I’m hoping to finish up a short post on the late Nanci Griffith in a day or two. In the meantime, here’s something.
When The Fisher King was released, I mentioned in a post that while most of the songs on forthcoming album Mermaids were written by Yo and subsequently sent to me as voice-and-guitar recordings to build arrangements upon, there were a couple of songs that began as demos I sent to Yo for him to write melodies and lyrics.
Our new single, Wait and See, is one of these Palmer/Zushi compositions.
Wait and See started off several years ago as a song called Spring Like November. As sometimes happens with me, during the process of tracking it, I began to have doubts about its fundamental worth as a song. I liked the recording I was building on a musical level, but the actual top-line melody and lyric weren’t really all that thrilling to me. So I let it go. But I kept a rough mix of the instrumentation and actually listened to it from time to time, hoping that the dam would break and I’d get the inspiration I needed to reshape the song into something better.
It never happened, so when Yo suggested last summer that if I had any music lying around that he could write to, I should send it over to him, what was then still called Spring Like November was the first piece that came to mind.
The difference between Wait and See and Spring Like November is that Yo took advantage of the slow tempo to write something lyrically dense. At times, particularly the second verse, the vocal feels like it’s in double time relative to guitars. I really like that effect – it makes the vocal feel a little like a stream of consciousness, and moves the song away from the sad-core kind of thing it was before Yo worked on it. It also gives the song an extra rhythmic push that it lacked before, which I tried to compensate for with a double-time shaker to partial success.
A guitar solo with a bit of a country rock feel was also part of Yo’s vision for the song – originally I’d gone for something more based around the vocal melody, slow and clean. The solo we went with in the end has more of an overdriven tone for a contrasting texture, and was a good call on Yo’s part.
One interesting note is that, at this point, i have no memory of how I played the main electric guitar riff. I’m thinking it had to have been a G-based tuning with a capo on the 4th fret, but whether it was straight open G, or had a C bass, or was my favoured acoustic tuning of CGDEAD, I honestly don’t know. It was several years ago now, and I kept no notes. That’ll learn me.
Listen to Wait and See below:
Mermaids, our debut album as Watertown Carps, is out on 9 September on Rose Parade Recording Co.
It’s a bit of a cliche that an artist can be turning out excellent work – even their best work – long after everybody has stopped paying attention. An artist’s period as commercial or critical flavour of the month is short. Journalists are more or less obliged to keep finding new people and things to write about – to begin new cycles of hype generation, if you want to be a little cynical. Punters, meanwhile, find they’ve seen all the movies they want to starring this actor for a while, or they’ve heard all the songs they need by such and such an artist. Some artists may remain at the forefront of public consciousness longer than others, but they’re all subject to the same law of physics in the end. You can guess which.
This truism is just as true – perhaps more true – when dealing with the semi-popular, the quasi-obscure and the indie-famous as it is with genuine stars. Teenage Fanclub have never been a band my parents would have heard of, but they were – especially in the first half of the nineties – indie-famous in a way you probably have to have been there to properly appreciate now. Bandwagonesque in 1991 was cool, a fusion of the Byrds and My Bloody Valentine that no one else had put together in quite the same way, or pulled off quite as well.
Even by 1997, when I was began reading the UK’s music weeklies periodically, the critics and tastemakers had moved on. Before I ever heard the band, I had an impression of them as yesterday’s men – largely the result of one of David Stubbs’s Mr Agreeable columns in Melody Maker, in which he “reviewed” Ain’t that Enough, one of TF’s finest songs: “Ain’t that Enough? I’ll fucking say it is!” it began, and went on from there, accusing the band of making the same record over and over, while (gasp!) never having any proper hits.
Both of those last criticisms are true, but also irrelevant. Ain’t that Enough, heard without the performative cynicism of Mr Agreeable (which functioned as a sort of rock writer’s id, which Stubbs was surely intelligent enough to know as he was turning in his copy), is absolutely lovely, its sandblaster mastering job notwithstanding.*
That kind of critical response (not genuine hostility in truth, despite Stubbs’s column; more a sort of benign indifference) could have pretty much spelled the end for TF. Many bands would have decided that that was indeed enough, and gone on to solo careers at that point. But Teenage Fanclub never did stop, and as late as 2016’s Here, Gerard Love, Raymond McGinley and Norman Blake were still turning out tightly harmonised jangle pop as lovely as Blake’s The Darkest Part of the Night – for my money, the finest song any of the band’s members have so far written. No one knows when to the shift the harmony to the relative minor like Norman Blake.
