The Last Dance

The title sequence of Netflix’s The Last Dance features 12 shots of Michael Jordan, compared to only two each of Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, one of Steve Kerr, and five of coach Phil Jackson, which without saying anything, says a lot.

Nominally the story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA Championship campaign, the Repeat Three-peat season, Netflix’s The Last Dance would have been better titled “The Life and Career of Michael Jordan, Superstar”. While the archive footage of His Airness in his prime is every bit as spectacular and life-affirming as you could hope, and makes a convincing case for Jordan as the greatest sports figure of all time, judged as a documentary The Last Dance isn’t quite what it could have been.

We’re not callow; we know how these things work. The price of Jordan’s participation and and those behind-the-scenes tapes was surely that the series be centred on the great man himself and that it paint an unambiguously positive picture of him. To the extent that he could, director Jason Hehir asks Jordan about his gambling and includes clips that show him to have been a domineering and imperious teammate, and Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, Jackson, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause got their brief moments in the spotlight. Hehir’s chosen structure – roughly half of each episode dedicated to the 1997-1998 campaign and the rest flashing back to either key moments in Jordan’s career or one of the five previous victorious Bulls seasons – is an elegant solution to the problem of making it about the team while keeping it primarily about Jordan. The issue is more that for a documentary that does bill itself as the story of the Bulls and is named after Phil Jackson’s name for that final, valedictory campaign, its focus on its star player means there are stories within the main story that are not fully told.

Still, the research and clearance work by Hehir’s team results in a pretty glorious assemblage of archive footage. I was a young basketball fan in the early 1990s in the UK, with no way to see games live; those I did see were recorded by a friend of mine who had satellite TV, and lent to me to watch a few days after the fact. So while I did see Jordan play in his pomp, I didn’t get to see as much as I’d have liked, and I’d forgotten so much about how dominant he was. What I find striking now is the physicality of his game – how tough he had to be and much he bulked up to compensate for the roughhousing tactics of the Pistons, the Knicks et al – and his ability to guide the ball into the basket when all routes seemed blocked, often drawing fouls when doing so. With the shoes and the hangtime and all, its easy to forget that Jordan’s hands were where the points really came from. The behind-the-scenes stuff is likewise fascinating, and Jordan – usually the most guarded and wary of interviewees – is a little more voluble than you might expect.

The Last Dance is, then, best enjoyed as a series-length highlight reel of a player of almost boundless creativity and energy, but which also has some interesting sidebars on his most noteworthy teammates and the dynamic between them.

 

 

 

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.

The Very Greatest Best Hits of… – the single-artist compilation album

This began as a piece to mark the 40th birthday of R.E.M., which I gather from Twitter was on Sunday. It went somewhere else.

I’ve spoken before, many times, about growing up as a music fan in the pre-internet era. I don’t know how many readers I have who are younger than me – probably only a very few regulars – but it can’t be stressed enough how different it was to now.

New music was a scarce commodity then, at least if you were a kid like I was. I earned £11 a week from a paper round when I was 14, so if I wanted to buy a new record while also keeping a bit of cash aside for stuff like guitar strings and my share of band rehearsal costs (a very reasonable £21 for a five-hour session at Maple in Southend, Essex), I’d have to squirrel away a few pounds here and a few pounds there for maybe three or four weeks to afford a new CD. Since not every store had a listening post, purchases were often blind, and if you didn’t immediately like the record you chose, you’d have enough invested in it to really work at getting it.

Being impatient to get my hands on new music more often than a dozen or so times a year, libraries, record fairs and second-hand record stall Gumbi’s (which stood in a covered market on an insalubrious road close to Southend high street) became important resources to me. I was definitely not above getting CDs from the library and taping them, but I was enough of a completist about the bands I liked that if I was into an album I taped from a friend or a library copy, I’d eventually buy it anyway.

In this world, the single-artist compilation disc – a form that is practically obsolete now – was a really useful way to get a handle on an artist’s body of work without blowing all your cash on one abum that may be patchy at best, or overhyped and rubbish at worst. Consequently, I picked up more than a few as a teenager, from wherever I could get them cheap.

It was at Gumbi’s that I found a copy of The Best of R.E.M., released by the group’s former label IRS after the band’s success with its second Warner Bros. release, Out of Time. It was £7, near enough half the price of a new CD (which tended to retail at around £12 back then in HMV or Virgin). Not having any alternate versions or rarities like Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, The Best of R.E.M. was greeted with a sniff and a shrug by reviewers and long-time fans, and probably bewilderment by newer fans, who wondered why the only song on it they’d even vaguely heard of was The One I Love, but to me it was a godsend. It handily distilled R.E.M.’s here-be-dragons IRS era into 16 songs – one from the EP Chronic Town, and three each from the five albums they released between 1983 and 1987.

Murmur, the first of those, would go on to become an absolutely foundational record for me, one of my favourite albums ever, with Fables of the Reconstruction close behind. I’d still put Murmur in my top ten favourite records ever. It pulls of an absolutely stunning trick – while a fully formed work in its own regard that captures the band’s absolute quintessence, it pulls all over the place, with influences drawn from folk-rock, country, gospel, post-punk, bubblegum and straight-up, honest-to-goodness 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll.

