Tag Archives: Joan Armatrading

Night Walker – Yumi Matsutoya

Yumi Matsutoya (born Yumi Arai, and known to her fans as Yuming) has been one of the biggest stars of Japanese pop music for forty years, having released her first single in 1972, aged 18. She’s sold 42 million records and was the first artist to notch up two million sales in Japan for an album. She continues to have hits, and to write them for other artists. Compare that to the commercial fortunes of her western equivalents (even artistic and one-time commercial giants like Joni Mitchell and Carole King) in the same span of time and the scale of that achievement becomes clear.

I first heard this song wwhen reading a thread on the I Love Music message board. Someone posted asking for recommendations for songs by jazz-inflected singer-songwriters; I guess they were thinking of stuff in the vein of Paul Simon’s late-seventies work. I’d never heard of Yumi Matsutoya, but I was intrigued to listen to a Japanese take on a Western form. It’s a very close take, too, but I’m not sure how the ILM poster heard this and thought, “Hmm, yes, jazzy”. Sophisticated, though, I’d have agreed with. The use of the orchestra suggest the influence of Barry Gibbs’s production work on Barbra Streisand’s Guilty, the steady mid-tempo rhythm suggests Fleetwood Mac (as does the use of the heartbeat kick drum pattern made ubiquitous by Fleetwood’s use of it on Dreams), there’s a bit of Boz Scaggs in there in the electric piano and soul-derived guitar licks – everything about it signified LA around 1979. That is to say, it was a live-and-in-the-wild Japanese take on yacht rock. It’s astartlingly accurate take on a form of pop music that was just beginning to recede in popularity at the song’s parent album, Reincarnation, was released. In 1983, smoothness – as exemplified by Scaggs, Kenny Loggins (pre-Footloose and post-Messina), Michael McDonald and so on – was out and the old guard were having to modernise to retain their careers as hitmakers. Few managed the transition in the US or UK as well as Matsutoya did in Japan. For all their longevity, Scaggs and McDonald haven’t sold 42 million albums.

The sound of Matsutoya’s voice is the central appeal of this for me, as it must be when the language barrier prevents me understanding what she sings. I played the song to my friend Yo Zushi one evening after a recording session, and he confirmed something I’d read about her online, that her understated and unshowy voice is rather unusual for a Japanese female singer, among whom it’s more usual to adopt a cutesy, coquettish tone or emote stridently. From some fishing around on youtube it seems that the production of her records tended to shift with the times (perhaps lagging slightly behind fashions in US and UK record making, as we have observed of Night Walker). A shame, since her songs and voice were matched well with this type of arrangement. It’s a consciously adult sound and probably would not have sold many records after the mid-eighties, but reaching to far outside their comfort zones in a bid to stay relevant rarely did veteran artists any favours. Hopefully she never tried anything too desperate and dropped the pilot or charmed that snake.

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No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos – part 1

Hi all. I’m working on some longer form pieces for various Christmas-related things, and I don’t want to reprint them here, so I find myself unable to write a standard post this morning. Instead I’d like to talk about guitar solos in series of looser posts over the next few days. I hope you’ll indulge me!

I’ve been playing guitar since 1995. I’ve got a bag of tricks that’s reasonably broad and eclectic. But I can’t play really fast and my string-bending technique isn’t what I’d like it to be, so to my way of thinking, I’m not a real lead guitarist – I’m a good rhythm player who can give you the odd solo.

I’d love to be a proper lead guitarist, to have David Gilmour’s compound-bending ability, to be able to summon up Hendrix-like pyrotechnics, to have the imagination of Tom Morello, the lyricism of Robbie Robertson, to be able to play slide like Lowell George or Bonnie Raitt. It’d be awesome.

I can’t do that stuff, but I spend a lot of time listening to great players, great soloists. Let’s talk about some of them. I’ve resisted any overly obvious choices, or any excessive fret-wankery, so they’ll be no Clapton (if I have to explain why, you’re reading the wrong blog), no Joe Bonamassa, no Satriani, no Vai, and – of course – no Yngwie Malmsteen.

1) Shutout – The Walker Brothers (from Nite Flights. Solo by Les Davidson)
Nite Flights marked Scott Walker’s return to adventurous music-making after an alcohol-sodden mid-seventies lull. He made some great records during this period, but seemingly only by accident, through his undiminished voice and a still-functioning ear for a good cover. But as a songwriter, he was becalmed.

