Tag Archives: Paul Simon

To Each His Own – E.B. The Younger

To Each His Own is the debut solo record by Eric Pulido, guitarist and vocalist from Midlake, recorded under the name E.B. The Younger.

Midlake never settled on a sound. Every record the Denton, Texas, band have made has reflected their then-current interests and influences, often in such an unguarded way that to have accused them of being derivative would have seemed merely churlish. There was a naivity in the way they appropriated sounds and moods and atmospheres from other acts – the Thom Yorke quasi-falsetto of original vocalist Tim Smith, the Grandaddy-isms of Bamnan and Slivercork, the Fleetwood Mac harmonies of the group’s Van Occupanther era, the stark and austere Sandy Denny-style chord changes that are all over The Courage of Others – that stopped it feeling cynical. It just felt like they were sharing their enthusiasms with you.

To Each His Own takes this tendency to an extreme, not settling on a sound for more than one song at a time. It shares with much of current indie a backwards-looking focus, but the object of Pulido’s retrospection changes every few minutes. On lead single Used to Be, for example, the guitar sounds and synth chords make it sound like a forgotten mid-1980s Don Henley single. CLP calls to mind Paul Simon’s St Judy’s Comet. The lovely Down and Out, with its sighing major seventh chords, sounds like Lindsey Buckingham in his Law and Order phase covering an old Neil Young song. Don’t Forget Me would have fit nicely on Nilsson Schmilsson. The title track that closes the album gets really meta; it sounds like Tim Smith-era Midlake.

To Each His Own goes down easy on a musical level. It’s beautifully played (it features the talents of Midlake guitarist Joey McClellan and drummer Mackenzie Smith, as well as members of the Texas Gentlemen) and arranged, and Pulido is an appealing singer. Its best songs (my pick is Down and Out) are well worth your time, whether or not you have ever liked any of Midlake’s work in the past – this is substantially different stuff to anything Midlake have done up to now.

While Pulido does a fine job of recreating the sonic signifiers (lightly strummed acoustic guitars, damped drums, tight vocal harmonies, a range of acoustic and electric keyboard tones, and even synths) of 1970s and early 1980s soft rock, he sometimes struggles to find a lyrical mode that suits the compositions while living up to his influences. “If it’s wrong I don’t want to be right” is the kind of banal comment that Rupert Holmes would have congratulated himself for writing, yet it’s the key hook of On an Island. When the Time Comes muses on the point of getting a record deal when “ramen only costs a dime”, and rhymes “Got no regrets I care to mention” with “Can you direct me to my pension?” – which goes to prove I suppose that writing witty, lightly ironic lyrics of the kind Nilsson, Warren Zevon or Paul Simon sprinkled throughout their songs is harder than it looks.

But then, Pulido struggled at times on the last Midlake album, Antiphon, to write in Tim Smith’s antiquated, rustic idiom, too. He’s a talent. A listen to Monterey, Down and Out or Don’t Forget Me makes that pretty clear. How much you get from To Each His Own may depend on whether you pay particular attention to lyrics or not, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. If he finds the lyrical mode that best suits him, he could make something special.

Paul Simon @ Hyde Park, 15/07/18

30 degrees in the shade it may have been, World Cup Final day it may have been, part of a festival sponsored by Barclaycard it may have been, but Paul Simon at Hyde Park was billed as his last ever UK show, so there was never any question about whether I’d be going.

I bring this up every time I write about him, but Paul Simon was my first favourite musician, when I was unbelievably young. Like, five or six. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child may be a matter best left to a psychologist, but whatever it says about me, Simon is my guy and I’d never previously seen him play live, so this was it. Last-chance saloon.

I rounded up a special posse for the occasion: Mel, of course; my mum, who is responsible for my three-decades-and-counting love of Paul’s music; and late addition Sara, who took the plunge on a ticket the week before.

BST Hyde Park is a series of one-day gigs over two weekends, with three stages, so there was a lot of music going on, but given the heat we decided not to get there too early, pitching up just in time to watch some of Shawn Colvin’s set on the second stage. She was playing solo with just a guitar and had only a smallish crowd of maybe a few hundred. She’s always had an audience here in the UK, but seldom any hits; Sunny Came Home was the only song I knew among the songs I heard. She was in slightly wobbly voice but went down well with the fans. We skipped the last couple of songs to make sure we got to the main stage for Bonnie Raitt.

Bonnie is a force of nature. 68 years old, her voice is still note-perfect and her slide-guitar playing no less fiery than it was in the 1970s. She also benefitted from the most cohesive and forceful sound mix of any act I saw on the day, with every note was clearly audible (we’ll return to this). Her set, which included a couple of unexpected covers (INXS’s Need You Tonight, Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House) as well as more obvious choices (Skip James’s Devil Got My Woman, Mose Alison’s Everybody Crying Mercy), was mostly blues-centric, with only Nick of Time showcasing her impressive ballad singing. While Nick of Time was great (and very moving), it did make me wish she’s brought things down still further by singing I Can’t Make You Love Me or Love Has No Pride. Still, she did give us a playful version of Something to Talk About that sounded perfect in the afternoon sunshine.

James Taylor was up next on the main stage, and it was during his set that the main drawback of the all-day-gig-in-hot-weather set-up became apparent.

Taylor plays quietly, his music requires an attentive audience and too many audience members preferred to talk rather than listen. With the area nearest the stage out of bounds to those who hadn’t forked out for premium tickets, it was hard to hear Taylor’s song introductions and even hard at times the songs themselves. He played well, if a little less sure-footedly than Bonnie Raitt, and his set included everything you’d want to hear if, like me, you’re only really familiar with his earliest records (Something in the Way She Moves, Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, You’ve Got a Friend, Sweet Baby James – all present and correct), but alas, even those songs failed to completely silence those audience members who’d paid £85 to carry out conversations they could have had for free down the pub.

This became a bigger problem (for me, anyway) when Paul Simon came on stage. Maybe it was me, but I feel sure something was technically awry with the sound, rather than it being that it was simply too quiet. “Too quiet” was the symptom, not the problem in itself (although, looking at Twitter, “too quiet” has been a common cry at all Simon’s UK shows). Five or six songs in, a chant of “louder, louder” began in the crowd, but only in the left-hand side of the general-admission area. I feel like there was a problem with the house-right line array, as the horns kept coming through distorted, and then, suddenly, everything seemed to clear up and the overall sound became stronger and more present. Whatever its cause, the low volume of Simon’s set meant we were more affected than we would otherwise have been by the yakkers. And boy, do some people love to yak.

But enough about them. They don’t get to ruin the last-ever UK gig by Paul Simon.

The man himself, 76 years old, sometimes sounded rather frail, with his voice taking a few songs to warm up, but when he’d got into his stride he sounded vocally strong, and all the way through it was thrilling to watch him play his superlative songs.

He began with America (“strange times,” he observed, before adding, “Don’t give up”), and then the drummer played the iconic intro lick of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, prompting large sections of the crowd to sing along with the choruses. He then pulled out The Boy in the Bubble, Graceland‘s opening track, on which his bass player, Bakithi Kumalo, was especially impressive. This was followed by the delicate Dazzling Blue from So Beautiful or So What, which featured lovely harmonies from yMusic flautist Alex Sopp, who was one of the band’s MVPs.

Graceland‘s zydeco-flavoured That Was Your Mother was followed by another track from So Beautiful or So What, Rewrite, which, with its intricate layers of guitar and (I think) a kora part rearranged for prepared piano, showcased a lot of what’s best about the quietly experimental recent Simon records. He then went backwards into his catalogue for a couple of crowd-pleasers: Mother and Child Reunion and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, which once again had the crowd singing along (they were in quite agile singing voice, hitting the high note in “goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona” rather more easily than Simon did).

Simon then showcased the excellent yMusic ensemble, bringing them to the front of the stage for a three-song run that took in Rene & Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War (the title of which he explained was a caption in a photo book owned by Joan Baez), Can’t Run But and Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song he described as having gotten away from him and that he now felt he was “repossessing”. I guess there won’t be one final Simon & Garfunkel gig, then.

Next up was Wristband, from his current album Stranger to Stranger, and for me one of the highlights of the set. Double bass-led, the song feels like something Donald Fagen from Steely Dan might write: a vignette about a musician getting locked out of a venue and trying to convince the doorman that he’s headlining the show: “I said, wristband? I don’t need no wristband. My axe is on the bandstand, and my band is on the floor!” The last verse, though, shifts from a woe-is-me plaint by an ageing star locked out of his own gig to a more general comment on inequality, showing Simon’s not lost the knack of bridging the personal and the political*.

Wristband was followed by two songs from Rhythm of the Saints, Spirit Voice and The Obvious Child. The former, with mixes samba percussion and West African guitar, is one of Simon’s loveliest songs, and the band did brilliantly to play such a subtle, gentle song for such a huge audience and not inflate it.

