Tag Archives: indie

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

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Bachelor Kisses – The Go-Betweens

I wrote about Robert Forster’s memoir, Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a piece I wrote after a few days spent revisiting the band’s music.

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

Formed in Brisbane in the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens began life as founder Robert Forster’s concept. Obsessed by rock ‘n’ roll and its history, he desperately wanted to be a musician, but he found bandmates who shared his vision hard to come by. He suggested to his closest friend, Grant McLennan, that maybe he should get a guitar and join the band. McLennan, though, was a film nut and wanted to concentrate on that passion, not become distracted by music. Not to be deterred, Forster kept working on him until McLennan agreed to give bass guitar a go.

To Forster’s delight, his friend had a natural ear for melody, quickly developing a bass style that complemented Forster’s terse guitar chords. McLennan soon started writing songs, too. Always a hard worker, he was prolific and – more so than Forster – tuneful. McLennan wrote the band’s early masterpiece, Cattle & Cane (a reflection on childhood from the point of view of a young man on a train bound for the parental home), and followed it up one album later with the first song by the Go-Betweens that sounds like it should have been a hit.

Bachelor Kisses, from 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, is built on one of those open-string tricks that guitarists love*. In the verses, McLennan shifts bass note while playing an almost-arpeggio on the open B and G strings. The implied chord sequence (C / D / G / A minor) is standard stuff, but the reliance on the open strings extends the harmony into something more like C major 7 / D6 (add11) / G / Am (add9). His vocal melody, while fairly static, avoids obvious root notes (he frequently sings yearning ninths), and is complemented by a graceful counter-melody in the chorus by the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva.

Another telling detail is the performance of Lindy Morrison. The band’s drummer was also Forster’s girlfriend, and her relationship with McLennan was uneasy and tense, yet she produced much of her most inspired work on McLennan’s songs, as on the tricky 11/4 time Cattle & Cane. Here, her decision to play the verses in half-time, only shifting to tempo for the bridges and choruses, and moving back to half-time for the middle eight, is astute and key to the song’s balance of tension and release.

Despite the efforts of producer John Brand to shine it up, Bachelor Kisses is perhaps still too skeletal to have been a genuine commercial hit in 1984 (maybe a couple of years earlier it might have been a contender), but it remains one of the great treasures of the Go-Betweens’ catalogue.

 

Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens – Robert Forster

Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens (published in 2016) is as good as rock memoirs get.

Its focus on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan is key to what makes it so fascinating. There are no shortage of rock bands built on the relationship between two key creative protagonists, but books about them tend to focus on their rivalries, disagreements and power struggles. McLennan and Forster had a period of estrangement in the 1990s, during which they made solo records and Forster lived with his new family in Germany, but the Go-Betweens didn’t break up because McLennan and Forster no longer wanted to work together. Their relationship stayed fairly harmonious all the way along, and the pair picked up again pretty seamlessly in 1999 to make The Friends of Rachel Worth. Forster, then, has no axe to grind, and his love and respect for McLennan is evident from the first page until the last.

So much so, it should be said, that he pulls a few punches. While his accounts of McLennan’s drinking and depression shed a great deal of light on his death of a heart attack at the age of 48, Forster doesn’t discuss MacLennan’s heroin use, which has been well documented elsewhere (most notably in David Nichols’s The Go-Betweens), and which may have contributed to his later physical and mental ill health. Perhaps Forster wanted to spare McLennan’s family and former partner, but it is a notable omission in a book that’s otherwise so candid.

What I loved about the book, though, and what kept me reading it more or less in one sitting on an overnight flight from Portland to London during which I couldn’t get to sleep, was Forster’s retelling of the band’s early years – their hopping back and forth from Brisbane to Melbourne to London, their alliances with like-minded Scottish indie groups Orange Juice and Josef K, their adventures in the West London demi-monde with Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party, and their struggle to ever stay on the same label for more than one album cycle. Forster brings it all alive vividly in precise but engaging prose, and shows how one good song by either of them could compensate for cold and uncomfortable lives lived in squats and Dickensian shared houses.

Forster’s a sound judge of the band’s best work, and his willingness to highlight McLennan’s work rather than his own speaks well of him, as does his his honesty in admitting to sometimes feeling envious of McLennan’s greater musical facility. McLennan was, I suppose the better melodist, and on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane his hookier songs were more natural choices as singles, but Forster was always the heart of the band, and it’s fascinating to read about the songs he wrote, and how he views his process. The passages about Forster’s relationship with drummer and former partner Lindy Morrison (who emerges as a difficult, somewhat domineering figure in Forster’s telling) are similarly illuminating.

