Tag Archives: Blossom Dearie

The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson
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Time – Alice Peacock

One of the issues that was in the background of the piece I wrote the other day is, how original can you be as a singer-songwriter who plays piano or acoustic guitar and works with verse/chorus song structures in 2015, with hundreds of years of folk songs, over a hundred years of recorded music and 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll behind us? And if you feel the answer is, not original at all, does that matter? Should an artist strive for more than just going over the same old ground that our illustrious forebears have already covered?

It’s a question I’ve never been able to satisfactorily answer. There have been times when I’ve felt that singer-songwriters were becoming an unnecessary species, that almost everything that needed to be said had been said already, and that we may as well all pack it in and go home. That I didn’t need new records when I had all of those albums on my shelf already.

Then I hear songs that render all this debate irrelevant, songs so strong and self-contained that I stop worrying about all this.

I heard one last night. Time, by Alice Peacock.

I can tell you very little about Alice Peacock. She works broadly in the pop-rock sphere, but with elements of folk and country and jazz in there. She’s put out four records and seems to have done fairly well, as even a self-released album (on Peacock Records) like What I Am features orchestral arrangements and the services of a big-name session drummer (Jay Bellerose) and photography by the wonderful Henry Diltz. In her early going as an artist, she recorded a duet with John Mayer, which no doubt helped her profile.

Hearing a great song from an artist who’s entirely new to you is one of the finest pleasures of being a music fan. And Time is a wonderful song, possessed of grace and wisdom, a gorgeous, pensive tune, thoughtful chord changes and lyrics that achieve a sort of conversational profundity. In an interview with her that I saw on youtube, Peacock says she wrote the song very quickly after reading an article in National Geographic about time, relativity and how the light that reaches earth from stars allows us to look into the past while we experience it as the present. She talks about her she merely channelled the song, how writing it was scarcely a conscious act of creation at all. Time has that happy knack of sounding as if these thoughts are occurring to the singer just as she is giving voice to them.

When I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks. I downed tools to listen, then listened again.

The version I heard first was not the record (from the the 2006 release Who I Am), but a live recording. The arrangement on the album version – in both Peacock’s vocal and the strings – seems to emphasise the supper-club vibe inherent in the song’s chord structure, not that there’s anything wrong with that (I could easily imagine how the great Blossom Dearie might have this song). On the live recordings I’ve heard (mainly on youtube, though there is a live album), though, Peacock’s delivery is slightly different, perhaps more relaxed, knowing that she’s not in search of a definitive vocal performance. I’d still highly recommend seeking out the album cut, but perhaps the version below is the best one:

Alice peacock
Alice Peacock

Moon over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly remains one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left (after The Real Ramona, one of the Muses very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never as interesting after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, Belly were immediately commercially successful. Very. Top five albums in both the US and the UK, top 20 singles, MTV heavy rotation, radio play and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve long described as ‘something bad going down in Toytown’. One wonders what Hersh thought, seeing her sister playing Letterman and modelling for Gap adverts.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last. Their second album did less well than the first, and the band unravelled. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was the only misstep of her career. Aiming to attract radio play with big shiny hooks, the record instead came over as bland AAA, lacking its author’s usual lyrical ambiguity and disquieting obliqueness. It didn’t catch on and didn’t really deserve to, and when Donelly next put out an album, after a break to have a second child, her music sounded and felt much more her own again; different in its outlook from the songs of the Belly era, but more obviously a product of her peculiar sensibility.

While the Lovesongs era was one to forget, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge it’s the only proper recording of the song, written by Gary ‘Skeggie’ Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and 90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin, and probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side. It’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly all but gave up making music in the mid-noughties, training as a doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement; nevertheless, her involvement in music seems to be winding down now. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. A more driven musician (she here for some of her backstory) than Donelly, Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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Blossom Dearie

Late last year I snapped up a box set of Blossom Dearie’s Verve albums for a laughably small sum of money. Since when, I’ve found no other music as consistently rewarding. Compared to her, everyone else sounds gauche, boorish, overstated.

Blossom Dearie’s self-titled first American album (and her first for Verve) from 1957 is a straight-up masterpiece. A sterling set of songs, with fantastic accompaniment from Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Jo Jones, and her own elegant and lyrical piano-playing, it’s the highlight of a run of records containing hardly a single misstep.

It takes sky-high confidence to be as softly spoken as this. The danger for interpretive singers is the desire to go big, to make the act of interpreting visible (kind of like certain actors who indulge in capital-A ‘Acting’ – I won’t name names). Dearie never succumbed to this malady. She simply sang songs in her small, quiet voice, breathy, intimate, with just the merest hint of vibrato.

Dearie’s good-natured, witty music seems to come, in terms of attitude, from the pre-bop era. She wore her musical training and technical accomplishment as a pianist lightly, she had little interest in provoking or challenging her audience, and there was something about her singing that was often gently ironic, almost conspiratorial. Yet she was capable of great emotional depth too: just listen to her amazing recording of Someone to Watch Over Me (from My Gentleman Friend, 1961), a version all the more moving for the dignity with which Dearie admits her vulnerability. There’s no shortage of fine recordings of this song, but none moves me nearly so much as this one.

While there’s nothing as powerful as that recording on Blossom Dearie, that first record remains the best for those looking for a quick introduction to her music. It’s an acquaintance you really should make if you haven’t already; perhaps she wasn’t hip, but with Blossom Dearie the world becomes a cooler place.

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She’s cooler than you – Blossom Dearie, 1957