All of which is to say that Teenage Fanclub’s new album, Endless Arcarde, has just come out. Gerard Love (author of Ain’t that Enough and many other minor classics) has now left the band, replaced by Dave McGowan (on bass, not as a writer), and former Gorkys Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs is now TF’s keyboard player. But it’s heartening that they’re still out there, doing what they do. I’m looking forward to giving Endless Arcade a spin.
*Songs from Northern Britain came out on Creation the same year as Oasis’s Be Here Now. Label boss Alan McGee, deep in his cocaine megalomania phase, was not interested in subtlely at that point of his career, if indeed he had ever been.
Not too long after the fantastic Bad Gays podcast on Morrissey (an audio essay by writer Huw Lemmey) comes a Politics, Theory, Other podcast featuring Kojo Koram and Owen Hatherley. Hatherley also wrote an excellent essay a few months ago on Morrissey’s journey from a figure on the anti-Thatcher left (a complicated, small-c conservative left) to – well, how far can I go without risking being sued? – what he is today.
I was only five when the Smiths broke up, so obviously I didn’t grow up with them, and I never got into them as a teenager, either. My loyalty was to indie music from the US. The Smiths to me lacked muscle and aggression – their music didn’t provoke that physical rush in me that, for whatever reason, I needed as a younger teen – and by the time I was seventeen or eighteen I’d formed the opinion that Morrissey was too arch, too fey, to speak either to me or for me. I liked musicians who said what they meant and meant what they said, even if as a result their lyrics were either hopelessly obscure at the one extreme or completely artless at the other. Morrissey always seemed to be hiding something behind a persona several layers deep, which he was constantly drawing attention to, inviting listeners to peel him like an onion. That was a game I was uninterested in playing.
As such, I didn’t really hear the fascination with violence in Morrissey’s lyrics that Hatherley keys in on in his essay, and neither did I hear how Morrissey’s romantic longings derived their effect – for fans at least – from the way he masked his sexuality while leaving in enough queer coding for those who knew where to look for it. I wasn’t among those who were looking, and anyway, nothing in my own childhood experience had taught me to pick up those clues. I simply didn’t need Morrissey in the way other kids did.
It was the intense identification from the fans who did need him that allowed Morrissey to shrug off the accusations of racism made against him in the early nineties by musicians including Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh and some writers in the press, most particularly the late Dele Fadele. (These – and the circumstances behind them – are well documented, so I won’t go over them again here.) Many (I would guess most) Smiths fans were (and are) instinctively anti-racist, even if not always in a considered, conscious way, and found it hard to reconcile the uncomfortable treatment of British Asians in Morrissey’s early-1990s solo material with his eighties work with the Smiths, and so took refuge in the idea that, like a British Randy Newman, Morrissey was merely adopting a character, depicting racism to critique it and satirise it.
His behaviour in the years since – his comments about the Chinese, his support for For Britain, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage, his derogatory remarks about politicians including Diane Abbott and Sadie Khan, his statement that “everyone ultimately prefers their own race” – has put him well past the point where that level of self-deception is tenable for his anti-racist fans. Peel the Morrissey onion enough and what’s revealed is just another tedious expat Little Englander, parrotting all the usual far-right talking points. The only distinguishing thing about this particular tedious Little Englander is that this one has a home in Los Angeles rather than the Costa del Sol. Lemmey, Koram and Hatherley have his number.
Here’s a new piece on a song and band that I originally wrote about on this blog soon after I started it. It’s a horrendously bad piece of writing that still gets traffic, so I’m taking it down and replacing it with this.
Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther is an unassuming record – a blend of folk rock and West Coast FM pop with lyrics from the perspective of some rustic 19th-century homesteader, played by a group that had started life as a jazz band, and sung by Tim Smith in a voice that strongly recalls Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It was released to middling reviews, with most of the positive notices coming from smaller review websites. Pitchfork, by contrast, gave it a slightly bemused 6.8 out of 10, wondering why a band that had previously dealt in “synth-age psychedelia” had retreated to mid-seventies semi-acoustic rock, while Robert Christgau named it “Dud of the Month” in his MSN column.*
But Van Occupanther connected hard with its audience. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that it was one of the big three indie rock records of that period, along with Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut and For Emma, Forever Ago, the first Bon Iver full-length from Justin Vernon. All three shared an aesthetic in which men were men, living in self-sufficient isolation in wooden cabins, thinking big thoughts and hunting for their food.** All three began to influence indie and unsigned musicians immediately.
Frankly, I had some reservations about the cosplay aspects of what these guys (and they were all guys) were all up to, and I found myself unable to warm to Fleet Foxes and For Emma, Forever Ago, not liking Vernon’s fuzzy multi-tracked falsetto, and feeling that Pecknold had constructed an impressive sound but forgotten to write any actual songs. Midlake, though, were a different matter. Yes, Tim Smith’s lyrics may occasionally have seemed like a way of avoiding having to write about the contemporary world, but the band was hot as hell, and Smith and second guitarist/vocalist Eric Pulido harmonised expertly.
Even better, The Trials of Van Occupanther included a couple of absolutely killer singles in Roscoe and Head Home.
Roscoe emerged first, a minor-key chug over which Smith builds the world of Van Occupanther while lamenting not having been born with a “more productive name like Roscoe”***. Filling the song with references to mountaineers, stonecutters, building houses and fixing roofs, and fixating on the idea of village as community – implying a contrast with an atomised, corrupted present day – Smith finally lands on what amounts to a thesis statement for the whole album:
1891 They roamed around and foraged They made their house from cedars They made their house from stone. Oh, they’re a little like you They’re a little like me We have all we need
So yeah, perhaps Midlake did set us on the road to Marcus Mumford playing stadium indie while dressed as a 19th-century frontiersman. But what makes Roscoe work is the playing of the band, which combined precision and bite (drummer McKenzie Smith is crucial in this regard: he switches frequently between hats and ride to propel the song while preventing monotony as we wait for the chorus, and his quick-handed fills avoid rock cliche), the unexpected tributaries of Smith’s vocal melody, which is instantly accessible but surprising, not quite doing what you think it’s going to, and the harmonies of Smith and Pulido, which are astutely arranged and executed.
Roscoe continues to be Van Occupanther‘s signature song, but as a huge Fleetwood Mac fan in the midst of his most intense period of Fleetwood Mac fandom, Head Home was my immediate favourite, and on balance probably remains so, even while I can see why people went crazier over Roscoe.
Head Home is the song where those FM comparisons are most justified. It has all of the Rumours-era ingredients: the Mick Fleetwood bass-drum groove, a gnarled Lindsey Buckingham-esque solo from Eric Nichelson and super-tight harmonies from Smith and Pulido (the falsetto harmony from, I think, Smith does a creditable job of recreating a Christine McVie part above the Buckingham and Nicks vocal lines). But it’s not a slavish imitation. It’s taken at a brisker clip than you’ll usually hear from the steadily mid-tempo Mac, which along with more of McKenzie Smith’s dextrous, jazz-trained fills gives it a slightly panicky, nervous energy, and it’s filled with Tim Smith’s usual lyrical preoccupations. However naively romantic and, it has to be said, juvenile a sentiment like “Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks, I’ll be satisfied” may be, it’s not something you’d get from a Stevie or Lindsey song. It’s far more akin to Robbie Robertson’s writing on Cahoots, when his idealised vision of America between Reconstruction and Great Depression became a fetish.
Its somewhat gauche lyric aside, Head Home is a thrilling six minutes because of the quality of the performances, both vocal and instrumental, and the cumulative effect of those harmonies rising above Nichelson’s surprisingly tough electric guitar during the long coda.**** Nowhere else in the Midlake canon did the band manage quite the same combination of power, melody and sophisticated vocal arrangement. It’s quite glorious.