It’s rare to find a book about a band, especially ones by musicians, that I’d recomment to a non-fan, but Grant & I is a rare exception. It’s funny, wise and humane, and a priceless look at the world of 1980s indeoendent music from a man who lived it.

 

Chemikal Underground & the Delgados

There’s a 30-minute documentary on Chemikal Underground available on the BBC iPlayer right now.

Chemikal Underground, despite its name, was not an acid-house label. It’s an indie label, formed by the members of the Delgados in Glasgow in 1994. After putting out their own single, they released records by Bis, then signed Mogwai and Arab Strap. The programme is worth seeing to get the story of how you accomplished that with minimal funding in the mid-1990s. Frankly, the Delgados worked miracles to get uncommercial and pretty uncompromising music heard – and available – across the UK and worldwide.

However, with its abbreviated running time, the documentary showed very little of the Delgados’ own music, which for me was much the best to have been released by Chemikal Underground between the label’s formation and the time it dropped of my radar, around 2004-5.

Early single Monica Webster and the group’s first album, Domestiques, suggest a band in thrall to American indie, vocals submerged behind relatively rudimentary guitar thrashing. Peloton saw the group dialing down the distortion, revealing their vocal melodies and allowing Stewart Henderson’s bass to become the band’s crucial instrument. While they still got noisy on occasion (Repeat Failure’s wind-tunnel guitars are a pretty dead-on shoegaze recreation), the album’s key track was probably opener Everything Goes Around the Water, which employed a more widescreen soundworld of woodwinds and strings, and fused multiple sections, feels and tempos to create a sort of homespun avant-pop.

The band’s third album, The Great Eastern, saw them perfect that sound, albeit by ditching a little of what had made them endearing in their early years. The band brought in an outside producer for the first time in Dave Fridmann, who’d become a big cheese in indie music after his big three late-1990s successes: Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young (the latter I see got some tepid reviews on release, but it seemed to me at the time to be enormous).

Fridmann did what Fridmann does (and I hate what Fridmann does sonically), but these were songs that were on the whole suited to the Fridmann aesthetic. The group’s songwriter/vocalists, Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward, had composed a set of long, multi-part songs geared towards a maximalist approach to arrangement, and while I’d question some of Fridmann’s mix choices, the arrangements he and the group created were magnificent, full of cellos and violas and elegiac brass. In an era where an orchestral arrangement on an indie record usually meant 200 violins straining to make the banal sound important, the Delgados’ approach (the gradual accumulation of small details to achieve a massive end result) was hugely refreshing.

With their next album, Hate, the Delgados arguably overreached themselves. At times, Fridmann’s sonics are unbelievably ugly (it’s an ear-scrapingly difficult listen on headphones, compressed and distorted beyond any reasonable endurance), but there are songs there every inch as good as those on The Great Eastern – opening duo The Light Before We Land and the title track may be the best things the band ever accomplished, and Pollock’s Coming In from the Cold has probably the album’s most appealing melodies, allied with a breezier, less claustrophobic mix. Undeniably difficult, Hate‘s insistence on avoiding lyrical cliche and embracing darkness make it worth hearing, even as its excesses make it a less satisfying record than its predecessor.

The Delgados called it quits after 2004’s Universal Audio, which stripped back the group’s Fridmann-era bombast and returned to their indie-pop roots. At that point, I stopped paying attention to Chemikal Underground, so I can’t speak to their releases in the last 15 years. But I do wish that someone involved in the making of the BBC documentary had spoken up in favour of the band’s own music, as for all the screen time given to Woodward, Pollock and the group’s yeoman drummmer/sound engineer Stewart Henderson, they were much too modest to speak up for themselves.

great eastern

Last Swallow EP – out Friday 15th June

Hi everyone. My EP Last Swallow hits digital stores/streaming sites this Friday, 15th June. I’ve already taken delivery of a batch of actual CDs, and through some means I’m not entirely sure I understand, it’s already available to stream and download on Bandcamp, even though it’s not meant to be until Friday 15th. But that’s good news for you, as you can listen/buy it now!

The EP has four songs, including two never-before-released tracks: Make it Last and Ghosts & Echoes. Make it Last is one of my occasional forays into Fleetwood Mac territory, while Ghosts & Echoes is a song I wrote around 10 years ago for my then band, the Fourth Wall, but this version is a stripped-down, guitar-and-voice recording, with some double bass from the always-excellent Colin Somervell. There are two other songs, Last Swallow and Separated by Water, which both had been available as single-song downloads on Bandcamp, but had never hit streaming sites or anything until now.

I’m really grateful to everyone who helped me with this: my partner Melanie Crew and James McKean, who sing harmonies (Mel on Last Swallow, Make it Last and Separated by Water; James just on the latter); Peter Vinten, who drew the beautiful cover art; and Nick Frater, who kindly listened to the mastered mixes to give me a second opinion.

I’ve been very fortunate that the title track has already been featured on several radio stations and podcasts. Here’s a few I’ve confirmed so far (there another five or six coming up this week, so I’ll add those links here too):

http://www.trevorkruegerfolkshow.com/

http://www.liverpoolsoundandvision.co.uk/2018/06/10/ross-palmer-last-swallow-e-p-review/

http://jpsmusicblog.blogspot.com/2018/06/new-music-from-will-turpin-sam-pace.html

Ross palmer_BANDCAMP-CMYK-page-jpeg

 

Pray for Rain – Pure Bathing Culture

At their current rate of evolution, Pure Bathing Culture are halfway to being a for-real pop band.

The Portland-based duo (they aren’t natives; they moved there from Brooklyn*) released their second, self-titled, album in late 2015 to moderate reviews. Critics seemed to prefer their first album, Moon Tides – a much more moody, textured, layered and atmospheric affair, one heavily indebted to the Cocteau Twins, Frankly I much prefer the songs I’ve heard from the new one; it’s a fool’s errand to try to sound like the Cocteau Twins, unless your singer actually is Liz Frazer. When they tried it, Pure Bathing Culture just sounded a bit twee and rubbish. And anyway, why try to recreate someone else’s already-perfected sound?

For their second album, Pray for Rain, PBC hooked up with producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Wye Oak and St Vincent among many, many others) and began to get serious. Congleton’s work sonically leaves me a bit cold. There’s something fake about the instrument sounds on all his records. Nothing sounds natural. But even despite the unlovely sonics of Pray for Rain, you have to say Congleton did a great job with these guys. The primary duty of a producer, historically at least, is to create something saleable for the record label, but the best producers are able to do this while helping the band to grow and develop, challenging and bettering themselves, and coming up with something that’s an advance on anything they’ve done before. In this regard, Congleton played a blinder.

Pray for Rain (the song, not the album) has a confident swagger that nothing on the band’s debut had. Singer Sarah Versprille is now singing in her natural range instead of half an octave above it and the effect is transformative (I can’t think of a single comparably huge one-record improvement in a vocalist. Not one). The arrangement and song structure is tight and focused, and the vocal drives the music rather than just existing within it. Daniel Hindman’s guitars are similarly emboldened – they’re still absolutely saturated in reverb, delay and all the time-domain effects contemporary indie can’t seem to do without, but the style is more idiosyncratic, less obviously derived from just one or two sources. The duo’s past musical endeavours, both in Vetiver and their early days as Pure Bathing Culture, seem a world away.

Now, when you compare them to a contemporary band that genuinely court the pop market and know how to make pop music, it’s pretty clear that Pure Bathing Culture still have work to do. Their melodies remain essentially static, and the songs don’t evolve so much as arrive, dwell in front of you and then stop. But they’ve come a long way quickly and are maybe only a record away from arriving at something really great. It’s now coming up to two years since Pure Bathing Culture was released. Perhaps that big step forward is being taken behind the scenes as we speak.

*I shouldn’t be cynical, but if you wanted to sum up the last five years in rock music in one short sentence, you could do a lot worse than “Indie band moves from Brooklyn to Portland”.

Day of the Dead, Disc One – some thoughts

Not a fan of either contemporary indie or the Grateful Dead? This series of posts may not be for you.

This week I’ve mainly been spending my time (or at least my music-listening time) on Day of the Dead, a 5-CD compilation of contemporary artists playing music by the Grateful Dead, organised and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National in aid of the Red Hot Organisation, a charity that raises money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS.

