Tag Archives: Jeff Buckley

The Ride – Joan as Police Woman

Joan as Police Woman’s first album came out in the summer of 2006, and was the last album I bought* while sharing a house with friends in Ladywell. A few weeks after it came out, I moved back to Southend.

Real Life is a record that’s appropriate to starting a new phase in your life; it seems to have come out of a new phase in Joan Wasser’s. The record’s key lyric (in the title track, which opens the record), “I’ve never included a name in a song/But I’m changing my ways for you Jonathan”, insists that the singer is in a new and better place.

Certain reviews of Real Life made an inevitably big deal of Wasser’s relationship with Jeff Buckley, but to view her through the prism of one relationship is reductive. Over a lifetime many things will happen to most people, and all leave their mark. Real Life is sometimes a serious listen, but it’s also cautiously joyful, playful, meditative, defiant, comforting and sexy. The world is not without  good singers, tight bands, stellar songwriters and (even now, albeit only occasionally) records that sound as good as this, but the range of emotions contained on Real Life’s songs is the album’s distinguishing feature. It’s what gives it an unmistakeable authority.

Much coverage was also dedicated to Wasser’s time playing with Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. Both at the time were still pretty high-profile artists, so it was understandable, if lazy. But her own work was substantially different to both, although Antony Hegarty guests on I Defy, an album highlight. Instead, Real Life is essentially a soul record with an indie rock sensibility, and when the two strands of Wasser’s work are intertwined so completely as to be indivisible, that’s when the album is most itself. The straightforward rock songs, Eternal Flame (not the Bangles’ one) and Christobel, hint at Wasser’s past in the Dambuilders and her time backing Lou Reed and Tanya Donelly, but Feed the Light, with its uneasy vocal harmony and squealing noises, and Save Me, with its heavy groove and half-whispered, half-yelped interjections of “Save me!”, are where the Real Life is differs from the Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae records that it may sometimes superficially resemble. And of course, both Jones and Bailey Rae have moved a long way from their starting points of MOR jazz and trad. soul revivalism respectively.

But for all this, my two favourites are the ones most obviously derived from 1970s soul: Anyone (“I’m ready to start to be ready…”) with its languorous 6/8 tempo and dominant horn chart, and The Ride, a beautiful, hushed ballad based on electric piano and the sympathetic playing of original bandmembers Rainy Orteca (bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums).

The Ride is one of those perfect songs you only get once every few years. When Wasser’s voice glides from a sleepy alto to its highest register to sing the final chorus, it’s the sound of someone throwing caution to the wind and declaring themselves. It’s exhilarating and moving and triumphant.

Real Life was a stunning record, beautifully recorded by Bryce Goggin: lush and spacious, deep and rich, competitively loud but with drums crystal clear and retaining their punch. It’s one of my favourite records of the last decade, and one I still listen to frequently now.

joan

*From Morps, the record stall in the now closed Lewisham model market
**A post about Bailey Rae’s alt. rock past and time signed to heavy-metal label Roadrunner may one day happen
***He’s played with a huge range of artists, from John Zorn and Joseph Arthur – who guests on Real Life – to Clem Snide and Charles and Eddie

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Camera Obscura @ Visions Festival, part 1 – The rant

I went to Hackney yesterday with Mel and Sara to the Visions Festival. We were only interested really in Camera Obscura’s show at St-John-at-Hackney, so ambled there late afternoon (the day started at 1pm officially), queued for wristbands, ambled up to the church, laughed at hipsters, and their haircuts and their clothes (one skinny guy at an ATM was wearing what can only be described as a circus strongman outfit. He had, natch, a waxed moustache), got some “street food” (burnt pizza for Mel and me; meatball sub for Sara), got in an unfeasibly large queue to get in the venue, and made our way in to watch the end of Jens Lekman’s opening set.

At first we went upstairs to sit, as it was going to be a long night (Lekman was on at 6.15; CO at 9.45). Possibly because of the shape of the room, the materials used in the building’s construction or the overhanging gallery, the sound up there was pretty bad. Tunes and chords were discernable, but words weren’t, so we headed downstairs to the main space to watch the Antlers.

The band – purveyors of heard-it-all-before post-rock: 8-minute songs that each have but two chords and all follow exactly the same dynamic contour, with a male falsetto vocalist that would love to be Jeff Buckley but isn’t even Jonathan Donahue – proved surprisingly popular. The room was full, the crowd was packed tight and were pretty attentive. When the band finished, the room all but emptied out.

