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Honey Down a String – Krista Detor

A few years ago, I came across a song on Soundcloud called Honey Down a String, by an American singer-songwriter called Krista Detor.

Honey Down a String was not (and still isn’t) on Detor’s own Soundcloud, but on the Helber Sisters’. The Helbers are natives of Bloomington, Indiana, where the California-born Detor is also based. A folksinging duo in the 1970s and ’80s, they began singing together again in the last decade after a long lay-off. Detor asked them to add harmonies to Honey Down a String, from her 2014 album Flat Earth Diary. The sound of Detor and Janet and Vicki Helber all singing together is absolutely heavenly, and it was that sound that hooked me when I first heard this song. I’m a sucker for voices in harmony.

As a song, Honey Down a String deals with the emotional resonance of small moments and images: looking at a field of wheat in the distance and being reminded of a faded photograph; overhearing someone nearby singing Autumn Leaves; stopping a while to muse on who left that ginger ale outside to grow warm in the sun. Detor constructs these little moments and ties them into, not a narrative exactly, but at least a context where we know that what she’s really thinking about is someone close to her, and that these little moments are fragments of thoughts that cross her mind briefly, before floating away. Which is why the key lines of the song are “Don’t you go carrying on so carelessly when you are so close to me, when you are so near” – the moment when she addresses that person directly.

It’s a beautiful little miniature of a song – one that I’ve come back to frequently since first hearing it three or four years back – and as a recording it has all the intimacy and immediacy that is missing from the contemporary indie reverb-haze productions. You can hear every detail of Detor’s vocal – every breath, every little shift in the timbre of the voice – and every nuance of her piano, including her pedal movements, as if you were in the same room as her, a few feet away. It’s that level of detail I love in 1970s singer-songwriter recordings, and it’s a big part of what I find so attractive about Honey Down a String.

 

Woodbine

In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me the first album by Woodbine, a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop, and asked if I wanted to go and see them live.

I found the record interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music. So I was up for going to see them play, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter, David Gedge, had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. (I was so young!) My friend and I were by some distance the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good 15 years older than we were.

Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever seen play live, I think. It didn’t help that they were all drunk (their drummer was really drunk – falling-down drunk. He was half asleep in charge of a drum kit), but I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Even at on their best day, they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at a small boozer (the Crown & Anchor down the road, maybe), it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two of their own and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.

This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage (the venue now called Thousand Island) later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to singer Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed rather embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.

For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy, narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).

This willingness to be surprising – to be untidy – is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, wouldn’t feel the same at all. Would be all wrong, in fact. There is a rightness to the analogue wrongness of Woodbine.

Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want and Tricity Tiara* will do you.

tricity tiara
This is a Tricity Tiara, or more correctly a Tricity-Bendix Tiara. Not many of these about any more, but a landlord’s favourite cheap oven for donkey’s years.

 

Never Let Her Slip Away – Andrew Gold

Andrew Gold was practically bound by genetics to become a successful musician. After all, he was the son of Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold and the most sought-after ghost singer in Hollywood, Marni Nixon*.

After a couple of aborted attempts at launching a career as a recording artist, Gold  worked himself up a full-time career as a musician, arranger, songwriter and producer. He was recruited by Linda Ronstadt for the recording of her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel and quickly became her de facto bandleader and lieutenant. Some of the songs on Heart Like a Wheel (including her hit cover of Dee Dee Warwick’s You’re No Good) were more or less played entirely by Gold: guitars, keyboards, drums, everything.

His work with Ronstadt brought him to the attention of 1970s LA’s singer-songwriter kingpin David Geffen, who signed him to his label Ayslum (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, the Eagles, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, etc.). In the US, he hit big with his single Lonely Boy, from his second album, and Thank You for Being a Friend**, from his third. But in the UK, he had a third, even bigger, hit.

Gold recorded Never Let Her Slip Away for his third album, All This and Heaven Too, the cover of which saw Gold in a white suit and top hat, with a cane, doing a dance move. You might assume from that picture that Gold was a Warren Zevon-style smartarse unlikely to write a straight ballad without some sort of angle or ironic distance.

The great thing about Never Let Her Slip Away is that, despite how cleverly it’s written (and it is; there are some ninja-level chord changes in there), Gold wrote the song and sang it from a place of total sincerity. There’s no side at all. Part of the way that Gold projects that sincerity is the sparseness of the arrangement. It’s simply him at his keyboard with a crude-sounding percussion loop. OK, maybe in an ideal world he’d not have included the proto-1980s smooth-jazz saxophone (or got a different player), but it doesn’t spoil the song at all for me; the player, Ernie Watts, wouldn’t win any prizes for taste and subtlety here, but like Gold, he doesn’t sound fake or insincere. When recording a song like Never Let Her Slip Away, that’s crucial. To write and perform a song like this, you have to mean it.

