Tag Archives: lockdown

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s decision to bring forward the release of her new album from August to Good Friday may have been motivated by altruism or a canny instinct on her part (or her advisors’) that a UK in lockdown constitutes a captive audience, desperate for new entertainment. Either way, it’s we who benefit, as it’s an excellent piece of work.

Previously, I’ve been somewhat agnostic about Marling’s music. She’s a very accomplished guitarist, writing serious and thoughtful music, with a high level of intelligence and craft on display. Yet, I’ve found her habit of adopting different accents, sometimes affecting Estuarial English vowels and glottal stops on her early work, singing with a mid-Atlantic twang since her third album and subsequently developing a vibrato strikingly similar to Joni Mitchell’s, distracting at best and annoying at worst. More seriously, I’ve sometimes wondered if Marling’s ability to mimic her heroes so accurately – I remain unconvinced that Nouel from Semper Femina is actually Laura Marling at all, and not an outtake from Mitchell’s For the Roses sung by Joni herself – is impeding the development of a genuinely idiosyncratic songwriting voice.

Song for Our Daughter doesn’t dispel these concerns, so much as beneath a crop of really strong new songs. There are four of five here that are pretty stupendously good, and nothing at all that’s a throwaway.

The album begins with Alexandra, a kind of meditation on Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving from Ten New Songs. With strummed acoustic guitar chords (I’m not sure of the tuning, but I’m guessing not standard) and a slight country-rock feel, it’s a breezy opener, but one that leaves a series of unanswered questions hanging in the air: “what kind of woman gets to love you?”, “where did Alexandra go?” and “what did Alexandra know?” Annoyingly, neither Discogs nor All Music have the credits for the record yet, but I guess producer Ethan Johns is playing drums (it sounds like him anyway). Though there aren’t many instruments in the arrangement, it’s full-sounding rather than sparse, with interest created by some runs on bass, a little bit of atmospheric Hejira-esque volume-pedal guitar and some prominent vocal harmonies.

Whoever the drummer is, he or she is on similarly great form on second track Held Down, playing double-stroke sixteenths on the hat and giving a lot of propulsion to a very cool groove. The rising-and-falling bass fits in nicely, the player using a pick and, I think, a mute, with a hollow-body kind of tone. Marling’s vocal is slightly drawly in the the verses, which isn’t a style I love from her, but the pre-chorus and chorus are so great, especially when she goes high register on the line “and I just want to tell you that I don’t want to let you down”, that I’m more than happy to live with it. It’s probably my favourite track on the album’s first side, in fact, for that moment alone. Nice harmonised electric guitar in the choruses, too.

The next track, Strange Girl, is built on a cool rhythm track: a sort of shuffle on the drum kit, with percussion overdubs to create a Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard kind of effect. Again, Marling is in drawly mode in the verses – more Lou Reed than Dylan this time; “never fit the playahn”, indeed – but again the chorus redeems it. In fact, it’s been bouncing round my head for the last five days straight.

The drum kit is present again on Only the Strong, but the song is led off by a Blackbird-like foot tap – one of several nods to McCartney on the album. Marling’s fingerpicking, on classical guitar this time, is really nice. She has great time and consistency when picking. It never sounds hurried or uncomfortable.

While I have a lot of time for the song musically, I’m less sure about what Marling is getting at lyrically here. In the press materials for the album, Marling speaks of how the songs are written to an imagined daughter:

“I’m older now, old enough to have a daughter of my own, and I feel acutely the resonsibility to defend The Girl. The Girl that might be lost, torn from innocence prematurely or unwittingly fragmented by forces that dominate society. I want to stand behind her and whisper in her ear all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself. This album is that strange whisper; a little distorted, a little out of sequence, such is life.”

In which case, should we read all the lyrics in all the songs as Marling’s lessons to a daughter, or a younger version of herself? “Only the strong survive” is a shopworn observation, one that I don’t believe is even true or helpful. Some strong people don’t survive; they get broken. Some weak people don’t just survive – they thrive. It’s not down to how “strong” you are; it’s how much life throws at you, and your ability to cope is a function not of character or strength, but of health, money, class, race, gender – everything.

To believe that being “strong” can save an individual from all the deprivations and depredations that may befall any one of us is a curiously conservative notion. Marling seems rather too intelligent to believe such nonsense, so I feel like she, or the persona she adopts for the song, has to be setting it up as an empty platitude we’re supposed to see straight through. Yet, we come up against this idea expressed in press materials and interviews that Marling is genuinely trying to impart lessons in these lyrics. The song makes me a little uncomfortable, purely because I can’t yet figure out where it’s coming from.

But let’s leave that to one side now and move on.

