Tag Archives: LA

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 at 20

I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.

DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.

It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.

Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.

Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.

In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).

For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the grandest, most Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.

From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.

Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.

Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.

For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a  piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.

LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**

At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.

Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.

I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).

Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)

I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:

This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.

Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.

There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.

Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.

Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.

The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.

Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work.

Despite this, I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there are four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-esque experience.

ADW Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.

*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8 the song, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark the end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.

  1. Son of Sam
  2. Everything Reminds Me of Her
  3. Everything Means Nothing to Me
  4. LA
  5. Stupidity Tries
  6. Figure 8
  7. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
  8. Color Bars
  9. Happiness/The Gondola Man
  10. Pretty Mary K
  11. I Better Be Quiet Now
  12. Can’t Make a Sound
  13. Bye

**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.

***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.

****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

 

 

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

I rather enjoyed the BBC’s two-part series on yacht rock, broadcast over consecutive Friday nights recently on BBC Four.

Katie Puckrik was an engaging presenter, and while her insights weren’t massively original (the argument that America turned away from let’s-change-the-world music to songs of comfort and consolation in response to the failure of the counterculture, the election of Nixon and, a bit further down the line, the 1973 oil crisis is one many critics have advanced before, not least Barney Hoskyns, who was one of the interviewees), I’d not argue with anything she said over the course of the two episodes. And if the director overdid it a bit with the golden-hour lighting, the soft focus and the slow-mo montages of Puckrik roller skating, at least the films had an aesthetic (so few music documentaries do).

What I wanted to talk about was the validity of the genre label “yacht rock” itself, as fully 15 years after it was coined, there still seems to be some resistance to it. In the documentary, the talking head most aggrieved by the term was Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who still appears quite offended by the label and the Yacht Rock IFC show that gave rise to the term in the first place (“it started with the bad YouTube thing”).

That there was a seam of music that played as pop but consisted of equal parts white rock and black R&B influences seems to me entirely self-evident. That a lot of it was made in the same LA studios by the same musicians is unarguable point of fact. That in the digital age, as an act of librarianship, music fans should choose to categorise this music together after the fact is also, to me anyway, completely unobjectionable.

The name that was settled on commented upon the music’s well-upholstered lushness and its semi-implied visual aesthetic. Which was, I guess, a little cheeky of JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair (the men behind the Yacht Rock series – Steve Lukather’s “bad YouTube thing”*), but no more than the moment Dave Godin decided to call the semi-obscure pre-disco R&B and pop that he loved “northern soul”.

Northern soul is, of course, the defining instance of after-the-fact genrefication in pop music. The “north” in question wasn’t even in the country where that stuff was written and recorded. The term gained traction in the UK because it filled a linguistic need felt keenly by the people who loved that music and didn’t have a satisfactory name for it. All neologisms take off because they fill a gap in the lexicon; to fight that is a losing battle. The same is now true of “yacht rock” – fans, critics and professors who would be baffled by a reference to Koko’s lucky harpoon have all adopted it as a useful shorthand without knowing where it came from.

The thing that’s a little unfortunate is that Lukather seems to feel (as I think some of his peers have too) that it’s being used a term of ridicule. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, actually. Yeah, the original films were knowingly ridiculous, but their deliberate amateurism and shaggy-dog origin stories for songs like Rosanna and What a Fool Believes quite clearly come from a place of love. They satirise the music fan’s fantasy that songs are all written as very literal responses to actual situations. It’s not the actual music that’s the target of the mockery; it’s evident whenever JD Ryznar talks about this music how much he loves it.

So anyway, I’d recommend the BBC show (it’s called I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock), and if you’re curious, I’d recommend the Yacht Rock series, too. It’s great, very silly, fun.

H&O
Yacht Rock’s breakout characters: Hall & Oates

*Yacht Rock, the series, was not made for YouTube but instead premiered at Channel 101, a monthly short film festival devised by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and Rick & Morty. Harmon didn’t like Yacht Rock, but the format of Channel 101 was that the shows that got the best response got to come back in a “prime time” slot, so its creators, JD Ryznar (Michael McDonald), Hunter Stair (Kenny Loggins) and Dave Lyons (Koko), kept making more. They even got Harmon to appear in one eventually, as Doobie Brothers/Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.

Hal Blaine RIP

Hal Blaine, one of the most prominent members of the group of LA-based session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, has died of natural causes aged 90.

