Tag Archives: Randy Newman

The People’s Music – Ian MacDonald

Writing about Marcello Carlin’s new blog the other day got me thinking about music writing in general. Here’s a piece about a book I read when I was fresh out of university, 15 years ago.

Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music was published a couple of months before its author’s suicide in August 2003. It’s a collection of articles previously published in Mojo and Uncut in the late nighties and early noughties, after MacDonald’s rep had been re-established by the success of Revolution in the Head, his song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ recorded works.

I admire Revolution in the Head hugely, but trouble brews in certain entries, and especially in the postscript essay, in which MacDonald compares the work of the Beatles to that of contemporary artists, and finds all of it lacking by comparison. He argues that the soul went out of pop music some time in the late sixties, or certainly by the mid-seventies*, and is disparaging and dismissive of the eighties almost totally, and not just in terms of its music.

Awed by his erudition and the breadth of his knowledge, I absorbed his criticism of post-Beatles pop without challenging it as a 20-year-old. Now, I disagree strongly with much of what he says, and (if it’s not to impertinent to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of a man whose depression was all-encompassing to the point that he hanged himself) I feel like his comments probably said as much about his own psychological state as they did about the music he was writing about.

This undercurrent of horror at what he sees in the world around him is not as prevalent in The People’s Music as it is in Revolution in the Head. The industry’s reissue mania began in earnest in the late 1990s**, and MacDonald was an ideal figure to write articles about, or reviews of, these remastered and/or expanded editions of classic records by the Band, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and so on. He loved the records, but not uncritically. He was there at the time, and so was well placed to gauge their importance and influence. And above all he had the analytical chops equal to the task; MacDonald had been assistant editor at the NME in its seventies pomp – the era of figures such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. You couldn’t have gotten that gig in that period if you couldn’t bring it. Crucially, writing about artists from the sixties and seventies allowed MacDonald to write about music that made him happy, which is definitely when he was at his best, and the short word counts kept him concentrated on the music, and didn’t allow him to move sideways into the music’s place in the broader culture. The essays and reviews are consequently sharp and laser focused.

I owe my interest in half a dozen different artists to the reviews and articles in The People’s Music, particularly the pieces on David Bowie’s Station to Station, Laura Nyro’s New York trilogy, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Randy Newman’s debut album. I bought my first records by Laura Nyro and Steely Dan on the same day having devoured those articles, and fell hard for them both. They were every bit as wonderful as MacDonald had made them sound.

That’s the highest goal music writing can achieve, and so The People’s Music  furthered my musical education hugely. I seldom look at MacDonald’s books now (I know them too well, for one thing, but moreover I find the pessimism that hangs over them puts me off a little), but I can’t deny the influence they had.

If you’re not familiar with Ian MacDonald,  I’d recommend The People’s Music over Revolution in the Head (unless you are a big Beatles fan), which is ultimately a downbeat, elegiac book. MacDonald’s magisterial essay on Nick Drake from The People’s Music is at times as despondent about the world as his Beatles postscript, but at other times he’s combative (Minimalism and the Corporate Age), clear-headed about the faults of weak records (Not a Revolution: Jefferson Airplane From Play Power to Power Play) and vigorous in his praise of great music (almost everything else). It’s well worth seeking out.

 

*To give you an idea of the position MacDonald takes in this postscript essay, here’s its concluding paragraph in full:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) – but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s music, which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms – most obviously classical and jazz – confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

** At that time, the reissue of classic records on CD (often in expanded editions) did often serve a useful purpose for the fan and consumer.

The original CD releases of many artists’ catalogues were of very poor sound quality, and were often based on transfers from sources other than the original masters -the industry cutting corners to get product to market as quickly as possible. Consequently they were frequently very quiet and lacking in low end. A tasteful remaster job from the late 1990s or early noughties improves vastly on the 1st-generation CDs, a consequence of improved AD converters and digital mastering software.

That same technology, alas, made possible the loudeness war, and so the only sonic gains that could be made by releasing a remaster of a record from the last 15-20 years would come from backing down the levels to where they were in the first half of the 1990s.

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

Demos revisted – Two versions of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl

Consider this a late follow-up to the post from last week on demos and alternate versions

Gillian Welch’s Revival was a pretty astonishing debut, but in the light of the records she’s made since – particular her masterwork Time (The Revelator) and 2011’s The Harrow & the Harvest – it sounds a little studied, a little produced. There’s a good reason for this. It was.

