Tag Archives: fingerpicking

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.

High-strung fun; Nashville tuning

You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals on Music Row. They know how to make records. They certainly know a thing or two about recording acoustic guitars. High-string tuning is so closely associated with the capital of country music that a majority of guitarists refer to it as Nashville tuning.

To reassure those of you who aren’t really down with endlessly retuning your instrument, Nashville tuning isn’t really an alternate tuning, per se; it’s more about the strings you actually put on your guitar. The tuning involves taking the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the E, A, D and G) and putting them on a regular six-string guitar. That gives you a guitar with only one wound string (the low E), and means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings respectively, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. D’Addario and Martin both sell high-strung/Nashville tuning sets (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too*. All you need to do is maybe adjust the neck on your guitar. I have a spare acoustic I often Nasvhille-ise; saves a lot of hassle when, as now, I’m looking to add a few jangly touches to a nearly complete recording..

So what can you do with it?

I’m very fond of the massed – but unobtrusive – overdubbing of acoustic guitars. I love the tonal colours you get by blending tracks of different guitars, different tuned, and so routinely track two to four acoustic rhythm tracks of various types, with the aim of blending them together so it sounds essentially like one instrument, but with a richer sonority and wider frequency response than you get from a single track of one acoustic guitar.

Sometimes they’re all in standard tuning but I use a capo to play each track with different chord shapes (e.g. a song in E is played with open E shapes, and in D with a capo on the second fret, or C with a capo on the fourth). Sometimes it’s a mix of standard- and alternate-tuned performances. Sometimes it’s a mix of six- and 12-string guitars, and sometimes a Nashville-tuned part is in there, too. Adds a lovely shimmering brightness to a bed of acoustics.

But that’s just the easy stuff. If you don’t have access to a 12-string guitar but you want the effect on a recording, you can also try tightly doubling a six-string part in Nashville tuning to create an effect that’s very like a 12-string. Experiment with panning the parts  left and right in stereo as well as together down the middle for different effects.

If you’re really into making work for yourself, try doubling a fingerpicking part. If done perfectly and panned down the middle, voila, instant 12-string effect. And again, you can pan the parts off on opposite sides for a striking stereo effect.

To hear examples of Nasvhille tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think). Or for something a bit more mainstream, try Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. There’s a high-pitched fingerpicked part panned centrally, fairly low in the mix but audible between Stevie Nicks’s vocal lines. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s a 12-string or a Nashville-tuned six string, but the more I hear it, the more the thin-ness and clarity of the part suggests Nashville tuning to me.

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My old spare acoustic, Nashvillized

*When I bought a set of Martin 10-25s the other day, the dude in the shop told me he hasn’t been able to reorder them and thinks that Martin may have discontinued them. Nonetheless, you can still buy single strings of the appropriate gauge: to replicate the Martin set, you’d need the following gauges: E: 0.025; A: 0.017; D: 0.013; G: 0.008; B: 0.012; E: 0.010.

New music to download

I’ve made a recent song called Last Swallow available to download from Bandcamp, pay what you like-style. It’s a song I wrote a few months ago, an autumnal fingerpicking folk-song kind of thing. It’s somewhat unusual for me as it’s in standard tuning, and I wrote the tune before anything else – not my usual way of writing at all.

You can listen to it through the embedded player below, or click here to go to Bandcamp to download it:

Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

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Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.

Twice the strings, twice the fun

I’ve had my Seagull S12 since 2001. No guitar I own has put in more hard yards for me. It was my main acoustic guitar in both the bands I was in between 2006 and 2011, so it went to every rehearsal and every gig, it got tuned and retuned endlessly, it got dropped, dinged, scratched and beaten up, and I went through more high Gs than you can count. It’s a pretty great-sounding instrument and, by the standard of 12 strings, pretty easy to play too. The neck is wide enough that you can actually use it for fingerpicking, but not so wide that barre chords are problematic, and the action is reasonable too. You can’t really ask much more from an acoustic guitar

I should play it more really – these days I pretty much only get it out for recording. I’m still, years after I started doing it with my old band (the Fourth Wall, god rest them), really into the tonal effects you can get by overdubbing acoustic guitars, especially 12 strings against 6 strings.

