Tag Archives: songwriting

Bad Times Good – Crowded House

A couple of weeks ago, Crowded House released a new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, the band’s first since 2010’s Intriguer. Basic tracks were recorded in LA before the pandemic started, with the rest being finished remotely last year during the pandemic.* The album features a new line-up of the band: founding members Neil Finn and Nick Seymour (vocals/guitar and bass/vocals respectively), along with Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy (guitar/vocals/drums, and drums/vocals/guitar/keyboards) and producer Mitchell Froom (keyboards).

Neil Finn is, of course, the band’s main songwriter, but this record is notably collaborative, with only six songs being credited solely to him. Liam Finn has one sole writing credit, and the other five feature the band members writing in various combinations. With Tim Finn also co-writing one of the songs, it’s a proper family affair.

My favourite, album opener Bad Times Good, is credited to Neil, Liam and Elroy Finn and Nick Seymour. That’s interesting, as there are elements here that feel new to the band’s music and two credited songwriters who’ve not written for the band before. I’ve not been able to find any articles or interviews that shed light on who was responsible for which parts, so at this stage we can but speculate on who contributed what, but it’s still worth having a poke around under the bonnet, so to speak, to see what makes the song go.

First up, it begins in 5/4 time. The chords are (essentially) F and G, with three beats on the F and two on G, but the voicings on acoustic guitar are extended to something that sounds closer to Fmaj7sus2 and G6, with a single note melody line on electric guitar that bubbles away throughout the verse, pattering toms (sounding as if they’re being played with mallets), and touches of keys and piano from Froom.

Frankly, this is not how you write a song if you’re going for mainstream radio play in 2021. The non-standard time signature means that the melody feels weightless and strange the first few times you hear it; emphases seem to be in strange places, and there’s an unresolved quality to it. The extended chords add to the dreamy atmosphere.

Eventually we move to an unstable-sounding E7 before shifting to C (perhaps revealing that we’ve been in C all along, and F and G are the IV and V chords, with E7 as a substitute for Em) and waltz time for the chorus. Still, though, the melody seems to be playing tricks. We’ve just established our key and a stable-feeling rhythm, but Finn answers the short line “Before we choose a path” with a much longer one “(Let’s spend the night at Los Campeneros, please” – a metrical pattern that doesn’t recur outside this line, with a rhyme that isn’t answered at the end of the chorus. The melody is gorgeous, but in a evanescent kind of way. It feels like it might disappear, or slide out of your hands if you try to grab it.

Via another unstable-sounding chord, this time a D major, we go back into the verse, which mirrors the first in form. The next time the chorus comes round, though, it will be extended and get really cool harmonically:

E7 | C | A7 | Dm | E7 | C | D | Dm | Em | Am | A | A7

These are the type of “songwriter’s” chords that anyone who learned guitar by playing Beatles songs will recognise. E7 and A7 as substitute iii and vi chords in the key of C crop up in numerous Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as in those by their conscious inheritors: the likes of Alex Chilton, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, and Neil Finn himself. What I particularly like, though, is the emotional journey you get taken on by the shifts from major to parallel minor, and minor to parallel major. Everytime you think you know where you stand harmonically, the ground shifts beneath your feet.

Major/minor games continue in the middle eight, with its twice-repeated Dm | E7 | C | D sequence. This is the section of the song that will sound most like Crowded House to the majority of listeners, with Finn singing up in his Not the Girl You Think You Are range (that is, his most Lennon-esque range), while the close harmony vocals take full advantage of the possibilties inherent in that D to Dm change halfway through the sequence.

It’s lovely, but the band don’t overplay it. It’s over before it outstays its welcome, and is genuinely only eight bars long (not all middle eights are). From there, it’s back into the verse, and a slow, atmospheric winding down of the song.

5/4 time signature apart, all the elements of the song – the clever chord sequences, the unshowy but intelligently written lyrics, the dreamy atmosphere – are frequently present in Neil Finn’s songwriting, whether for his main band, solo albums or side projects. But still, the song does feel like a subtle evolution for the band, and the shared writing credits may have something to do with it. The rest of the album is good too, if perhaps not quite at the level of Bad Times Good. Some of the more uptempo songs remind me a little of the Go Betweens, while the gentle, predominantly acoustic Show Me the Way (not a Peter Frampton cover) and Too Good for this World (co-written by Neil and Tim Finn) are both lovely.

