Tag Archives: Clive James

Gillian Welch, Living in the Now

I’ve been writing this blog a pretty long time now: seven and a half years. The problem is, I published pieces on most of my favourite music before I’d found a tone that wasn’t completely insufferable. Here’s a retake of a piece I wrote in 2013 about one of my favourite records ever, inspired by a Twitter exchange I had yesterday.

Something happened to Gillian Welch’s writing between 1996, when she released her debut album, Revival, and 2001, when she released her masterpiece, Time (The Revelator). In 1996, her songs were mostly sepia-toned, frequently sung in character, and narrated in the past tense: stories about hard-scrabble, often rural, lives. By 2001, she had largely abandoned linear narrative and past-tense settings, instead writing in what is clearly discernible as now, but seldom telling stories with a beginning, middle and end.

In the same period, she went from being a promising young up-and-comer to being possibly the best songwriter in the world.

Were these two things related? What was the relationship between them: causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if it was causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Writing original songs that aim for timelessness and woody authenticity is difficult, particularly if you’re setting them in the past. It’s easy for listeners to become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers (a critic for whom I have a ton of respect and who has written pieces I’d kill to have written) was negative about Revival when reviewing it for Rolling Stone:

“[Revival] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.”

Christgau was even less impressed:

“She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.”

He’s never given Welch the time of day since.

But these were uncharitable reviews, and in Christgau’s case possibly hypocritical: after all, he’d never complained that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville Train. He’d never castigated Randy Newman for not having lived through the Great Mississippi Flood when he released Louisiana 1927.

While neither Powers nor Christgau seemed able to hear it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and Revival contained several undeniable successes. Perhaps what was really going on here was a willed failure to suspend disbelief, a refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet long enough to properly hear the songs. When Welch adopted a character on songs like Annabelle, One More Dollar and Tear My Stillhouse Down, her middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – was an easy stick to beat her with.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), Welch had significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival, but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (The Revelator). Instead there are meditations and recollections, and when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given disconnected pieces of it from somewhere out of the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April the 14th (Part 1):

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

It’s a world away from “We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust”.

So if her lyrics did change between Revival and Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody from Welch, and the very impressive singing and guitar playing from both Welch and her partner David Rawlings. But for a songwriter whose arrangements are mostly just two guitars and two voices, the quality of the lyric takes on even great importantce. When Welch and Rawlings came back with Time (The Revelator), the songs were more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April the 14th (Part 1) is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world of mobile telephones, vans and punk bands playing low-rent shows, but Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on 14th April: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a “ruination day”? What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies?

Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy, compared to this. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief after her own death; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless after being laid off and losing all his money gambling. In the world that the songs have established, these were not unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined by the listener.

By Time (The Revelator), she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave questions unanswered. April the 14th (Part 1)’s sister song, Ruination Day (Part 2), does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. Instead, it doubles down on the inscrutability of the earlier song. In Ruination Day (Part 2), the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising questions like this and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this game and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time (The Revelator), it does feel just a little like she’s working with archetypes and well-worn stories.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on The Band’s second album), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

The late Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the “awkward truth” that “to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness”. Welch more or less proved James’s contention by coming nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. Whether it was conscious or not, it marked a step change in her work. Time (The Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but that’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record in the first place.

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is really quite wet. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revival’s middling vocal talents. There’s little that gives a clue as to the leap they were about to make.

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, but Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

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Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

The Poor Boy is Taken Away – Richard & Linda Thompson

Fairport Convention’s history is famously one of constant reorganisation, replacement and redefinition, initially forced on them in the most terrible of circumstances when their first drummer, Martin Lamble, was killed in motorway van crash after a gig. But even in the glow of the success of Liege & Lief, Fairport Convention swiftly reconstituted itself again. Sandy Denny was more interested in furthering her development as a songwriter than interpreting old British ballads, and not without justification since she had written Who Knows Where the Time Goes before even joining Fairport. Meanwhile bassist Ashley Hutchings cared little for anyone’s original material, no matter how good it was; he had taken up more or less permanent residence in Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

There wouldn’t have been room in any group for two members pulling in such different directions, but inevitably neither of them would stick with the band for very much longer; Hutchings began Steeleye Span as a vehicle for further experiments with the Child ballads, while Denny formed her own band, Fotheringay. Richard Thompson, Fairport’s baby-faced lead-guitar prodigy, did stay, but he would stick it out for only one more record before departing to pursue his own solo career. After just one coolly received album, though, Henry the Human Fly, he began making duo records with his new wife Linda.

Linda Thompson is a wondrous singer who is somewhat overshadowed in the history of Brit-folk by Denny. And Sandy was, in any dispassionate assessment, in a class by herself, with what Clive James characterised as a “lavish delicacy of sound” and a stylistic and emotional versatility that is close to miraculous. But it would be extremely unfair to damn Linda Thompson for not quite living up to that. Few singers in any generation can. What she did share with Denny was versatility, in feeling and in genre: her voice is cosmopolitan in a way that can make the hewn-from-the-soil Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins sound like untutored bumpkins, and earthy enough to make the trilling, precise Jacqui McShee sound prissy and piercing. Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior has some similar vocal qualities to Thompson, yet was often saddled with a lumpen band and the production talent of Mike Batt (since inflicted on us via Katie Melua), a choice of collaborator that rather suggests a shallow emotional response to music. Neither Thompson would have given the time of day to a hack like Batt.

Richard Thompson may have done more than any other musician to weld British traditional song to electric rock and roll, but his guitar playing is in the final analysis more American than British; three parts Chuck Berry to one part Billy Pigg. Indeed it’s little remarked upon that few British guitarists can interpret country songs as well as Richard Thompson, which he manages to do without sounding callow or pretentious or fake, and frankly without hitting you over the head with the fact that he’s playing country either. On songs like the devastating The Poor Boy is Taken Away, he taps into the emotion of country music without duplicating its standard riffs, licks and clichés. Like his Fairport bandmate Sandy Denny, who cut the definitive version of Silver Threads and Golden Needles with Fotheringay, and like his former wife and musical partner Linda who sings it so beautifully, he’s able to inhabit and interpret American music without burlesquing it.

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I Think He’s Hiding – Randy Newman

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with extra days at work and such, and I’m going to be even more pushed for time over the next week or so. I’m heading home tomorrow morning to sunny Essex for the always-excellent Leigh Folk Festival so my usual Sunday post is going to have to be early. Next Friday I’m heading to Umbria with Mel for a long weekend of hilltop villages and awesome food. I’ll post something on Wednesday or Thursday before I go, but then you’ll be on your own until the following Wednesday or Thursday when I’m back and settled back into a normal working routine. In the meantime, I’m aware I’m falling back on favourite artists I’ve written about before, but it helps me to keep up a reasonable pace if I can write about something I’ve already listened to many times and digested properly. And any great artist deserves whole books, not just a couple of blog posts! I could write about some of these folks every week for a year, although I don’t know how many of you would still be here if I did.

Randy Newman has no heir in popular music. He stands alone. There may be songwriters who are funny, some who have his sense of the grotesque (Tom Waits owes his post-Swordfish career to just one Newman song: Davy the Fat Boy); there are people who can write orchestra movie soundtracks, others who can write one-off title songs to order. Newman can do it all. And of the funny songwriters, there’s none funnier, not Steely Dan, not 10CC, not Terry Allen, not Warren Zevon (perhaps the closest rock has come to a second Randy Newman, though he had nothing like the musical range of the original), and certainly not those who explicitly set themselves up as comic songwriters.

As the late Ian McDonald argued, Newman’s first album, from 1968, finds him already fully formed as an artist. The control of the orchestra was there. The talent for satire was there. The compression of meaning and incident into viable rock lyrics was there. It won him the instant admiration of his peers. They all seemed to appreciate that this guy was doing something they couldn’t, and many tried recording his songs. Harry Nilsson, who didn’t need to take songwriting lessons off anyone, cut a whole album’s worth.

But his songs defy those who would cover them. As good as Newman’s words are on paper, they come alive in performance, but only his performance can bring them to their full potential. As croaky and ungainly as his voice may be on a technical level, he’s alive to every possibility of the phrasing and delivery in the words he writes.

In the early seventies, Clive James wrote a series of columns about rock music for Cream magazine, concentrating mainly on lyrics. He tackled Dylan, the Beatles, Sandy Denny, the Band, Randy Newman and Van Morrison among others. His highest praise, in terms of lyrics, was reserved for the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Newman. I’ll leave the analysis to him: he’s covers it all, more clearly than I could.

Consider I Think He’s Hiding: Newman has got his attentive absorption of cliché and his definitive sense of order both working at once. The clichés, delivered in a voice strangling with piety, create a world of pin-brained religious fear and smug certitude. The redeemer, alias the Big Boy, is called upon to return and sort the elect from the damned. But underneath the cretinous invocation of the holy name, Newman’s irony is subversively at work. ‘Come on Big Boy,’ sings the narrator: ‘Come and save us.’ There is a flurry of melisma on the word ‘save’, giving an idiotic air of devotions confidently sung in church or synagogue. ‘Come and look at what we’ve done,’ he adds, and we can hear Newman’s own judgements coming to the fore – he isn’t entirely impressed with mankind’s achievements. But there’s a capper: ‘With what you gave us.’ So the fault’s the Big Boy’s. After all, it’s the Big Boy who’s claiming to be omnipotent.

James is not going overboard here. Everything that he finds in the lyric is in there, and that’s a hell of a lot of content. Most impressively, Newman’s not beating us over the head with 10-dollar words; there isn’t one word in the verse he quotes with more than one syllable.

Newman’s solo albums would never again be as orchestrated, as 1940s-sounding, as his debut; from his second album onwards, he’d work within an idiom that more obviously had something to do with rock music. Yet his lyrics would remain as sharp for at least a decade, slackening only at the end of the seventies. And even after that, he retained the power to shock and surprise, as on, for example, Trouble in Paradise’s Christmas In Cape Town, another in a long line of devastating anti-racism songs. I’ve written about that album elsewhere. Click here for more Newman talk.

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