Tag Archives: songwriting

Classic Openers & Closers

Not all classic albums have classic opening tracks. Very good openers, sure, but not genuinely arresting, heart-stopping brilliant ones. The same is true – truer, even – for final songs. And then there are those strange few classics that have bad last songs.

Why is this? Well, part of what makes a record a classic is its overall shape: the play of one song into another, how a low-key opener explodes into an incredible second song, or how a tumultuous album goes out on a calm, understated note.

An opening or closing song might absolutely do its job but not be, outside the context of the album, a classic. Any rap record that begins or ends on a skit or audio collage (I immediately thought of Illmatic, but insert your own favourite) would, I suppose, be an example of this phenomenon. Or records where the opener or closer is very good, but just not quite stone-cold brilliant: hi there, Second Hand News (Rumours) and Something in the Way (Nevermind).

Or perhaps the artist just didn’t quite sustain their brilliance all the way through to the final track, like Joni Mitchell, who frequently ended her records on a ponderous note*, or Judee Sill, whose debut album is still the best record of all time (yes, it is) even though her usual lightness of touch deserted her on closing track Abracadabra. Or maybe the artist wilfully chose bizarre final songs, like the Byrds so often did.

Perhaps a classic album begins or ends on a track that loads of people think is classic, but actually is really overrated (You Can’t Always Get What You Want from the Stones’ Let it Bleed is my choice, but as I’ve said before, I feel the same about Taxman and the title track from Sgt Pepper as openers).

So, here’s my highly personal, completely-off-the-top-of-my-head, not-entirely-serious, definite-not-exhaustive list of classic (or semi classic) records with amazing opening and closing tracks. As I think of more, I’ll add them.

  • Pet Sounds – Beach Boys (Wouldn’t it Be Nice; Caroline, No)
  • Liege & Lief – Fairport Convention (Matty Groves; Crazy Man Michael)
  • Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch (Revelator; I Dream a Highway)
  • One World – John Martyn (Dealer; Small Hours)
  • Red – King Crimson (Red; Starless)
  • IV – Led Zeppelin (Black Dog; When the Levee Breaks)
  • What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On; Inner City Blues)
  • Dirt – Alice in Chains (Them Bones; Would?)
  • The Boatman’s Call – Nick Cave (Into My Arms; Far From Me)
  • Small Change – Tom Waits (Tom Traubert’s Blues; I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work)
  • Dust – Screaming Trees (Halo of Ashes; Gospel Plow)
  • Happy Sad – Tim Buckley (Strange Feelin’; Sing a Song For You)
  • The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (Excursions; Scenario)
  • Loveless – My Bloody Valentine (Only Shallow; Soon)
  • A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night; I’ll Be Back)
  • Please Please Me – The Beatles (I Saw Here Standing There; Twist & Shout)
  • Talking Book – Stevie Wonder (You Are the Sunshine of My Life; I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever))
  • The Band – The Band (Across the Great Divide; King Harvest Has Surely Come)
  • Music from Big Pink – The Band (Tears of Rage; I Shall be Released)
  • Inside Out – John Martyn (Fine Lines; So Much in Love With You)
  • Bert Jansch – Bert Jansch (Strolling Down the Highway; Angie)
  • Bringing it all Back Home – Bob Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues; It Ain’t Me Babe)
  • Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (Like a Rolling Stone; Desolation Row)
  • Younger than Yesterday – The Byrds (So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star; My Back Pages)
  • Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – Frank Sinatra (You Make Me Feel So Young; How About You?)
  • Workingman’s Dead – The Grateful Dead (Uncle John’s Band; Casey Jones)
  • Sail Away – Randy Newman (Sail Away; God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind))
  • Never for Ever – Kate Bush (Babooshka; Breathing)
  • Melt – Peter Gabriel (Intruder; Biko)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water; Song for the Asking)
  • There Goes Rhymin’ Simon – Paul Simon (Kodachrome; Loves Me Like a Rock)
  • Gaucho – Steely Dan (Babylon Sisters; Third World Man)
  • Forever Changes – Love (Alone Again Or; You Set the Scene)
  • Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays – Nat King Cole & George Shearing (September Song; Don’t Go)
  • Everybody Knows this is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Cinnamon Girl; Cowgirl in the Sand)
  • Harvest – Neil Young (Out on the Weekend; Words (Between the Lines of Age))
  • MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana (About a Girl; Where Did You Sleep Last Night)
  • Doolittle – Pixies (Debaser; Gouge Away)
  • Murmur – REM (Radio Free Europe; West of the Fields)
  • OK Computer – Radiohead (Airbag; The Tourist)
  • Scott 3 – Scott Walker (It’s Raining Today; If You Go Away)
  • Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon (Don’t Make Me a Target; Black Like Me)
  • Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison (Fair Play; Country Fair)
  • There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly & the Family Stone (Luv & Haight; Thank You for Talking to Me Africa)

