Tag Archives: Tim Buckley

More Live Gonzos, Part 4 – Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 by Tim Buckley

I suppose any reasonable review of Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 should begin with this. By the time Tim Buckley played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Lee Underwood, Dave Friedman and a hired-for-the-occasion Danny Thompson, he’d made two albums already, he was just weeks away from recording his first masterpiece, Happy Sad, and he was only 21 years old.

Of course, prodigies occur in all forms of music. But within pop music, even those who show great songwriting talent at an early age tend to be writing to a formula, whether it’s Chuck Berry-influenced surf songs or Brill Building girl-group pop. Tim Buckley’s songs could scarcely be further from formula. From Goodbye and Hello‘s pseudo-medieval prog-folk-epic title track or Happy Sad‘s brooding multi-part Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On the Pacific Coast Highway), Buckley’s music usually eschewed simple ABAB verses and choruses, and they had been more or less expunged by the time of Happy Sad.

He stood on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, then, a young man in a hurry: ambitious both professionally and artistically, with a voice that had never failed to carry him anywhere his imagination wanted to go. He was in the midst of throwing off the rather wet medievalisms of his first two records, had divested himself of lyricist Larry Beckett’s services, and was in a state of grace most musicians will never know.

The gig begins with Buzzin’ Fly, which was yet to be released and the majority of his audience would never have heard. The ringing suspended fourths and sixths of the intro, played by Buckley on his Guild 12-string acoustic, sound like the sun coming out. This is music of uncommon joy and wonder, as the lovestruck Buckley pleads to know everything about his new lover. Guitarist Lee Underwood, so crucial to Buckley’s fusion of folk and exploratory jazz, extemporises off melodic ideas that will reappear in the finished recording, while Danny Thompson, hired to stand in for Buckley’s regular bassist John Miller, sounds immediately at home playing this music.

Buzzin’ Fly would likely have been the first time that this audience had heard Buckley’s new folk-jazz music, on which he used his voice to explore and improvise within melodies, frequently over extended, loose structures. As if to reassure his fans, then, Buckley’s next song is from Goodbye and Hello. This reading of Phantasmagoria in Two for me crushes the more rock-influenced studio recording. Not simply because Buckley’s voice sounds richer, more adult and more wracked, but simply because the slower tempo allows greater nuance of phrasing. Underwood really burrows under the skin of this one; his needling outburst of tremolo picking after the first bridge is spine-tingling.

Buckley sticks with Goodbye and Hello material for the next song. Morning Glory was probably the best-known song from the album thanks to covers by Blood, Sweat & Tears (a bit of a horror show), Fairport Convention (wet, as you’d expect from first-album Fairport, but Richard Thompson’s on good form) and the Stone Poneys (wholly creditable, though Linda Ronstadt’s psuedo-British accent is odd), and the audience applaud in recognition after the first line. Again, this live version seems superior to the studio recording to me. Larry Beckett’s lyrics have never been my cup of tea, but Buckley wrings real poignancy out of them here, and the sparser arrangement suits the song and drains it of its preciousness. Danny Thompson wisely lays back, but Friedman’s vibes are particularly crucial.

In December 1966, Capitol released Fred Neil’s magnificent self-titled album, his second solo record. Its first song, The Dolphins, is one of the absolute pinnacles of 1960s folk rock. Tim Buckley covered it on stage in London, and would record it (as simply “Dolphins”) five years later for Sefronia. I don’t like that version much at all: the rhythm section stomps all over it, especially the bass player, and the backing vocals were a very bad idea. But Buckley could sure sing this song, so Dream Letter is much the best place to hear him do it. Underwood’s mid-song solo is particularly fine, and at other times in the song he seems to pick up on some of the ideas Pete Childs played on Neil’s recording, while Thompson underpins things with some inventive triplet patterns.

I’ve Been Out Walking begins by quoting Jackson Browne’s These Days (“Well I’ve been out walking; I don’t do too much talkinn these days”), which first surfaced the year before Dream Letter was recorded, on Nico’s 1967 debut solo album Chelsea Girl. I think we can assume Buckley was familiar with Nico’s recording and the quote is intentional, and was just a means of getting him started with his own song, as the rest of it bears little resemblance to Browne’s work. It’s loose and semi-improvised sounding, in the vein of his Happy Sad material. Buckley pushes his voice hard, at times sounding like Robert Plant, and the mid-song scat workout sees him reach up to the highest extremes of his incredibly wide vocal range*.