His four songs on Nite Flights (the last Walker Brothers album), then, marked his return not just as a maker of vital music but as a writer of vital music. The Electrician is the song most predictive of his latter work, but Shutout is the ear-grabbing album opener, the statement of intent.

Other than The Electrician, about which a whole volume could be written, Scott’s songs on Nite Flights are built on the ubiquitous late-seventies disco beat, but this is avant-garde disco, post-apocalytpic disco. How else are we supposed to take the gnomic lyrics, of which few lines make much immediate literal sense (these lines include ‘Something attacked the earth late last night’ and ‘There were faces bobbing in the heat)?

Les Davidson was the guitarist given the job of playing the song’s solo. Having to make your guitar sound like Bad Things Are Happening is always a fun challenge, and Davidson takes an ear-grabbing approach. Rather than go for sheets of noise and texture (perhaps he would have done if it had been made just a year later), he instead goes for face-melting speed. He’s present at the start of the song, playing a howling, string-bending lick in the intro, with its piercing feedback-laden sustain, but it’s at 1.03 that he really makes his presence felt, with a solo so unexpected that you’re left stunned at the inappropriateness of it all. Within a few years, every single note of Davidson’s 27-second solo would be a cliche – every idea, every phrase, every legato run pounded into the dirt by overuse. But in 1978, high-gain, high-speed soloing was still novel (Nite Flights was recorded the same month that the first Van Halen record was released), and in the context of this sort of record, vanishingly rare. Obviously enjoying it, the producers (Scott Walker and Dave McRae, though I suspect that Scott took the lead when producing his own songs) push the solo proudly to the front of the mix, almost as a provocation.

Davidson went on to a stint in Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and has played guitar with Joan Armatrading, Donovan, Mick Taylor, Paul Rogers, Pete Townshend, Rumer and Laura Mvula. It’s this solo, though, that will be his epitaph.

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Scott Walker

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Les Davidson

The twelve-string guitar

Cliff Richard famously likes both small speakers and tall speakers. Good man. I can relate to that.

Ella Fitgerald loved Paris in the springtime, and she loved Paris in the fall. I understand that, too.

I love six-string guitars but I also love twelve-string guitars. And never want to have to choose between them.

True, some twelve-strings are formidably hard to play, and some twelve-strings fold in on themselves within a year or two, but a good twelve-string is a joy forever. Nothing, not even Kay Kyser’s spurs, can jingle-jangle-jingle like a twelve-string.

I’ve spent the last two weeks getting closely reacquainted with my old twelve-string acoustic for a show I played the other evening. I’ve put more hours in on the thing in the last couple of weeks than I have for several years. I’ve recorded with it frequently (including – shameless plug alert – on my new single Little Differences), but in recent years have never pulled it out to write on and seldom just for the hell of playing it.

Mistake.

Once you’ve got the hang of getting your fingers around it, a twelve-string has a magical quality. They’re so rich, so full and so resonant that they can make almost anything – even the simplest chord progressions – sound like music. Good music. It’s almost like cheating.

I don’t hear too much twelve-string on contemporary records, so picking some great twelve-string moments to talk about has forced me to go back in time somewhat. So here’s a not-at-all exhaustive list of favourite twelve-string moments from 1965 to 1983.

Little Bit of Rain – Fred Neil

Picking a favourite Fred Neil song is a nigh-impossible task, but I’ll go with Little Bit of Rain to illustrate how the added depth and harmonic interest of a twelve-string can enliven even the simplest chord sequence.

Buzzin’ Fly – Tim Buckley

Around the time of Happy Sad, Buckley was borrowing a fair amount of Fred Neil’s shtick. This included using a twelve-string guitar. Somehow a six-string just would not have been bright enough to convey the joy animating every last second of Buzzin’ Fly.

Love and Affection – Joan Armatrading

Twelve-string arpeggios, smoky folk-jazz ambience, a saxophone solo and Detective Lester Freamon on backing vocals.

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

The greatest song Paul Westerberg ever wrote. He may have been better advised to let someone else play the lap steel though.

A House is Not a Motel – Love

According to Johnny Echols, Arthur Lee didn’t play guitar on any of Love’s records except one tune on their first album, suggesting that the fingerpicking part on twelve-string that begins the songs and recurs throughout was played by Bryan MacLean (or possibly Echols himself, depending on whether any of his electric lead parts were cut with the basic takes). Anyway, it’s great. The whole album’s great. But you knew that already, right?

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Fred Neil, looking unusually cool with his twelve