Tag Archives: Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays

case/lang/veirs

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. Currently in the midst of another gruelling end-of-quarter slog

The moment on Atomic Number, the first song on case/lang/veirs, in which the singers break into wide-mixed 3-part harmony is heartstopping. After a verse of trading lines over picked acoustic guitar and lo-fi, barely-there percussion, three voices come together and time stops for a second. Harmony can do that.

case/lang/veirs – the keenly anticipated collaboration between Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs – has a bunch of moments like this; Atomic Number is merely the most breathtaking of them. lang’s Honey and Smoke has a middle eight where the rhythm of the vocal melody is so cleverly written you feel like applauding. Veirs’s Best Kept Secret, about her friend the guitarist Tim Young, is sweet and joyous. lang sings the hell out of Blue Fires and the gorgeous Why Do We Fight. Since I first heard this album a couple of months ago, I’ve come back to all these songs frequently, and if you’re a fan of anything that any of these artists has done before, I’d recommend this record unhesitatingly. You’ll undoubtedly get something from it.

And yet.

Since case/lang/veirs was announced, the comparison that has continually been raised is Trio, the record that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris made together in 1987. What I can’t help benchmarking it against, though, is Sweetwater by Tres Chicas (a little known 2004 album I’ve written about here before).

After I bought Sweetwater, I couldn’t stop listening to it, and promptly bought Tres Chicas’ second album too. When I heard that one, I didn’t love it nearly as much, despite the presence of such brilliant songs as All the Shade Trees in Bloom, Slip So Easily and Only Broken.

Why was that? Sweetwater was a bit messy, a bit raw, but it was the sound of three friends – Caitlin Cary, formerly of Whiskeytown; Lynn Blakey, once of Let’s Active; and Hazeldine alumna Tonya Lamm – making a record together for the simple joy of it. The warmth between them pours out of their voices. It’s not a flawless album, but it is an extremely likeable, even lovable, one. I hear in it the same thing I hear on The Basement Tapes, or in the best Travelling Wilburys material, or in early works by The Band and CSN – friendship. It’s a rare and precious thing in music. Tres Chicas captured it on their first album, and couldn’t recapture it on their second. Sweetwater is a low-stakes record, and all the better for it. The stakes – and budget – were a little higher second time around, and it sounds like the artists knew it.

case/lang/veirs is not a low-stakes record, and it doesn’t sound like it was made by friends in love with making music together. It’s cool, professional and meticulously produced. kd lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs are all better known than even the best-known member of Tres Chicas, and in lang they have in their ranks a genuine star; anything they did together was going to have a guaranteed audience. That expectation changes things, for both musicians and listeners.*

While I love all the songs I’ve picked out above, the record as a whole just didn’t grow on me the way I was expecting it to after a first listen, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Ultimately there’s something just a little stifling about case/lang/veirs, about the sound world it inhabits. It feels a little fussy, and there are a few songs towards the end (the run from 1000 Miles Away to Down) that would probably have been better excised.**

Now, it’s not really its creators fault that the record reminds me of other albums that capture something intangible that case/lang/veirs doesn’t, but at the same time, it exists in the same world as Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, as The Basement Tapes, as Music from Big Pink, as the 1961 “Summit Meeting” recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There’s a special something those records have – that Sweetwater has too – that case/lang/veirs lacks, and it’s hard not to hear it as an opportunity not quite fully taken.

caselangveirs
Case, lang & Veirs

*The difference in self-perception is even mirrored in the groups’ names: Tres Chicas (Three Girls) is the ad hoc name given to them by the owner of a bar the women sang at regularly; the modishly lower-cased case/lang/veirs could as easily be the name of an exclusive firm of architects, or a trendy LA legal firm.