Blow by Blow is piano based and beautiful. The simple piano accompaniment highlight the strength of melody and Marling’s vocal, while the string arrangement, especially the high violins in the second verse, is spine-tingling. The arrangement is by Rob Moose, who’s also worked with the National, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his work here is subtler than that might imply. Marling’s atmospheric high harmonies are also effective.

The title song leads off side two. Its verses are in 9/8 time, with strummed acoustic guitar in, I think, some kind of C tuning (or G with a C bass – a tuning I’ve used a lot personally). The arrangement, featuring another great string part, simple piano and bass and drums, is once again perfect for the song – just what’s needed and nothing more. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Marling is evoking Judee Sill’s Lopin’ Along  Thru the Cosmos in the line “So you wished for a kiss from God” (compare with Judee’s “I’m hoping so hard for a kiss from God”), but then, as you might guess from the name of my blog, I’m always hyper-aware of possible quotes from Judee Sill.

Fortune is my favourite track on the album. The fingerpicking, in waltz time, is gorgeous, and there are some lovely suspensions and movement in the bass. (This live video shows what’s involved in playing it.) The lyric, with its repeated evocations of running and “unbearable pain”, is one of the record’s most poignant. Musically, it’s probably the most Joni Mitchell-derived song (like Nouel from her previous record, it’s particularly reminiscent of For the Roses), but Mitchell rarely wrote in waltz time, which does give Fortune something of its own thing, as does the string arrangement.

Beginning with an atmospheric drone, The End of the Affair (which seems to riff on the Graham Greene novel) is another track that nods at Paul McCartney’s acoustic work on the White Album and his early solo records. In fact, there’s some movement that specifically recalls Blackbird, when Marling sings “I’d let you live your life” and the guitar descends stepwise under each syllable. Again, the use of reverb-laden harmonies is hugely effective, and on the line “I love you, goodbye”, as the “aahs” rise up to meet Marling’s lead vocal at the end of the song, it’s positively spine-tingling.

Hope We Meet Again sees Marling playing with some of the same chordal ideas as The End of the Affair. In the verses she alternates semi-spoken with higher-register sung lines, in a curious range of accents, with vowels from all over the map. There’s no way around it, it’s a little distracting*, but the song is still a good one, and the arrangement – bowed double bass on the left channel, pedal steel on the right, bass guitar and drums coming in late in the song – is creative and surprising.

Closing track For You feels like the only dud on the album to me right now, more due to the arrangement than the song itself. It’s a simple descending sequence strummed on acoustic guitar, with a sung bass line. Whoever the male singer is, it’s out of tune in a way that’s like nails on a blackboard to me. The whole thing is just a bit twee musically, in a way I think some fans will really embrace, but I can’t really get on board with.

Still, nine good songs out of ten is an excellent hit rate and, while I’m no expert on her career as I’ve said, there are a few songs here – Blow by Blow, The End of the Affair, Fortune, Held Down – that seem to me to be up with the best work she’s done. The record is probably stronger in its quieter moments, although the more band-oriented tracks showcase a developing interest in rhythm and texture. All in all, I’d say it’s the best record I’ve heard by her. It’s taken a while for me to get on board with Marling’s work, but this one’s convinced me.

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*I half expect her to, Jagger-style, launch into a mockney rap about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Lockdown – end of week 1

I had some really sad news yesterday. Dr Habib Zaidi died of coronavirus in Southend General Hospital. He had been my family’s GP since we moved to Leigh-on-Sea from Maldon in 1987. He was a such a kind man, and an excellent doctor. He was 76 years old, and didn’t need to still be seeing patients at his age, at a time when a global pandemic is killing thousands every day. But, as his daughter (who is also a GP in the same practice) has said, it was a vocation for him. He felt a responsibility. I can’t really put into words how much I admire and respect him for that bravery, and how sad I am at his passing. It was his wife, also a GP at that practice (everybody in their family works in the medical profession), who first recognised the symptoms of heart failure in me, so I quite literally owe the Zaidi family my life, and this is pretty hard to process.

How is everyone doing?

Mel and I are doing OK, all things considered. We’re five days into the official lockdown here. Restrictions are manageable. We’re allowed to go outside once a day for exercise, so I’ve been going out for a 40-minute walk before work when there aren’t many people around and it’s easier to maintain a safe distance from anyone who is out jogging or walking their dog.

As of Wednesday, my established routine will be out the window, though. The company I work for is furloughing most of the staff, including me, and applying for a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme grant, which should cover 80% of my salary for the next two months, but enforce idleness upon me. I realise that compared to, say, the US the scheme in place here is a fairly comprehensive one, and one that is likely to prevent hundreds of thousands of people being laid off, including hopefully me. But still, like everything else that’s going on right now, it’s disconcerting. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do. I’ve been in my job for seven years, around five of which have been full time. I’m usually out of my house 11 hours a day, so I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands.