*In all probability, the band always intended to work this way. A two-part tracking process – full-band basic tracks being recorded in a studio, overdubs recorded remotely by band members using home-recording equipment – is how most rock, indie and singer-songwriter records that feature live drums are recorded these days. Much cheaper than doing the whole thing in the studio.

Gillian Welch, Living in the Now

I’ve been writing this blog a pretty long time now: seven and a half years. The problem is, I published pieces on most of my favourite music before I’d found a tone that wasn’t completely insufferable. Here’s a retake of a piece I wrote in 2013 about one of my favourite records ever, inspired by a Twitter exchange I had yesterday.

Something happened to Gillian Welch’s writing between 1996, when she released her debut album, Revival, and 2001, when she released her masterpiece, Time (The Revelator). In 1996, her songs were mostly sepia-toned, frequently sung in character, and narrated in the past tense: stories about hard-scrabble, often rural, lives. By 2001, she had largely abandoned linear narrative and past-tense settings, instead writing in what is clearly discernible as now, but seldom telling stories with a beginning, middle and end.

In the same period, she went from being a promising young up-and-comer to being possibly the best songwriter in the world.

Were these two things related? What was the relationship between them: causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if it was causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Writing original songs that aim for timelessness and woody authenticity is difficult, particularly if you’re setting them in the past. It’s easy for listeners to become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers (a critic for whom I have a ton of respect and who has written pieces I’d kill to have written) was negative about Revival when reviewing it for Rolling Stone:

“[Revival] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.”

Christgau was even less impressed:

“She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.”

He’s never given Welch the time of day since.

But these were uncharitable reviews, and in Christgau’s case possibly hypocritical: after all, he’d never complained that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville Train. He’d never castigated Randy Newman for not having lived through the Great Mississippi Flood when he released Louisiana 1927.

While neither Powers nor Christgau seemed able to hear it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and Revival contained several undeniable successes. Perhaps what was really going on here was a willed failure to suspend disbelief, a refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet long enough to properly hear the songs. When Welch adopted a character on songs like Annabelle, One More Dollar and Tear My Stillhouse Down, her middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – was an easy stick to beat her with.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), Welch had significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival, but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (The Revelator). Instead there are meditations and recollections, and when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given disconnected pieces of it from somewhere out of the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April the 14th (Part 1):

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

It’s a world away from “We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust”.

So if her lyrics did change between Revival and Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody from Welch, and the very impressive singing and guitar playing from both Welch and her partner David Rawlings. But for a songwriter whose arrangements are mostly just two guitars and two voices, the quality of the lyric takes on even great importantce. When Welch and Rawlings came back with Time (The Revelator), the songs were more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April the 14th (Part 1) is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world of mobile telephones, vans and punk bands playing low-rent shows, but Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on 14th April: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a “ruination day”? What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies?

Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy, compared to this. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief after her own death; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless after being laid off and losing all his money gambling. In the world that the songs have established, these were not unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined by the listener.

By Time (The Revelator), she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave questions unanswered. April the 14th (Part 1)’s sister song, Ruination Day (Part 2), does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. Instead, it doubles down on the inscrutability of the earlier song. In Ruination Day (Part 2), the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising questions like this and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this game and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time (The Revelator), it does feel just a little like she’s working with archetypes and well-worn stories.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on The Band’s second album), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

The late Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the “awkward truth” that “to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness”. Welch more or less proved James’s contention by coming nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. Whether it was conscious or not, it marked a step change in her work. Time (The Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but that’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record in the first place.

Indian Queens – Nick Lowe

I’ve come up dry this week. I’ve been busy doing mixes for James McKean’s next record, as well as stuff by Yo Zushi, Mel and myself, and I’ve hardly listened to music other than the stuff I’m working on. I’ve pulled this one out of my archives. It’s about a record I’ve written about before, but you’ll forgive me, I hope. Stay safe and well.

The study of place names is a means of studying history and topography. The place-name element “ford”, as you would imagine, means a shallow a river crossing. Catford is the place where cattle crossed the river; Oxford, the place where oxen did likewise. “Ham” means a village or dwelling. Lewisham (the “Lewis” bit deriving from “læsew”, meaning meadow) means a village, or house, in the meadow. Birmingham is the dwelling place of the Beormingas, the followers of a leader called Beorma. A “hurst” is a wooded hill; Chislehurst means literally “gravel hill”. The ubiquitous place-name elements “chester”, “caster” and “cester” all derive from “castrum”, the Roman word for a fort.

Know a bit about place names, and already you know whether the place is built by a river or on a hill, whether it’s inland or coastal, wooded or farmed, and even how long it’s been there.

What are we to make, then, of Indian Queens in Cornwall?

By all accounts, the village was named for its inn, called at various points The Indian Queen and The Indian Queens. The pub had a small porch and displayed as a sign the portrait of an “Indian” queen. An inscription on the porch told the story of a Portuguese princess who landed at Falmouth and slept one night at the inn on her way to London. Her Mediterranean appearance gave the locals, who had little context for any skin tone other than the three basic British types (milky white, ruddy red for those who work outside, and midday beetroot for heavy drinkers) the impression that she was Indian. Whether they meant by that a West Indian, a Native American or South Asian is, again, debated. Some fanciful types even like to imagine the woman in question was not Portuguese but was, in fact, Pocahontas on her way to be shown off to London society.

Indian Queens is the title of a song by Nick Lowe, from his 2001 album, The Convincer. At the time, Lowe was only 52, but in the cover image, as he sat cigarette in hand, resplendent in silver quiff, blue blazer, cufflinks, pinstriped shirt and pale tie, he looked closer to the age he is now (70). Thanks to his tobacco-thickened voice, he sounded older, too, which is appropriate for Indian Queens, as a younger singer would have trouble selling this story of an itinerant sailor who’s been all around the world, making mistakes everywhere, and now longing for the village of his youth.

Indian Queens, evocative and intriguing though the name is, plays little part in the song itself. Lowe could have chosen anything that fit the metre. But character sketches like this song live or die on the little details, and the fact that our narrator comes from a small village in Cornwall with a somewhat improbable name is a exactly the kind of thing that brings both character and song to life.

I love Lowe’s work on The Convincer. It’s a low-stakes record, but in paring his sound and lyrical approach down to their barest essentials (the economy of language in Indian Queens is massively impressive – he sketches situations and characters in just a line or two of simple, mainly one-syllable words), Lowe made what might be the best album of his career sound like something he just dashed off in a couple of evenings with his mates. The man’s a damn genius.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

New single out on 14 March

Hi everyone. My apologies for keeping you waiting for the next More Live Gonzos post. The last one was a pretty serious investment of time, and in the week since I’ve been busy and a bit stressed, and just not able to make time for the listening, thinking and drafting I’d need to put in to do the next one properly. So I figured I’d post about some other things in the meantime, while I try to get into gear on the next live album.

One of the things I’ve been working on is a digital-only single. My main focus over the winter has been to finish and release an EP that my partner Melanie and I are working on. The EP will be six songs, three songs each, and is basically all acoustic folky stuff: only one song features a full band arrangement. But both of us have interests across the musical spectrum, and we both had a couple of strong songs that didn’t fit the style of the EP. Rather than let them sit there for months, or years, we figured better to just put them out.

My 2-song single You Won’t Need to Cry b/w Hard to Begin will come out on Saturday 14 March. The songs are both, broadly speaking, indie-pop. You Won’t Need to Cry is a slightly mechanised 1980s kind of thing, with harmonies and doubled vocals and a lot of layered guitars. Hard to Begin is more of a McCartney/Elliott Smith type of song, with an extended chord sequence in the verse, a proper middle eight, some very Ringo-ish drums and all that kind of stuff.

It’ll be available through Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes (at least, I think so. iTunes will soon be defunct so not toally sure), Apple Music, Google Play, Soundcloud and a whole bunch of other platforms. But I thought I’d offer free-of-charge advance copies to readers of the blog, as a thank you for coming here and reading my blatherings. It means a lot that you do. If you’d like a free download code, email me through the blog or send me a DM on Twitter.

The Mel-and-Ross EP will be available shortly thereafter (I reckon April), and Mel’s single will come out not long after that.

You Won't Need to Cry sleeve w text 5 square
Home-made cover art. Excellent picture taken from the top of St Paul’s by Melanie. Less-than-excellent text by me.

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