Tag Archives: the right

C + E – Lou Barlow

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, have a good handle on their catalogue and only really need from each new record one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all – a couple of songs to add an evolving iTunes playlist. In the last 10 years, Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a new and better version of Morning’s After Me* and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Those will do nicely. Newie Brace the Wave I only acquired this morning, but it sounds very promising, and C + E already feels like one for the ages.

It’s always great to reconnect with Barlow’s music, to hear it as I heard it in my high-school years. It’s worth reiterating (for younger readers, if indeed I have any) that in the 1990s lo-fi was not an aesthetic choice so much as a practical necessity if you were working outside a traditional recording studio environment. Machines like the Tascam 414 and 424 (I still own one of both, though my dad is kindly warehousing them) allowed you to create multitrack recordings in your bedroom, but with such a low tape speed and four tracks crammed on to a quarter-inch cassette, the noise floor was high and the high end response limited. It didn’t matter. You could make records in your bedroom. The idea is now commonplace. In the early 1980s, when Bruce Springsteen used the newfangled Tascam 144 to create demos he would eventually release as Nebraska, it was something close to revolutionary.

Barlow – restlessly, relentlessly creative once J Mascis turfed him out of Dinosaur Jr – probably had no realistic choice but to go the home-recording route. Recording all his songs and tape loop experiments in a for-hire studio would have been pretty darn costly. As an alumnus of one of the most beloved bands in American indie rock he was always going to find a label interested in putting out his stuff, but how helpful was it that he could deliver them a record without any recording cost? Even once Sebadoh evolved into a real band around the time of III, Barlow’s portions were still home recorded. Anything released under the Sentridoh banner was home recorded. Early Folk Implosion was home recorded. The “Lou Barlow” records he’s made in the last 10 years have been recorded in his home studio or in a similar spirit, quickly and unfussily, in mid-range pro facilities.

This quick-and-unfussy vibe is exactly what his fans respond to. Of course, just because you’re recording at home on a Portastudio, doesn’t mean that the recording is a live performance with no overdubs and no punch-ins and no fixes and that there really was a live performance and this is it and golly gee isn’t this so unmediated and intimate and real?

But damned if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes.

Listened to objectively, C + E has its sonic problems: the vocal is loud in relation to the guitar; the ambient, roomy sound of the vocal has a clangy quality to it that’s not totally pleasant. None of this matters. The feeling the song creates makes all the rest irrelevent. C + E feels like a moment in time, a musician at his most unguarded.

That’s why the people who care about Lou Barlow (or Elliott Smith, or Robert Pollard, or any other home-recording auteur) care so much: because the music is so unvarnished, you feel a deeper connection to it, to the person who made it. Maybe it’s delusory to feel that way, but the illusion created is a powerful one.

Listening to Brace the Wave, and the extraordinary C + E, I’m struck over and again by the same thought. It’s great to hear Barlow, aged 49, still doing what he’s always been best at: banging on his guitar alone in a room, tearing at your heartstrings.

3 ages of Barlow
l-r Lou Barlow, Gavin Rossdale, Jerry Garcia**

*The original was from Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, a multi-artist concept/compilation album (featuring lo-fi indie rockin’ vets like Mary Timony, Guided by Voices, Grandaddy, Quasi and the inevitable Steven Malkmus) about a military man with severe allergy-induced hallucinations. If that sounds too unbearably cute for you, be assured that Barlow brings some genuine pathos to his contribution, and that its origins as one chapter in a larger story don’t stop it being an effective standalone track on Emoh.

**I’m teasing of course. l-r Barlow in the late 1980s, the late 1990s and recently

Advertisements

Sebadoh

Yesterday I picked up tickets for Sebadoh’s London show later this year. I’ve never seen them before and Lou Barlow was and remains a pretty major influence on me as a musician, so I’m fairly psyched about this. I caught the New Folk Implosion line-up at Reading in 2001 and they were really good, but that’s the only Barlow-related gig I’ve ever seen. The ‘Doh pulled out of Glastonbury 1999 (as did Elliott Smith, curse my luck), which was the only previous time I was going to see them. I avoided the resissue-promo/nostalgia tours. So this is it. Jason Loewenstein, new drummer Bob D’Amico and Lou Barlow, at Dingwalls. Yeah, looking forward to it.

So I’ve been listening to Sebadoh since Thursday, more than I have in a long, long time.

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on their catalogue and all I really need with each new record is one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all: a couple of songs to add an iTunes playlist. Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a better version of Morning’s After Me (the original was from the Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel multi-artist concept/compilation album) and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Yeah, he’s still got it.

Once you’re in this mindset, it changes the way you hear the back catalogue. You get less concerned with creating lists and taxonomies and Top 5s, and more with the overall shape of an artist’s career. You become aware, perhaps, that there are different accomplishments in music. I reckon Barlow’s one of the best songwriters of the last 25 years or so. He’s probably never written a genuinely great song (a Heard It Through the Grapevine, a Strawberry Fields Forever, a Someone to Watch Over Me – something of that calibre), but he’s written dozens of really good ones. I’m not sure whether that’s a greater achievement than managing to focus all your talent into one flawless song. The pop fan in me says it isn’t; the rock fan says it is. No surprise there.