All the reasons that you might double electric guitar parts apply equally to acoustic guitars parts: you can do it to provide width, to blend different voicings of the same chords, or to blend the tones of two different instruments to create a sound that wouldn’t be obtainable any other way, and so on. The practice of mass acoustic overdubbing is somewhat rarer than it is with electric guitar parts, though, which might be for no other reason than the fact that it’s more difficult to do well.

Acoustic guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. When you record two of them (whether you personally record two parts or the two guitarists in your band record one track each), it becomes very important that the two parts are in time with each other and in time with the snare drum. The further out the strums are from each other or – worse – the snare drum, the more the ear is likely to hear them as flams. This can get distracting for the listener pretty quickly.

If you’re undeterred, though, here’s a couple of tips. Blending a standard-tuned part with an open-tuned part can be super fun. Imagine using a C-based tuning like CGCFGC on a 12-string guitar in the context of a song where the main progression is something like C/dminor/aminor/G: you can create a rich, resonant blend that wouldn’t be possible from two standard-tuned parts, really taking advantage of the drone strings and the low C bass. And of course, the effect of this will be even greater if the open-tuned part happened to be played on a twelve-string.

Another tip, particularly if you don’t want to get involved in open tunings, is to use a capo to track a second part using different chord shapes to the first part. Take the progression from the previous paragraph. How about putting a capo on the third fret and playing A / bminor / f#minor / E? Yeah, that’s right: it’s the same sequence as the guitar is sounding a minor third higher than concert pitch because of the capo. Once again, this can be used to create a tone, a richness of sound, that simply can’t be drawn out of one instrument. Again, if one of these parts is played on a twelve-string, the effect is amplified still further.

Coolest of all, but oh so difficult to do even vaguely well, is blending 12- and 6-string fingerpicking parts. I think that’s what Lindsey Buckingham’s up to on Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide (from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, the first album the band made with Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). The part on the right sounds like it’s got octave notes in it, but it might be some clever psychoacoustic trick. However he did it, it’s super-cool, and it definitely sounds like a 12 string is in there.

 

Saturday Sun – Nick Drake

Nick Drake is at this point the most famous, the most listened-to, the most influential and the most widely beloved of all the British folk-rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s.

Why Drake? Why not Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy, John Martyn or Bert Jansch? All were (or are) talented, versatile and charismatic performers and writers, all with a wider and more varied body of work than Drake.

It would be crass and reductive to say, “Because Drake was good looking and died young, and didn’t get old, fat, bald, irrelevant or conservative.” This is undoubtedly part of his appeal, as it is of Hendrix’s, Cobain’s, Joplin’s or Morrison’s (OK, so he got fat, but he didn’t get old or bald). The doomed-romantic-hero thing is always powerful and attractive, and it can apply equally to musicians, athletes, actors, writers, political revolutionaries, tyrants, criminals, anyone – we can all think of someone whose glittering legacy is at least partly dependent on their early death.

But it’s very far from the whole story.

In the last twenty years, since the cult of Nick Drake really took off*, the hundreds of thousands of people who have become Nick Drake fans have done so because of the man’s idiosyncratic, beguiling music.

There’s the guitar playing for one thing. Even within an era blessed with an extraordinary crop of guitarists – Martyn, Jansch, Renbourn, Carthy and Graham – Drake stands out. Drake’s technique I won’t go into in great detail here (it’s all available out there if you want it – tunings, picking patterns, chord shapes and so on), except to note his powerful right-hand thumb (listen to Pink Moon‘s Road to hear him play a crisply articulated syncopated melody with his thumb against a repeated pattern played with his fingers), and his tunings, which he used to create hugely expansive chords.**

And then there are the songs. River Man, Saturday Sun, Three Hours, Cello Song, Hazey Janes I and II, At the Chime of a City Clock, Northern Sky, Pink Moon, Place to Be, Things Behind the Sun, From the Morning. All these from just three albums.

Brit-folk songwriters of that era were notable for their willingness to explore other music, to collaborate with musicians from outside their own fields and create new blends, whether those outside influences came from the classical world, rock or jazz, India or North Africa. Drake was no different, though he’s not often spoken of in precisely those terms. I guess if I had to summarise Drake’s albums for a newcomer to his music, I’d say that his debut, Five Leaves Left, is the one most coloured by jazz (with Danny Thompson, Tristan Fry and Rocky Dzidzornu all contributing) and Bryter Layter is the one most touched by Fairport-style folk rock (Richard Thompson, plus Pegg and Mattacks), while Pink Moon is the outlier, the skeletal one, just Drake alone with his guitar.***

Pink Moon, for many reasons (some of them personal and sentimental), remains my favourite, and I understand why many feel Bryter Layter is the most rounded and satisfying. My relationship with FLL is more complicate – while its best songs are all classics, there are also some very twee moments, and Robert Kirby’s string arrangements (on Way to Blue and Fruit Tree) sound pretty callow next to the magisterial work of Harry Robinson on River Man.