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good, too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like Andrew Bird, or a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works, as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

beast epic
*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic, self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.

More thoughts on Tim Hardin

If that title makes this post sound like a sequel, it is – to a piece I wrote four years ago and wasn’t all that pleased with.

Last night I played Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe for an audience. I’ve never performed Hardin’s music in front of anyone before, and I picked it not because I thought anyone would know his version, but because they might know Rod Stewart’s, and Mel and I were looking to leaven a long duo set of our original stuff with a few songs people might know. I mentioned that Hardin’s recording was a smaller, more intimate record than the version Stewart cut for Every Picture Tells a Story, and that I would be playing Hardin’s take on the song, just in case they thought I’d stopped because I’d forgotten how it went.

Many artists who take on Hardin can’t resist the urge to urge to elongate and inflate the original text. Hardin’s songs in this day and age can seem alien – so terse, so concise. Five of the 10 songs on Tim Hardin 2 are less than two minutes long. When the average pop song is at least 90 seconds longer than that, Hardin’s ultra-minimal work can come over a bit like a demo that someone else will be taking and polishing up: repeating some bits here and there, raising the key, pushing the tempo.

Yet few versions of Hardin’s songs improve at all on the originals in any respect. Brief as they may be, Hardin’s recordings aren’t short of emotion or ideas; quite the reverse. It’s more that he refused to repeat hooks or choruses for the sake of catchiness if there was no emotional reason to do it. The bit that everyone remembers from Reason to Believe (“Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”) only happens once in Hardin’s recording; the second time it comes round, Hardin doesn’t sing and lets the orchestra carry it. He then sings the first verse again and simply stops at the words “Still I’d look to find a reason to believe”, letting them hang in the air.

I love that about his recordings. It’s so rare in pop music that someone makes understatement and reserve the whole cornerstone of their musical approach. Hardin’s work in its context is revolutionary – his first two albums (which contain Reason to Believe, Black Sheep Boy, It’ll Never Happen Again, How Can We Hang On to a Dream, Misty Roses, If I Were a Carpenter, Red Balloon and Speak Like a Child) were released in 1966 and 1967, years when pop was entering its psychedelic phase and was going maximal.

However untogether he was in his life away from music, Hardin trusted his instincts and refused to follow the herd. Within eighteen months of his first record’s release, a whole movement of singer-songwriters and rootsy rock bands (under the direct influence of The Band and Bob Dylan, a public fan of Hardin’s work) would themselves move away from the high-volume, bright-colour aesthetic of psychedelia towards something more minimal and organic. They were simply rediscovering what Hardin had known all along: the power of speaking quietly when everyone else is shouting.

tim-hardin-1

 

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.

 

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

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.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

https://songsfromsodeep.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/low.jpg
Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is really quite wet. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revival’s middling vocal talents. There’s little that gives a clue as to the leap they were about to make.

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, but Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

Denny
Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock