Tag Archives: critics

Demos revisted – Two versions of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl

Consider this a late follow-up to the post from last week on demos and alternate versions

Gillian Welch’s Revival was a pretty astonishing debut, but in the light of the records she’s made since – particular her masterwork Time (The Revelator) and 2011’s The Harrow & the Harvest – it sounds a little studied, a little produced. There’s a good reason for this. It was.

Welch’s first two albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett. On their later releases, the producer’s credit would be Rawlings’s, and he and Welch would pare things back to the simplest presentations possible: two guitars and two voices recorded live with the pair sitting just a couple of feet apart. But when making Revival, they’d not yet settled on this as the best means of presentation for Welch’s songs, and anyway, Burnett was calling the shots.

Now, T-Bone Burnett is not that intrusive a producer. Not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said some critical things about his reproduction of the Daniel Lanois formula here, but the guy does a good job most of the time. So while Revival shows some accommodation to the mainstream in the relative bigness of its sounds compared to those of their later work (the acoustic guitar sound is closer, so to speak, and a good deal sparklier), the production is still mostly sympathetic to the songs.

Demos for Revival are floating around the internet and they make fascinating listening. The album tracklisting emphasises the old-timey, character-study aspect of Welch’s songs, and in light of the flak she caught from some over tracks like Annabelle*, I wonder how different the response to Revival would have been if the album had included the charming We Must Look Like We’re in Love or I Don’t Want to Go Downtown.

Of the songs that made the cut, the most different in arrangement was probably Orphan Girl, something of a signature song for Welch after it was covered by Emmylou Harris, before her own version came out. The demo features prominent Rawlings lead guitar, harmonica, brushed snare and subtle double bass. It could have been recorded in the 1970s or even the 1950s with no changes whatsoever, and is rather lovely. The only slight mark against it is the harmonica, which works well during its solo but is a little too perky and intrusive elsewhere. Mixing desks do have faders and mute buttons, though.

The Burnett-produced Orphan Girl is, while sparser, more produced. The tempo is slowed down pretty significantly. The band-playing-in-a-room vibe is replaced by two acoustic guitars (I’m assuming it’s two tracks of Welch, as Rawlings is not credited with acoustic on the song) and a bunch of atmospheric stuff (Optigan and 6-string electric bass) by Rawlings and Burnett. This stuff runs throughout the song, welling up under the final chorus for a big finish. It’d cross the line into just being crass if it were any more prominent, but even as it is it’s a blot on the song, which simply didn’t need such flourishes to heighten its emotion.

What’s different between the two Welch versions of Orphan Girl, ultimately, is self-consciousness. Really good demos frequently come to light on reissues and expanded releases these days, and when they do it’s not unusual for fans to prefer them. It’s usually because there’s something a little stilted about the final version, with the artist feeling the pressure of having to nail the song, and becoming conscious of their performance in a way they wouldn’t be normally. Orphan Girl is a case in point. For her fans looking back on it, Revival may feel like a simulacrum of what Welch and Rawlings do best, but at the time we had no way of knowing that, unless we’d been fortunate enough to see them play in a small club or theatre. When they acquired the clout to simply do their own thing, they did, and they began making records that match the greatness of Welch’s songs.

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This is how they do it.

*The accusations of fakery against her in-character storytelling were never levelled against Randy Newman or Robbie Robertson when their songs took a character’s perspective, whether that character lived in the 1860s or 1960s. It said way more about the prejudices of certain reviewers than it did about Welch. But nonetheless, Welch’s writing did take a step forward when she abandoned old-timey language and themes, and began writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible “now”; when it became harder to separate the “I” in the singer’s songs and the singer herself.

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Let Me be the One – Carpenters

It may seem I bring up Robert Christgau a lot on this blog. There’s a good reason. Christgau is one of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll writers, and his archive of reviews is digitised and freely available. Now, it’s dangerous to assume that his take on any given piece of work is representative of the mainstream critical opinion of the era – he’s idiosyncratic, sometimes ornery, frequently just plain wrongheaded, just like any critic – but if you want an authentic, from-its-time reaction to pretty much any record you can think of, Christgau’s archive is the place to go. So let’s look at his take on the Carpenters’ 1973 singles collection, the only record of theirs he seems to have reviewed:

The combination of Karen Carpenter’s ductile, dispassionate contralto and Richard Carpenter’s meticulous studio technique is admittedly more musical than the clatter of voices and silverware in a cafeteria, but it’s just as impervious to criticism. That is, the duo’s success is essentially statistical: I’ll tell you that I very much like We’ve Only Just Begun and detest Sing, but those aren’t so much aesthetic judgments as points on a graph. 