Camera Obscura did not really draw a crowd themselves and were, in retospect, a bad fit for this venue and festival. Too old, too unhip, too bald, too fat, too tuneful, too cuddly – take your pick. Their time as anything other than a group for Belle & Sebastian fans to rally round in support of has evidently come and gone. A few hundred stragglers did make their way back in to see the group play, but a distressing amount of them were there in a not-really-got-anything-else-to-do kind of way and talked loudly and persistently through the set. Or played with their cell phones. Or danced in an attention-seeking, look-at-me dance fashion. I did ask two guys who were having a loud relationship crisis to pipe down, whereupon they seemed to leave (one of them had been standing with his back to the stage – no wonder Tracyanne Campbell looked pissed off for most of the set), but their place was immediately taken by five drunk students, including a couple of girls afflicted with conspicuous dancing disease, and there’s only so many times you can a) go to war, or b) move, within one band’s set and be paying more than scant attention to the music.

OK, so it was the end of a long, warm day, and people had been drinking. But really, that doesn’t excuse this kind of behaviour at a gig. Sure you’ve got a ticket; you’re entitled to be there. And sure, rock gigs have to be self-policing on the whole; there are no ushers (at least, not on the floor; there were a few on the gallery). But (“in my day” alert), I’m sure it wasn’t always this bad. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a worse crowd than last night’s, and it really did hamper our enjoyment of the show, to the point where I’d think long and hard about going to other one-day festivals for fear of dropping £30-£40 just for the opportunity to be infuriated by my fellow attendees.

That off my chest, I’ll be back later to talk about Camera Obscura themselves. Happy Sunday!

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis

Mathis’s reading of My Funny Valentine is a troubling record.

My Funny Valentine (like The Lady is a Tramp and You Took Advantage of Me) comes from a Rogers & Hart show called Babes in Arms. The song is sung by Billie to her lover Valentine (Val), who is all the things she says he is: funny, dopey, but sweet. She sees him as he is, loves him anyway, and tells him so, dismissing any fears he may have about their relationship or his need to change.

The long, pseudo-medieval first verse is omitted in many recordings. The classic Sinatra take left it out. Chet Baker left it out. Ella Fitzgerald, in her 1956 reading, included it, yet the tempo she took it at suggests a desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, so she could get to the good stuff, the real meat of the song.

It’s clear why Sinatra and Baker would drop it – any male performer taking the song on would have to reckon with the gender ambiguity that resulted from a lyric written to be sung by a female character:

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend,
The picture thou hast made.
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent,
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He includes the long introduction and lingers over it, glorying in the parodic courtliness of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, while the two guitarists play interweaving lines like the left and right hands of a harpsichord player, throwing in every counterpoint idea they can think of.

But sensitive as he is to sound, he seems insensible to meaning. Mathis, in his anxiety to avoid any gender confusion that might come from a man singing a woman’s song, changes the word ‘Thou’ which begins the penultimate line to ‘I’m your’ and spoils the joke; a second ago he had a dim-witted friend. Now he’s the dimwit.

It’s an awful moment. A clanger.

What’s going on here? Could any singer be that deaf to the implications of a pronoun change in a song that is specifically a woman’s song? Surely he would recognise that he had two good options available (drop the verse, or sing it as written and trust the audience would understand that Mathis was only reciting the original text), and that changing the lyric was the worst option possible?

Perhaps. Or maybe something else is going on here. Vocal androgyny was Mathis’s whole shtick as a young singer. His supple, opera-trained voice, with its bell-like purity, high tessitura and heavy vibrato, sounded feminine. It was capable of performing whatever whims he fancied, as the mood took: great leaps landing each time in the middle of the note, or sweeping legato slides up or down the octave.

He revelled in these qualities; his early vocal performances speak of a singer near-drunk on the possibilities of his instrument. Every phrase of Mathis’s take on My Funny Valentine displays his self-confidence. Indeed, the setting of the whole album (Open Fire, Two Guitars – it’s an apt title since double bass apart, all that is present in the arrangements are two jazz guitars and Mathis’s vocal) speaks to his, or producer Mitch Miller’s, absolute faith in his tone and technique, stripping his accompaniment back to the barest bones, letting the spotlight fall solely on that voice.

