Category Archives: Uncategorized

Chris Cornell RIP

A lot has been written about Seattle and grunge over the years – too much, probably – but something that really doesn’t get remarked upon enough is how unlikely it was for so many great vocal talents to emerge from that one city at the same time: Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell, to say nothing of transplanted Californian Eddie Vedder, or those harmony-singing maestros Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies, or of charismatic, characterful yowlers like Mark Arm and Andy Wood. All of them, all at the same time.

It wasn’t an unprecedented flowering of talent or anything (Detroit and Motown provides an even more staggering example of the same phenomenon), but it’s not recognised and celebrated in quite those terms. Nowadays we remember the heavy guitars, the drugs, the media hype and if we’re lucky we remember the great songs, but not enough attention is paid to how much sheer vocal talent came to the fore in the service of those songs.

None of these singers, not even Chris Cornell, emerged fully formed, but once he hit his peak on Badmotorfinger, Cornell matured into one of the absolute greatest rock singers ever. He could do anything. He could outscream Cobain and outwail Gillan and Dickinson. He could sing with a vibrato-heavy operatic intensity that Freddie Mercury would have envied. The sound of Cornell really going for it was addictive. On Rusty Cage, his slide up to the high note on the word “cage”, which he held with a powerful vibrato, is the main hook of the song. It’s why Johnny Cash’s cover – cute as it was as a concept – was so disappointing in practice. Cash couldn’t do the thing that made everyone love the song.

As time went on, as we heard Seasons, Black Hole Sun, Blow Up the Outside World, Preaching the End of the World and the wonderful When I’m Down – on which Cornell proved that Mark Lanegan wasn’t the only singer from Seattle who could conceivably make a move into jazz and blues – it became clear just what range this guy had, not merely in terms of pitch, but it terms of range, mood, feel, timbre.

Chris Cornell died today aged 52. We don’t know yet how he died, and it would be impertinent to speculate when the facts will make themselves known soon enough. Compared to his friends Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, he lived a long and productive life. Hopefully it was mostly a happy one too. What’s certainly true is that his music made an awful lot of people happy, me included.

Like most any other day, today I listened to KEXP’s morning show, and it was pretty much wall-to-wall Cornell. What a body of work the man leaves behind. It will be remembered, and so will he.

Soundgarden perform at The Palladium in Worcester, MA on May 15, 2013

 

 

Day of the Dead, Disc Five – Some Thoughts

And so we come to the last disc of Day of the Dead. Making myself familar with over five hours of music has been a pretty big undertaking, and I’m looking forward to getting back to smaller one-off posts for a while. Hopefully within a day or two.

The first three songs on Day of the Dead’s fifth disc all feature the house band backing solo artists: Phosphorescent, the Tallest Man on Earth and Bonnie Prince Billy.

Standing on the Moon is a highlight of Built to Last, the Dead’s ill-favoured 1989 studio swansong. Garcia’s lyric is one of his sweetest, and the line “Standing on the moon but I’d rather be with you” obviously connected hard with Garcia, who often stretched the coda out so he could repeat the line over and over again in live performance. Phosphorescent & Friends (ie Phosphorescent & the National) do a creditable job with one of this late Dead highpoint, but where Garcia’s tremulous vocal spoke of wisdom and awe, Matthew Houck’s tremulous vocal speaks mainly of tremulousness.

The Tallest Man on Earth’s early music was so beholden to early Dylan vocally that it was very hard to take seriously. Thankfully he’s dropped the worst of those excesses over time, but even so, it’s amazing how much better Will Oldham sounds coming after him and Houck. Whether you like his vocal tone or not, Oldham is his own man; he sounds fully formed.

Brown-Eyed Women is one of those songs, like Jack Straw and He’s Gone, that was a highlight of the dazzling Europe ’72 live album yet was never recorded in the studio; it would have been nigh-on impossible to better the versions from the live record. Hiss Golden Messenger capture something of the fleetness of the Dead’s version instrumentally (they sure sound light on their feet after three consecutive tracks of the National’s rhythm section) and the gang vocals in the chorus are a nice touch. A hit.