Welch’s first two albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett. On their later releases, the producer’s credit would be Rawlings’s, and he and Welch would pare things back to the simplest presentations possible: two guitars and two voices recorded live with the pair sitting just a couple of feet apart. But when making Revival, they’d not yet settled on this as the best means of presentation for Welch’s songs, and anyway, Burnett was calling the shots.

Now, T-Bone Burnett is not that intrusive a producer. Not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said some critical things about his reproduction of the Daniel Lanois formula here, but the guy does a good job most of the time. So while Revival shows some accommodation to the mainstream in the relative bigness of its sounds compared to those of their later work (the acoustic guitar sound is closer, so to speak, and a good deal sparklier), the production is still mostly sympathetic to the songs.

Demos for Revival are floating around the internet and they make fascinating listening. The album tracklisting emphasises the old-timey, character-study aspect of Welch’s songs, and in light of the flak she caught from some over tracks like Annabelle*, I wonder how different the response to Revival would have been if the album had included the charming We Must Look Like We’re in Love or I Don’t Want to Go Downtown.

Of the songs that made the cut, the most different in arrangement was probably Orphan Girl, something of a signature song for Welch after it was covered by Emmylou Harris, before her own version came out. The demo features prominent Rawlings lead guitar, harmonica, brushed snare and subtle double bass. It could have been recorded in the 1970s or even the 1950s with no changes whatsoever, and is rather lovely. The only slight mark against it is the harmonica, which works well during its solo but is a little too perky and intrusive elsewhere. Mixing desks do have faders and mute buttons, though.

The Burnett-produced Orphan Girl is, while sparser, more produced. The tempo is slowed down pretty significantly. The band-playing-in-a-room vibe is replaced by two acoustic guitars (I’m assuming it’s two tracks of Welch, as Rawlings is not credited with acoustic on the song) and a bunch of atmospheric stuff (Optigan and 6-string electric bass) by Rawlings and Burnett. This stuff runs throughout the song, welling up under the final chorus for a big finish. It’d cross the line into just being crass if it were any more prominent, but even as it is it’s a blot on the song, which simply didn’t need such flourishes to heighten its emotion.

What’s different between the two Welch versions of Orphan Girl, ultimately, is self-consciousness. Really good demos frequently come to light on reissues and expanded releases these days, and when they do it’s not unusual for fans to prefer them. It’s usually because there’s something a little stilted about the final version, with the artist feeling the pressure of having to nail the song, and becoming conscious of their performance in a way they wouldn’t be normally. Orphan Girl is a case in point. For her fans looking back on it, Revival may feel like a simulacrum of what Welch and Rawlings do best, but at the time we had no way of knowing that, unless we’d been fortunate enough to see them play in a small club or theatre. When they acquired the clout to simply do their own thing, they did, and they began making records that match the greatness of Welch’s songs.

Welch
This is how they do it.

*The accusations of fakery against her in-character storytelling were never levelled against Randy Newman or Robbie Robertson when their songs took a character’s perspective, whether that character lived in the 1860s or 1960s. It said way more about the prejudices of certain reviewers than it did about Welch. But nonetheless, Welch’s writing did take a step forward when she abandoned old-timey language and themes, and began writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible “now”; when it became harder to separate the “I” in the singer’s songs and the singer herself.

Matthew Caws @ The Islington/Randy Newman @ the Royal Festival Hall

Two gigs in 48 hours, in venues as vastly different as is possible.

On Saturday night I went with Mel and Sara to see Matthew Caws from Nada Surf play a free show at the Islington, announced via his Instagram the day before. The Islington is a tiny venue, with a capacity of maybe 100. I’ve played drums there with Sumner, and it was the place I saw Jon Auer play a wonderful set in August 2014.

It was a really great night. I’m not yet that familiar with his work, although I’ve heard most of Nada Surf’s records, and Get There, the record he made with Juliana Hatfield as Minor Alps. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing, then, that I recognised tracks like See These Bones, Maxon, Your Legs Grow, Ice on the Wing and Always Love in a stripped down, voice-and-guitar setting having heard the recorded originals no more than a few times each.