Still just 23 when he recorded Valentine in 1959 and (as he would remain until 1982) a closeted homosexual, Mathis may not have known precisely whereof he sang at this point in his life. Perhaps he did, but was hypersensitive to charges of effeminacy and so changed the lyrics so he wouldn’t be singing a ‘girl’s song’.

Whatever the reason, Mathis’s version, as beautiful as it is, achieves its beauty by misreading the lyric, tonally as well as texturally. He flattens the song out by approaching the music from one emotional angle only. What makes My Funny Valentine a classic, most particularly in its Sinatra/Riddle incarnation, is the way that singer and arranger acknowledge and mirror each other’s shifts in tone, from playful teasing to romantic devotion and back again. This is why Sinatra’s reading remains definitive, lack of intro verse notwithstanding.

Mathis’s reading remains an enigma. He picks endlessly surprising routes through the text in the company of his two guitarists, with note and phrasing choices that are inspired and frequently thrilling. So while his reading of the song ultimately comes over as gauche (whatever the reason), Mathis’s remains one of the very finest, and most predictive*, versions of one of the greatest songs in the canon.

johnny mathis

*With the clean electric guitars, the androgynous falsetto, the voice of almost limitless potential held back only by its limited emotional palette, Open Fire, Two Guitars reminds me almost constantly of Jeff Buckley. It’s often uncanny.

The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street to close in January 2015

When I first started playing solo acoustic gigs as an 18-year-old, one of my ambitions was to play at the 12 Bar Club.

The 12 Bar is a small (150 capacity) but rambling live music venue at the far end of Denmark Street, close to what I’ve come to think of as Google Plaza but which is, I guess, still properly St Giles Circus. It consists of four rooms, in an L shape, with the tiny live room at the back. If you were starting a music venue from scratch, you wouldn’t plan anything like the 12 Bar. The site of an old forge, it has a tiny stage (made smaller by the remnants of the furnace), a small area for punters standing (or sometimes sitting) in front of the stage, an overhanging balcony that came up level almost with the front of the stage but only sat about 15 people, and no sound insulation from the bar, which despite being in a different room is only about eight feet from the stage. Yet despite all these seeming limitations, I love it.

If you want to know how important a venue the 12 Bar is, think on this: in its 25-year history, veterans like Bert Jansch, the Albion Band, Gordon Giltrap and Peter Rowan played it. Roddy Frame, Boo Hewerdine and Robyn Hitchcock played it. Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, KT Tunstall, Damien Rice, Regina Spektor, the Libertines, Keane, Jamie T, even Jeff Buckley played there. Whether I or you or anyone else likes those artists is not relevant in this case. What is relevant is that for a couple of generations of musicians, the 12 Bar Club has been an important rung on the ladder, one which you could play knowing whose footsteps you were walking in, and as a result its warmly regarded by practically everyone who’s ever played there, folkie, anti-folkies, punk rockers and roots songwriters alike.

I’ve played it more times than I have any other venue: a bunch of solo gigs (six or seven probably – conceivably more), a few with Yo Zushi, one memorable show with Great Days of Sail (the band I was in with Yo 10 years ago), an early gig with my old band the Fourth Wall, the last-ever Fourth Wall-related show.

So I have a lot of happy memories of that place. The show where I supported Berlin-based American songwriter David Judson Clemons, which I think was the first time I played solo there. The aforementioned GDoS gig, which we packed out, the one and only time I’ve been been part of a spontaenous, unplanned encore: James McKean joined us to sing You Ain’t Going Nowhere and the on-stage crowededness crossed the line from “impractical” to “farcical”. The time when I looked up during my set and realised that TV newsreader Martyn Lewis was watching me (his daughter Sylvie was top of the bill that night), looking very serious and newsreaderly. That time when a group of very dressed-up soul music fans who’d come to watch an after-show set by Roachford caught the back end of a Yo Zushi Band set (a particularly ill-prepared one at that) and looked rather flummoxed by what they saw.

In 33 days it will be closed, a casualty of the Crossrail development. The large Enterprise rehearsal complex, across the alleyway (Denmark Place) behind the club, will close also. I don’t know whether the buildings will be demolished. The 12 Bar is part of a terrace, so if it is to be knocked down, I assume that Hank’s guitar shop next door would have to go, too. Enterprise could be knocked down without it affecting the fabric of the buildings that face on to Denmark Street though. Conceivably the property developers (Consolidated) just want a nice shiny retail outlet there and would rather the place wasn’t filled with scruffy rock’n’rollers. We’ll have to see. I’m not optimistic about the future of Denmark Street though. I suspect that rents will continue to rise and the instrument shops will bow to the inevitable. With no form of rent control in place, central London real estate is too expensive for independent retailers, even niche ones like instrument shops. Unless Denmark Street is made a conservation area like Hatton Garden (and Consolidated are obviously not keen on this), an era looks to be ending.

Andy Lowe did a heroic job programming the live music there. In the course of more than a dozen gigs I played there, the bills were always high quality and thoughtfully put together. I was never on the bill with an inappropriate act, I never saw anyone on there who wasn’t up to the job. I could say that about no other venue. He did all this while being tremendously likeable and friendly, and without wanting to take up too much of his time, I stopped for a chat with him whenever I could.

There have been rumours about this for a long while, and the 12 Bar Club’s owner, Carlo Mattiucci, has obviously been prepared and look set to move the club to a new venue. But still, this is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought gear and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

ross 12 bar
On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2004-5

ross 12 bar 14
On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2014

She Said – Longpigs

In my office, the nineties never ended. The radio’s on almost all of the time. Most of the time it’s tuned to a certain station that plays mainly rock music from the last twenty-five years, with a sprinkling of other, non-rock, things, which always sound very strange by comparison – Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax sounds positively avant-garde in the context of endless Stereophonics and U2 and Kings of Leon.

Most of this rock music is, in the end, polite. Even the fiercer-sounding bands (Nirvana, say) are somewhat neutered in this context; the huge wall of guitars of the majority of nineties rock being less likely to jump out of the speakers as something spindly and angular, the music ends up sounding somewhat samey.

But now and again a song does poke its head up and demand to be heard by virtue of sounding different. Such a song, which I’ve only heard a couple of times on this station since starting in this job four months ago but which has been a delight on each occasion, is She Said by the Longpigs.

The ambition held by Longpigs frontman Crispin Hunt in 1996, it seemed, was to have a band that sounded as much as possible like Radiohead, with whom the Longpigs toured in 1995. In the context of their later work, Radiohead’s The Bends sounds like a conventional mid-nineties rock record, but it’s worth remembering that no one else at the time was ploughing quite the same furrow as them. Yes, you could hear debts to R.E.M., to U2, to Nirvana, to Jeff Buckley, and going back further, to Magazine* and to David Bowie, but it added up to a sound that was the band’s own, which is why it was notable how much the Longpigs’ sound owed to The Bends. Vocals that jumped suddenly up an octave? Yep. Squalling, trebly Fenders? A general sense of over-caffeinated nerviness? Songs that were anthemic, bombastic and over the top, but still managed to sound genuine and personal? Yep, yep and yep.

But despite being somewhat derivative, Longpigs made a couple of great records in their short career, and She Said is the pick of them. What’s so great about it is its lack of restraint. Hunt, sounding more than a little unhinged,  yelps and screams his way through the song while the band clatter along behind him, drummer Dee Boyle’s performance being particularly inspired. I love his playing during the bridge, just before the stop, and in the last chorus and coda – it’s not showy, it’s not spectacular, but he sounds fully inside the song and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. With the success of Travis and Coldplay, this kind of messy abandon would disappear from British indie rock within a few years.

The second Longpigs album flopped, and flopped hard. Nothing more was heard of them as a band. But the cultural reach of the band’s members is surprisingly long. Of course, the most famous former Longpig is guitarist Richard Hawley, who went on to a spell in Pulp (replacing Russell Senior), before releasing records under his own name, which are pleasant, if sometimes in need of a dose of whatever Crispin Hunt was taking in 1996. Bass player Simon Stafford has played with Joe Strummer and Jarvis Cocker. But Hunt has perhaps the most intriguing post-Longpigs story: he’s now a behind-the-scenes guy, co-writing with or producing Jake Bugg, Florence + the Machine, Newton Faulkner, Cee-Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, Natalie Imbruglia, Fighting with Wire, Ron Sexsmith, even Mark Owen.

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*Longpigs could, however, claim their own post-punk influences that didn’t come through Radiohead: drummer Dee Boyle was a former member of Cabaret Voltaire