Nevertheless, when playing individual Nick Drake songs for the uninitiated, it’s often best to turn to Five Leaves Left for a song or two. Saturday Sun is a great choice precisely because it doesn’t feature Drake’s guitar playing – you can hear it and divorce the quality of the song from the quality of the guitar playing (difficult with some of Drake’s other work), gaining the clearest insight into exactly how good a writer he was. That said, along with its exquisite late-summer-turns-to-autumn melancholy, it does feature Danny Thompson on double bass and Tristan Fry on drums and vibes, so there’s plenty of chops on display if chops are your thing.

Drake

*Launched by the use of Pink Moon in a Volkswagen ad of all things.

**He’d do things such as tune his guitar CGCGCE, for example, play D, A and D on the bottom three strings and that voicing, with a 7th and a 9th in it, would be his standard D minor voicing. It’s that sort of harmonic ambiguity that attracts guitarists to alternate tunings, and Drake, for many, is the gateway drug.

***It has been said by some that the outside musicians were producer Joe Boyd’s idea, and that if Drake had been listened to by Boyd his records would have been much sparer. Quite how this accords with Drake’s willing collaboration with John Cale on Northern Sky, and his use of his friend Robert Kirby’s string arrangements all over Five Leaves Left, I’m not entirely sure.

Blackwater Side – Bert Jansch

The British folk scene of the1960s flowered at the same time as British rock ‘n’ roll was going through its own period of accelerated artistic growth. Revolver by The Beatles and Jack Orion by Bert Jansch were released a month apart, and sessions for the latter were almost certainly happening at the same time as the slightly more protracted sessions for the former.

While both albums shared a focus on the past – musical and social – The Beatles’ optimistic updating of Edwardian and Victorian music hall and fairground music (a trope that they had perhaps picked up from The Kinks and which they did more than even that band to amplify within popular culture generally) was wildly at odds with the mood of Jansch’s music: bleak, apocalyptic, almost otherworldly. The Beatles were beginning the process of reconciling the old with the new, which they would perfect on Sergeant Pepper (Revolver is, I think, ultimately the better album, but it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a great collection of songs). Jansch, in contrast, burrowed deep into these strange and ancient songs, inhabiting them completely. Only the harshly bowed strings of Eleanor Rigby seems to come from the same world as Jansch’s Jack Orion work.

Jansch’s first two albums (Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me) were largely made up of self-composed originals – among which were two signature tunes, Strollin’ Down the Highway and the immortal Needle of Death – and had established him as a virtuoso guitarist and substantial songwriter. Jack Orion saw him going somewhere else: into the past, into the previous centuries’ folk ballads. Even in 1966, he played Nottamun Town, Jack Orion and Blackwater Side with an extraordinary combination of power and precision. By the time I saw him play Blackwater Side at the Southbank in 2006, his playing of it could be extraordinarily violent, his fingers hacking at the strings as he turned the song inside out, abstracted it and pulled it into strange new shapes.

The seeds of all this later exploratory work are within his 1966 recording of the track, and it thrives on the tension Jansch creates by his seeming impatience, but it benefits equally from the tenderness that was sometimes absent from his later readings. These could seem either dutiful (better play that song all the Zeppelin fans came to hear!), or provacatory (you want Blackwater Side? Here it is, hope you can recognise it!).

The Jack Orion recording of it was perfect: full of anger, desire, fear and regret. Possibly it’s the highest point (also the deepest and darkest point) to which anyone took the folk baroque form of guitar playing. Fifty years old next year, this recording of a song conceivably hundreds of years older, is still a mighty and intimidating presence in our musical history.

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Bert Jansch: kind to dogs, hard on guitar strings

Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying – Labi Siffre

I first head Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying in a BBC documentary about motor racing called Grand Prix: The Killer Years.