Nada Surf passed me by in their early years – I know they had a big MTV hit with Popular, but I’ve not knowingly heard it; if he had played it on Saturday, I wouldn’t have recognised it. At this stage of his career, Caws is a world away from MTV Beach House, son-of-Weezerisms. Without getting ponderous or self-serious, his songs have become deeper and richer, his voice remains supple and boyish, and his impressive guitar playing (several songs switched between neat fingerpicking and flatpick strumming) is all he really needs to put the songs over; See These Bones, the last song he played on Saturday, was no less impressive than its recorded counterpart, with nothing lost in translation from full band to solo arrangement.

If it wasn’t quite the experience for me that seeing Jon Auer was, that’s only because I don’t have the long relationship with Matthew Caws’s music that I have with Auer’s work with the Posies. Sara, who is a long-time fan, had a similar experience that I had with the Auer gig, I think, and Mel, who wasn’t familiar with him at all, left intrigued and wanting to hear more.

*

On Monday night, I headed to the rather more august Royal Festival Hall with James and Dan McKean to see Randy Newman.

I’ve not seen too many shows by real veterans. The old guys I see tend to be 40- or 50-something, not 70-something like Newman. His voice, never smooth in his youth, is now a somewhat limited instrument. The effect of this was the opposite of what you might expect. It gave his ballads a fragility that was at times heartbreaking – She Chose Me (a song from Steve Bochco’s Cop Rock, of all things) was a genuine goosebump moment – but hampered the delivery of the ragtimey, satirical songs, which were more declaimed than sung, with the phrasing lacking just a little of the subtlety of the originals.

However, this was a set lasting over two hours (with a 20-minute interval), with time for Newman to play some 30-odd songs (and give us a lot of, uniformly hilarious, anecdotes), and the duds were few and far between. There weren’t many top-tier Newman songs that didn’t get an airing: I Miss You, God’s Song, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, I Love LA, Birmingham, Marie, Short People, You’ve Got a Friend in Me, Political Science, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Losing You, the stupendous Louisiana 1927, Sail Away, and even the seldom-performed Rednecks (because of its use of the N-word; Newman took pains to explain the character and perspective he adopts within the song, which is something he doesn’t otherwise do).

Shorn of their band arrangements, some of the songs did fall a little flat. I adore I Love LA and have defended its parent album here, but without that triumphant synth riff and triumphalist backing vocals, the song is not what it could otherwise be. Similarly, My Life is Good without the blowhard’s increasingly agitated protests at the end (“My life is good, you old bag!”) as the music gets subtly more dissonant is only half the song. Why not forgo it and play something more suited to a voice-and-piano presentation, like Dayton, Ohio-1903 or He Gives Us All His Love?

Minor quibbles, really.

James once said to me, about the experience of watching Paul McCartney, that after a while, you just stand there in amazement that one man wrote all these songs, and that one man is standing up there singing them. That’s how Monday was for me. I’d give pretty much anything to write a song as good as Louisiana 1927. Hell, to write Short People, even. Newman is one of the greatest, a guy that pretty much every songwriter looks up to in the knowledge that they can’t play on the turf he’s playing on. I got to see him, playing all those songs. It was quite something.

randy_newman_web
This guy

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones

It’s obvious why a young Tom Waits fan would have picked Rickie Lee Jones out of the four-for-£20 rack in Leigh-on-Sea’s Fives record shop 10 or so years ago. Jones, I knew, had been in a relationship with Waits at the start of her career, and I’d heard that her music mined similar territory to Waits’s, with storytelling lyrics drawing on a life spent within a Los Angeles beatnik demi-monde that had somehow still magically existed in the era of The Long Run and the Nervous Breakdown EP.

I was disappointed. While it contains some great songs, Rickie Lee Jones’s debut is a bit of a mess. The heavy-hitting Warner Brothers production team, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, had assembled an awesome array of instrumental talent* to play on her album, the same session kings that also featured on mid- to late-seventies records by LA titans like Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Randy Newman (including Newman himself). But as with Joni’s Wild Things Run Fast, the result – heavy on tinkly electric piano and, gasp, slap bass – was polite and bland. On low points like Young Blood, musicians run through their licks but seem to exist in a different world to Jones’s vocal. I can’t imagine the demo to that one wasn’t hugely superior.

(In full disclosure, the Waits records of this era that use electric band arrangements, such as Blue Valentine, are a similar turn-off to me; if Waits is in jazzbo mode, I want double bass and acoustic piano and nothing else will do. I love those sounds in the context of Steely Dan and Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, though, so make of this what you will.)