Blaine’s career was truly remarkable. Like the majority of the Wrecking Crew players, Blaine’s background was in jazz. He got his professional start playing with Tommy Sands, but, adaptable and open-minded enough to move into rock ‘n’ roll, Blaine began playing studio dates, and was soon the go-to guy for Phil Spector. His enormous intro to Be My Baby I’m sure you’re familiar with. OK, sure – it is to drummers what the Smoke on the Water riff is to guitarists, but it got to be that for a reason. Great music is about tension and release. That dropped backbeat on the two and the huge reverberant snap on the four is tension and release. That’s why it worked.

The keen student of Spector’s Wall of Sound that he was, Brian Wilson naturally wanted to hire the same musicians and studios as his idol had used, so before long Blaine was playing for LA’s next boy genius. It’s arguably those Beach Boys songs, particularly the ones on Pet Sounds, where you hear the best of Hal Blaine: his taste, his creativity, his avoidance of orthodoxy.

But if you’re not a Beach Boys fan, you can still hear Hal doing brilliant, innovative things in hundreds of different musical settings. You can hear him on records by Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Byrds, the Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, the Carpenters, Glen Campbell, the Mamas & the Papas, John Denver,  Sonny & Cher, the Association, Neil Diamond, Johnny Rivers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and Barbra Streisand. And that list is far, far from exhaustive. It’s tip-of-the-iceberg stuff, just what came to mind.

In interviews, Blaine always came across as a very likeable and humble guy. He spoke highly of the artists he worked with, always making a point of saying how much he learned from them playing with them all.

Farewell, Hal, and thanks.

Never Any Clapton, Part 2 – Hello by Lionel Richie

I know its hard to respond to Hello as a piece of music, leaving aside that bizarre video and the half-million or so internet memes it’s spawned, but let’s give it a go.

By the time he got the call from Lionel Richie and producer James Anthony Carmichael to come and play on Hello, Louis Shelton had a couple of decades’ experience as a prominent session guitarist and producer behind him. A member of the fabled Wrecking Crew (a loose network of LA-based players who backed everyone from Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Simon & Garfunkel) in the 1960s, Shelton moved into production in the 1970s, working with Seals & Crofts, England Dan and John Ford Coley*, and Art Garfunkel.

The Wrecking Crew musicians were a diverse bunch. Some had backgrounds in blues, R&B and country, but a lot of them (probably the majority) learned their trade playing jazz at the tail end of the big band/swing era. (As a side note, some jazz fans are critical of the widespread notion that West Coast jazz was necessarily more laid back, more Cool, than its New York counterpart, but it seems to me that there’s enough truth in it to make “West Coast jazz” a useful shorthand for non-bebop jazz in that era from LA and San Francisco). The jazz cats took with them into pop session work not only an advanced knowledge of harmony and a keenly developed sense of melody, but an ability to bring that training and experience to their playing in the moment.

Shelton’s gorgeous one-take solo on Hello is absolutely the song’s best moment, and demonstrates not only everything that had made him a such a valuable player on the session circuit, but everything that made those West Coast jazz players so sought after in the studio: taste, control, judgement and emotion. Hello is a ballad, as opposed to a power ballad, and Shelton (using not only his instinct as a soloist, but also the judgement he’d honed in the control booth as a producer) wisely stays away from anything fast, flashy or bombastic.

He begins in a rather subdued fashion in the middle of the guitar’s range, and only gently builds intensity, particularly with a double-stop triplet at the end of the second phrase. Of note to me is his natural-sounding vibrato: not classical-style (i.e. side to side movement within the fret) but a restrained up-and-down motion, not the exagerrated, BB King-type movement typical of blues and rock players. Also, he avoids any string bending – which, again, makes me think jazz more than blues. Being primarily an acoustic player using 13-gauge strings, who has only recently developed anything close to a decent string bending technique on electric guitar, I love hearing a solo that doesn’t use the technique yet still manages to be vocal, lyrical, human and all the other words that get tossed around when we discuss lead guitar and string bending.

Halfway through the solo, Shelton gives us the clearest indicator of his jazz heritage with a gorgeous Wes Montgomery-style octave melody. He deliberately slurs those octaves, sliding up into them, keeping them just a tiny little bit ragged – not so you’d notice and think it sounded untidy, but just to prevent the playing feeling too clean and robotic (that he made that decision in the moment to not only play a melody in octaves but to play it this way speaks to his experience and maturity as a soloist). He then reiterated that lovely second phrase, before returning to octaves to play an ascending lick over the change to the parallel major that leads in the chorus.