Four years after Van Occupanther, Midlake released The Courage of Others, the band’s last album with Tim Smith as the lead singer and main songwriter. It was a more subdued affair than its predecesor, in thrall to early-seventies British folk rock (Fairport’s Fotheringay casts a long shadow over first single and album opener Acts of Man). While not containing anything as immediate as Roscoe and Head Home, I think The Courage of Others is probably Midlake’s finest moment – it’s more consistent than Van Occupanther in style and quality, and without the second-half drop-off that hobbles the earlier record.
After Tim Smith left the band, Eric Pulido took over on lead vocals and Midlake followed a more democratic model on 2013’s Antiphon. Its bigger, rhythm-section led sound retained some of the 1970s prog influences evident on The Courage of Others, but while the sound was perhaps less derivative of its influences than had previously been the case with Midlake (it’s harder to play spot-the-influence with Antiphon), it lacked any songs of the quality of Roscoe or Head Home (Old and the Young gets closest), and seemed to come and go without having much of an impact.
The group haven’t, as far as I’m aware, formally disbanded, but Pulido did release a solo record under the name E.B. The Younger, which suggests we may not hear from them again. Tim Smith shared a demo for his Harp project on his website, which is very much in the vein of his Courage of Others material, but so far no finished music has emerged. The Trials of Van Occupanther and The Courage of Others deserve a revisit if you’ve not listened to them since their release. They hold up well.
*”The prestige of this conjunction of pomo prog, alt-country, fantasy fiction and video-game narrativity is the silliest proof yet of how jaded indie’s tastebuds have become,” wrote Christgau.
**Vernon was the partial exception in that, while his lyrics were opaque (and incomprehensible to me at least without seeing them written down), he literally did the things Tim Smith and Robin Pecknold only sang about, recording his debut while living in his father’s hunting cabin, eating venison from deer he’d killed himself.
***Speaking as a Ross who has frequently been nicknamed “Roscoe”, I can assure Smith it’s not a more productive name than Tim.
****I saw Midlake in Oxford during their 2010 tour, with John Grant and Grandaddy’s Jason Lyttle supporting, and can attest that live they could work up quite a head of steam, as well as pulling off those vocals flawlessly.
I first became aware of Dan Boeckner on hearing the album he made in 2012 with Spoon’s Britt Daniel under the band name Divine Fits (A Thing Called Divine Fits). By that time, Boeckner had already been a member of Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, but since I’d been essentially divorced from and uninterested in indie rock in the noughties, he was a new name to me. The hook for me with Divine Fits, who I caught up with a couple of years after the release of their sole album, was the presence of Britt Daniel, as I was a new convert to Spoon, with a zealot’s devotion.
Daniel’s work on A Thing Called Divine Fits was good, but Boeckner’s was better. Spoon are the ideal vehicle for Daniel’s songs and voice; there’s something alchemical that happens when he sings over Jim Eno’s drumming, and Eno wasn’t involved with Divine Fits. Boeckner is a very different vocal presence to Daniel. Daniel has a wiry, edgy intensity, his nasal vocals always a little ragged, as if he may blow out his voice any moment. Boeckner has more of a conventional rock star thing going on vocally; my friend Sara, who’s responsible for my Spoon fandom, called Boeckner “that Bono guy”, and there’s something in that, something of the same messianic fervour.
After Divine Fits, Boeckner began a new project called Operators. The band released their first EP, imaginatively titled EP1, in 2014. Opening track True seemed to get the push to radio; at any rate, it was the song I heard on KEXP, and it’s one I still come back to now. The band’s mix of vintage synths, sequenced and acoustic rhythms, and passionate vocals is not especially unique – there are echoes especially of sundry DFA* productions, but also early Depeche Mode and, on EP1’s other tracks, OMD – but it’s hard to deny once everything falls into lock step, 40 seconds or so into True.
There are lots of cool production and arrangement touches, courtesy of the band’s programmer and synth player Devojka, who’s also a vocal presence in the choruses (most of the high-pitched vocals comes from Boeckner’s voice run through an octaver, an effect they duplicate in live performance) – Operators are definitely a band, with the contributions of Devojka and drummer Sam Brown crucial to the effect.
