Tag Archives: album review

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.

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

Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

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*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good, too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like Andrew Bird, or a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works, as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

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*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic, self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.