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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.

 

case/lang/veirs

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. Currently in the midst of another gruelling end-of-quarter slog

The moment on Atomic Number, the first song on case/lang/veirs, in which the singers break into wide-mixed 3-part harmony is heartstopping. After a verse of trading lines over picked acoustic guitar and lo-fi, barely-there percussion, three voices come together and time stops for a second. Harmony can do that.

case/lang/veirs – the keenly anticipated collaboration between Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs – has a bunch of moments like this; Atomic Number is merely the most breathtaking of them. lang’s Honey and Smoke has a middle eight where the rhythm of the vocal melody is so cleverly written you feel like applauding. Veirs’s Best Kept Secret, about her friend the guitarist Tim Young, is sweet and joyous. lang sings the hell out of Blue Fires and the gorgeous Why Do We Fight. Since I first heard this album a couple of months ago, I’ve come back to all these songs frequently, and if you’re a fan of anything that any of these artists has done before, I’d recommend this record unhesitatingly. You’ll undoubtedly get something from it.

And yet.

Since case/lang/veirs was announced, the comparison that has continually been raised is Trio, the record that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris made together in 1987. What I can’t help benchmarking it against, though, is Sweetwater by Tres Chicas (a little known 2004 album I’ve written about here before).

After I bought Sweetwater, I couldn’t stop listening to it, and promptly bought Tres Chicas’ second album too. When I heard that one, I didn’t love it nearly as much, despite the presence of such brilliant songs as All the Shade Trees in Bloom, Slip So Easily and Only Broken.

Why was that? Sweetwater was a bit messy, a bit raw, but it was the sound of three friends – Caitlin Cary, formerly of Whiskeytown; Lynn Blakey, once of Let’s Active; and Hazeldine alumna Tonya Lamm – making a record together for the simple joy of it. The warmth between them pours out of their voices. It’s not a flawless album, but it is an extremely likeable, even lovable, one. I hear in it the same thing I hear on The Basement Tapes, or in the best Travelling Wilburys material, or in early works by The Band and CSN – friendship. It’s a rare and precious thing in music. Tres Chicas captured it on their first album, and couldn’t recapture it on their second. Sweetwater is a low-stakes record, and all the better for it. The stakes – and budget – were a little higher second time around, and it sounds like the artists knew it.

case/lang/veirs is not a low-stakes record, and it doesn’t sound like it was made by friends in love with making music together. It’s cool, professional and meticulously produced. kd lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs are all better known than even the best-known member of Tres Chicas, and in lang they have in their ranks a genuine star; anything they did together was going to have a guaranteed audience. That expectation changes things, for both musicians and listeners.*

While I love all the songs I’ve picked out above, the record as a whole just didn’t grow on me the way I was expecting it to after a first listen, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Ultimately there’s something just a little stifling about case/lang/veirs, about the sound world it inhabits. It feels a little fussy, and there are a few songs towards the end (the run from 1000 Miles Away to Down) that would probably have been better excised.**

Now, it’s not really its creators fault that the record reminds me of other albums that capture something intangible that case/lang/veirs doesn’t, but at the same time, it exists in the same world as Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, as The Basement Tapes, as Music from Big Pink, as the 1961 “Summit Meeting” recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There’s a special something those records have – that Sweetwater has too – that case/lang/veirs lacks, and it’s hard not to hear it as an opportunity not quite fully taken.

caselangveirs
Case, lang & Veirs

*The difference in self-perception is even mirrored in the groups’ names: Tres Chicas (Three Girls) is the ad hoc name given to them by the owner of a bar the women sang at regularly; the modishly lower-cased case/lang/veirs could as easily be the name of an exclusive firm of architects, or a trendy LA legal firm.

**14-song albums that wouldn’t have been better as 11- or 12-song albums are vanishingly rare.