The NHS is running a volunteer scheme, but as I don’t have a car the roles open to me are limited. I’d basically just be calling people to say hi. Not that doing that isn’t important, but talking to people I don’t know is definitely not my strength. I’m going to look into locally based charity schemes to see if there’s anything more concrete I can do in my community.

Other than that, I’ll be aiming to finish mixing the EP I’m making with Mel and the album I’m making with James McKean, and furthering the album I started with Yo Zushi just before Christmas. It’s likely that I’ll blog more, and try to write more songs too. I want to hope that by the end of May, when the 2-month furlough period ends, the worst will be behind us, I’ll be able to go back to work and we’ll have some kind of normality again. But that’s probably hoping for too much. We’ve not had the worst of it here yet

What are you doing to help get you through this? Any films or music you’d recommend?

If a 10-minute distraction would help, 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.

 

Strange days

Well, these are interesting times to be living through. If by “interesting” we mean, scary and totally bizarre.

I’m not afraid of getting sick. Maybe I should be. I have a heart condition, after all. But I’m in good health – better than before my condition was diagnosed probably. The odds would be in my favour. And anyway, I’ve been sick. I know what it’s like to be hospitalised, to receive a life-changing diagnosis, to confront the possibilty of dying. None of that scares me.

What scares me is, what if Mel got sick, or a member of my family? What if my company can’t afford to keep going, or lays me off in the attempt to? What if this takes 18 months to subside? What if the economy is so broken by this that everything just keeps getting worse for everybody, and there’s no money left to even attempt something radical like a universal basic income? It’s the uncertainty that scares me.

The speed at which everything has changed is dizzying. Last Thursday I went on a day-long training course in Russell Square, met Mel for dinner then went to the Electric Ballroom to see Nada Surf and John Vanderslice. It didn’t feel like the world’s most sensible idea, but it was a first chance to see Vanderslice since I became familiar with his music seven years ago, and probably the last chance we’d have to see anyone play live for some months at least. As it turns out, none of us have gotten sick yet, and I assume we’re past the incubation point now, nine days on. If we were to get ill now, it wouldn’t be because we caught it in Camden.

That was the last semi-normal day. The next day, I worked from home. It was going to be a trial thing: we’d all work from home for two days either side of the weekend to see how it would work, whether we had the IT in place and so on. But things started spiralling, most of the businesses in central London sent their employees home, the panic buying started and socialising began to stop.

Yesterday I had to go into my office. Mel and I had ordered wedding invitations weeks ago, before any of this seriously kicked off. We don’t have a porch or anything, so we usually have parcels delivered to my office. I’d got a message that they’d arrived, and with rumours rife online that London was going to be put in Paris-style lockdown, with the army and armed police ensuring that no one could leave home except to buy food, I figured that it might be the only chance I’d have to pick them up for literally months.

Central London was quiet, but not a ghost town. The restaurants were mostly dead, but the bars and pubs were worryingly crowded. Some of the owners were obviously caught in a terrible dilemma: open up and maybe make money to pay staff, but encourage the virus to spread, or close and lose money, and bring forward the moment where you can’t pay staff anymore. I don’t envy them having to make that choice. But of course, some of the pubs that were crowded with beered-up lads practising no kind of social distancing whatsoever were chain pubs that were open because Tim Martin or some goon from Greene King said so. May history judge them them as harshly as they deserve. The news today that pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and gyms must all close tonight is inevitable and several days too late.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all this. It feels weird to be living through something so unprecedented in my lifetime, and I’ve not written anything about it all week, or anything about anything at all, truth be told. At the end of each day, I’ve been a bit wrung out, shattered. Bad things are happening to people I know (bad things economically; I don’t believe anyone I know has fallen ill yet), and there’s so little anyone can do to help. Everything feels… provisional. Planning ahead beyond the next day seems naive. I hope for the best, of course. But I’ve got zero confidence in the political decisions being made, so I’m braced for more restrictions, increasingly serious food shortages and a pile-up of bodies as our wonderful but dreadfully underfunded health service gets overwhelmed.

At times like these, music helps, of course. But so much of what it is to play music is about freedom, and freedom is of course what we have to sacrifice in order to beat this thing.

I hope you’re all doing OK, wherever you are. Isolation is the hardest thing of all. If you need someone to talk to and for whatever reason read my blatherings, you can email me. Use the contact form. Say hi. I’ll reply.

If a 10-minute distraction would help, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently.