Tag Archives: gospel

No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

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Sail On – Commodores

Lionel Richie’s songwriting voice is a sappy, ballad-oriented one.

You’ve learned something already, haven’t you?

For some Richie will always be beyond the pale. And it’s true that he did essentially the same thing so often that even his fans could easily get tired of it. He staked out his signature territory with Three Times a Lady, which bores me by the first time he sings “Twice”, and has continued to cover that territory for four decades. Sure, he’s released dance-oriented records from time to time, but give Lionel Richie a piano, a blank piece of paper and a couple of hours, and nine times out of ten he’ll give you a ballad. He can’t help it.

In the late 1970s, the tension between his soft, smooth ballad writing and the harder R&B leanings of his Commodores bandmates eventually led to tensions in the band, which were added to by the fact that the group’s one-time sax player and maker of synthesiser noises had grabbed the limelight for himself. So his decision to go solo was not a surprising one. But he left his band with a legacy of strong love songs. It should hardly need saying that one of those songs is Easy, a record so wonderful that I am willing to give him a free pass, pretty much, for anything else he’s done, even Say You Say Me. But I’d like to speak up in favour of the country-tinged Sail On, from 1979’s Midnight Magic.

Richie’s talent is founded upon his ability to craft simple melodic hooks, both in the piano accompaniment and the vocal melody, and Sail On is a great example of this. The dual piano-and-guitar part that begins the song is one of those immediately identifiable, “Surely someone’s thought of this before?” moments that record producers and radio programmers say nightly prayers for. But Sail On is a song bursting with inspired moments, of which the intro is just the first.

Sail On one of Richie’s most obviously country songs. Even before he took a batch of old songs and remade them with country musicians a couple of years back (2012’s Tuskegee); before, even Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with Lady, there was evident in his songs an audible country-music streak, a legacy Richie’s childhood in Alabama: “I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens … not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was.”

The harmony vocals of Richie and (I assume from the video) bassist Ronald LaPread are pure country from the outset, but as the two are singing in their lower registers, it’d be possible to miss it. When those higher voices come in (again, the video suggests these are drummer Walter Orange and guitarist Thomas McClarey, though all this may be artistic licence on the part of the clip’s director), it becomes unmistakeable. Lady aside, this was the most obvious song for Richie to dust off for his Tuskegee self-covers album*.

By the time we get to the final choruses, the song has found its way into territory that would come to be called yacht rock: smooth harmonies, horns, mellow vibes, nautical metaphors. So it’s an intriguing blend: downhome at the start and uptown-aspirational at the end.

A quick word about the performance of Walter Orange, the unsung hero of Richie’s Commodore-era ballads. His syncopated bass drum work is a key element in what makes this track (and Easy) a fusion of R&B sensibilities with country (or in Easy’s case) pop ballad writing. Whether the feel is straight eights or a shuffle, country drummer’s play one and three on the kick, pretty much. They might sometimes do the Mick Fleetwood heartbeat thing (adding a second strokes on the kick on “and” three: one, two, and three, four), or the Neil Young thing (a second stroke on the quaver after one and/or three), but the feel is straight, unsyncopated. Orange (with LaPread locked in on bass) take a less obvious route, and give the song a definite funk/R&B underpinning. When Richie went solo and he lost these guys, his ballads were never again as interesting.

commodores

*Of course, it hardly needs saying that the original version is much the superior. For a start, it doesn’t have an ass-clown like Tim McGraw singing half of it. The drummer realised he wasn’t playing a heavy metal power ballad. Most importantly, it isn’t Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life. Seriously, two voices in absolute, mathematically perfect harmony is a freaky sound. It’s not possible out in the real world. Please. Stop. Doing. It.

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Donna Summer was among the original crop of artists to sign to David Geffen’s new Geffen label, along with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Geffen was perturbed that, Double Fantasy apart, the first records by his chosen signees all flopped. This was an intolerable state of affairs; the artists had all received large advances that would now not be recouped in one album cycle, but more importantly, they had harmed the reputation of his new label in its very earliest stages. Asylum had been a boutique operation, an artists’ label (“I don’t think that every record we make is a hit or that every artist we record is going to be a star but I think that all the music we put out is very valid”, said Geffen in a TV interview); Geffen Records was about making money, and being seen by the industry to be making money.