Here Comes Sunshine by Real Estate is appropriately sunny and pretty. Six minutes of it is about a minute and a half more than I needed, though full marks to Alex Bleeker for giving one of the most convincing Phil Lesh impressions of any bass player involved in this project.

Charles Bradley and the Menahem Street Band give an Electric Mud treatment to Cumberland Blues. The groove the band cooks up is compelling and Bradley’s souldful rasp is committed. However, Cumberland Blues does lose a lot by being slowed down and having its rhythms and harmonies simplifed. I’m not sure about this one. I like it well enough, I suppose, but I love Cumberland Blues as the Dead play it, especially the magnificent version on Europe ’72. In comparison, Bradley’s is all a bit simple and I wonder whether I’d get much from it if I didn’t know the lyric inside out.

Next, a couple of real outliers. Man Forever is the experimental-percussion project of Kid Millions, drummer from Oneida. Sõ Percussion, who we met back on Disc Three’s Terrapion Station, are a percussion troupe usually performing work by Steve Reich. On Drums/Space, several minutes of slack-tuned toms and marimbas are followed by some chintzy electronic noises of the sort that will gladden the heart of any Mickey Hart fans. Out of nowhere, a couple of uber-distorted guitars crash the party, paying no heed to each other (it sounds like Saturday afternoon in a guitar shop), before the track finishes with a couple of minutes of alternately rumbling and squalling feedback.

Cream Puff War is possibly the Grateful Dead’s most garagey track, at least during its verses, with Garcia’s voice unrecognisable to anyone who might have got into the band later and worked backwards; he hollers his way through the track and sounds more like Bob Weir than himself as we usually knew him. Not many Dead tracks would be a natural fit for Canadian punk band Fucked Up, but Cream Puff War pretty much makes sense. Jonah Falco on drums makes the straight 4/4 beat groove nicely (the dynamics of the hi-hats, I think), and the band handle the sudden switches to 3/4 well. There is something a little absurd about this vocal style being deployed on a Grateful Dead song, but in this case the vocal comes over to me as exuberant rather than aggressive, and actually works pretty well.

Mina Tindle (stage name of singer Pauline de Lassus Saint-Geniès) has what Mel and I, in our less patient moments, describe as an old-lady voice, the female version of the white dude in the old man hat voice. Not that an old-lady-voiced singer couldn’t make great music, but I’m personally not a fan of that kind of voice, and I think the music would have to be spectacular to overcome my irritation with the singing. Mina Tindle, then, starts with a huge disadvantage, even given that she’s got a beautiful song to work with. The Dessners do interesting things with synth and Mellotron – there’s a piercing, needling harmony line played on the Mellotron’s flute setting that is by far the best thing about the track – but Tindle’s vocal sinks this for me.

Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear play High Time so much faster than the Dead that their version clocks in 58 seconds shorter without trimming away any of the text. They also replace Bill Kreutzmann’s waltz-time sidesticks with a rather intrusive tom- and cymbal-based drum track. Rossen’s vocal is fine, but the tempo and the music swamps him. The great thing about High Time on Workingman’s Dead is the space the band give to Garcia to deliver the twists and turns of Robert Hunter’s lyric. Here, some of that is lost. I’d have loved to hear Rossen sing it solo, slowly.

I saw Luluc a couple of years ago supporting J Mascis and found them rather inert and one-paced. Here they team up with Xylouris White (Giorgios Xylouris, singer and Cretan lute player and drummer Jim White) to take on Til the Morning Comes, from American Beauty. Zoë Randall’s voice is calm teetering on affectless, but the outro jam between Xylouris and White is really good. White is an objectively really good drummer whose playing I don’t often like that much (too busy? too echoey? Something of both, I guess), but given the general echoey sound picture, his favoured reverby drum sound makes sense, and his busy style meshes well with Xylouris.

Next up, something of a shock. Winston Marshall, banjo player from Mumford & Sons, in collaboration with Kodiak Blue and Shura, does a fine job with Althea. Marshall’s American accent is a bit of a joke, but the music – tinkling marimba-like synths like raindrops on a pavement late at night – more than makes up for it. I think I’d like the track more if Shura sang all of it, but credit where it’s due: I am extremely dubious of all things Mumford, but this is actually very creditable.