**14-song albums that wouldn’t have been better as 11- or 12-song albums are vanishingly rare.

September Song – Nat King Cole & the George Shearing Quintet

Ten years or so ago, I had a favourite compilation I’d made to listen to on my way home from the pub on chilly autumn nights. It made its way through lots of different moods, played fast and slow songs against each other, new songs against classics. I haven’t heard it for years and I’m not going to again, as it was on Minidisc, and not without a twinge of regret I threw most of those away a few weeks back when I was getting ready to move.

Sony’s Minidisc was a format that briefly seemed like it might be the future, but that never really caught on commercially (neither did its rival, Phillips’ Digital Compact Cassette, or DCC). It was left behind totally as the MP3 player – and more specifically the iPod – became the standard portable music device. But I made quite good use of my Minidisc player. As a musician, I found the fact that I could mix down demos made on a Portastudio to a device that didn’t add significantly more noise to be its best point, this being an era when CD burners were still very expensive (at least to a student) and not every home computer had a CDRW drive. But I also liked the small size of the player (smaller than a cassette walkman, and way smaller than a CD walkman) and the ease with which I could make compilations. I never owned a single pre-recorded MD, but copied a large portion of my CD collection on to Minidisc for listening to on the move.

Anyway, this compilation featured a run of melancholy, jazzy piano songs: What’s New? by Sinatra, I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good by Nat King Cole & George Shearing, I’m a Fool to Want You by Billie Holliday, then All Blues off Kind of Blue, then something by Tom Waits to aid the transition back to more modern music (probably Please Call Me, Baby off The Heart of Saturday Night). That little run was long enough to cover my journey home from the river, and the Sinatra and Nat King Cole tracks were the centrepiece of the sequence, two favourite songs off two favourite albums.

I Got it Bad is from Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, from 1962, which is classic almost from first note to last. On this record, Nat and Shearing take on September Song, Pick Yourself Up, I Got it Bad, Let There Be Love (that’s just tracks 1-4!), A Beautiful Friendship and Fly Me to the Moon, but this is not an exercise in cynical audience-pandering and easy song choices. The arrangements of these songs, by Ralph Carmichael and Shearing, are stellar and give all the room required to Cole’s voice, a glorious baritone, rich and velvet-smooth but with a trace of huskiness to it, one of the most immediately recognisable in the history of popular music.

As good as Cole is – as endlessly listenable as he is – for me the highlights of September Song, the opening track, are found in the arrangement and the piano playing of George Shearing, a Londoner, blind from birth, who moved to the States in the late 1940s and who died two years ago at 91. Shearing is famous for his ‘Shearing voicings’, a rhythmic-unison, block-chord technique, where he plays the melody with left and right hands, emphasising the left slightly, carrying the chord in the right hand underneath the top line, leaving the left free to play the melody line (and a chord-defining root note if necessary, when performing without a bass player).

Shearing did not invent this technique, but he made it his own (in much the same way Hendrix didn’t invent the E7#9, but if you say ‘Hendrix chord’, any guitarist who’s been playing more than five minutes will know what you mean), and it’s immediately in evidence on September Song, recurring again and again over the album, interspersed with the tinkling, high-register melodic runs (which seem to move around the stereo field, suggesting a very wide stereo miking of the piano,  but I may be imagining this) that along with the locked-hands Shearing voicings seem to define his piano style. There’s always something new to hear in Shearing’s playing of these songs, there’s always more spaces being filled with little details you never noticed before.

Shearing and his quintet (a big hand especially for Emil Richards on vibes and Shelly Manne on drums) are superb, but Carmichael’s string arrangements contribute an awful lot to the record’s success. It’s not much of an innovation to make an arrangement busier during choruses and middle eights, but Carmichael’s string lines during the ‘Oh, the days dwindle down’ section take the listener through increasingly troubled terrain, seeming to accelerate with the anxious chord changes, and Cole’s increasingly worried vocal, becoming almost horribly tense. And then we land suddenly back in the reassuring verse, the strings gone and the Shearing voicings return, while Cole reassures us that however few are the precious days that remain, he’ll spend them with us.

Have a great September, everyone!

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George Shearing (left), Nat Cole (right)