If that sounds like a melodramatic title, it’s worth watching the programme, which was a good deal more sober (it seems to have disappeared off YouTube at the moment though). One scene, once viewed, is unforgettable.

During the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, Roger Williamson’s tyre blew. His car somersaulted, landed upside and caught fire. The driver behind him, David Purley, pulled over, tried on his own to roll the car over and, not being able to, looked in vain for assistance. He grabbed a fire extinguisher out of a marshal’s hand and tried to put out the fire himself. As the fire worsened, he pleaded with the assembled marshals (four or five of them) to help him try to roll the car over. Wearing no protective flame-retardant clothing, they declined to help (one half-heartedly stood directly behind Purley and pushed into his back). Williamson’s car was still burning, with still no sign of ambulances or fire engines. While the race continued, Purley signalled in frustration for the drivers to stop. Still Williamson’s car burned. By this time, Williamson was almost certainly dead.

So the film was harrowing (at times, in fact, it’s hard to believe that what you’re seeing happened, and was in fact broadcast as Sunday afternoon entertainment), and few who were not themselves former drivers emerged from it with any credit. The footage of Williamson’s fatal accident was allowed by the production team to play with no overdubbed music. You hear the engines of the cars as they go past, and occasionally you hear Purley’s remonstrations with the officials, but the gravity of the moment is not cheapened by added music.

Elswhere in the programme, though, they did make use of music, and good use of it too. One song, playing underneath reaction to (I think) the death of Jim Clark, was unknown to me, but beautiful, so I googled the lyrics and found out that it was Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying by Labi Siffre, from 1972.

Nowadays best remembered for the anti-apartheid song Something Inside So Strong, It Must Be Love (most associated with Madness) and I Got The… (the deathless groove of its second half is the sampled backbone of Eminem’s My Name Is), Siffre’s career stretches back to the early 1960s, when he played guitar in a Jimmy Smith-style jazz group. He found mainstream success in the early 1970s, presumably with the same kind of audience as that of Cat Stevens, to whose music Siffre’s sometimes bears a passing resemblance. He went to the same West London Catholic school, St Benedict’s, as my uncles (and Julian Clarey); “God is the last refuge of a scoundrel” reads the latest blog entry on Siffre’s website – a Catholic education so often seems to have the opposite of its intended effect.

Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying (also the title of its parent album) is one of those simple, elemental songs that feel as if they must always have existed. It’s just some nimble guitar picking, the same melodic phrases repeated four times, with small variations in the words, and a slowly, subtly building arrangement. Such musical and lyrical economy but such an emotional effect. Siffre makes something very difficult sound very easy here. Rod Stewart, Olivia Newton John and Jimmy Ruffin have all covered it; none could resist the temptation to make it bigger (surprisingly, the loathsome Stewart fares the best). Even so, Siffre’s version is the essential one.

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Labi Siffre

Inside Out – John Martyn

There can be no mistake there
Can be no mistake there can
Be no mistake
It
Must
Must
Must
Be love

Outside In

In late 2001, my friend, former housemate and long-time musical collaborator James McKean played me John Martyn for the first time. We’d known each other for a year by this point and he’d already introduced me to the music of Fred Neil and Big Star. Over the years there’d be much more to come. But John Martyn was a big moment.

We lived in a large household — six housemates plus the girlfriend of one of the actual tenants — but James and I often seemed to be the first home, giving us the run of the house for an hour or so. We’d put CDs on the DVD player in the front room, using the TV for speakers, and hang out. I imagine it sounded terrible, but I don’t remember that being a problem. What I do remember is hearing Fine Lines and being close to bursting out laughing. I’d never heard anyone sing that way, and I’d heard a lot of people sing a lot of ways. Fine Lines is the first song on Inside Out, the album where Martyn really developed and explored the outer reaches of this vocal style. The title track of Solid Air had seen him slurring his delivery in a way that initially sounds drunken but that you soon realise is imitative of a saxophone and allows him to bend his phrasing and delivery to get inside the lyric and explore its potential for musical and verbal meaning. But Inside Out was something else again. My incredulity soon gave way to fascination. Fine Lines was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d heard before. But the rest took some more work. By the next year, when we’d moved from our big rambling Lewisham house to a smaller one on an estate in Stepney (behind the George, then run down and on the point of closing), we were listening to Inside Out and Solid Air, which I’d purchased, regularly, and it was then that I began to get a handle on this singular pair of records.