Anthemic electronic pop, worth your time.
*Although in one interview Dan Boeckner contrasted his band’s relatively stripped-down approach to LCD Soundsystem: “You don’t have to be James Murphy with $50k worth of vintage gear onstage to make something that sounds interesting.”
Well, I have to apologise for having made no progress on the last More Live Gonzos piece I was planning. Coronavirus has made this a very strange, quite stressful couple of weeks (at work, not for health reasons), and I’ve had no spare mental energy at all. I do plan to get back to it, but it may be a couple more weeks.
A few months ago, before any of us had heard of Covid-19, I recorded a couple of songs I’d written that leaned more towards indie/power pop than the kind of thing I normally do. I liked both songs and, more importantly, liked the recordings I’d made of them. They didn’t seem to fit on the EP I’m making with Mel or the album I’ve been working on forever, so I thought I’d release them as the A and B sides of a single.
The A side is called You Won’t Need to Cry. I wrote it very quickly just before new year. Mel gave me a new effects pedal for Christmas (a Leslie speaker-style modulation pedal by TC Electronic) and the song’s main riff/chord progression was pretty much the first thing I played when I sat down with it for first time. As sometimes happens when you’re playing around with ideas, it didn’t sound like a few strung-together chords – it sounded like an actual song’s intro, so I got to work.
The washy modulation effect on the guitar sounded a bit early 1980s to me, so I was thinking in those terms aesthetically, and went for a different kind of treatment than usual: a drum loop (taken from my actual live playing on Make it Last and slowed down a little), palm-muted bass and guitars, and double tracked vocals and harmonies. Mel added some extra oohs with me in the middle eight, and supplied the cover image (taken from the top of St Paul’s one night last summer).
The other song, Hard to Begin, is slightly older, written in late August last year and recorded in, I think, October or November. This one has a live drum track, quite loose and Ringo-y. I like the extended chord sequence in the verses and the general McCartney-ness of some of the changes. I guess if it sounds like anything, it’s a bit Figure 8-era Elliott Smith.
The songs are available on my Bandcamp for streaming and download (player embedded below), and you can also find them on Spotify, Google Play, Apple Music and so on.
I hope you have a chance to listen, and if you like them, please do share them.
Between the records this most reticent and enigmatic of musicians made as part of the Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star, his legacy as the master of Lynchian, gently psychedelic, neo-classic rock is assured.
Roback started out in LA’s Paisley Underground scene – a close network of post-punk bands whose response to punk was to return to the past, to mine records by the Byrds, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, the Velvet Underground and Love, as a way of moving beyond the musical limitations of much first-wave punk.
Roback was guitarist/vocalist in the Rain Parade, having already been in a band called Unconscious with his brother Stephen and Susanna Hoffs, later of the Bangles. There are traces of his later songcraft on the Rain Parade’s album Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, but it was missing something: a great voice to sing the songs. Perhaps Roback knew it, as he left the Rain Parade to form Opal with Dream Syndicate veteran Kendra Smith (a feature of the Paisley Underground was the extent to which everyone played in bands with everyone else – hence the existence of this).
During the tour to promote Opal, Smith left the band, and looking for a replacement singer, Roback called on a vocalist whose folk duo he had produced. No disrespect to Kendra Smith, but when David Roback met Hope Sandoval he found the perfect singer to bring his songs to life. To mark the break from Smith, Roback and Sandoval abandoned the Opal name, and called their revamped duo Mazzy Star.
Mazzy Star got their sound down right off the bat. Halah, the opening track from their debut She Hangs Brightly, will sound immediately familiar to anyone whose only exposure to Mazzy Star was seeing Fade Into You on 120 Minutes: strummed acoustic guitar in the key of A, drums augmented by tambourine, simple Neil Young chord changes, simple Neil Young melodies, and Roback’s slide-guitar swoops, all of them bathed in cavernous reverb*.
Halah is my favourite track from She Hangs Brightly, but it’s not the only good one. Ride It On is also great, and I’ve got a soft spot for Be My Angel, which anticipates the 6/8 swing of Fade Into You.