Attics of My Life is one of Hunter and Garcia’s very finest songs and the track above all others 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 about Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Phil Lesh took in their work on that song was clear. Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and 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 can hear that the guys are pushing 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. So Angel Olsen taking a different approach to the vocal harmony arrangement is not of itself a problem. But it doesn’t work for me. Olsen’s voice floats above the male voices and the never blends with them, with becomes needling and annoying over the course of the song’s running time, even as it’s 90 seconds shorter than the Dead’s American Beauty take. Then there’s the cavernous reverb. I’m just so over it. Angel Olsen has almost universal critical cred, but I fear her just isn’t my thing.

We haven’t talked much about Bob Weir over the course of these five discs. Let me say then how big a fan I am. I really like his voice and think he’s an overlooked guitar player; his rhythm playing is great and you don’t get to spend an entire life in the Grateful Dead without being able to take a solo or two. Weir is the only official member to appear on this album (as we noted about a month ago when we took on Disc One, Bruce Hornsby played over a hundred gigs with the Dead, but was never a full-time member), appearing on the final two cuts, both recorded live: St Stephen with Wilco, and I Know You Rider with the National.

Guitarist Nels Cline is suprisingly rocker-dude on St Stephen – lots of sextuplets, not much lyricism – but it’s likeable nonetheless. I Know You Rider sees the National playing faster than I’ve ever heard them (I associate them purely with slow- to mid-tempo). Weir gets to dominate the vocal on this one (Tweedy sings much of St Stephen) and the band works up a head of steam – the Devendorfs audibly excited to be on stage with a hero. It’s a fine end to the project, and they and the Dessners deserve a huge amount of credit for all their work on this thing. They had to record an ungodly amount of music to make it happen.

This is definitely the least essential disc for me, but my keepers are Bird Song, Brown-Eyed Women, Cream Puff War and Althea (I know. I’m still trying to get my round the latter).

day-of-the-dead

Some recent free-to-download music

 

 

 

 

BBC Essex live session – 20/01/17

Hi everyone.

I’ll be back tomorrow night or Saturday morning with a real post, but for now I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be on BBC Essex tomorrow afternoon at 2pm, chatting to presenter Tony Fisher and playing a couple of songs live in the studio.

Nervous, but very excited!

You can listen here when the time comes:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04mjpft

Here’s new music to download (for free, if you like!)

Small Town Talk – Barney Hoskyns

This Christmas I’ve been reading Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, the latest book by Barney Hoskyns.

Hoskyns wrote about The Band (and Dylan) at length in Across the Great Divide: The Band & America in 1993, so Small Town Talk does retread some familiar ground. But while Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are major figures in Small Town Talk (after all, they stayed in Woodstock long after Dylan headed back to New York, and all but Robertson found their way back later for a second stint in the town), the book is more than anything about Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band and Joplin (not to mention Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Peter, Paul and Mary). And Grossman is a fascinating, if frequently appalling, figure.

Swimming in money from his early successes, Grossman built himself an empire – an Albertopolis, if you will (though for more than one of Hoskyns’s interviewees it was more like Charle Foster Kane’s Xanadu) – in Bearsville, just to the west of Woodstock: a recording studio, a record label, a restaurant, a bar and eventually a theatre. It was through Grossman that Dylan ended up in Woodstock, and most of the artists Grossman managed followed him there. But even those who benefited directly from his patronage loved and hated Albert Grossman in just about equal measure.* He was a bully, he was ruthless, and frequently cold and distant. Even artists he seemed to on some level care about as people were in the end merely a means for Grossman to make money; knowing full well her addiction problems, Grossman took out a life-insurance policy on Janis Joplin. When she died, he received $200,000.

For Hoskyns, the rise and fall of Grossman’s empire mirrors the rise and fall of Woodstock as a major centre of popular music. To compare Woodstock with its West Coast equivalent, Laurel Canyon (which Hoskyns wrote about in Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons), encapsulates the problem. The roll call of major artists in Laurel Canyon took both megastars and lesser known but huge talents like Tim Buckley, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs. It had a stronger bench than Woodstock. The names of Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are on the front cover of Small Town Talk, but they appear in it fairly briefly, and their stays in Woodstock were over quickly; to really enjoy the book , you need to be interested in learning more about people like Happy Traum, John Holbrook and Cyndi Cashdollar, as Hendrix and Morrison are out of the story by the time it’s halfway told.