To this day they still seem like two sides of the same coin to me: Solid Air is the focused, concise and accessible heads; Inside Out is the digressive, rambling and exploratory tails. While Solid Air has wonderful songs (the title track, Don’t Want to Know, Over the Hill, May You Never), Inside Out marries killer songwriting (Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, So Much in Love With You, Ain’t No Saint) to jazz improvisation and sonic experimentation, containing both Martyn’s definitive Echoplex track (Outside In) and mutant arrangements of traditional melodies (Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill).

It took longer to get but it hit me harder, and I still come back to it, most recently this week. It’s an incredible, utterly idiosyncratic, piece of work. I’ve still never heard anyone else make music that sounds like Ain’t No Saint and Look In. They just crackle with tension and clenched-jawed, barely restrained aggression, yet the rhythm section on both tracks eschew the traditional rock drum kit, instead featuring Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka and Indian tabla player Keshav Sathe (from John Mayer’s — not that John Mayer — Indo Jazz Fusions). Outside In, meanwhile, is just astonishing, eight and a half minutes long, in two distinct sections: the first is a full-band Echoplex jam in the vein of Glistening Glyndebourne and I’d Rather Be the Devil. Two and half minutes in, though, it collapses into a freeform dialogue between Bobby Keyes’ unusually tender and lyrical saxophone and Danny Thompson’s bass, with Steve Winwood adding atmospheric keyboards and Kabaka punctuating the track with outbursts of astonishing power on the drums. Then out of nowhere, six minutes in, Martyn – off-mic but getting closer – roars ‘Love!’ and the track’s vocal passage reveals the song as what it is: an 8-minute exploration of the idea of love, the conceptual and musical centrepiece of a record that takes love as its very subject. It’s quite a moment. The 18-minute version that opens his Live at Leeds album from 1977 is, if it’s possible, even more astonishing.

Make No Mistake and So Much in Love With You continue the theme. If So Much presages the cocktail-jazz sound that Martyn would adopt for Grace and Danger in the late 1970s, it cuts deeper than the bulk of that album (strong though much of it is) by retaining its rough edges and including an edge-of-the-moment solo from Martyn. He’s such an underrated guitarist: not only a great acoustic picker and a trailblazing experimenter with loops and delays, but a highly effective electric lead player too. Tell Jack Donaghy the news: John Martyn’s work on electric guitar is a real-life third heat.

Make No Mistake, meanwhile, is the album’s third showstopper. It’s always dangerous to assume a performer’s work is reflective of their own lived experience, but in light of his well-documented problems with alcohol (and other substances), it’s safe to assume Martyn knew whereof he sang on this song: “Do you know how it feels / To be dead drunk on the floor / To get up and ask for more? / To be lying in the dark crying?” The song fades out, and back in again, and out again, as the band embark on another jam, the snatches we hear every bit as compelling as those elsewhere on the record. It’s a spine-chilling moment.

Wilfully eclectic and free-ranging, Inside Out only feels coherent as an album when you get to know it. Its unity is in concept and attitude, not in the sonics or the arrangements from track to track. But when you do come to know it well, few albums are as rewarding.

I should admit that hearing Martyn’s “classic trilogy” of albums backwards has surely impacted the esteem I hold them in; I’m sure I’d have got far more out of Bless the Weather if I’d heard it first (veteran Martyn fans reading this will note that I didn’t mention Bless the Weather above when I described Solid Air and Inside Out as two sides of the same coin). As it was, instead of having my mind blown by Glistening Glyndebourne, I heard it as a slightly weak-brew warm-up for Outside In from two years later. A record containing songs as good as Bless the Weather and Head and Heart deserves better from me, but it’s really a tribute to the power of those later records. If you’re a Martyn newbie, do yourself a favour and listen to Bless the Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out in chronological order. But remember when you’re listening to I Don’t Want to Know that, hard as it may be to credit, the best stuff is yet to come.

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John Martyn, early 1970s

The White Album – The Beatles

Yesterday evening I caught up with my friend Yo Zushi on the phone. As usual, we went through a bunch of subjects: jazz harmony, songwriting processes, logistical stuff related to this. But the bit of the conversation that got me thinking the most was about the creepy atmosphere of certain late sixties’ artists, particularly the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We talked about the White Album and discussed that thorny old issue: would it have been better as a single record?