That wasn’t the only problem, though. Jones wasn’t writing uniformly strong melodies (her songs have never really found favour with other performers, especially compared to those of a certain other songwriter I should probably stop mentioning at this point) and her drawled vocals sometimes sounded less like jazz and more like pastiche or like an idea of jazz. In fairness, this was her debut and she hadn’t had time to grow into herself or her persona yet; even with as sympathetic producer as Waronker at the helm, she couldn’t help but come off as callow.

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 is, then, the standout moment on the album, Chuck E’s in Love aside. Certainly it’s the song that has the biggest emotional wallop. Recorded live at TBS a month after the main tracking sessions for the record, and like After Hours (the other song recorded this supplementary session) featuring only piano, vocal and strings, it benefits hugely from its sparse arrangement and straightforward vocal performance. Jones sounds, appropriately given the song’s themes, more at home here. I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

So many successful songs work this way, because the writer paired the right phrase with the right snippet of melody. Maybe some tunes are so charged with inherent meaning that they lead the writer to pick the correct lyric to pair them with. Fortunately for Jones and for her listeners, when this tune spoke to her, she listened.

RLJ
RLJ, Best New Artist Grammy in hand, doesn’t need to care what I think of her debut record

*Let me run through some of the credits for you: Dr John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Steve Gadd, Buzz Feiten, Andy Newmark, Jeff Porcaro, Willie Weeks and, inevitably, Michael Boddicker. Some of these guys are among my favourite players ever. I’ve written about almost all of them in glowing terms elsewhere on this blog.

I Think He’s Hiding – Randy Newman

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with extra days at work and such, and I’m going to be even more pushed for time over the next week or so. I’m heading home tomorrow morning to sunny Essex for the always-excellent Leigh Folk Festival so my usual Sunday post is going to have to be early. Next Friday I’m heading to Umbria with Mel for a long weekend of hilltop villages and awesome food. I’ll post something on Wednesday or Thursday before I go, but then you’ll be on your own until the following Wednesday or Thursday when I’m back and settled back into a normal working routine. In the meantime, I’m aware I’m falling back on favourite artists I’ve written about before, but it helps me to keep up a reasonable pace if I can write about something I’ve already listened to many times and digested properly. And any great artist deserves whole books, not just a couple of blog posts! I could write about some of these folks every week for a year, although I don’t know how many of you would still be here if I did.

Randy Newman has no heir in popular music. He stands alone. There may be songwriters who are funny, some who have his sense of the grotesque (Tom Waits owes his post-Swordfish career to just one Newman song: Davy the Fat Boy); there are people who can write orchestra movie soundtracks, others who can write one-off title songs to order. Newman can do it all. And of the funny songwriters, there’s none funnier, not Steely Dan, not 10CC, not Terry Allen, not Warren Zevon (perhaps the closest rock has come to a second Randy Newman, though he had nothing like the musical range of the original), and certainly not those who explicitly set themselves up as comic songwriters.

As the late Ian McDonald argued, Newman’s first album, from 1968, finds him already fully formed as an artist. The control of the orchestra was there. The talent for satire was there. The compression of meaning and incident into viable rock lyrics was there. It won him the instant admiration of his peers. They all seemed to appreciate that this guy was doing something they couldn’t, and many tried recording his songs. Harry Nilsson, who didn’t need to take songwriting lessons off anyone, cut a whole album’s worth.

But his songs defy those who would cover them. As good as Newman’s words are on paper, they come alive in performance, but only his performance can bring them to their full potential. As croaky and ungainly as his voice may be on a technical level, he’s alive to every possibility of the phrasing and delivery in the words he writes.

In the early seventies, Clive James wrote a series of columns about rock music for Cream magazine, concentrating mainly on lyrics. He tackled Dylan, the Beatles, Sandy Denny, the Band, Randy Newman and Van Morrison among others. His highest praise, in terms of lyrics, was reserved for the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Newman. I’ll leave the analysis to him: he’s covers it all, more clearly than I could.

Consider I Think He’s Hiding: Newman has got his attentive absorption of cliché and his definitive sense of order both working at once. The clichés, delivered in a voice strangling with piety, create a world of pin-brained religious fear and smug certitude. The redeemer, alias the Big Boy, is called upon to return and sort the elect from the damned. But underneath the cretinous invocation of the holy name, Newman’s irony is subversively at work. ‘Come on Big Boy,’ sings the narrator: ‘Come and save us.’ There is a flurry of melisma on the word ‘save’, giving an idiotic air of devotions confidently sung in church or synagogue. ‘Come and look at what we’ve done,’ he adds, and we can hear Newman’s own judgements coming to the fore – he isn’t entirely impressed with mankind’s achievements. But there’s a capper: ‘With what you gave us.’ So the fault’s the Big Boy’s. After all, it’s the Big Boy who’s claiming to be omnipotent.

James is not going overboard here. Everything that he finds in the lyric is in there, and that’s a hell of a lot of content. Most impressively, Newman’s not beating us over the head with 10-dollar words; there isn’t one word in the verse he quotes with more than one syllable.

Newman’s solo albums would never again be as orchestrated, as 1940s-sounding, as his debut; from his second album onwards, he’d work within an idiom that more obviously had something to do with rock music. Yet his lyrics would remain as sharp for at least a decade, slackening only at the end of the seventies. And even after that, he retained the power to shock and surprise, as on, for example, Trouble in Paradise’s Christmas In Cape Town, another in a long line of devastating anti-racism songs. I’ve written about that album elsewhere. Click here for more Newman talk.

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Amarillo Highway – Terry Allen

Terry Allen is a conceptual artist and country singer. This isn’t an unheard-of combination of pursuits. One thinks of Dolly Parton.
Allen has flown under the mainstream radar for pretty much all his musical career and remains little known to this day, but he is beloved of many rock critics and Lubbock (On Everything) is frequently cited by those few who have heard it as one of the finest country albums ever made, and a forerunner of the last two decades’ alt.country. He is patently not a tough guy, like Waylon Jennings. He’s no mystic hippie like Willie Nelson. There is a kinship with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely (who played harmonica on Lubbock) – they all come from Lubbock and have all tapped into the strange vibes of a seemingly singular place. But still, Allen’s hard to pin down.
If Glen Campbell’s reading of Allen Toussaint’s Southern Nights found country music coming to a kind of rhythmic accommodation with disco, Amarillo Highway’s ramshackle swagger puts a hi-hat figure straight out of New York, played with a woozy looseness you would never get in Lower Manhattan, to work on a hard-ass down-home road song that skewers the genre of hard-ass down-home road songs. It’s the album’s signature groove, recurring on several songs. It’s topped by the wonderful pedal-steel playing of Lloyd Maines, another local legend (and father of Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks) and benefits from the engineering of Don Caldwell, at whose studio Lubbock (On Everything) was recorded. The album’s production is credited to ‘Everyone on this record’, and that’s the way Don Caldwell tells it in Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air (‘everybody on the album put in their two cents, a very co-operative effort), but he’s probably being a little generous: he knew more about making a record than anyone else in the room (Maines was his protégé) and that the sessions held together at all must have been in large part because of his steadying influence.
But the great playing, arrangements and engineering wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t backed up by quality songs from Allen. And yes, the shufflin’ drums and sun-baked pedal steel are just adornments to the lyric and Allen’s canny performance: the singer’s inability to quite hit the low notes at the end of the verses undercuts his protestations of unreconstructed Texan masculinity, which in any case veer between banality and near-nonsensicality. In its affectionate parody of a certain kind of southern manhood, it’s reminiscent of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (The Great Joe Bob – fallen high-school football icon – is a character Newman is still probably kicking himself for not coming up with first), and Amarillo Highway, in common with so many of Newman’s songs, contains a lyric and a vocal that only the author could deliver properly.
Yeah, that’s a better comparison than any other country singer: Terry Allen, a Panhandling, manhandling Randy Newman.

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Terry Allen (seated right). Jo Harvey Allen (actress and artist) is seated to his left. Al Ruppersberg is standing back row, left.

Love’s Enough – David Ackles

“I won’t get maudlin,” Ackles promises midway into the second side, locking himself in the barn as the dappled stallion gallops to join his brothers and sisters on the open range with his mane flying free in the breeze.

Robert Christgau, review of David Ackles’ American Gothic

From the facetious tone of his review, I guess the Dean found Ackles to be mendacious and phoney rather than incompetent. Quite why Christgau thought himself qualified to judge musicians’ motivations without knowing them personally, I’ve never been able to determine. While, like Christgau, I find American Gothic an unsatisfying record by a songwriter of lesser artistic value than most of his peers (both the more commercially successful ones and the unsung heroes; Judee Sill came out in 1971, Heart Food in 1973), his review seems gratuitously mean now, with Ackles long dead from cancer, and with far greater and more mendacious threats to popular music living, breathing and walking amongst us.

Plenty of other people have loved his work. Elton John’s a professed fan. Bernie Taupin, too – so much so that he produced American Gothic. Phil Collins picked Down River while on Desert Island Discs. Elvis Costello mentioned him on stage while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ackles mostly went unnoticed in his career. Christgau’s one of the few to have noticed and dismissed him.

Ackles was nothing more than a likeable and humble guy with a bent towards musical theatre, Weill and Copland, a rather corny sensibility not entirely unlike Neil Diamond (whom in the latter’s more restrained moments Ackles rather resembles vocally). How much you like Ackles may well depend on your tolerance for sprechgesang and being told rather than shown how characters think and feel (the biggest problem with the title track, although it does end with the killer line ‘They suffer least that suffer what they choose’), but he’s unlikely to enrage you; the enthusiasm of his bigger fans is likewise perplexing.

Other than the delivery and the pedestrian nature of the lyrics (would that Ackles had possessed a flair for comedy and a taste for the macabre or grotesque like Brecht, Walker, Waits or Newman – the album title might have been a better fit for the music therein), the biggest problem with the record is the fussy arrangements, conducted by a soul sympathetic to them – Robert Kirby, known for his work with Nick Drake, and whose work has always been a bit twee, a bit callow.

Love’s Enough is sparer, could have been cut by any artist in any era with only minimal changes to the arrangement and production to make it suitable for its time. In the eighties, its almost inaudible brushed drums would have been replaced with enormo-super-mega-giant-bashing-away-in-a-cave drums. In the fifties it might have had the benefit of Gordon Jenkins’ or Nelson Riddle’s attentions. But the song would have been affecting either way.

Tonally and lyrically, Love’s Enough doesn’t fit on its parent album – it’s a very hard gear change after the opening title track – but without it the album would sink under the weight its ambitions. A moment of quiet reflection, in an intimate register, on a recognisable situation, Love’s Enough is a classic of sorts. I can’t recommend American Gothic to all but the very curious*, but its finest ballad deserves the audience that Elton, Bernie, Elvis and Phil have tried to win for their hero.

 

*Oh all right then, I do like Oh, California. I’m not made of stone.

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Rear cover of American Gothic (after Grant Wood)

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Stormy Weather/Nobody Knew Her – Nina Nastasia

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.

Steve Albini

 

A really great debut, the arrival of a talent already fully formed but with the potential to grow in any one of a number of directions, happens seldom, and with vanishing rarity by singer-songwriters. Bands, if the fragile chemistry is properly captured and they’re able to write a good tune or two, are more likely to do their best work early. Singer-songwriters take longer: few would argue that Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Song to a Seagull, Neil Young, Closing Time, London Conversation, or More Than a New Discovery were their authors’ best works, or even among them. You could make a case for Leonard Cohen’s and Randy Newman’s debuts (I would). Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s best. Sweet Baby James is Taylor’s best, but it’s a low bar. Judee Sill is better than everything else ever, including her second and posthumous third. But the thesis holds, I think.

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs, though, is one of the great debut albums. I first heard it after becoming intrigued by two things that happened very close together: firstly, I read the above quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Dogs and all of Nastasia’s subsequent records. Second, I read an issue of Mojo in a hospital waiting room where Laura Marling nominated Nastasia’s work as a major influence. I’d heard nothing but good things about Marling but remained unconvinced by her songs or singing, and so was interested to hear an influence on her that maybe contained the things I did like about Marling in a more concentrated or developed form.

I certainly got that.

On first listen, Dogs sounded like a very good chamber-folk kind of record: sparse, vibey, atmospheric, beautifully arranged and recorded, and with really strong songs with surprising twists and little moments of dissonance. The more I listened, the better it sounded. Certain songs (All Your Life, Underground, A Love Song, the peerless Stormy Weather) bore their way into me.

I’m a recording geek, as regular readers will know, so Dogs is a pleasure from the first note to last. Among Albini’s stellar work, it’s a particularly great-sounding record. Listen to the strings on Stormy Weather and you’re in the room with the players, every nuance, every scrape, every creak, every change in bow direction audible. On their own, listening to these strings would be a compelling experience, but they are just the backing for Nastasia’s beguiling, winding melody and elliptical lyrics. Stormy Weather (not the jazz standard, by the way, if you don’t know the record) is a moment of perfection that makes the world stop.