If he ever made a great album, I think it’s the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby, a sorely underrated record I’ve talked about here before. The nature of Sebadoh as a band, with its shifting line-ups and sometimes strained attempts to run itself as a democracy, always made it unlikely that they ever would make a sustained, consistent and great work of art. Lou was too likely to mawkishly overshare or indulge in another anti-Mascis rant; Eric Gaffney was too likely to come unglued (working out what distinguishes a good Gaffney song from a bad one is an entertaining, hilariously difficult enterprise) and unleash an Elixir is Zog rather than an Emma Get Wild.

For me, and I think many long-time fans, this is the point of the band. Barlow’s songs don’t work without Gaffney’s, or Loewenstein’s. Repeat sentence, change the order the names appear in. Listening to the band is like listening to the White Album writ large; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the best stuff is made better by rubbing shoulders with the questionable.

But still, somefans are strangely apt to respond positively to one small era of the band’s history and disregard the rest. III is the oft-cited early 1990s lo-fi sprawlathon that launched a thousand home-taping imitations; Bubble & Scrape the last hurrah of the Gaffney era; Bakesale where the band turned up the drive on the guitars and Jason matured into a songwriter capable of providing an energetic, humorously aggressive foil to Barlow. But these fans, whether they champion III, Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale or, in those rare cases, Harmacy, will all agree that The Sebadoh was a stinker (I actually like it a lot), and they’ll usually have little time for what came after/before their favoured era, sometimes repudiating it entirely. The band have achieved elder-statesmen status now so the consensus opinion is mellowing a little, but 10 years ago there were a lot of former ‘Doh fans who didn’t want Barlow around reminding them of the confused awkward teenager they used to be when they listened to this stuff.

For me, that’s not what this band was about. If you like Sebadoh, how can you not appreciate Jason Loewenstein, who’s been a far more effective long-term foil to Barlow than Gaffney ever was? A punk-rock kind of guy with a useful sideline in smoky ballads, latter-day band recording engineer and all-round decent dude, Loewenstein got stronger and stronger as the band went on. There’s no one record containing top-level work from the three principal songwriters who have been members, either because they weren’t in the band at the time, or because they had only just joined, or because they were just a kid drafted in at a moment’s notice. Many things made Sebadoh great, not all of them present at the same time, and so there’s no defining Sebadoh record, and neither is there a best one.

Sebadoh__1_

Early Sebadoh: l-r Eric Gaffney, Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein

The Murder of Maria Marten – Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

Shirley Collins was already a folk-music veteran in 1971, having released half a dozen records since 1959, including the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes with Davy Graham (1964) and Anthems in Eden (1969) with the New Music Consort and her sister Dolly on portative organ. She was a – probably the – leading figure among the younger generation of folk-revival musicians. As a teenager she met Ewan McColl and Alan Lomax, with whom she went on a song-collecting trip to America. While she doubtless absorbed McColl and Lomax’s passion for and commitment to the folk music of Britain and North America, she did not contract the fatal disease of dogmatism. Collins may be emphatically a folk singer in the literal sense – a living link in Britain’s chain of song and not a singer-songwriter like Sandy Denny or a hybrid writer/interpreter like Anne Briggs – but her most celebrated recordings look forward, not backward.

The third and last of the three revolutionary albums in her discography is No Roses, the first release by the newly formed Albion Country Band, a group put together by Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchins, who wanted to carry on the work begun on Liege and Lief. Although Richard Thompson was becoming more interested in writing original material than performing the old songs, he was along for the ride on lead guitar, as was Simon Nicol on a rhythm guitar and the Fairport rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. But also present were players of the concertina, fiddle, crumhorn, ophicleide, Northumbrian smallpipes, hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer and a variety of other decidedly non-rock instruments, and a who’s who of singing talent, including various Watersons and members of the Young Tradition. All in all, there are 27 credited musicians on the record.

The Murder of Maria Marten tells the story of the Red Barn Murder in Suffolk, for which William Corder was hanged. But the record is less notable for the performance of the song than for what it represents. Fairport even at their most traditional featured the band’s original material and an instrumental approach more rock than folk. In contrast, No Roses sees folk and rock trying to come to some sort of accommodation with each other, but with neither willing to cede any ground to the other. The effect is jarring. The fade out from the full-band performance (with a backbeat and chord changes) to a verse sung to accompaniment of a hurdy-gurdy drone is the crudest of arrangemental devices. Richard Thompson and fiddler Nic Jones solo over each other more than with each other, seemingly deaf to each other’s playing. The rock musicians, schooled in Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, are forced to improvise bars of 5/4 to work with the winding, serpentine melody.