The Grateful Dead’s approach to music was wholly unlike that of most other rock bands. Sure, they could do brief and straightforward takes on their songs live in concert, but the idea that they’d go on stage and do every song exactly the way that it was on record (or almost the same but with a slightly longer solo) was anathema to them. Songs were simply vehicles for the guys to be what they were: a major nexus of American music, connecting folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and the contemporary avant garde. Their songs are hugely malleable, so the fun of a compilation like this is in seeing how all the artists involved approach the project (and guessing who are the deep fans and who’s in it for the prestige and PR).

Things get off to a strong start with the War on Drugs’s take on Touch of Grey, the Dead’s big MTV-era hit. Musically, Adam Granduciel ups the tempo by a couple of bpm and goes for that mix of mechanised-sounding live drums topped by exploratory guitar that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who connected with Under the Pressure or Disappearing from 2014’s Lost in the Dream. It’s great, and the song’s a fine vehicle for Granduciel’s signature sound, but that doesn’t stop his vocal impression of Bob Dylan being absurd.

Jim James plays Candyman straight, with a pretty evident love for the material. He transforms Garcia’s pedal steel solo into a heavily modulated fuzzathon, and sings the choruses with an audible grin. As ever, though, I could do without the omnipresent reverb haze he, along with so many bands, feels compelled to shroud his music in. I’ll never get what some people like so much about reverb.

Black Muddy River is a song from In the Dark, the same mid-1980s album that gave us Touch of Grey. On Day of the Dead, Bruce Hornsby (who played more than 100 shows with the Dead between 1988 and 1995, maintained a close musical connection with the surviving members after Garcia’s death and was part of the band when they did their farewell shows at Soldier Field in 2015) tackles the song with a specially reformed DeYarmond Edison, the group that split into Bon Iver, Megafaun and Field Report. Hornsby and (I assume) Justin Vernon sing the song beautifully, and the musicians (Hornsby most of all) play with a moving commitment and reverence. No one else involved in the record sounds as thrilled to be there and as determined to do right by the material.

Phosphorescent’s take on Sugaree, with a guesting Jenny Lewis, and the Lone Bellow’s Dire Wolf are both fine, but they both lack a little of the sly humour that is always inherent in Garcia’s delivery (a verse like “When I awoke the Dire Wolf, 600 pounds of sin, was standing at my window. All I said was ‘Come on in, But don’t murder me'” is darkly hilarious when Garcia sings it).

Morning Dew by the National sounds exactly like you’d expect. Matt Berninger’s doleful baritone is a good fit for such a bleak song. Courtney Barnett’s New Speedway Boogie has been overpraised, I think. The decision to recast half of the song in a minor key changes the melody and harmonies in a way that weakens it, though I’m sure the guys would salute the attempt to put a new spin on the song. More problematically, Barnett’s deadpan vocal takes all the fun out of the thing.

Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear does a good job with Loser, a hard song to get a handle on. Robert Hunter’s lyric is one of his most cynical and violent, and if a singer doesn’t commit to it, they’ll sound like a little boy playing at being a tough guy. Droste sings the song on the cusp of falsetto, yet I never doubt him. (That said, the song is called Loser, the implication being that for all his protestations, the guy has every chance of losing this time).

Anohni’s Black Peter, turned into orchestrated chamber music and given a typically tremulous reading, is weighed down by its own solemnity (again, the gallows humour of Garcia is missed), while Perfume Genius does an Art Garfunkel impression on To Lay Me Down. It’s as if he heard the title, asked himself where he’d heard the phrase “Lay Me Down” before, then decided to give the song the full Bridge Over Troubled Water treatment. As with Sugaree, the big-name backing singer, in this case Sharon Van Etten, doesn’t get to sing a verse. It probably would have improved matters.

Still, being as fair as I can, neither are big misses, and neither anger me. The big miss is of course Mumford & Sons’ horrific take on Friend of the Devil. Now, I wanted to like it. Honestly. I’d have been thrilled to like it, to have my preconceptions about Mumford challenged, maybe even overturned. Perhaps hearing them take on a beloved Grateful Dead song would allow me a way into their music? But no, it’s as awful as anything else they’ve ever done. I’m sure their presence sold a few more copies, and the money is going to charity, so I’m guessing that’s why they’re there. It can’t be because the Dessners like them. No one with working ears ever could.

So that’s Disc One. My picks are Black Muddy River, Touch of Grey, Loser and Candyman.

Back soon with Disc Two, where things get weird.

jerryJerry. Was he the greatest guitar player of his era? Very possibly.