Nobody Knew Her lets it all back in, noisily. I know nothing about Nastasia’s personal life, but in interviews she has alluded to a friend killed in an accident on Pacific Coast Highway, and Nobody Knew Her seems like it deals with these events, initially being sung as if by a schoolgirl (‘He won’t go out with me/I don’t care if I never see his face’), before with two hard strums and the line ‘Everyone’s talking about you’, the band slam in; and in the context of such a hushed album, they do slam.

It’s not a mawkish or maudlin song, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its meaning – I listened to the song a dozen times, probably, before the significance of the chorus (‘Bradley, Bradley, I think you got away’) actually hit me, even as the second verse makes it plain we’re dealing with a car wreck – but the significance of having the band play hardest and loudest on a song about a friend’s early death (and his passenger – a girl nobody knew) is clear.

After Nastasia sings, ‘This desk says you were here’, there’s a pause of a few seconds before the band come back in. What could have been a very cheesy moment is instead the song’s most powerful; as the last line of the song sinks in and the chord decays, we hear the guitar amp hum and some very audible handling noise. If they’d have gone for silence before the band re-entered, that might have been cheesy. Nastasia and Albini allow even this consciously big moment retain its humanity and rough edges.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard then plays one of my favourite guitar solos, a messy, passion-filled 24 bars that function as a sort of boozy, rowdy wake after a sombre funeral. It’s a performance of proper catharsis, a real cleansing. It’s not typical of her later work – instead, it’s the most ‘indie rock’ her music’s ever been – but it’s the record’s key passage, the deepest moment in a record full of them. If you like either Stormy Weather or Nobody Knew Her, you need to hear the album in full. It’s a classic.

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Nina Nastasia

While You Wait for the Others – Grizzly Bear, ft Michael McDonald

Sorry for the lack of updates since New Year’s Day. I did try to write something yesterday but tiredness and lethargy got the better of me. I was unwell over the weekend, and spent rather too much of it feeling sick, or actually being sick, to be able to focus on writing. On the mend now, thankfully!

In 2009, Grizzly Bear released While You Wait for the Others from Veckatimest. The B-side was a second version of the song – the same arrangement, but with guitarist Daniel Rossen’s lead vocals replaced by Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan).

McDonald is the acknowledged harmony-vocal king of the seventies and early eighties and, if you’re into a certain kind of LA studio rock (and I am), his solo debut, If That’s What it Takes, is the ne plus ultra – we’re talking Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, Robben Ford, Dean Parks, Tom Scott, Greg Phillanganes, Michael Omartian, Christopher Cross on backing vocals, Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, even Edgar Winter on sax. And Steve Lukather, of course. As a guy who lapped up Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman records, and grew up on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad – of course this record hits me right where I live.

Grizzly Bear don’t, really. Something about them puts me off a little. There’s a certain lack of delicacy about their music that I find unappealing; everything is a little bigger, grander and less intimate than I’d like it to be, than it needs to be. I usually find myself impressed by their music, but seldom moved. Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed only to like Michael McDonald ironically, admire the craftsmanship but find the whole thing slightly synthetic and soulless. But no. Not at all. As funny as it was, and as much as it did to direct hipsters’ attention to music from the late seventies and early eighties that wasn’t punk or post-punk, perhaps Yacht Rock did guys like McDonald a disservice, giving them a revival that was even more deaf to the qualities of the music than the big band/swing revival of the late nineties, if such a thing were possible. Watching Yacht Rock, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that the band they liked most out of all those they portrayed was actually Van Halen (‘More Eddie! More Alex! More David! More of that other guy!’).

McDonald’s power as a performer comes from his passionate engagement with music. This is a guy who brings tremendous soul to everything he sings, someone who can locate the emotional nub of a piece of music, whether it’s an essentially dry and cerebral construction like the Dan’s I Got the News or a piece of second-rate Tempertonia like Sweet Freedom, which speaks the language of soul but gets far more from McDonald than it had a right to expect.

If only the Grizzlys hadn’t needlessly double-tracked his vocal…

What McDonald did for Grizzy Bear was to plug them into something that’s usually slightly beyond their reach. It was a cute concept, sure, but it actually worked on record. I wish more bands did this kind of thing.

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Grizzly Bear

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Michael McDonald