Tag Archives: Oh Mercy

Bad first songs

OK, “bad” is hyperbole in most cases here, but go with me.

A bad opener is a much rarer beast than the bad last song, at least among albums that are any good. Most artists seem to be better at recognising the best place to start than the best place to end. Nonetheless, missteps happen; some of the records I’d count among my very favourite have opening tracks that don’t quite get things rolling.

Asked to name a favourite band, I’d plump for the Beatles. Asked to pick some favourite songs, or albums, the Beatles would figure highly. But – controversial opinion alert – they weren’t always the best judges of how to get start their albums off.

Revolver has been the consensus “best” Beatles album for about 20 years, and it’s probably true that it contains the highest concentration of fantastic songs on any Beatles record. While the album is such a monolith in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that I can’t imagine any other song plausibly taking its place, Taxman has always felt like one of its weakest tracks for me. It’s full of interesting bits – the jerky, stop-start rhythm, McCartney’s bass playing and guitar solo – yet it never quite coheres into a song I find myself compelled to listen to. And while acknowledging that a 95% top rate of tax is pretty eye-watering, it’s not like the Beatles were short of cash at the time, so I can’t bring myself to care all that much for Harrison’s plight.

It wasn’t just Revolver, though. Sure, the title track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does important work in establishing the concept of the album as a whole, but it doesn’t much flatter the band. By the middle of their career, the Beatles had lost some of the dynamism and power captured in their early recordings (I’m talking strictly as players here), and there is, as Ian MacDonald observed, something about their attempts at heavy rock in the second half of their career that calls to mind a middleweight puffing themselves up in an attempt to pass for a heavyweight. Magical Mystery Tour‘s opening title song, meanwhile, is similarly unsatisfying, partly because its lyrical idea is so shopworn, and partly because there’s not much melodic development.

But let’s leave the Beatles so I can put the boot into another one of my very favourites, Joni Mitchell.

For the Roses is a pivotal and somewhat underrated album, one that is very close to my heart. It’s certainly a transitional piece (it came out between Blue and Court and Spark and shares characteristics with both), but it has a character of its own, and four or five songs that are genuine career high points. Yet its opener, Banquet, is one of Mitchell’s least successful songs: a shrill, irritating melody and a series of overwrought metaphors. I nearly always skip it. Like Taxman, which feels weak as soon as Eleanor Rigby starts, Banquet is shown up by the brilliant second track, Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

Many people would argue that Rainy Day Women gets Blonde on Blonde off to a shaky start. Me, I’m always happy to hear it. For me, the weakest Dylan openers are Desire‘s misbegotten and botched Hurricane and Nashville Skyline‘s godawful version of Girl from the North Country, a duet with Johnny Cash that brings out the worst in both singers. I’d actually prefer the album to start with Nashville Skyline Rag, which is hardly earth-shattering, but is a great deal of fun. Mel nominated Oh Mercy‘s Political World, too – I don’t know the album that well but it’s sure no Where Teardrops Fall.

Any discussion of good albums with bad first songs has to include R.E.M.’s Out of Time and its opener, Radio Song, which features a cameo from KRS One. While it has a certain goofy charm, I don’t think I could argue with anyone who suggested that the album would be better if it started with its second track, Losing My Religion. I asked my colleagues Sara and Nick to give me a couple of suggestions for bad opening songs on good albums: they both said Radio Song. So there you go. It’s unanimous.

Steely Dan’s seventies records have maybe five lacklustre songs between them, but would anyone object too strenuously if I cited Katy Lied‘s opener Black Friday as probably the album’s weakest track? Its shuffle groove is just a bit pedestrian. I almost always start listening from track two, the wonderful Bad Sneakers.

Among lesser known but, to me, very important albums, the two albums that Belly released in the 1990s, Star and King, both start with tracks I’ve never much cared for. Puberty, which begins King, just sounds messy and unfinished, and Someone to Die For, from Star, while explicable from the point of view of having what’s ultimately a slightly weird and creepy album begin with something weird and creepy, has always felt too obvious an attempt at spookiness to me; what’s so compelling about Star is that even its pop songs are a bit off-kilter. Track two, Angel, just sounds like a much more natural opener, and more representative of the band generally.

Of course, some bands have a knack of aceing it. But that’s another post.

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.

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A quick digression on Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Let’s briefly interrupt our discussion of British folk-rock to talk about Bob Dylan…

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week.

There have been some entertainingly huffy responses to this (at least in the British press), as well as plenty of defences of Dylan as a poet.

