the strong survive” is a shopworn observation, one that I don’t believe is even true or helpful. Some strong people don’t survive; they get broken. Some weak people don’t just survive – they thrive. It’s not down to how “strong” you are; it’s how much life throws at you, and your ability to cope is a function not of character or strength, but of health, money, class, race, gender – everything.

To believe that being “strong” can save an individual from all the deprivations and depredations that may befall any one of us is a curiously conservative notion. Marling seems rather too intelligent to believe such nonsense, so I feel like she, or the persona she adopts for the song, has to be setting it up as an empty platitude we’re supposed to see straight through. Yet, we come up against this idea expressed in press materials and interviews that Marling is genuinely trying to impart lessons in these lyrics. The song makes me a little uncomfortable, purely because I can’t yet figure out where it’s coming from.

But let’s leave that to one side now and move on.

Blow by Blow is piano based and beautiful. The simple piano accompaniment highlight the strength of melody and Marling’s vocal, while the string arrangement, especially the high violins in the second verse, is spine-tingling. The arrangement is by Rob Moose, who’s also worked with the National, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his work here is subtler than that might imply. Marling’s atmospheric high harmonies are also effective.

The title song leads off side two. Its verses are in 9/8 time, with strummed acoustic guitar in, I think, some kind of C tuning (or G with a C bass – a tuning I’ve used a lot personally). The arrangement, featuring another great string part, simple piano and bass and drums, is once again perfect for the song – just what’s needed and nothing more. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Marling is evoking Judee Sill’s Lopin’ Along  Thru the Cosmos in the line “So you wished for a kiss from God” (compare with Judee’s “I’m hoping so hard for a kiss from God”), but then, as you might guess from the name of my blog, I’m always hyper-aware of possible quotes from Judee Sill.

Fortune is my favourite track on the album. The fingerpicking, in waltz time, is gorgeous, and there are some lovely suspensions and movement in the bass. (This live video shows what’s involved in playing it.) The lyric, with its repeated evocations of running and “unbearable pain”, is one of the record’s most poignant. Musically, it’s probably the most Joni Mitchell-derived song (like Nouel from her previous record, it’s particularly reminiscent of For the Roses), but Mitchell rarely wrote in waltz time, which does give Fortune something of its own thing, as does the string arrangement.

Beginning with an atmospheric drone, The End of the Affair (which seems to riff on the Graham Greene novel) is another track that nods at Paul McCartney’s acoustic work on the White Album and his early solo records. In fact, there’s some movement that specifically recalls Blackbird, when Marling sings “I’d let you live your life” and the guitar descends stepwise under each syllable. Again, the use of reverb-laden harmonies is hugely effective, and on the line “I love you, goodbye”, as the “aahs” rise up to meet Marling’s lead vocal at the end of the song, it’s positively spine-tingling.

Hope We Meet Again sees Marling playing with some of the same chordal ideas as The End of the Affair. In the verses she alternates semi-spoken with higher-register sung lines, in a curious range of accents, with vowels from all over the map. There’s no way around it, it’s a little distracting*, but the song is still a good one, and the arrangement – bowed double bass on the left channel, pedal steel on the right, bass guitar and drums coming in late in the song – is creative and surprising.

Closing track For You feels like the only dud on the album to me right now, more due to the arrangement than the song itself. It’s a simple descending sequence strummed on acoustic guitar, with a sung bass line. Whoever the male singer is, it’s out of tune in a way that’s like nails on a blackboard to me. The whole thing is just a bit twee musically, in a way I think some fans will really embrace, but I can’t really get on board with.

Still, nine good songs out of ten is an excellent hit rate and, while I’m no expert on her career as I’ve said, there are a few songs here – Blow by Blow, The End of the Affair, Fortune, Held Down – that seem to me to be up with the best work she’s done. The record is probably stronger in its quieter moments, although the more band-oriented tracks showcase a developing interest in rhythm and texture. All in all, I’d say it’s the best record I’ve heard by her. It’s taken a while for me to get on board with Marling’s work, but this one’s convinced me.

laura-marling

*I half expect her to, Jagger-style, launch into a mockney rap about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Reverb, echo & delay revisited

Seven years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about how frustrated I was with the ways I heard reverb and echo being used in recorded music, particularly indie rock. It really ground my gears, which I think you can tell when you read the thing, but I also think I did a pretty poor job of explaining why. Unless the reasons it annoyed me then are different to now but the change in my thinking has been gradual enough that I’m not even conscious of there having been a change. I guess that’s a possibility.

The damn piece still gets traffic, though, so I feel like I want to put a more nuanced take out there for anyone passing who might, for whatever reason, be interested.

Ultimately, what I found – and sometimes still find – annoying about the overuse of reverb and echo is that they’re a shortcut to a gravitas and weightiness that the music may not have earned. The application of reverb and echo puts a sound source in a (simulated) large acoustic space. The sound source is thus received by the listener with a bunch of signifiers we habitually attach to sound heard in those types of spaces.

In the real world, unless we happen to hang out in aircraft hangars, we encounter spaces big enough to produce prominently audible echoes rarely: churches, most obviously, but also arenas, theatres, warehouses, town halls and other types of communal and assembly halls. Spaces in which someone who has something important to say speaks, while the rest of us merely listen. Spaces in which sermons are delivered. Spaces in which musicians transmit and the rest of us just receive.

That’s what always got me about prominent reverb. It always sounded to me like the musician getting above themselves, blowing their inconsequential thoughts and words up to giant size, and inviting you to receive them in awe. When the music isn’t good, the effect can be pure bathos.

Now, there are all kinds of things going on in that response, and a lot of them come down to my own prejudices about what music, particularly alternative music, should be.

In my teens, I acquired a bias against self-consciously grand and epic music that’s taken years to shake off, and reverb and echo are such obvious signifiers of that kind of stuff that I’ve tended to hear all uses of reverb and echo as being informed by a sort of sonic will to, not power exactly, but a sort of will to importance.

In fact, a lot of time these kinds of exaggerated reverbs, echoes and delays are used by artists who don’t want to be made big but rather made indistinct. Again, that’s not high up my lift of desirable sonic qualities, as it tends to diminish a lot of the physical excitement I get from listening to music. But wanting to hide behind a 5-second reverb trail is something I can understand, even if it’s not the way I cope with being a basically shy and undemonstrative person who unaccountably also wants people to hear the music I make. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.

So these days, when listening to music, particularly indie rock, that’s still swathed in an omnipresent reverb haze, I try to focus on effect rather than intention. OK, I wouldn’t make this aesthetic choice, but is it being executed effectively? And the answer is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. You do hear records where the guitarist’s insistence on using their EHX Cathedral pedal absolutely all the time puts the band in a sonic box; if the guitar sounds like it’s in being played in the nave at St Paul’s, it’s going to sound a bit weird if the rest of the band sounds tight and dry. Records where each element seems to exist in different, overlapping sonic spaces remain a bugbear of mine, because it’s distracting and amateurish. If you create different sonic spaces within a mix, you have to learn how to blend them to make a coherent whole. Equally, though, I hear records that would be very different, inferior, experiences if mixed dry and close.

I’m still not keen on Sun-style tape delay, though.

west cath
Singer in the pulpit, band on the sanctuary, guitarist can take a solo from on top of the baldacchino. Perfect tracking environment.