Like most of the books Barney Hoskyns has written, Small Town Talk is full of tales of wasted potential and drug- and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction. But even compared to, say, Hotel California (which relates tales as tragic as Judee Sill’s and as hair-curling as David Crosby’s), Small Town Talk is a heavy read, as it paints a Woodstock as a cultural centre in terminal, irreversible decline. Woodstock, it seems, will never matter again in musical terms: its last truly great artist, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012 and there are no musicians left in town to compare at all with those on the front cover of the book (for all that Hoskyns looks favourably on Simone Felice and Jonathan Donahue, I’m sure he’d agree).

If Grossman had wanted to build something lasting and self-sustaining in Woodstock, he failed. But you have to wonder whether that was his intention at all.

Robbie Robertson, Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, and John Simon in an Elevator.
Albert Grossman

*Todd Rundgren, whose many uncommercial experiments were bankrolled by Grossman, said of him when he died: “He got what he deserved. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” About the warmest tribute Grossman received came from Mary Travers: “He wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”

2016 Clip Show Post

New Year’s Eve again? They come round quickly, don’t they?

This year I’ve not been able to devote as much time to the blog as I would have liked, which I’m looking forward to remedying in 2017. Thank you for hanging in there with me this year. I really appreciate that people spend their time reading my incoherent ramblings.

I’d like to leave 2016 behind, if I may, by pointing some of my newer readers back at some of the pieces I enjoyed writing this year.

I’ll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend, whatever you have planned.

Bert Jansch

Farewell to the Glad

The Dolphins – Fred Neil

The musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Their Back Pages

 

Leonard Cohen RIP

And so we say farewell to another great. If the very first song on his new album contains the line “I’m ready, my lord”; if his letter to Marianne Ihlen – made public a few months ago, and remarkable for its tenderness and wisdom – suggested that Cohen knew he was dying (“our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”), it doesn’t much lessen the sadness. This after all is a year in which we’ve lost too many, and some far too early. Leonard Cohen going too just feels like the universe aiming another kick into 2016’s stomach as it lies prone on the floor.

In light of the week’s really big news, the blows will continue to come for some time yet.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer and writer of Englibmid-70sc1980sdrecent

A cover I recorded of A Thousand Kisses Deep:

 

A quick digression on Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Let’s briefly interrupt our discussion of British folk-rock to talk about Bob Dylan…

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week.

There have been some entertainingly huffy responses to this (at least in the British press), as well as plenty of defences of Dylan as a poet.

All as wrong-headed as each other. The wisest and most informed response came from my friend Yo Zushi, writing for the New Statesman.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what Yo Zushi doesn’t know about Bob Dylan isn’t worth knowing, but we’ve often found ourselves on different sides of the argument when discussing Dylan. Yo is a big fan of recent Bob, whereas I checked out around the time of ‘Love and Theft’ and only retain interest in Dylan’s career from, roughly, 1963-67 and 1973-78, with a couple of records here and there (Oh Mercy, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind) that fall outside those windows. We rarely agree on what the best songs are on even the records we both think are great.

But on this we agree:

I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.

Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.

Literature is simply a written work of superior or lasting artistic merit, so Dylan’s songs, in as much as they contain texts, must count as such, and his being awarded a literary prize presents no problem except for those who cling to artificial boundaries between high art and low art.* Yet, songs must also be counted as a special kind of literature, as they are written to be sung, not merely read off the page. Any proper appreciation of the art of songwriting must also take into account the effect of the words’ marriage to a melody to be sung, and further, what the singer does with them in performance.

Dylan is, if not the greatest of his kind, so obviously pre-eminent that it makes no difference. It’s him and McCartney, and basically no one else in Western pop. So, how about a Nobel Prize for Literature for Paul McCartney, then? That’ll really piss off the snobs.

The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Dylan, song & dance man, Nobel Laureate

*It’s a cliche to point out that Shakespeare’s plays were performed and written for the mass, uneducated audience, but still, cliches often get at truths, so let’s point it out one more time.