When Summer was working on the follow-up to The Wanderer, that flop first Geffen record, David stepped in, cancelling the project and insisting that she work not with her usual collaborators, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, but with Quincy Jones instead. It may be no exaggeration to say that Summer, Bellotte and Moroder had changed the course of recorded music when they made I Feel Love, but for Geffen this was not enough. Jones’s involvement, Geffen felt, would guarantee a hit (after all, Quincy had made Off the Wall and Give Me the Night) and Summer needed a hit. Geffen needed a hit.

Recorded between late 1981 and early 1982, Donna Summer was the last record Jones worked on before commencing Thriller and tells us quite a bit about where his head was at, particularly in regard to rhythm tracks. For Thriller, Jones made use of the new drum machines that had come on to the market (his engineer Bruce Swedien namechecks the Univox SR55, but it’s safe to assume the ubiquitous Linn LM1 was in there too) as well as his first-call session drummers (John JR Robertson, Jeff Porcaro).

State of Independence got there first. The herky-jerky swing of Summer’s Jon & Vangelis interpretation foregrounds its mechanical qualities and doesn’t pretend to have been played by people. Jones:

We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song.

From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.

The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette.

Interview with Recording Engineer/Producer magazine

The question becomes, how do you add humanity, soul, to this kind of production? Fortunately Summer was adept at this kind of thing. She had done it ever since I Feel Love. Jones was moving into her territory on this tune, not the other way round.

I’d love to know if Summer handpicked State of Independence for her record. Jon & Vangelis’s original is, politely, all over the place. Anderson’s vocal is staccato, playing up the abstract, disjointed nature of his lyric and downplaying the gospel. Only in the “Sounds like a signal from my heart” does he seem to relax in his phrasing. Summer takes this as her starting point. The track’s early-days sequencing be as Brian Eno pointed out in a BBC documentary “crudely mechanical”, but Summer’s vocal is as sinuous as Pharaoh Sanders tenor solo.

But what truly puts the song over the top is the all-star chorus, described by Jones as a dress rehearsal for We Are the World: Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Jones and Swedien created the most glorious-sounding vocal texture in recorded-music history. Nothing else sounds like it. Every time, every time, I hear this song, the chorus give me goosebumps. But Summer earns the right to bring so much heavy-duty vocal power to bear in the preceding section with her own performance; there’s so much spirit and joy in her own interjection of “hey, hey” after the “holy water to my lips” line, and when she insists “his truth will abound the land”, it’s hard not to believe her, whatever you believe when the record finishes.

Not a big US hit, State of Independence did much better in Europe and still gets airplay in the UK. It deserves it. Outside of his Jackson work, it may be Quincy Jones’s finest production; outside of I Feel Love, it may be Donna Summer’s finest record.

donna summer

New recording by the author. The author cannot sing like Donna Summer or produce like Quincy Jones

Pill Hill Serenade – Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan is an unnervingly intense guy who’s made a lot of excellent heavy rock music, with his former band the Screaming Trees, with the Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions guys and with Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins. But it’s the stream of low-key, spare, acoustic solo albums he’s recorded over the years – the ones that give his voice the space to shine that it never had when it was fighting to make itself heard over the wall of guitar constructed by Gary Lee Connor and Josh Homme – that tell you the most about him as a singer. It’s on these records that you hear Lanegan’s full range as a vocalist, the rough grain of his knotted baritone, the surprising ease with which he moves up into the tenor range. He’s got the requisite technical gifts, but over the years he developed the emotional range to become a fine interpretive singer and a spellbinding singer-songwriter.

One of the chief pleasures of a Lanegan solo record for long-time alternative rock fans like me is to read the sleevenotes and see who’s guesting with him this time. Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden? Bill Reiflin from Ministry (and KMFDM, and later, surprisingly, R.E.M.)? Chris Goss from the Masters of Reality? Mike Johnson from Dinosaur Jr? Hell, even Duff McKagan, the bassist from Guns N’ Roses? All these just from 2001’s Field Songs alone, from which our chosen song today, Pill Hill Serenade, is taken.

