Tag Archives: Mitchell Morris

Happy New Year (a clip show post)

So, we’re nearly at the end of Songs from So Deep’s first full year! I’m still finding it really rewarding to do this, the number of people finding the blog continues to grow and there are still things to talk about. So it’s looking good for 2015.

One of the things that remains really interesting to me (actually that’s a bit of an understatement) about doing this is seeing which posts prove popular. The majority of my most-read posts come from 2013, which makes sense, as they’ve been on the site longer, and as I don’t tend to write about much contemporary music (though more now than when I started), it seems natural that the posts would have a long tail. My not-very-well-written post on Bobby Caldwell’s What You Won’t Do for Love is still my most-read post, suggesting that a lot of people love this song as much as I do and can’t find much info on it elsewhere on the web.

But some posts I write that I think are an awful lot better than the Caldwell one only get a tiny fraction of the traffic. So for my last post this year, I thought I’d maybe point you in the direction of a few posts from 2014 that I thought were pretty good (by my standards at any rate) on subjects that people just don’t seem to bother Google with.

Enjoy New Year’s Eve, whatever you have planned, and I’ll see you on the other side!

Graham Nash David Crosby by, well, Graham Nash & David Crosby

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

The Persistence of Sentiment – Mitchell Morris

Turnham Green – Colorama

Summer Breeze – The Isley Brothers

You Used to Drive Me Around/review of gig at The Islington – Jon Auer*

*Jon was kind enough to link to this from his Facebook account, which was the highlight of my year as a blogger. It gets in this list on a technicality as it is in truth one of the most-read posts on this blog. But the majority of those views came from that link rather than search engine results.

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Traveler’s Song – Hem

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. But not only does their music move me more than that of probably any other contemporary record makers, its interesting to analyse on a formal level simply because of how it resists so many of the most pervasive modern writing and production tropes you find in pop, indie and mainstream rock music. So if you’ll permit me an indulgence, here’s another post on Hem. Go on, it’s my birthday on Tuesday; let me have this.

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly. On the whole, they’re more a country band than anything else, particularly on their two most well-known records (Rabbit Songs and Eveningland), but on Departure and Farewell they go back further into the history of American music, through early New Orleans jazz back to the songs of Stephen Foster, to a time before recorded music, a time of parlour songs on upright pianos. But whatever the musical form they work with on a song-to-song basis, what underpins their work is the group’s empathetic playing, the beautiful, clear-as-a-bell voice of Sally Elyson and the songwriting of Dan Messe.

Messe’s gift is for creating melodies that sound like they must always have existed. His tunes are simple and unshowy. They’re rhythmically orthodox and regular, with notes falling plainly on the strong beats. They’re built on simple chord changes of Cs and Gs and Ds and E minors. His lyrics, likewise, don’t aim to impress with wordplay and clever rhyme. Yet the emotional world he builds out of such stark materials is vast. He’s living proof of the maxim that it’s far easier to do complicated than it is to do the simple well.

There’s always been a little undertow of jazz in Hem’s sound, but the brass band/New Orleans thing really crept in on Departure and Farewell, to the point where Traveler’s Song sounds to the modern rock fan’s ear like nothing so much as mid-1970s Tom Waits. At the end of the intro, I always half expect Waits to begin growling “Well, I wish I was in New Orleans” (and am usually somewhat relieved that he doesn’t, which is strange given that I’d count Small Change among my very favourite albums). But Traveler’s Song and I Wish I Was in New Orleans definitely live in the same universe. And Waits would be proud to have written this.

A few months ago, I wrote a brief post on Professor Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment: Display of Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s. In the hugely insightful introduction, Morris outlines his concept of the “modest song”. Discussing the differences between symphonic music, opera, art song and the other kinds of “high” music of the European classical tradition on the one hand and pop song on the other, he uses the term “modest songs” as a blanket term for the pop songs of the recorded-music era and the folk and parlour songs of the 19th century and earlier. It’s a term he uses in a purely descriptive way, not as a value judgement:

We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitment as music scholars has been the strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day… The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse – they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.

Hem exemplify Mitchell Morris’s concept of the “modest song”. Traveler’s Song is far more effective in its brevity – it can be listened to in precisely two minutes – than it would be if stretched out over several verses. As it is, it functions like that piercing insight you sometimes have, the one that comes to you as if from nowhere, clears your head, cuts through the fog and tells you, This is it. This is how you really feel.

Could any statement carry as much charge or cut deeper than “I miss my home and my family”? Certainly not in popular music, where the barest and potentially most powerful statement of all – I love you – has lost some of that power through sheer repetition. There’s no wailing, no emoting, the arrangement doesn’t go for the tearducts, but it gets to them anyway. It’s something they’ve managed again and again over the last 12 years.

Hem Walden

The Persistence of Sentiment by Mitchell Morris

I picked up Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment from the new Foyles the other day. Subtitled Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s, it’s a book about some of those artists and genres of 1970s pop that have devoted followings but not critical respect; that are guilty pleasures, so to speak, even for many who do like them.

This kind of discussion is right up my street. Soft soul and disco are both discussed in the context of Barry White (and to a lesser extent Barry Manilow), as is the music of the Carpenters. Soft soul and disco are long-standing favourites of mine, and Karen Carpenter is, I think, one of the greatest singers we’ve had in the recorded-music era. The best feature of modern critical discourse around music is that having had the chance easily to get hold of any music they want – by means legal and illegal – modern rock critics are very catholic in their listening, open to anything. As a young lad, I welcomed a gatekeeper telling me that, say, Steely Dan were awful. It meant that I didn’t need to spend my own money to find that out (only later did I find out how 180-degrees wrong that assessment was and that having gatekeepers dictate what art you should or shouldn’t consume is fundamentally problematic). So while I might argue the extent to which, say, the Carpenters are still seen as kitsch or as a guilty pleasure by anybody, there was no way I wasn’t going to buy this book once I picked it up off the shelf.

Morris is an associate professor of musicology at the University of California, so his book is understandably strong on the formal analysis of his subjects’ work (you don’t get notation transcriptions of the music being discussed in much mainstream pop criticism), but what’s most impressive is the multi-disciplinary nature of Morris’s approach. He’s alive to the intersection of music and history, and how it was lived by different segments of the record-buying audience (his analysis of the social and political contexts of this music in the introductory chapter is wide-ranging and very astute), and he’s at home deploying the terminology of literary as well as musical analysis. Letting my biases out into the open for a second, this is the kind of music criticism we need. It’s a shame that this is being marketed expressly as an academic work and isn’t going to make it into the average high-street Waterstones.

I’m particularly grateful to Morris for giving us a useful term to deploy in my own work. Discussing the differences between symphonic music, opera, art song and the other kinds of ‘high’ music of the European classical tradition on the one hand and pop song on the other, he uses the term ‘modest songs’ as a blanket term for the pop songs of the recorded-music era and the folk and parlour songs of the 19th century and earlier. It’s a term he uses in a purely descriptive way, not as a value judgement.

We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitment as music scholars have been the strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day… The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse – they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.

Morris articulates this more clearly than anyone I’ve ever read, and my sympathies tend always to lie with critics who treat all kinds of art just the same, who recognise no artificial “high” or “low” distinctions between works. I haven’t finished The Persistence of Sentiment yet, but what I’ve read so far is pretty extraordinary.

persistence