Tag Archives: jazz

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil

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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.

The shuffle

I started my current job a little over two years ago, going from three days a week up to four after a few months. From next week I’m going to be working full time, which is going to leave me a little less time for blogging. I’ve got a couple of options, I think: reduce the word count and the attendant research and fact checking that goes into one of these posts (it typically takes between 90-120 minutes to put one of these together, depending on how many books I have to search through to find exact quotes and so on) or go down to one post a week. I’m a bit loath to do that, so I think slightly reduced word counts of between 300-600 words per piece is going to be a better solution (nowadays I regularly reach 1000 words for substantial pieces like the Holst thing I did the other day).

And I’ll probably just do more pieces where I just shoot from the hip about whatever happens to be in my head that day.

Like this piece to follow.

The shuffle

What is a shuffle anyway?
When you google “songs shuffles drums” or similar, you’ll come across drummer’s forums where the participants suggest a bunch of songs, at least half of which aren’t shuffles. Not even nearly. A whole discussion of the quality of Talking Heads’ version of Take Me to the River passed before someone piped up to say, Hey guys, it’s straight eights, not a shuffle.

It does bring home how slippery some of these concepts are. For example, one drummer suggested Killer Queen, so I went and took a listen, sceptically (Roger Taylor’s style tended towards stiffness). It’s an interesting case, as Roger Taylor is decidedly not shuffling. In his usual ham-handed way, he’s playing big straight quarters. The shuffle feeling comes from Freddie Mercury’s piano playing – not enough where you feel, “Yes, ah ha! A shuffle!” But enough to introduce some swing into the track.

Drummers love their complex half-time shuffles
Jeff Porcaro’s work on Boz Scaggs’s Lido Shuffle and Toto’s Rosanna, Bonham on Fool in the Rain, Bernard Purdie on Home at Last and Babylon Sisters. These are beats drummers continue to deconstruct and learn how to perform. With good reason – they’re awesome, those ghost strokes on the snare (present in all four beats) in particular.

Country would be nowhere without it
Of course, the shuffle is most associated with the blues (in a pub near you right now, some guys are cranking out Sweet Home Chicago, with varying degrees of success), but I learned all about the shuffle by playing bass on country songs and watching drummers do what I couldn’t: alternating right and left feet (bass on one, hat on two, bass on three, hat on four) while playing a shuffle rhythm on the snare drum with brushes. I’m getting there, but it’ll be a while yet before you see me playing any kind of shuffle it in front of an audience.

Motown
You might associate Motown principally with a big stomping drum style (something like Reach Out, I’ll be There, say). To which I’ll add, sure. But also: My Guy. Baby Love. Where Did Our Love Go. How Sweet it is to be Loved by You. Shuffles all.

bernardpurdie
Bernard Purdie, master of the half-time shuffle

Talking in Your Sleep – Crystal Gayle

My mum was a Crystal Gayle fan and I’ve got a nostalgic soft spot for her music. Heard at the right moment, in the right mood, her music – her voice, more specifically – can plug directly into something in me. I think she’s an amazing ballad singer who would be much more highly thought of if so many of her records weren’t quite so slick-sounding.

To appreciate her oeuvre you’ll have to be OK with a little corn, but frankly, corniness is almost the defining quality of seventies country-pop. Perhaps it’s the defining quality of country music generally. Maybe it’s only the rawness of the delivery of a Hank Williams loves song that makes certain music fans hear it as something fundamentally different to a Crystal Gayle song. Talking in Your Sleep (from the 1978 album When I Dream) is certainly a lyric that Hank would have understood.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that as the records in Nashville began to lose all their rough edges, they started to speak more loudly of opulence and expenses not being spared than of the emotion. It’s a well-worn story, but Chet Atkins, when asked what the Nashville sound was, would jingle the loose change in his pocket, with a clear implication. And for sure, the records that he (and other producers such as Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill) made with artists such as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline in the 1950s through to the 1960s played down roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel, and replaced them with massed choruses and orchestras. But they are positively skeletal compared to Crystal Gayle’s ballads in 1970s and early 1980s. (That Gayle’s oldest sister is country queen Loretta Lynn, an exponent of a much rootsier style, only makes Gayle’s place in the history and tradition of this music more fascinating.)

A song like Talking in Your Sleep, then, represents on one level the Hollywoodisation of country music. While the song reaches back into country tradition lyrically (singer lies awake watching sleeping partner, wonders if partner is in love with someone else – as I said, any worthwhile country singer from any era could sell that idea), its arrangement and production – which begins with just Gayle’s voice and string section and ends with harp glissandi – was specifically designed to cross over to a pop audience and capitalise on the success of the jazzified Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue from the previous year’s We Must Believe in Magic. Which it did, with ruthless, targeted efficiency.

That it succeeded so well is down to Gayle’s vocal and the quality of the writing. Talking in Your Sleep may be corn, but it’s very cunningly written corn, by transplanted Bristolian Roger Cook, who also wrote I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and the peerless Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart (if you’ve never Gene Pitney’s original recording, you must; it’s astonishing, melodramatic, over the top, and absolutely awesome). Producer Allen Reynolds, meanwhile, certainly knows how to cross over to the mainstream; he produced every Garth Brooks studio album from his debut up to the baffling Garth Brooks… In the Life of Chris Gaines (which was helmed by Don Was – though he probably hopes we’d forgotten that).

crystal gayle
Crystal Gayle, before her hair reached the floor

Time – Alice Peacock

One of the issues that was in the background of the piece I wrote the other day is, how original can you be as a singer-songwriter who plays piano or acoustic guitar and works with verse/chorus song structures in 2015, with hundreds of years of folk songs, over a hundred years of recorded music and 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll behind us? And if you feel the answer is, not original at all, does that matter? Should an artist strive for more than just going over the same old ground that our illustrious forebears have already covered?

It’s a question I’ve never been able to satisfactorily answer. There have been times when I’ve felt that singer-songwriters were becoming an unnecessary species, that almost everything that needed to be said had been said already, and that we may as well all pack it in and go home. That I didn’t need new records when I had all of those albums on my shelf already.

Then I hear songs that render all this debate irrelevant, songs so strong and self-contained that I stop worrying about all this.

I heard one last night. Time, by Alice Peacock.

I can tell you very little about Alice Peacock. She works broadly in the pop-rock sphere, but with elements of folk and country and jazz in there. She’s put out four records and seems to have done fairly well, as even a self-released album (on Peacock Records) like What I Am features orchestral arrangements and the services of a big-name session drummer (Jay Bellerose) and photography by the wonderful Henry Diltz. In her early going as an artist, she recorded a duet with John Mayer, which no doubt helped her profile.

Hearing a great song from an artist who’s entirely new to you is one of the finest pleasures of being a music fan. And Time is a wonderful song, possessed of grace and wisdom, a gorgeous, pensive tune, thoughtful chord changes and lyrics that achieve a sort of conversational profundity. In an interview with her that I saw on youtube, Peacock says she wrote the song very quickly after reading an article in National Geographic about time, relativity and how the light that reaches earth from stars allows us to look into the past while we experience it as the present. She talks about her she merely channelled the song, how writing it was scarcely a conscious act of creation at all. Time has that happy knack of sounding as if these thoughts are occurring to the singer just as she is giving voice to them.

When I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks. I downed tools to listen, then listened again.

The version I heard first was not the record (from the the 2006 release Who I Am), but a live recording. The arrangement on the album version – in both Peacock’s vocal and the strings – seems to emphasise the supper-club vibe inherent in the song’s chord structure, not that there’s anything wrong with that (I could easily imagine how the great Blossom Dearie might have this song). On the live recordings I’ve heard (mainly on youtube, though there is a live album), though, Peacock’s delivery is slightly different, perhaps more relaxed, knowing that she’s not in search of a definitive vocal performance. I’d still highly recommend seeking out the album cut, but perhaps the version below is the best one:

Alice peacock
Alice Peacock

Give some to the bass player, part 4 – How the West was Won and Where it Got Us by R.E.M.

Bill Berry: My favourite song is probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Mike Mills: Do I have a favourite song? […] It’s probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Scott Litt: There’s one called How the West was Won… they’ve probably talked about this.

Peter Buck: At this point in my life, How the West was Won and Where it Got Us is probably my favourite song, because we just wrote it a week ago.

These quotes are from a documentary made at the time of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Michael Stipe was unavailable for comment, presumably. I assume the question was “What’s your favourite song on the New Adventures in Hi-Fi?”, rather than a more general one about the band’s whole back catalogue, but it’s pretty clear that band and producer knew what they had with How the West was Won and Where it Got Us as soon as they’d finished it.

Mike Mills had always been crucial to the arrangements on R.E.M.’s records, particularly in their first few years (between, say, 1982-85), as he was probably the group’s most accomplished musician early on. His bass lines – whether driving (eg Carnival of Sorts) or melodic (eg Radio Free Europe) – frequently carried whole songs. He also decorated the songs with piano (Shaking Through) and was almost as recognisable a vocal presence on the songs as Stipe himself.

But it’s easier to gauge his importance in those terms than by saying which songs he wrote, as R.E.M. have never revealed too much about that. Their credits were always split equally between band members (one of the reasons they lasted 30 years as a group). Specifics of composition seldom got talked about in public. Of course, we know that Losing my Religion began with a Peter Buck mandolin riff. It was often said, and has been confirmed by Mills, that Berry was responsible for the bulk of Perfect Circle and Everybody Hurts. But who would have assumed the guitar-heavy What’s the Frequency Kenneth was written by Mills rather than Buck? Yet it was so.

But to return to How the West was Won and Where it Got Us, it’s a pretty great example of the importance of Mike Mills to the band’s sound, since he wrote and performed the main piano riff and the discordant piano solo, as well as playing bass guitar and synth on the track.

It’s a muted opener for a big record, and New Adventures was a big record. The group had just signed an $80m record contract. There’s a certain sod-you quality to leading off with something off-kilter and brooding with a piano solo inspired by Thelonius Monk, something that doesn’t sound like the average fan’s idea of what an R.E.M. record should be. This can only be applauded.

The song’s bass line is determinedly minimal, with a verse part built on just five notes, phrased to basically follow the piano and leave wide open spaces for Berry’s drum groove. Very astute. The chorus is recognisably more Millsian – it’s more legato, with more notes, almost straight eights, in fact (possibly the verse is Buck on bass; he’s miming the bass in the video).

There are other things that make it one of the finest R.E.M. tracks. The “ennio whistle” played by Berry. The intricate drum pattern (again, Berry – one of his finest moments, too). Michael Stipe’s ear-grabbing interjections at the end of each chorus – a more singerly singer might have ruined these, afraid to be so naked. Stipe just puts them out there: part shout, part cry, part whimper, and not a little bit out of tune. Yet they are crucial to the song’s success, releasing all the tension built up by the coiled music. Not so much a case of Give some to the bass player, then, as Give some to everyone.

r.e.m1996
R.E.M. circa New Adventures; l-r Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe

Long Way Down – Mary Lorson & Saint Low

Once again, I’m a little too busy with freelance work this week to put the time I’d like into the blog. Here’s a repost from around 18 months ago about a song I was listening to and enjoying earlier this week.

Distorted guitars tend to take up a lot of sonic real estate. They’re not often a great fit for songwriters whose lyrics tend towards the complicated and the wry. They haven’t been a great fit for Mary Lorson’s music since the first couple of records she made as part of Madder Rose. Since MR’s third album – the dreadfully titled Tragic Magic – when they were replaced as the main component of her arrangements by programmed beats, they’ve been almost entirely absent from her subsequent work (encompassing three records with Saint Low, one with Billy Coté, another one with Coté that was credited to the Piano Creeps, and one with the Soubrettes). The prepostorous “New Velvet Underground” tag that had been slapped on Madder Rose by certain rock critics didn’t last past Tragic Magic, and by the time Saint Low were making records in the first half of the 2000s, few were paying attention (although Lorson did manage to place songs in episodes of The Sopranos, Felicity, Alias and Skins, which may not have won her many new fans but had definite financial upsides).

This was a shame, as Lorson sounds much more at ease as a songwriter on, say, Tricks for Dawn from 2002 than she ever did with the churning guitars and drums of Madder Rose’s first couple of albums. Tricks for Dawn is low-key, jazzy and spare. Instruments are given space in the arrangements, and miked from a distance. The drums on Anything can Happen sound like they’ve been miked from the other side of the room. The hum from Coté’s Stratocaster is plainly audible whenever he stops playing for a bar or two. My own tastes run towards the dry and the close, but to everything there is a season, and this is an inviting sound, the appropriate sound, running against the grain in an era where ‘less is more’ is not a maxim that record-makers pay much heed to, a situation that hasn’t reversed in the 13 years since Tricks for Dawn‘s release.

Tricks for Dawn is not a classic record – there are a few too many songs that arrive, dwell in front of you and then depart without really going anywhere, and Lorson’s lyrics can occasionally irritate. There’s an archness to the likes of Morningless Dreamer and Friends, I Have Been Drinking (present in their titles too) that I find grating. Lorson’s songs remain obscure enough that pinning down subject and deciding whether they deserve the condescension they’re shown is often impossible .

That tone is perhaps only noticeable because of the comparative open-heartedness of the record’s finest songs. Lorson in a 2011 interview picked Anything can Happen as one of her best three songs she’s ever written, and she’s not wrong, but Long Way Down is its equal. It’s surely not a coincidence that these are the songs on which Lorson seems to have most let down her guard. When she and the guesting Evan Dando harmonise on the lines “Hold on tight to me, baby/Cos it’s such a long way down”, it’s perhaps the most magical moment on the album. Long Way Down’s two guitar solos – the second, clean solo presumably by Coté and the distorted first one by either Lorson or Dando (who is credited with “disortion and Vox organ”, providing the best clue, perhaps, as to the player) – provide, in the way of the best instrumental solos, the song’s emotional peaks and make you wish Lorson had been as unabashedly straight-talking all the way through the record rather than hiding behind internal rhymes and polysyllables. In these precious minutes, responding to the raised stakes, the chamber-pop backing of string section and horns rises above the merely pretty and becomes properly beautiful.

Mary Lorson b&w
Mary Lorson

*Potential listeners to this record should be aware that the horns and some of the guitar parts are noticeably sharp of the piano that provides the bedrock of most of the arrangements. You’ll need to be able to put up with this to get much enjoyment from this album.