In a ballad, phrasing and melody are even more important than they are in faster or harder songs. Avoiding cliche is more crucial still. When Richie and Carmichael called in Shelton to play on Hello, they made the decision to connect the song back to the musical values of 20 or so years prior, and Shelton repaid them with one of the finest guitar solos of the era.

Louie SHelton

*Jim Seals from Seals & Crofts and England Dan were actually brothers. “England Dan” was Dan Seals, his nickname a result of his fondness for the Beatles and his subsequent affectation of an English accent. I like to think of tense dinners at the Seals household in the early 1970s, as the brothers argued over who had the better semi-acoustic soft-rock harmony duo.

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin – Carly Simon

Other than You’re So Vain and Nobody Does It Better (both of which I love, though I have a few reservations over some of the former’s more convoluted lyrics), I’d never given Carly Simon much thought until last year when Mel and I watched a Classic Albums documentary on No Secrets that a friend of mine recommended.

It’s rare that I watch one of those without my respect for the artist increasing (even Duran Duran went up in my estimation after watching the one on Rio), and Carly Simon was no exception. If I’d scoffed a bit about the idea of a Carly Simon episode of Classic Albums when none exists for Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, I wasn’t scoffing 55 minutes later. Maybe No Secrets is not After the Gold Rush or Blue, but it’s a really sturdy early 1970s pop-rock record, with three or four excellent songs aside from the obvious picks (The Right Thing to Do and You’re So Vain) that were released as singles.

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is foremost among them. Piano-led and intimate, with Simon’s gentlest vocal performance, it’s a beautiful, quiet interlude on No Secrets, which otherwise tends to be a little more grandiose. Simon’s producer Richard Perry was fond of bigness and stuffed Simon’s songs with chugging cellos, big undamped tom-tom fills and multitudinous overdubs of lead and backing vocals. Wisely, Perry let His Friends are More than Fond of Robin breathe, and Simon responded with what must be her best released vocal performance.

Even more than the arrangement, though, what’s really noticeable about the song is how stylistically at odds this kind of writing is with that practised by her contemporaries. The pre-rock reference points for most singer-songwriters were folk, blues and country, and there were also a few who dabbled a little with jazz (or more truthfully, with some of the signifiers of jazz). But His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is not jazz – rather, it’s a sort of Broadway art song (the sort of thing that Stephen Sondheim might have written, as Barney Hoskyns observed in the Classic Albums doc). That’s a tradition that, among her contemporaries in 1970s rock, only Randy Newman ever worked in, although he’s not tended to write such vulnerably romantic material to perform himself.

All of which brings up an interesting question: why isn’t Carly Simon held in higher esteem than she is among the critics, fans, writers and bloggers who’ve shaped the singer-songwriter canon if she was capable of delivering pop hits as well as something with the depth of His Friends are More than Fond of Robin? Certainly there’s an element of sexism to it, and class is definitely an issue too (Simon is the daughter of Richard L Simon, co-founder of publishing house Simon & Schuster – a fact that critics such as Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis repeatedly held against her), but on the whole I think it’s that you can’t attach an obvious narrative to her, and canon formers love a narrative.

She didn’t have a prolonged streak of artistic brilliance of the kind that gave Neil and Joni their cred, or the history in music and compelling life story of Carole King, or the doomed-outsider cool of Tim Buckley or Judee Sill. Unlike, say, Jackson Browne, she didn’t even stop having hits – through the late 1970s and all through the 1980s, every time she seemed to be done commercially, she came back again with a successful single: Nobody Does it Better, Jesse, Why (written and produced by Chic, from the soundtrack to the movie Soup for One), Coming Around Again and, as late as 1989, Let the River Run (from the soundtrack to Working Girl). She didn’t have a gigantic, era-defining album hit like Paul Simon did with Graceland, but she never really went away. Not forgotten, just simply there, in a lot of people’s homes and hearts. Not obscure, not cool, not a genius, not a beautiful loser. Such artists are all too easily overlooked when canons are constructed.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

A House is Not a Motel – Love

Laurel Canyon, a rural idyll ten minutes from Hollywood and The Strip, became widely populated after it was settled by developers in the 1920s, who built weekend and vacation properties for wealthy Angelenos intending to spend their leisure time hunting up in the mountains. Later, in the 1960s, Laurel Canyon later became a kind of countercultural centre, as the major names (and many minor names too) of the folk-rock scene bought the funky cabins that used to belong to Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Louise Brooks. Billy James, of Columbia Records, lived there. Mark Volman of the Turtles. Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, members of the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas. Even Frank Zappa.