For me, the answer’s no. There are, to be sure, a lot of albums that are simply too long, that could have done with a few songs being removed and the remaining edited somewhat to trim their running times. The bloat of the late CD era (roughly c.1998 to c.2005) is a well documented phenomenon, caused by the slow realisation that the technical deficiencies of vinyl no longer applied and so running times didn’t need to be kept to around 22 minutes a side. People stopped making albums as if the delivery medium would be the LP, and simply filled the CDs up. Probably most music fans can think of a bunch of albums from that era that just feel bloated and distended, particularly hip-hop/R&B fans; Yo and I spoke particularly about R.E.M.’s Up, which we both agree is their final interesting album, with a bunch of strong, atmospheric, slightly loungey songs that did something that was new for them, and was a brave response to Bill Berry’s departure. At 65 minutes, though, it’s too much of a slog to sit through in one sitting without the attention wandering. I’d excise Lotus and Sad Professor and would be happy to have had shorter versions of most of the remaining; Airportman, Daysleeper and At My Most Beautiful are fine at the lengths they are, but why on earth is Diminished six minutes long?

Then the White Album question. Yo’s in the camp that would prefer a single-album version. I’m not. When we went through out preferred tracklistings, I concluded that I could make a case for removing 11 of out of 30 tracks, but that the record would then not have worked as a single LP in the vinyl age (it would still have been too long), and that a lot of the context that make the great songs great would be missing. To misquote Greil Marcus on Electric Ladyland, the White Album is a mess, but it’s a sprawling, fascinating mess. To take away The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (and I understand why many want to) may make the record ‘better’, but at the expense of changing what it is, its character, its shifts in mood, which combine to create one very singular mood.

The interest in listening to the White Album derives from how those songs play with each other, how McCartney’s raucous Birthday is succeeded by Lennon’s despairing (or faux-despairing) gutbucket Yer Blues, which in turn gives away to McCartney’s solo acoustic Mother Nature’s Son, before being unceremoniously followed by Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey, with its frantic bell and babbling voices. The White Album may not be the finest demonstration of songcraft in the Beatles’ career, but it showed how expertly they constructed songs into albums.

The White Album has so many facets to it that it prompts debates between fans as to what its strongest elements are. Yo is a fan of Lennon’s acoustic fingerpicking songs, written during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh: Dear Prudence and Julia. Both songs have pretty big reputations, Prudence’s at least partly based on the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover. I don’t care that much for either of them. The slippery, elusive Lennon of Happiness is a Warm Gun, Sexy Sadie and Cry Baby Cry interests me far more. Similarly, of McCartney’s rock songs only Back in the USSR stands up as a composition, and it’s hampered by the author’s ham-fisted drum track (recorded while Ringo was absent, having temporarily quit band and session). McCartney’s acoustic songs, on the other hand — Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird, I Will, Martha My Dear — are all beautiful little miniatures, with all of his talent for expressive, expansive melody intact. Blackbird may be a weighty metaphor, and Martha My Dear may start out being about a sheepdog and end up being about nothing at all, but all these songs share a lightness of touch that’s completely disarming. (Junk, which appeared on McCartney’s first solo album, was demoed at this time too, and is almost impossibly lovely. I wish it had made the cut).

Which leaves George Harrison to encapsulate the White Album issue. He has four songs on the record, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. He never wrote anything better than the hushed, devotional Long Long Long; he never wrote anything worse than Piggies, which is without a single redeeming feature. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is ponderous, and hampered by El Clappo’s deep-as-a-puddle ‘blues’ guitar, but it succeeds on the strength of its chorus, and certain live versions down the years have caught fire and shown the song’s underlying robustness; Savoy Truffle (about, rather than featuring, Eric Clapton) would be the worst entry in his Beatles songbook if Piggies hadn’t got there first. Played four: won two (one by a whisker); lost two, ignominiously.

Ultimately the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with the White Album. In the iPod playlist era, with any amount of alternate versions and demos available, we can all create our own favoured White Album (or Smile, or whatever), but I can’t believe any other tracklisting could create the fragile spell the unedited White Album weaves over the course of 94 minutes. And if the concluding trio of Cry Baby Cry, Revolution 9 and Good Night don’t leave you feeling a wordless, inexpressible panic and leave you looking over your shoulder into the shadows in the corner of the room, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

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You know who these people are and which one’s which, don’t you? Good.