Pill Hill Serenade has an Al Green kind of vibe to it, and there’s even a little hint of Otis Redding in there: the chord sequence, the 12/8 guitar arpeggios, the organ. It’s clearly derived from soul music, and ultimately from church music. Al could have sung this in his sweet falsetto. Otis might have built the intensity till he was stomping and roaring with preacher-man fervour. But possibly neither could have sung it with the same quiet intensity and tenderness that Lanegan does. In a career not short of fine vocal performances (Field Songs on its own offers up the sepulchral gravel of One Way Street, the wailing blues lament of Fix, and the tender Kimiko’s Dream House), Pill Hill Serenade may be his finest moment as a singer.

The song is included on his 3-disc retrospective Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 19882011, which if you’re interested in catching up on nearly 25 years of solo Lanegan, may be the place to start. Although starting at the beginning with the skeletal but riveting The Winding Sheet and working through is an equally good idea; Nirvana fans who aren’t familiar with his solo debut will be interested to hear a guest Kurt Cobain vocal on Down in the Dark and the version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night featuring Cobain on guitar and Krist Novoselic on bass*.

Lanegan
Mark Lanegan promo pic, circa Field Songs

*In 1989 Cobain and Novoselic began playing heavy blues tunes with Lanegan and Screaming Trees drummer, leadbell Mark Pickerel, mining the Leadbelly catalogue for inspiration. Where Did You Sleep Last Night was from a Jury session at Reciprocal with Jack Endino recording. It ended up on Lanegan’s solo record once the band sputtered out. Ain’t It a Shame, with Cobain singing, came out on the Nirvana box set.

Streets of Arklow – Van Morrison

Rained mega-heavily this morning. I worried for a second is was going to get in through the sash windows. The joys of an English autumn! No better time, then, to go on a sodden travelogue with Van the Man.

In 1973, Van Morrison took a holiday in Ireland, having not set foot in either the Republic or his native Northern Ireland since leaving for America after Them broke up in 1967. He had by this time released his early single, Brown Eyed Girl (which to this day is still probably his defining song, tired of it though he, and many of us, may be), he’d made his masterworks Astral Weeks and Moondance, established his critical and commercial reputation in America, gone through a divorce from his first wife Janet Planet and become engaged again, and was fresh off a long tour (which would later yield a live album, Too Late to Stop Now, recorded in Santa Monica, LA and London). So the Irish holiday was a chance to recharge his batteries after a few years of sustained activity. It certainly worked in that degree; he ended up writing the bulk of Veedon Fleece during this period, and began laying down tracks in California a month later.

Beginning with Moondance, Morrison had settled into an idiosyncratic groove, creating a sound that mixed country, gospel and soul with a strong celtic feel in lyrics and instrumentation. But the albums – fine though they are, and sometimes transcendent (check out Listen to the Lion from St Dominic’s Preview for evidence of that) – lacked just a little something of the questing, exploratory jazziness that was the essence of Astral Weeks, with the majority of the tracks being conventionally structured, relatively concise songs built on a rock/R&B rhythm section. Veedon Fleece, then, as a return to the jazz-infused, pastoral and acoustic sound of Astral Weeks, was perhaps a little unexpected, even unwelcome, for those who had come to associate Van with the commercially successful sound that he had been working with since Moondance. Of his peak-era studio records, it’s consequently the least well known, the hardest to find in record shops, and least likely to be heard on the radio.

This is the casual listener’s loss, as Veedon Fleece is a masterpiece, one that feels like an attempt to be Astral Weeks on side one and Moondance on side two, an audacious ambition if ever there was one. Its first side is perhaps the best 25 minutes of music he ever assembled (Fair Play, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man?, Streets of Arklow, You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River), and if it wasn’t for a couple of slightly pedestrian tracks on the second side, Van would have succeeded in his grand plan to bridge the two sides of his creativity in one record. As it is, his first two Warners records remain his essential must-buys, but Veedon Fleece should be on your shopping list ahead of St Dominic’s Preview, His Band and the Street Choir, Hard Nose the Highway and the rather drippy Tupelo Honey.

Veedon Fleece is perfect late-night autumnal listening, its tone accurately captured in the cover photo of Morrison sitting on the grass outside a house in the country near Dublin Bay with two Irish wolfhounds, the grass he’s sat on almost preternaturally green, the sky behind him threatening yet more rain. I picked Streets of Arklow as representative of the album’s sound, tone and lyrical themes, but could have picked anything off side A or one of a few songs on side B. If you’re not familiar with Veedon Fleece, track down a copy.

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Outtake from Veedon Fleece cover shoot, 1975

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?