Which, of course, it does come back to. Fade Into You is Mazzy Star’s legacy. It has a sort of alchemy. It’s one chord sequence all the way through. Its verse is one melody line repeated four times. Its chorus is a different line repeated three times with a slightly different closing tune. It could have been written in five minutes. But that’s entirely unimportant. What matters is the tone of Sandoval’s voice. The swooning slide guitar. The hushed, almost tentative drums. The narcotic reverb that swaddles the whole song. It’s a romantic song. People fell in love to it, and in love with it.
Mazzy Star had excellent timing, and they were beneficiaries of the alt rock boom. OK, their work seldom featured the wind-tunnel distortion and aggro vocals of Nirvana, Soundgarden, AIC and the rest, but perhaps the best thing about Nirvana’s success was the space it opened up on MTV and radio for semi-popular indie bands, especially female-fronted ones, at a time when Top 40 radio programmers still argued vehemently that only one record by a woman could be in heavy rotation at one time. Fade Into You and its parent album So Tonight That I Might See emerged into a new world where people like Roback and Sandova, shy and undemonstrative people, could be successful musicians, not just indie cult figures working a day job or two to keep a roof over their heads.
After Around My Swan, released in 1996, the band wound down, with Sandoval releasing solo records and guesting on records by Massive Attack and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Roback got into production (including work with Beth Orton), moved to Norway and made arty, experimental music for installations and films. The band reformed and released Seasons of You in 2013. While the band had never worked quickly, a new record seemed more likely than not until Roback’s death from cancer was announced on Tuesday.
Hi everyone. My apologies for keeping you waiting for the next More Live Gonzos post. The last one was a pretty serious investment of time, and in the week since I’ve been busy and a bit stressed, and just not able to make time for the listening, thinking and drafting I’d need to put in to do the next one properly. So I figured I’d post about some other things in the meantime, while I try to get into gear on the next live album.
One of the things I’ve been working on is a digital-only single. My main focus over the winter has been to finish and release an EP that my partner Melanie and I are working on. The EP will be six songs, three songs each, and is basically all acoustic folky stuff: only one song features a full band arrangement. But both of us have interests across the musical spectrum, and we both had a couple of strong songs that didn’t fit the style of the EP. Rather than let them sit there for months, or years, we figured better to just put them out.
My 2-song single You Won’t Need to Cry b/w Hard to Begin will come out on Saturday 14 March. The songs are both, broadly speaking, indie-pop. You Won’t Need to Cry is a slightly mechanised 1980s kind of thing, with harmonies and doubled vocals and a lot of layered guitars. Hard to Begin is more of a McCartney/Elliott Smith type of song, with an extended chord sequence in the verse, a proper middle eight, some very Ringo-ish drums and all that kind of stuff.
It’ll be available through Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes (at least, I think so. iTunes will soon be defunct so not toally sure), Apple Music, Google Play, Soundcloud and a whole bunch of other platforms. But I thought I’d offer free-of-charge advance copies to readers of the blog, as a thank you for coming here and reading my blatherings. It means a lot that you do. If you’d like a free download code, email me through the blog or send me a DM on Twitter.
The Mel-and-Ross EP will be available shortly thereafter (I reckon April), and Mel’s single will come out not long after that.
Home-made cover art. Excellent picture taken from the top of St Paul’s by Melanie. Less-than-excellent text by me.
Well, another general election result in the UK I can’t bring myself to think about, let alone write cogently about. So, instead, here’s another piece about a little-known 4AD record. This time we’re looking at Sue, the debut album by the Frazier Chorus.
We can file this under: “Not for everyone”.
Frazier Chorus were a four-piece band when they released Sue in 1989. While that initial line-up contained a flautist (Kate Holmes, later of Technique and Client) and clarinet player (no bassist, drummer or guitarist), the band was essentially a vehicle for the songs and voice of Tim Freeman (older brother of actor Martin Freeman) and each record the band released featured a different line-up.