Hmm.

Richard and Karen did, from the 1990s onwards, begin to win the respect they’d always deserved, and like the Bee Gees, or ABBA, they now have critical credibility in spades, with their reputations as respectively arranger and singer bulletproof. I can’t imagine anyone in 2016 willing to stand up in public and say they find Karen Carpenter’s singing dispassionate. Time has rendered the disapproval of writers like Christgau a mere footnote.

While the Carpenters deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable, after her still shocking early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy in Karen’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as Goodbye to Love and Rainy Days and Mondays. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as There’s a Kind of Hush, Top of the World and Close to You) – to downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.

Let Me Be the One comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in Superstar, This Masquerade, Yesterday Once More, I Need to Be in Love, in their version of Ticket to Ride, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic We’ve Only Just Begun.

They can be lighter (as on, say, throwaway covers of Please Mr Postman and Jambalaya), or darker (most obviously on Goodbye to Love), but it’s on these songs that they seem to me most essentially themselves, and when Karen Carpenter is at her best vocally. There was always some hope in her delivery of even the saddest material.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the most inventive arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited both Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the sole architect.

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It might have helped if they’d been marketed more like this and less like this:

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Dear Boy – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ram, released in the spring of 1971, is the highpoint of Paul’s Farmer McCartney phase. It’s not as home-spun and lo-fi as his debut, McCartney, and its mood is strange kind of low-key anger, giving it more kick than its predecessor. Too Many People sees the singer taking aim at those “preaching practices” (Lennon assumed McCartney was talking about him). Dear Boy, which we’ll get to shortly, takes someone to task for not appreciating what they had (Lennon, again, saw himself as the subject).

The early seventies saw McCartney in self-imposed exile on his farm in Scotland. Some biographers have suggested that Paul had a nervous breakdown during this time, while others have seen it more as an alcohol-fuelled episode of depression. The cover shows McCartney holding a ram by its horns; perhaps the subtext of this was less about his contentment with his lot up on his farm and more about what McCartney himself was wrestling with.

What I love about this album is how relaxed McCartney sounds, simply pleasing himself, while tackling weighty subjects and moods. None of the slightly forced jollity and cheap hookiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is here present, but the author’s lightness of touch (a trademark of his from And I Love Her onwards) is fully intact. The songs on Ram are as strong as anything he wrote in the latter days of the Beatles if you’re willing to meet them on their own terms and accept that they are designed to be minor pieces, not grand Hey Jude-style statements. And as always with McCartney, there are melodies here that lesser songwriters would kill to have written.

Yet Ram, famously, was not particularly well received by critics on its release (sample review from John Landau: “incredibly inconsequential… the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock thus far”; sample reviews by Robert Christgau: “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it” and “Ram is a bad record”).

This was blatant nonsense, and when I listen to the album I find it hard to believe that anyone with any sort of ear for music could fail so completely to get any of it. It seems like they must have been expecting McCartney to look outwards more in his early solo career – to address the world and its ills in the way Harrison and Lennon had. McCartney’s music must have seemed insular, whimsical and self-satisfied in comparison. But it’s not valid criticism to dismiss a work because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what a record should be. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in his essay on the Beach Boys, Retire the Fences, Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album. Ram seems to me as determinedly, modestly small-scale (and yes, as whimsical) as Paul Simon’s first solo record, which Christgau loved. So why the problem here?

Dear Boy – with its gorgeous harmonies and surprising chord change from Fmaj7 to Bmin7 in the verse – is my favourite track from the album, but there’s an awful lot to like here: the wonderfully daft Heart of the Country (“I want a horse, I want a sheep, I want to get me a good night’s sleep”); the proto-Waits Monkberry Moon Delight; the Beach Boys-esque Back Seat of My Car (though, in fact, the Beach Boys songs that this song most resembles all post-date Ram); the gnomic opening trio of Too Many People, 3 Legs and Ram On.

A recent double-album reissue and accompanying rapturous reviews. Jayson Greene’s 9.2 review in Pitchfork was typical in its assessment of the record’s overall quality, but atypically shrewd in its view of Linda McCartney’s role in them:

The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.

We live in twee-er times than the early 1970s, so perhaps the massive rise in critical and fan esteem for Ram is simply a consequence of that, but open-eared listeners (which is to say, the public, who voted in pound sterling, and sent it to the top of the album chart) understood all along.