Questions for the Angels from So Beautiful or So What was similarly intimate. It’s another lovely song, one that wrestles with some profound questions. It’s a song that acknowledges the plight of so many around us, that believes that things can get better and is wise enough to know what we and all of our problems are when measured against the infinite span of time and existence. Heavy stuff for a sunny afternoon, and perhaps Simon knew it, as he switched to more uptempo rhythm-driven songs for the remainder of the set: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and an ecstatically received You Can Call Me Al. During the latter, the whole crowd bellowed along with the horn riff and sung along with the choruses. As we walked down Park Lane an hour later, a goodly number were still singing that horn riff.

But of course, that was not the end of the gig. Simon played two substantial encores. The first consisted of Late in the Evening, Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland. All three were great, but Still Crazy was quite a moment for me, as it’s always been one of my favourites, and as he played it I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that not only was I finally getting to see the man himself sing it, but that it was the only time I ever would.

The second encore prompted similar thoughts. Simon came back on stage with his acoustic guitar and sang Homeward Bound. During the song, the video screens that had previously only shown close-ups of Simon and his band showed a montage of images from his career, starting with a picture of Widnes railway station, where Simon began the song more than 50 years ago. As the final image (one from the mid-1980s I think, when Simon was in his mid-40s) faded and the screen showed Simon alone on stage, it was impossible not to reflect on his advancing years. Whether this effect had been intended or not, I don’t know, but it certainly added a layer to a song that was already carrying a lot of significance, what with the whole tour bearing its name.

Simon briefly lightened the mood with the deathless Kodachrome (do the millennials in the audience even know what Kodachrome is, asked Sara on the way back to the station), then returned to the weighty. The Boxer. It says a lot about the depth of Simon’s catalogue that as I did a mental inventory of the songs he’d played to try to work out what would be in the encores, The Boxer never once occurred to me. The Boxer. A song any songwriter would dine out on for the rest of their careers, and I’d forgotten about it.

I guess this is because however great The Boxer is, it’s not American Tune. I heard American Tune first (the live version from Greatest Hits Etc.) and it’s always been my push-comes-to-shove favourite Paul Simon song. It was magical, and would have brought tears to my eyes even if the US wasn’t currently being governed by a cabal of the criminal and the unhinged.

Simon finished with The Sound of Silence – an apt choice to end his last UK performance with the song that started his career, but for me it was almost an afterthought after American Tune.

Pop music has given us few more significant figures than Paul Simon, and few whose careers are more worthy of emulation. He never got lazy as an artist, always pushing himself to learn more, expand his musical vocabulary, try new things. His attention to detail and dedication to his craft is evident in every bar of music he’s ever recorded, and was just as evident on stage on Sunday. I feel privileged to have been there, and while there were things that could have been handled better (the sound, the lack of seating/shaded areas), I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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*Here’s that final verse from Wristband:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband

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.

Kathy’s Song (Songbook version) – Paul Simon

Managed to score tickets for Paul Simon’s farewell gig in Hyde Park this summer. To celebrate, here’s a look at one of his most beloved early songs. If you enjoy this post, you might like this old one too:

Paul Simon’s first solo record was not his self-titled album from 1971, made in the wake of his split from Art Garfunkel (and one of my favourite records ever). The first album to be released by Paul Simon as a solo artist was 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded in London, released in the UK only, and deleted from catalogue at his own request in 1969, at which point he and Garfunkel were among the biggest stars in the world of music, following the back-to-back triumphs of the Graduate soundtrack and Bookends.

In 1964 and 1965, Simon made several trips to the UK on his own, to tour provincial theatres and folk clubs. While he and Garfunkel had already released two albums by January 1965, they weren’t available in the UK. Sounds of Silence would not be released in the UK until 1968, and was available on import only when Simon came over on his solo tours. So the UK arm of Columbia Records (named, confusingly, CBS – confusing because CBS stands for Columbia Broadcasting System, the parent company of the American Columbia Records label of which CBS was the UK offshoot) decided to capitalise on Simon’s growing popularity by having him bash out a quickie album in a cheap studio for UK release only.

Simon cut 12 songs for the record in an upstairs studio on New Bond Street. Compared to his lavish albums with Garfunkel, which were meticulously recorded and produced by the pair’s genius engineer and guiding hand Roy Halee, The Paul Simon Songbook was a low-key, lo-fi affair. Songs were recorded in just a couple of takes each with one microphone, with Simon playing and singing live and minor flubs left in. This is how countless albums by the UK folk scene’s big names were recorded (live to tape, usually in an afternoon), but it’s fascinating to hear immortal Simon songs like I Am a Rock, The Sound of Silence and Kathy’s Song in this more intimate, less controlled setting, the balance favouring his voice over his guitar playing. And of course it’s fascinating in an alternate-history kind of way, too – this is what his records might have sounded like throughout his whole career if he’d stayed at the level of a Davy Graham, Bert Jansch or Jackson C Frank, beloved only by a cult audience and subsisting on the proceeds of small gigs more than from the sales of albums.

Kathy’s Song is one of Simon’s finest early compositions, one of his most deeply felt and most mournful. Simon met Kathy Chitty and the Railway Inn folk club in Brentwood, Essex, in 1964 and was smitten. They began a relationship and are pictured together on the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook, sitting cross-legged on a wet cobbled street, playing with puppets. If that sounds a bit precious and twee, well, Simon was a bit precious and twee in those days. The main fault of early S&G was the duo’s relentless ra-ra earnestness, which clashed with and undercut their wish to be seen as intelligent and bohemian. Yet Simon’s affection for Chitty was real enough; she reappears in one of his greatest songs, America, and he was hit hard when she ended their relationship. While travelling around on tour with him in the US, she realised how big he and Garfunkel were becoming off the back of The Sound of Silence and she wanted nothing to do with that life.

So she returned to England and now lives in a village in Wales. Simon re-recorded Kathy’s Song for the S&G album Sounds of Silence and went on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time. The first version of Kathy’s Song captures him at a moment before he chose the life of a star over the life of a folk singer whose heart lay not just in England, but in my own county of Essex.

The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded at Levy’s Sound Studios. If the history of recording technology interests you, or of the British music industry generally, read this article by a former mastering engineer at the studio.

Stormbringer – John & Beverley Martin

A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except, this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

Holiday Harmonies Part 6: Keep the Customer Satisfied – Simon & Garfunkel

Oh yeah. These guys.

Paul Simon gets a lot of love on this blog, but I’ve never really talked about Simon & Garfunkel. So here goes.

I think I’ve said before that when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways in 1970, Simon was set free as a writer of melodies. He no longer had to make the need to sing, breathe and phrase with a vocal partner a prime concern in how he wrote his tunes. Not only did he hit new heights as a writer as a result of this, he blossomed as a singer too. Add to this his deepening exploration of jazz harmony, and it becomes pretty easy to explain the startling quality of his early 1970s solo work.

All that said (and I can’t really apologise for rating solo Simon higher than Simon & Garfunkel; I absorbed Greatest Hits Etc. before I ever heard an S&G song, and my dad had to explain to me that this Simon singing Homeward Bound was the same as the other Simon), it’s undeniable that Paul & Artie could sing harmonies like few before or since, and their exalted status means we’ve actually found out a fair bit about how they did it. Journalists have taken the trouble to ask them.

In The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon, Garfunkel and engineer-producer Roy Halee discuss the duo’s vocal layering tricks. Simon & Garfunkel sang their vocals into one mic, live, and then overdubbed a double track of each of their parts, separately, and ghosted them up underneath the live performance when mixing, to fatten and clarify. It’s a glorious sound.

Having multiple vocalists sing live into one microphone is a staple recording technique.* Indeed, in some styles of music (old-time and bluegrass), the reverence for this everyone-around-the-microphone trick borders on a fetish. The reasons for doing it are – should be – musical and to a lesser extent technical, not aesthetic.

Singers who are used to singing together, who’ve spent hours practising in a room together unamplified, will probably give better performances if you record the room that they’re singing in rather than them individually. If you try to get the best of both worlds and have two singers singing live in the same room but with a microphone each, you add the complications of bleed and negotiating the phase relationships of the two mics, and you probably don’t gain much sonically on just doing it with one mic.

What S&G did with Roy Halee allowed them to get a huge, fat vocal sound that blended all the excitement, energy and animation of a live take with the warmth and control of close-miked overdubs. You can hear the technique in use on any of their two-part-harmony classics: Homeward Bound, The Sound of Silence, I am a Rock, America, The Boxer or The Only Living Boy in New York.

One of my favourites, though, is the uncharacteristically stomping Keep the Customer Satsified from Bridge Over Troubled Water, where the duo’s voices are fattened up still further with tape delay (I think – sure sounds like). The vocals are amazingly tight, breath for breath, terminal consonant for terminal consonant, all the way through the track, with Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums) driving them on and one of the finest-sounding brass sections I’ve ever heard trying their best to wrest the track away from the singers. On an album full of amazing harmony singing performances, this might be the finest. It’s certainly the most fun.

Simon+Garfunkel.png
Simon, Garfunkel and a single microphone

*In the early days of sound recording, the only way you could make a recording was to get all the musicians in to a room together to play into a recording horn. The sounds waves going into the horn would vibrate a stylus at the other end, which would cut an analogue of the performance into a wax cylinder. So all the musicians playing into one transduction device is the most venerable recording technique there is.