Representing such a record as Murmur or Fables in just three tracks is a tough job, and if I was going to pick three songs to encapsulate Murmur I’d drop Talk About the Passion and replace it with Sitting Still or Shaking Through. And yeah, the Fables picks give little hint of that record’s bone-deep weirdness. And I Believe but not Begin the Begin or These Days? Huh? But still, the compilation did more than just open up the band’s back catalogue to me; it was a window on a world that seemed distant and strange because I had few first-hand memories of it.

Single-artist compilations are held in low esteem by many music fans; if an artist’s work is worth hearing, it’s worth hearing as they intended, goes the argument. Album by album, perhaps even in the order they came out. But actually, that’s not how most music fans engage with music, and never has been. For Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 in the second half of the seventies, read Spotify’s This is Eagles* playlist now.

A Spotify playlist has the same utile value for the consumer as the single-artist compilation album did, in that it gives him or her a simple way to get the measure of an artist that they’re not familiar with. But what the compilation has over the Spotify playlist – or indeed those double-CD best ofs that became common in the late 1990s – is concision. Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 has 10 songs in it. Spotify’s This is Eagles playlist has more songs on it than I can count, and one of them is Chug All Night**. OK, so some great single-artist compilations were long (Neil Young’s Decade ran to three discs for its vinyl release), but they were the exception; most avoided doing the skilled compiler’s work of reducing an entire oeuvre to a dozen or so songs. A well-compiled best-of on one disc or two sides of vinyl is the platonic ideal of the form for me.

Ultimately, even the most perfunctory, will-this-do compilations raise a fascinating question for the listener: are these songs just the tip of the iceberg, or do they represent everything this artist did that’s worth hearing? For a music fan just getting to grips with an artist’s body of work, what could be more exciting than getting the chance to find out that answer for themselves?

Best of

*Spotify becoming the only person/thing that has ever referred to the band as simply “Eagles” and not “the Eagles” other than Glenn Frey.

**Anyone who lived through A Good Day in Hell – The Official ILM Track-By-Track Eagles Listening Thread on I Love Music remembers Chug All Night, an otherwise forgotten Frey song from their debut, with a combination of hilarity and horror.

Bill Withers RIP

Bill Withers died today of complications related to a heart condition.

Just 14 years separated Bill Withers’s 1971 debut studio album, Just As I Am, and his final record, Watching You Watching Me, which has been more or less written out of history (Withers referred to his career as only being seven years long). His life as a professional musician was neither abbreviated by tragedy like Marvin Gaye’s and Donny Hathaway’s, and nor did it comprise dozens of albums over five or six decades like that of a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. At a certain point, after his relationship with his label Columbia had soured to the point that he didn’t enjoy it anymore, he just walked away.

That makes him essentially singular. Fred Neil, who Withers covered on Just As I Am, pulled a similar move, but Neil was never famous like Bill Withers was. Withers would have known that he’d have been welcomed back any time he chose to make a comeback, and been certain of a recording contract and sell-out theatre tours. He chose to stay home. The documentary Still Bill, released in 2009, showed that he still made music, but he was content to share it just with those closest to him. He professed not to miss performing.

No popular musician, it seems, was as unaffected by his success as Withers. He grew up in a West Virginia mining town, a childhood stutter setting him apart and making it hard for him to make friends. His father died when he was 13, and his grandmother helped raise him, as he explained when introducing Grandma’s Hands on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and in several performances on TV. He spent a spell in the navy and was working for an aircraft manufacturer when Sussex Records released his first album and its deathless single Ain’t No Sunshine broke. He was in his mid-thirties, a fully formed adult, sure of himself and not liable to be taken in by anyone’s bullshit. The cover of that first record shows Withers standing outside the factory with his lunchbox in his hand, like knocking off an album with a couple of instant classics was something he just did over a couple of lunchtimes.

That average-Joe quality is key to Withers’s enduring appeal. As Questlove said in a Rolling Stone profile of Withers, “He’s the last African-American Everyman… Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” His music was, like the man himself, without pretension or fuss. He’s the only major soul figure (at least, the only one I can think of) whose music is based primarily on (and is reducible to) strummed acoustic guitar, and his melodies were seldom ornate or intricately decorated. Anyone can sing Lean on Me or Grandma’s Hands. OK, there was that famed lung capacity that gave us the 18-second held note in Lovely Day and the “I know, I know, I know” bridge in Ain’t No Sunshine, but Withers’s voice was not virtuosic. It was warm, soulful and profoundly relatable. It spoke truth, and made that truth powerful through its restraint and simplicity.

We need that voice right now, more than ever. It will live on.

Here’s a truly wonderful performance of Ain’t No Sunshine from the BBC’s archive. Everything about it is perfect. It is, I should say, my profound and long-held ambition to one day be as cool as the bass player we see 1.15 into the song.