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That’s Why I’m Here

No, not the James Taylor song. Writing about music fulfills some kind of need in me, I suppose, or I wouldn’t be here. And I know that writing about something helps me to figure out what I think about the subject I’m discussing. It might just be because the fact of wanting to write a post about a particular record forces me to listen in an active, engaged and critical way so I don’t embarrass myself, but I think there’s something about the process itself that takes me further into the topic than I ever get from just sitting and listening, however intently.

So that’s some of why I’m here. But I do have a more altruistic reason, or at least a reason that’s outward-looking. There are so many large-scale websites devoted to the discussion and reviewing of music: Pitchfork, obviously, but also Drowned in Sound, Popmatters, AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Quietus, the online presences of Rolling Stone and Spin, the digital editions of the print newspapers (some of which devote more effort and resources to arts reviews than others, but they’re all there), the websites of magazines like Mojo, Uncut, NME, and on and on. But none of them provide the sort of criticism that I particularly want to read. I go on the AV Club website for film and TV reviews – I never read their record reviews.

The sort of criticism I like to read goes deeper than the writing you find in these places: sometimes it may focus on the culture music exists in, lives in and feeds off; other times it may be take the form of a close response to the musical matter and be aware of how small musical events change the way the listener hears the piece; it might get technical about production (recording techniques, mic placement, equalisation, panning, compression, time-domain effects); it might be a stream of random associations and allusions and images that the music calls to mind. I try and do all of these things, depending on my response to the song at hand. Sometimes I throw out all of that and just pass on cool ways to tune a guitar, mic a drum kit or double-track heavy guitars. I don’t premeditate that much. Not having a website structure to fill (at least for now) allows me to post at my own pace and discuss whatever I want. There’s supposed to be a utility to it though. In my own head, I’m providing a service here, passing on knowledge and weird little insights that you’re not going to get from the bigger music sites and aggregators simply because they have these rigid structures that don’t really allow for randomness. They chase novelty because they need traffic, and they can only concern themselves with older music or films or TV when they’re celebrating some kind of landmark anniversary.

These self-defined structures don’t completely throttle worthwhile criticism. There’s a tremendous skill involved in being able to listen to a new record over the course of a week, absorb it, internalise it, sort through it and its implications and its associations and come up with a short review by the end of the week that will plug a 200-word hole in some website’s music-review section. It’s incredibly hard to do it with such a short turnaround and say anything worth the time it takes to read it. Inevitably, few writers can pull it off. Most are just plugging the holes in the structure, they’re not engaging in the practice of criticism. But there are writers who consistently manage to say something engaging and insightful and knowledgeable about new music, even while their editors are barking at them about deadlines.

So it’s been a conscious choice to avoid the new, the current, the novel. It’s covered as well as it can be in so many other places, and avoiding chasing after the new stuff allows me the time to really hear something before forming an opinion. It allows me not to have to pick a side instantly. There’s no such thing as objectivity when forming a response to music. Here I don’t pretend otherwise, but I try to be honest, I try to be fair and I made a decision to write about things I like, things I could perhaps turn other folks on to.

A couple of days ago, I posted about different artists’ covers of What You Won’t Do for Love, which is one of my favourite songs. And I felt a little bad about it afterwards, as I broke my own rule of being positive to do it. What I really wanted to do was indulge in another post celebrating the greatness of Bobby Caldwell’s original, but this time round I did that by snarking at some other artists who didn’t measure up. There’s endless material for snark if all you want to do is point and laugh at bad cover versions. I’ll name no names and point no fingers. A well-written slam might be funny, and provide pleasure to the reader, but only at the cost of the creator.

Now, artists who do bad work should be kept honest by bad reviews, but it helps if those reviews are constructive. Otherwise you’re not being a critic; you’re just throwing tomatoes at some poor musician in the stocks. And I wasn’t being constructive enough the other day, so I’m going to cut that shit out now.  I’m here (in the more general sense of the term) because I’m a lucky, lucky man. I have no right to be. And after an event like I had, it’s only natural to have your perspective changed a bit. But after a while, the routine of everyday life – of having to earn money, fulfill obligations to family, friends, employers and so on – can easily make the world seem like a grind again. Not uncaring or cruel necessarily, but like a big grey machine that I’m just a small part of. And it makes me start thinking like I did back before I got ill. In this little corner of the internet, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about detailed celebrations of the awesome.