Freeman’s whispered sprechgesang and the band’s rather rinky-dink programmed beats and synths, decorated with touches of flute and clarinet, make the Pet Shop Boys sound like AC/DC. They sound a little like a synth-pop version of Belle & Sebastian, five years or so before the fact, and a similar bleakly cynical outlook to Jarvis Cocker in Freeman’s observational lyrics.
There’s some good stuff here. Storm, with its insistent synth cellos, is really effective; Sloppy Heart, which was Ivo Watts-Russell’s favourite and I gather was the song that got the band signed, is a neat indie-pop song; opener Dream Kitchen sets out Freeman’s musical and lyrical stall within 35 seconds (the lines “your life’s too good to be true; I think I’ll ruin it for you” was when I felt like I cottoned on to what Freeman was up to).
But some of the songs – usually the ones that gesture towards jazz or contemporaneous sophisti-pop – exist in a strange place where the combination of synths and acoustic instruments feels bland rather than exciting; the intro of 40 Winks sounds like the theme of a forgotten ITV sitcom from the mid-1980s, and Sugar High’s perky keyboard and faux-marimba is a similar low point. Over the course of 11 songs, Freeman’s limited voice becomes a bit of a problem too.
The best three or four songs on Sue are definitely worth a listen, but I’m not sure the recipe works at album length. I wonder where Ivo was coming from with Frazier Chorus. They feel like an odd fit for 4AD at the time, when the label’s most vital bands were the Pixies and the Throwing Muses, and the Cocteau Twins were just about to hit their peak with Heaven or Las Vegas. Perhaps he wanted just wanted to sign something small scale and intimate. A curio, then.
I’ve been reading Martin Aston’s history of the record label 4AD, Facing the Other Way, which in its admirable dedication to telling the whole story of the label focuses almost as intently on artists that are now rather obscure and forgotten as it does on the more notable successes. I’m going to listen to some of them and give a quick, from-the-hip appraisal, all written in one lunchtime.
First up, Heidi Berry’s self-titled album from 1993, her second on the 4AD. I’ve not heard any other records by her, and my only reference tool is the discogs listing that has given me the names of the players. Although, there was one that I could identify from his first note…
In 1993, not many artists were making records this obviously indebted to British folk rock from the 1970s. But then, few artists have been as obviously influenced by British folk rock from the 1970s as Heidi Berry.
Occasionally, this is to the record’s detriment. On For the Rose, a co-write with her regular bass player Laurence O’Keefe, Danny Thompson turns up to play double bass on what is a virtual rewrite of John Martyn’s Solid Air. I imagine the great man was a little nonplussed. The problem is, it does rather raise the question of whether Berry’s music can claim an identity of its own. I’m not sure I’d call For the Rose the album’s weakest moment, but it is the one that makes the record easiest to dismiss if you’re familiar with Martyn and the records of his contemporaries.
Elsewhere, there are fewer problems. Berry has an attractive, serious-sounding voice: a little quivery, like Natalie Merchant’s, but warm, agile and true in pitch. She sings strong harmonies with herself, with a good sense of which lines to harmonise and which to leave bare. The musicianship is very good throughout, with particular strong work by drummer Jon Brookes and pianist/string arranger Christopher Berry, Heidi’s brother. Hugh Jones’s production and mix is largely warm and intimate, with the right kind of woodiness to the drum and acoustic guitar sounds, which is vital for doing this stuff well.
Highlights for me include Little Fox, which has a lovely string arrangement, the Moon and the Sun, which is in sprightly triple-time and sounds a little more indie-pop than the rest of the record, Darling Companion (not the Lovin’ Spoonful song) and the opener Mercury, which sets out the album’s stall as one focused on relationships, but with frequent nature imagery, which I guess is the lingua franca of non-traditional folk music.
Later on, the record gets a little more ambient/dream poppy, with Follow having something of a Talk Talk feel, and Ariel sounding very much like the Cocteau Twins (did they have a song called Ariel? Surely they did) – while competently done, it’s a strange choice for a record that otherwise sounds like its been hewed from the soil.
I like this record. It’s very… likeable. It only really comes a cropper when it wears its influences a little too obviously on its sleeve, as on For the Rose. Well worth checking out if British folk rock is your thing.