In 1967, Arthur Lee was one of those musicians. The leader of Love, a moderately successful folk-rock band with increasing leanings towards the orchestrated and the psychedelic, Lee was a well-known, striking figure on the LA scene. The son of a black father and white mother, Lee’s very appearance set him apart in the overwhelmingly white world of rock and roll music in the mid-sixties, and his ornery personality and drug-fuelled paranoia merely added to his isolation. He spent most of his time in his house on Mulholland Drive, listening to the sirens and the traffic noise from the city below, obsessing about what the hell was going on down there.

What was going on down there was a crackdown by the police – begun in the summer of 1996 and said to have been instigated at the behest of local business owners – on the kids who hung out in the coffee shops and drugstores and on the street corners of the Sunset Strip, with a curfew instigated for kids under 18. The folk-rock scene had inherited the Strip after it was abandoned by the film stars and gangsters that had made it their playground in the 1930s and 40s, and for a while young musicians and the kids who constituted the scene mingled freely (“There was a magical quality to it,” said Billy James; “like a carnival midway,” said musician/photographer Henry Diltz). But in 1967, concerned about what looked like it might be becoming a countercultural uprising, the new Republican Governor of California – a former actor by the name of Ronald Reagan – doubled down. Police were not sparing with their use of the side-handle.

Lee, like most of his peers, was appalled and it was inevitable that his disillusionment, which coexisted cheek by jowl with his native cynicism, would find its way into his music as he convened his straggling, multi-racial band at Sunset Sound to record Forever Changes. Most of the band members were by now strung out on something or other (heroin and acid mainly, but coke probably figures too, this being Los Angeles) and the sessions did not go smoothly at first, requiring producer Bruce Botnik to bring in session players for the first couple of songs tackled during the sessions (Neil Young is said to have been involved in arranging The Daily Planet, too). It’s amazing they got the thing done at all.

A House is Not a Motel is one of the record’s more musically aggressive tracks, with a twisting, knotted tension that is only released by the duelling lead guitars that take over (both played by Johnny Echols? One by Echols and one by Lee or Bryan MacLean? – the two guitar tracks have a very similar tone, suggesting that maybe they’re two of Echols’s takes playing simultaneously). While A House is Not a Motel lacks the orchestration that is the album’s defining musical characteristic, in its mix of fingerpicked acoustic guitars, intricate drums, lyrical paranoia and screaming lead guitars, it’s quintessential Love.

It’s become part of the record’s legend that Forever Changes failed to sell in great numbers. This is partly an exaggeration; the record did stay on the Billboard chart for 10 weeks, and was a top 30 hit in the UK. Given that Love seldom played outside the Greater Los Angeles Area and band relations were so low that Lee turned down most of the opportunities the band were offered, that wasn’t a bad showing. Today, though, with its utterly idiosyncratic mix of psychedelic rock, acoustic fingerpicking, orchestral pop and mariachi brass, Forever Changes is universally regarded as a masterpiece, one of the very finest LA records and a towering achievement that casts a long shadow over everything Lee did subsequently.

arthur-lee-2

Enter a caption

Arthur Lee

Hey, Who Really Cares – Linda Perhacs

LA was crawling with singer-songwriters in the early 1970s, from the stunningly talented likes of Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill, through the foursquare and reliable Jackson Browne/JD Souther types, to the pleasant but inconsequential talents like Ned Doheny and Pamela Polland.

Laurel Canyon is the part that stands for the whole of the LA singer-songwriter scene, but Linda Perhacs was a Topanga Canyon resident, and the difference was all the difference. Physically further removed from Hollywood than Laurel Canyon, Topanga in 1970 was where Neil Young had made his home, and Young’s rather-be-on-my-own attitude epitomised the Topanga spirit. Perhacs was not a joiner or a hustler, wouldn’t have fit in among the more ambitious Laurel Canyon crowd, and indeed would probably never have been heard at all if composer Leonard Rosenman hadn’t have been a patient at the Beverly Hills dental practice where she worked.

In Perhacs’ version of the story, it was only after many appointments that Rosenman asked her what she did when she wasn’t working and, sensing she could be a gateway to the hippie community he wanted to access in order to come up with the right kind of a music for a TV project he was working on, asked to hear the songs she wrote in her spare time.