So folk wins in the grand tug o’ war between folk and rock, then? Well, in this case, I think it does. Perhaps because Collins worked at the trad end of the British revival, she was happier for the rock musicians to adapt themselves to suit her, rather than the other way round. But even though primacy is given to folk over rock, few records have so adeptly blended the sensibilities of the two.

Both folk and rock embody certain tensions and paradoxes. Rock music is individualistic and has from its very beginning been in cahoots with the industry in the pursuit of money. It’s usually conservative in musical form and instrumentation, and often reactionary in its social attitudes to women, gay people and immigrants. Unless a rock ’n’ roller outs him/herself as a socialist, it’s usually safe to assume they’re a free-market liberal with a small social-democratic cherry on top, or a don’t-tread-on-me libertarians. Yet rock music has often been the focus of grassroots communitarianism and activism (albeit usually at a far lower level of commercial success and social visibility than that of mainstream music-industry rock) since the first hippies let their freak flags fly.

Folk music, on the other hand, has been identified with socialist, even communist, sympathies since early in the twentieth century, and going back further. Song collector Cecil Sharp was a Fabian, and folk-sympathising composers Vaughan Williams and Holst were part of William Morris’s Socialist group in the 1890s. Later figures such as Bert Lloyd, Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl were forthright communists. Yet the impulse to conserve past traditions and big-C Conservatism are separated by a line all too easily crossed when your cast of mind is instinctively wary of progress, and so folk music has never been without its political reactionaries.

So folk and rock share an internal tension between progressive and conservative insitincts, musically and socially. Perhaps it was this that facilitated the successful blend of form and feeling that we find on No Roses. Certainly I know of no subsequent records that do what this one does so well: apart from the airy jazz excursions of the Pentangle, folk-rock has usually simply meant a band led by an acoustic guitar-playing singer-songwriter with a 4/4 rhythm section. The Albion Country Band was something very different, and for a time something very worthwhile.

Image

Shirley Collins, with banjo

A political preamble

This is not going to be a political blog. However, I do see the world a certain way and my appreciation of music, the arts and all the other things I’ll talk about here is filtered through a left-wing political sensibility, which may at times become evident. So on this single occasion (OK, I can’t promise never to return to matters political – they preoccupy me more and more), I may as well give you a bit of background.

Since the Thatcher/Reagan era, the narrative of the ideological right, reinforced constantly by politicians, newspapers and media figures, has essentially been, and this doesn’t seem set to change any time soon, that successful people have earned their success and they deserve to enjoy it. If that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be all that objectionable. But the corollary to this – sometimes unspoken but implied, sometimes proudly declared – is that if the rich have earned their wealth, the poor have earned their poverty, whether through misdeeds, or poor choices, or lack of hard work. The money earned by wealthy people, then, should not be taken away from them and spent on the poor, the sick and the unemployed, who by and large deserve their fates.

Where to start with this? Well, this view of the world supposes that we are all in control of our lives and our choices, and that whatever we are, we have chosen to be. Anyone, if only he or she has the gumption, can make a material success of their lives with hard work and ambition. Far more than talent, graft and determination is all that is necessary.

This view of the world fails to recognise the importance of contacts, access to capital, luck, good health. It doesn’t acknowledge the existence of poverty of familial expectation. It fails to appreciate that a person might have the business acumen of Richard Branson and the inventive genius of James Dyson, but if she can’t get a loan because she has a low income, if she is struck down by degenerative illness, if she has talents that no one ever identified and helped nurture, if she has dependents who need her to earn a steady income – any steady income – then her talents will go unrewarded and unrealised.

This worldview results from this lack of imagination and empathy, from not understanding that it could happen to you.

Let me be clear (as politicians love to say): it can happen to you.

Unemployment can happen to you – it happened to me, when the firm I worked for full-time as a freelancer ceased trading without notice after the directors transferred all the assets out of the company and locked the staff out of the building, defrauding their employees, their freelancers and their clients.

Ill health could happen to you – it happened to me when my heart failed in 2011, leaving me hospitalised, facing an extremely uncertain future, and truly aware for the first time that in this country we really don’t care for our sick, our poor, our elderly and our under-educated. We treat them instead with barely concealed suspicion and resentment.

I am lucky. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy did not kill me, like it kills so many others. It – and this is down to extraordinary luck and good NHS treatment – did not even leave me particularly damaged. You wouldn’t know if you saw me on the street now that I had ever been ill. But when I was trying to come to terms with a life without any of the old certainties and opportunities, I realised what it is to depend on others, and I came to understand (not merely in an abstract sense) that the state does not want to help you, that for many there is no safety net.

You might not need a safety net today. You may imagine that those who do have been reckless and deserve the hardship they face. God forbid you ever go through what I have.

But when you’re next reading the paper, watching the news or casting your vote, perhaps you’ll think about this. And be thankful for the good fortune that allows you to live in such unthinking complacency.

That said, let’s talk music.