And so I apologise for my lapse into snark the other day. It won’t happen again. And let me just say, to make things up to Go West (who came in for a good amount of the snark), that I enjoy Call Me as much as any one else who’s ever ridden through sunny Vice City on a big-ass motorbike while wearing a pastel suit and blasting Flash FM.

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Tommy Vercetti is an innocent man.

Roger Ebert – RIP

In absolute terms, even in relative terms, I’m not what you’d call a film buff. My knowledge of cinema contains huge gaps, and when I was a kid I actively disliked films. My mind would wander over the course of two hours, which seemed to an impatient child such a huge chunk of time to commit to anything, let alone watching something that might turn out not to be any good. When my mum or dad announced that they were going to the video shop (remember independent video rental shops?) to get something to watch that evening, it didn’t excite me. Sometimes I kind of resented it. I had other interests. And so, having come to appreciate movies only in my later teens, and being British, I didn’t have the pleasure of growing up  with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel to educate me about movies.

I wish I had. Ebert  had a quality shared by all the best critics: he was fair. As great as his zingers could be, it would be a shame if he were remembered chiefly for his ‘hated, hated, hated’ review of North, his Your Movie Sucks book or his Vincent Gallo retort (after being called a ‘fat pig’ by Gallo, he responded ‘I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny‘) because that was not his real character – his work is never anything less than reasonable in a field that hasn’t often deserved to have had such an uncynical soul as its most famous critic. Indeed he reserved his real scorn only for movies he judged to be cynical in the way they tortured their characters. The artist in me says maybe he was too fastidious, but his line on this issue was consistent and humane, and while I’d defend a film-maker’s right to make such a work as a Human Centipede – and a viewer’s right to see it if they so wish – I’d not argue that humanity is enriched by such movies, and I’d struggle to judge them as art.

In the last few years, Ebert had been through a lot: thyroid cancer, salivary gland cancer, cancer of the jaw and the subsequent removal of part of his jawbone, a burst carotid artery, the loss of his ability to speak and eat, and several painful attempts to rebuild his jaw, which failed and left his appearance permanently altered.

The language of bravery, of heroism – language imported from the battlefield and often inappropriate and ill-informed – is too readily deployed when we speak of illness. Anyone who’s faced serious illness knows that the two biggest factors involved in whether one lives or dies are luck and the skill of one’s doctors. But most of all luck.

And so personally I don’t believe it was courage that saved him. Or even, and I don’t say this lightly, love. There are so many other variables; it only takes your surgeon having a slight off-day for some reason, and everything can be different. Nevertheless, Roger Ebert’s reaction to his survival, his continued commitment to his work (and what a workload he gave himself!), his decision to go back on camera and show the world his changed face and his synthesised voice, all of that was brave. I wouldn’t have had it in me to do that. He continued to engage with the world, which may not give you any more time, but sure as hell helps to make the time worthwhile, however much or little of it you have.

The sad thing is that he died when he was still making plans for his future. Just two days ago he announced the recurrence of cancer, this time in his hip, but reiterated that he intended to go on working and was just about to relaunch his website. You don’t do that if you’re expecting to die at any day. His death has, then, despite his frailty and his decision not to put himself through more surgery, come as something of a shock. You almost expected him to keep going for a good while yet, with the support of his wife Chaz and his always-evident love of film to help him on the bad days.

I have to admit, I find myself more and more saddened by death nowadays. It’s a selfish reaction perhaps, but hearing or thinking about it does lead me back to the place I was in fifteen months ago when I learned my heart had failed. I don’t know why my condition didn’t kill me, as it does so many others. I don’t know why my condition improved, instead of continuing to decline. It couldn’t have declined much further; I do know that. I know I was lucky and had great doctors. I live a basically normal life now, and didn’t need to find within myself the bravery of a Roger Ebert to face the world after surviving a serious illness. Cancer took so much away from him, yet he continued to give us all so much. He was a great writer and, for all his prominence, probably an under-rated critic; he was so good at telling you why he liked what he liked, a task that kicks my arse every time I sit down to write something for this blog but is sometimes not fully appreciated by those who haven’t tried it. Above all else, though, when faced with continual physical suffering, he refused to let it make him bitter. If anything, his latter reviews became even more marked by open-heartedness and generosity of spirit.

It’s been quoted a lot already, and will doubtless be quoted even more in the next few days, but let’s give the last word to Roger:

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

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Roger Ebert, from his Twitter account

N.B. I’ve removed the reference to the review of the Evil Dead remake that appeared on Ebert’s website as it was actually written by Richard Roeper. My apologies for the mistake.