Rosenman was impressed by what he heard, particularly the song Parallelograms, and told Perhacs he wanted to make an album with her and would secure the budget needed to make it happen.

Hey, Who Really Cares appeared on Parallelograms, and became the theme for Matt Lincoln, the short-lived TV series for which Rosenman had been commissioned to provide music. It’s a stunning piece of work. In feeling and mood, it recalls the moody medievalisms of David Crosby (songs like Guinnevere, Where Will I Be and The Lee Shore) and Clouds-era Joni Mitchell; musically, the fingerpicked chords with ringing E and B strings sound a little like Love (on, for example, Maybe the People Would Be the Times and Alone Again Or). The sinuous bass guitar, meanwhile, reminds me of nothing so much as PFM backing Fabrizio de André. Perhacs’ voice is clear as a bell, often sounding like that of a cut-glass British folk singer. It’s a beautiful song, with some heart-stopping melodic twists and turns, and a wonderful arrangement by Rosenman. If Perhacs isn’t quite up there with Sill, Mitchell, Buckley, Crosby et al., she was light years ahead of many of the cowboy-chord mediocrities whose music receieved greater exposure than hers.

The hype over “rediscovered” artists can be off-putting, and their art seldom lives up to the grand claims made for it. At the time that Linda Perhacs’ 1970 album Parallelograms began to be reissued (and at this point, it’s been reissued five or six times by as many different labels), I was hyper wary – the media fad for freak folk was at its height, and I’d been left mystified by the popularity of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, and astonished at the reverence being afforded to Vashti Bunyan’s 1970 precursor, Just Another Diamond Day. So with Banhart singing Parallelograms‘ praises to the UK monthlies, it seemed wise to steer clear.

A shame. Some records, some artists, really are deserving of their reputations. I’ve chosen Hey, Who Really Cares as a representative track, but if you like it, you’ll dig the whole thing.

Clap Hands – Tom Waits

Tom Waits was an early signing to David Geffen’s first label, Asylum, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. For his debut album, Closing Time, they paired him with producer Jerry Yester, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Yester, it’s said, emphasised the folk and country elements of his music at the expense of the jazz (he has been accused of doing the same thing to Tim Buckley, with the story being that Buckley made Happy Sad the record it is over Yester’s objections). Closing Time was, then, a pretty pallid singer-songwriter record of the sort that were ten a penny in the early seventies, only a couple of songs – notably Grapefruit Moon – standing out as a cut above.

Waits’s second album The Heart of Saturday Night, recorded and produced by jazz veteran Bones Howe, was the breakthrough, the first recognisable Tom Waits album – the late-night feel, the beatnik persona, the double bass and muted trumpet, the beat poetry, and – crucially – the sly sense of humour all in place. A very strong album that still provides material for modern jazz singers (that said, I don’t need to hear another version of the title track, thanks very much), Saturday Night remains highly rated but was arguably eclipsed by Small Change, his fourth album from two years later.

His voice now more gravelly than ever (Louis Armstrong with laryngitis), Waits recorded the whole album live to 2-track tape, no overdubs – the old-fashioned way. Waits’s whole mission, it seemed, was to be in a 1940s movie, a small-time loser who coulda been a contender, complete with hat, trenchcoat, battered suit and bottle of whiskey. The problem was that although it marked him out from his Canyon Cowboy contemporaries, even in 1976 that persona was more than a little clichéd. Certainly it was leading him into a creative cul-de-sac. He lived the part so completely that he was dangerously close to coming apart: drinking too much, sleeping too little and constantly finding himself in places he shouldn’t have been with people it would have been wiser to avoid.

His songs seemed to know more about the dangers of alcoholism than he did, and it wasn’t until a year or so after he wrote Bad Liver and a Broken Heart and The Piano Has Been Drinking that he got himself clean and sober. At that point he started to move away from the extremes of that beatnik persona, spending a few years in an artistic holding pattern before re-emerging in a New York on a new label and with a new character – the disconcerting carny complete with junkyard orchestra – and eventually his second great masterwork, Rain Dogs.

Yes, Rain Dogs. Swordfishtrombones may have been his first album in his new style, but Rain Dogs is the better one, taking all the ideas suggested by Swordfish and developing them, taking them to the obvious conclusion. Swordfish tracks including Underground, Shore Leave and the title song make it clear that a suffering marimba is going to be a key part of Waits’s new sound world, but it’s Clap Hands from Rain Dogs that’s Waits’s marimba masterwork.

The arrangement is a simple one: Waits on acoustic guitar, Marc Ribot on electric lead, Tony Garnier on double bass and Michael Blair, Stephen Hodges and Bobby Previte on marimbas and various drums and percussion. Percussion instruments both found and exotic were the crucial instruments in Waits’s world in the 1980s, and few instruments are given traditional r contemporary treatments (the overtly 1980s-sounding electric guitars on Downtown Train come are shocking in their conventionality in the context of Rain Dogs – much as I like the song, I’m not sure it belongs on the album).

Lyrically, too, Clap Hands employs a simple trick. It takes the chanted nursery-rhyme vocal rhythm (and some of the lines verbatim) of The Clapping Song and refracts them through Waits’s surrealist sensibility, always resolving on the song’s title:

Sane, sane, they’re all insane
The fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame
A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame
Hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain
Clap hands, clap hands

Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime
All the way to Baltimore and runnin’ out of time
Salvation Army seemed to wind up in the hole
They all went to heaven in a little row boat
Clap hands, clap hands

If you find yourself one day in a waking nightmare world where nothing makes sense and see some children out on the street corner skipping rope, Clap Hands is the song they’ll be singing. It’s a crucial text in Tom Waits’s post-1970s work. If you respond to this – if you like the percussion, the skronky guitars and the black humour – Waits will likely be a big deal for you.

MCDWOLF EC004

 

Find the Cost of Freedom – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Consider this a late entry in the harmony series. I had it written and lying around but left it out as I’d written about these guys several times before, and CSNY seemed too obvious an inclusion in a series about harmony singing. But I’ve been reading Graham Nash’s memoir Wild Tales, a Christmas present from my dad, and found myself listening to it today as if for the first time. It really is a stunning piece of work.

In May 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of students protesting against the American incursion into Cambodia at Kent State University in Ohio. They fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. The students, needless to say, were unarmed. The shootings killed four, paralysed another and left eight more seriously injured. The US public, already polarised over Vietnam, became more divided still between those who were outraged that the state would turn its guns on its own citizens and those who thought the little punks had it coming. John Filo, a journalism student, took a photograph of a young woman called Mary Ann Vecchio (then 14 years old and visiting the campus) kneeling over the body of a dead student called Jeffrey Miller and screaming in horror. That Pulitzer-winning picture was only the most potent symbol of that divide. It was by no means the only one.

Neil Young read about the events at Kent State, and saw that terrible picture, while in the company of bandmate David Crosby. There and then he poured his disgust into a blunt D-modal outburst called Ohio: a riff, a verse and a chorus. Recorded as a band, live off the floor and without overdubs or frills, Ohio was a record too serious in its intent to bother with fripperies like ornate melody and elegant vocal harmonies, the usual calling cards of CSNY.

Ohio’s B-side was a Stephen Stills composition called Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills, a southerner with a military-school upbringing, was a more conservative figure than his bandmates. He would later suffer from delusions, fuelled by his insane cocaine intake, that he had served in Vietnam, earning himself the mocking nickname “Sarge” from his road crew. His own thoughts were, accordingly, harder to gauge.

Its presence on the flipside of the explicitly condemnatory Ohio cast Find the Cost of Freedom as a sorrowful response to Kent State, whether or not Stills had actually written it as such*. But Find the Cost of Freedom, contemplative and ambiguous where Ohio was declamatory and furious, never identifies the dead it mourns. Who is being hymned here? US troops? Vietnamese civilians? Student protestors? All three? Its power lies in this ambiguity.

I’ve said before that I’m not all that big on Stills’s work generally, preferring the Crosby & Nash duo albums to any CSN or CSNY record. But even to a Stills sceptic like me, Freedom is a tremendously powerful record. Like Ohio, it features little of the bombast and posturing that characterised CSNY’s music in 1970. Instead its simplicity and brevity are stunning. It stands on equal footing with Ohio, which is a highlight of Neil Young’s catalogue. The transition from four voices in unison to four voices in harmony**, spread wide across the stereo image, may be the most spine-tingling moment on any CSNY record.

CSNY

*In his memoir Wild Tales, Nash hints that other songs were under consideration to be on the B-side of Ohio, suggesting that Find the Cost of Freedom had been written before Kent State, though he doesn’t come out and say it in so many words.

**Recorded, says Nash, live with the four band members sitting in a square and facing each other.

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 those achievements becomes clear.

I first heard this song when 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 a startlingly 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 more 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 too 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.