All as wrong-headed as each other. The wisest and most informed response came from my friend Yo Zushi, writing for the New Statesman.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what Yo Zushi doesn’t know about Bob Dylan isn’t worth knowing, but we’ve often found ourselves on different sides of the argument when discussing Dylan. Yo is a big fan of recent Bob, whereas I checked out around the time of ‘Love and Theft’ and only retain interest in Dylan’s career from, roughly, 1963-67 and 1973-78, with a couple of records here and there (Oh Mercy, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind) that fall outside those windows. We rarely agree on what the best songs are on even the records we both think are great.

But on this we agree:

I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.

Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.

Literature is simply a written work of superior or lasting artistic merit, so Dylan’s songs, in as much as they contain texts, must count as such, and his being awarded a literary prize presents no problem except for those who cling to artificial boundaries between high art and low art.* Yet, songs must also be counted as a special kind of literature, as they are written to be sung, not merely read off the page. Any proper appreciation of the art of songwriting must also take into account the effect of the words’ marriage to a melody to be sung, and further, what the singer does with them in performance.

Dylan is, if not the greatest of his kind, so obviously pre-eminent that it makes no difference. It’s him and McCartney, and basically no one else in Western pop. So, how about a Nobel Prize for Literature for Paul McCartney, then? That’ll really piss off the snobs.

The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Dylan, song & dance man, Nobel Laureate

*It’s a cliche to point out that Shakespeare’s plays were performed and written for the mass, uneducated audience, but still, cliches often get at truths, so let’s point it out one more time.

 

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

Where Teardrops Fall – Bob Dylan

The sneering contempt Dylan’s voice wrenches from the word ‘you’ in such songs as Positively 4th Street and Like a Rolling Stone is exhilarating, because listening to those songs involves identifying with Dylan’s rage, not with the object of it.

 Dr Pamela Thurschwell, ‘A Different Baby Blue’

So wrote my third-year tutor Pam Thurschwell in an essay for a collection entitled Bob Dylan With the Poets & Professors in 2003, published shortly after I graduated. (Once we had discovered a mutual love of Dylan and Waits, tutorials were perhaps rather too apt to come round to the topic of music.) So maybe I’m biased where Thurschwell’s argument is concerned, but I agree with her, and she does a great job in her essay exploring how it is that a progressive feminist listener to Bob Dylan can reconcile that with enjoying the music of the man who wrote Just Like a Woman and Idiot Wind, let alone Sweetheart Like You and Is Your Love in Vain?, songs that drip with unpleasant condescension to women, if not outright misogyny (and it’s not enough to argue that these songs are specific where misogyny is general, if for no other reason than that Dylan has written too many such songs for that defense to hold up).

So it’s nice to hear a Bob Dylan song that doesn’t require a certain political double-think to enjoy, a song that is exactly what it seems to be, a song without troubling subtext. A song when we can enjoy the melody and the empathetic playing of Rockin’ Dopsie and His Cajun Band (not to be confused with Rockin’ Sidney of My Toot Toot fame), brought in to the Oh Mercy sessions on Dylan’s request after failing to get anything satisfactory with the first band Daniel Lanois assembled. In Chronicles, Dylan describes how the song was cut simply, in just a few minutes, and how a saxophonist sitting in the corner who he hadn’t even noticed was there took a ‘sobbing solo that nearly took my breath away’ after the last verse, a guy who was the spitting image of Blind Gary Davis. Typical of the often fractious sessions for this album, Dylan loved it (‘The song was beautiful and magical, upbeat, and it was complete’) but Lanois was unconvinced by the take and eventually pressed Dylan into recutting it. They went with the original in the end. A good call, but what was it Lanois didn’t like? The slightly unsteady tempo? As if, in the end, that matters, when the song and performance is as strong as this.

So it’s a great song, one of several on Oh Mercy, which doesn’t sound to me like a classic, but does sound like an enormous animal waking up from a long hibernation and slowly finding that it’s just as strong as it was last year. But by Dylan’s standards, Where Teardrops Fall is almost mockingly empty lyrically; when the last verse begins ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’, it’s hard to suppress the sense that Dylan is having a little joke (although whether the target is himself or his listeners is moot).

Is this binary choice a necessity with Dylan? Does it have to be a choice between troubling content and no content? Can he write a substantial relationship song without crossing over into asshole territory? Answers on a postcard, please.

bob dylan emp bur

‘What d’ya mean? Of course I’ll never regret wearing this vest’ – Bob Dylan, 1985, during the Empire Burlesque sessions. (Roman Iwasiwka)