Gold was always popular within the music industry, with artists and producers appreciative of the breadth of his talent. That goodwill can be seen in the range of artists who he worked with; uncredited on this record as a backing singer is none other than Freddie Mercury.

*Nixon was the uncredited singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
**Yep, the one that would become the theme to The Golden Girls.

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

In early January 2012, I was discharged from hospital and sent home to adjust to life as a heart failure survivor (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – prognosis, at the time, not all that good).

It’s hard to fill your days when can’t walk even a few hundred metres without needing a long rest to recover. You don’t leave your house an awful lot, and even doing the things you enjoy can become tiresome. New enthusiasms are a godsend.

Soon after I was discharged, BBC4 broadcast the first episode of Jonathan Meades’s series of films on France. I’d seen some Meades before (his Queen Victoria film in 2001, when I was home from university; I missed the start of it, though), but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to watch one properly, and I was transfixed. Here was a singular TV presence: dark-suited, ferociously eloquent, idiosyncratic, unapologetic, scabrous (lists that end without a conjunction are a Meades speciality).

The Guardian described him as exploring France like a man trying to poo a dictionary, but you don’t learn many new words watching telly these days, so it certainly didn’t seem like a valid criticism to me. I found all his other films online, going back to his early Abroad in Britain stuff, and devoured it all. All of his films merited a rewatch or two (or three in my case), and so they became a kind of life raft, something to cling to during long, boring afternoons or evenings otherwise filled with nothing.

While I was working backward through his archive, Meades’s TV output slowed. He is not, it should be said, just a writer and performer on TV. His talents are many. But he has spoken in interviews about how difficult it now is to get series or programmes commissioned and adequately funded by the BBC. In truth, the lack of funding directed towards BBC4 programme making is everywhere evident: 15 years ago, there was something interesting on most nights, and a new music documentary most Fridays at nine. Now, new shows come along much less frequently, and are evidently made for less money than previously.

Meades’s last series with high production values was On France. His recent films Ben Building and this week’s Franco Building, which completes his quartet of films about the architecture of Europe’s great 20th-century dictators (I’m holding out hope for Tito Building, though), are evidently the product of straitened circumstances. In his older films, Meades inserted himself physically into almost every shot: as he discussed the architecture of the Soviet Union, or 1960s big-tech structures in the UK, or Belgian suburbs, he’d stand there, in his suit and dark glasses, thunderously declaiming to camera. He was fond of visual, in-camera jokes that depended on his conspicuous, hitman-esque presence.

His more recent work sees much of his narration delivered in a studio, in front of a green screen. To make it more visually interesting, Meades is superimposed on buildings, or behind buildings, as he discusses them. Still images are photoshopped, some segments are illustrated with animation or static drawings. He’s doing his best, but the budgets are clearly not what they were. We should, I suppose, be grateful that he’s still allowed to make films at all. Especially, this one: Franco Building, broadcast this week, sees Meades in uncompromising anti-religion form. I’m surprised no one senior at BBC4 got cold feet about showing it. I’m sure there will have been complaints.

Their loss. Franco Building was thrilling. From Jerry Building to Ben Building, Meades has never shied away from showing the horror of these despotic regimes, and there were ample shots of human remains in mass burial pits and sinister orphanages in which the children of dead Republicans were housed and re-educated (that is, indoctrinated) after the civil war to show the enormity of Franco’s regime. But tourism was the programme’s throughline, from the posh hotels that sprang up in the 1950s to house well-heeled pilgrims and culture tourists walking the trail to Santiago de Compostela, to 1960s high-rise blocks in Benidorm, which long-time Meades watchers won’t be surprised to find he has a great deal of sympathy for.

Neither will long-time Meades watchers need reminding of where the birthplace of modern mass tourism is: Prora, on the German island of Rügen, where the arm of the Nazi state called Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) built eight identical blocks, parallel to the beach, measuring nearly three miles in length. In light of Meades’s evident horror of Prora, the murderous regime that built it and the others that copied it, his sympathy for Benidorm’s sometimes kitschy, sometimes pleasingly futuristic towers may seem surprising. But then, Meades has always preferred bad taste to middlebrow taste.

In a week where the prime minister has announced via the Queen that he will suspend British parliamentary democracy for five weeks because it doesn’t suit him to face any opposition to his plans for a no-deal Brexit – plans supported by a only a fraction of the population, and an even smaller fraction of MPs – it may do us good to remember what actual fascism results in, but also how actual fascism starts. There are parallels. Perhaps one day, in a more enlightened era, a successor to Meades – an older, crustier Owen Hatherley, perhaps – will make a programme called Boris Building, but let us hope that won’t be necessary.

Dummy at 25 – Portishead’s masterpiece

The first thing I heard was horror-movie Hammond organ, with an extremely present snare drum cross-stick and jazzy double bass underpinning it. Then the song seemed to turn itself inside out. There was a sampled bleating kind of noise, and a drum track so mercilessly compressed that the ride cymbal made a sucking noise, as if being played backwards, with a backeat that sounded more like a bell than anything resembling a snare drum. Then a vocal: intimate-sounding, close. “I’m ever so lost,” the singer declared. “I can’t find my way.”

The song was of course Numb, from Portishead’s Dummy. The album’s lead single, Numb made my head spin round. This sound – I had no name for it, and I still don’t think there’s a satsifactory one. Certainly not “trip-hop” – was composed of some elements I recognised (bass, scratching, vocals), others that sounded bizarre and novel to me (that tolling, sucking drum track) and an old black-and-white-movie vibe, and in total was something genuinely new. For all that Portishead were making use of analogue sounds and occasionally sampling old records, there was nothing retro or kitschy about what they did. The band was in earnest. DJ/creative mastermind Geoff Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons felt the way their songs sounded.

Portishead seemed to specialise in picking up and reusing neglected or forgotten sounds. Mysterons features a Theremin. Sour Times samples Lalo Schifrin’s The Danube Incident (a 2-minute instrumental from Mission: Impossible), which makes use of a prominent bell-like stringed instrument: there’s still debate online about whether its a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) or a Marxophone. Numb had the aforementioned Hammond organ, played on its most Gothic-sounding voicing. Roads is built around a simple, spine-tingling progression played on the Fender Rhodes, a staple of jazz-inflected balladry in the 1970s but hopelessly old-fashioned in 1994. Adrian Utley played guitar, but he was schooled in jazz, and he played cool, tremolo-soaked spy movie riffs.

A budding guitarist in thrall to distortion-saturated American rock music, I nonetheless loved Dummy and all these strange new sounds. The album was like nothing else I’d heard; even when I learned that the band came from the same town as Massive Attack and Tricky (Bristol), and that Barrow had worked as a junior engineer on Blue Lines, it still sounded entirely new and without precedent.

Those who remember Dummy coming out will know what happened next. Bottomlessly sad but undeniably chic and current sonically, Dummy was an immediate hit. It became too big for its creators to handle. Not in the sense that it was number one for weeks on end, but in its cultural omnipresence. Its songs appeared in too many TV shows, its sonics, vibe and atmosphere were copied by other, inferior bands. Some tastemakers turned on Portishead themselves, wrote them off as middlebrow, coffee-table moaners. The criticism stung, and their next record was harsher, angrier – without the warmth of songs like It Could be Sweet and Strangers that provided such effective contrast to the darker songs on Dummy.

Portishead’s debut became, then, a glorious one-off, one that no one else ever equalled and that the band themselves had no interest in recreating. Give it a spin, and you’ll find it’s more than you remember: more sad, more sweet, more lonely, more singular, more inventive, more itself. Happy birthday to a classic.

 

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

29-trouble-boys.w700.h700

*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?

10 more of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented once again without comment or context, 10 more magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

“Sure, he’s a jolly roger, until he answers for his crimes”
My Rival (Gaucho)

A tower room at Eden Roc, his golf at noon for free/Brooklyn owes the charmer under me
Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Watch the sun go brown/Smoking cobalt cigarettes
King of the World (Countdown to Ecstasy)

I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets
Deacon Blues (Aja)

She takes the taxi to the good hotel/Bon marché as far as she can tell
Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)

Alan owns a chain of Steamer Heavens/And Barry is the software king
What a Shame About Me (Two Against Nature)

Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go/I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said “oh no, Guadalajara won’t do”
My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)

When Black Friday comes I’ll fly down to Muswellbrook/Gonna strike all the big red words from my little black book
Black Friday (Katy Lied)

You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later/Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening
Everything You Did (The Royal Scam)

Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for some more killer suggestions.