Like I’ve Been Out Walking, the delicate The Earth is Broken, which Buckley sings with just his own guitar as accompaniment, never appeared on a studio record. It’s said that the song is Buckley’s response to Larry Beckett being drafted, and he does seem genuinely bereft. Buckley’s vibrato, always extravagant but usually so assured, sounds vulnerable and halting, as if he’s not fully in control. It’s just a handful of chords over seven minutes, and almost uncomfortably naked, but it’s riveting, one of the best things in the whole set, and my favourite among the tracks played here that Buckley never released on a studio album.

He begins the improvised-sounding, mono-chordal Who Do You Love as if anxious to break the spell he’d spent the last seven minutes casting. He’s exuberant, but his voice has an edge to it. It’s jumpy, rather than joyful. Mostly, Buckley is playing with blues- and folk-song cliches. The playing by Friedman, Underwood and Thompson is fine, but it’s one of the gig’s less essential moments, and at nine and a half minutes it’s one of the few songs that outstay their welcome.

Returning to the Goodbye and Hello songbook, Buckley strikes up the dour, descending chord sequence of Pleasant Street. He takes it at a much slower tempo than the album cut, and in a lower key too, turning a dark fantasia into something much more obviously foreboding. It’s goosebump stuff, especially when nearly six minutes in he picks up the tempo and springs a surprise by launching into a verse and chorus of the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On. Vanilla Fudge’s heavy-metal-bummer cover of the song had appeared the previous year, and while I can’t imagine Buckley having all that much time its melodrama, it’s impossible not to hear the two readings as at least somewhat spiritually akin, even if Buckley’s reading of the lyrics (“set me free why don’t you, babe” etc.) may have more to do with his relationship with drugs than romantic entrapment, when we consider the song from which he segued into it.

Love from Room 109 (at the Islander) is Happy Sad‘s 11-minute centrepiece, a stark, achingly atmospheric medley composed of three distinct but musically sympathetic songs, stitched together so naturally that you hardly notice the joins. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Buckley plays the first two thirds of the piece – songs originally demoed as Ashbury Park and Danang (available on the compilation Works in Progress**). The album recording of these songs is astonishing, but this reading is just as good. In the opening section, Thompson shows just what he can do with a nice chewy chord sequence to work with, and Underwood and Friedman play as if possessed of a shared mind.

Five minutes or so in, Buckley switches to the opening chords of Strange Feelin’. Now, the intro of this song on Happy Sad, as Buckley’s 12-string strums gradually emerge from the Miles Davis-quoting vibes, is one of the most magical passages of music I know, and Strange Feelin’ without its intro is a fundamentally different piece of music, even putting to one side the fact that Buckley is at this point still working the song out, trying on lyrics and melodies to see how they fit. It’s probably only 50% of the song it would become, but that’s still quite a song, and hearing it as part of a medley with the first two thirds of Love from Room 109 recasts it entirely. Buckley’s half-finished lyrics are much goofier than the finished piece would be (“Ah darlin’, don’t you marry, don’t you marry the milkman/’Cos he’s always making the rounds”), much more unguarded, and after the darkness of Ashbury Park and Danang, the goofing around is a joy.

After a jokey introduction about New York’s lack of carnivals, Buckley and Friedman begins a mash-up of Carnival Song from Goodbye and Hello and Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, from the 1953 film Lili. Pauline Kael despised the film’s “sickly whimsy”, and something of that quality exists in Bronisław Kaper’s and Helen Deutsch’s quasi title song. The material is, at any rate, stretched rather thin over its seven minutes, and with Buckley’s guitar out of tune and his voice straining a little, this is the concert’s twee-est (and for me its weakest) moment.

Fortunately, the next track is Hallucinations, a setting for Thompson’s, Underwood’s and Friedman’s most adventurous playing. Thompson, who had gone toe to toe with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, was in his element playing this music, mixing jazz and folk so completely that they become a whole new thing, a true alloy of both. Underwood’s long mid-song solo, which mixes dextrous legato passages with a descending melody lines harmonised in thirds, is maybe his best passage of playing in the whole gig.

Troubadour is another one of the songs that never appeared on a studio album. Marred slightly by Buckley’s out-of-tune 12 string, it nevertheless takes off in its wordless la-la-la middle section, particularly when Buckley starts scat-singing, three and half minutes in. Underwood, Friedman are again crucial, creating a sympathetic tapestry behind Buckley’s guitar and vocal.

The despondent heart of Happy Sad, Dream Letter sees Buckley sifting through his wrecked marriage to Mary Guibert and wondering about his son (“Is he mama’s little man/Does he help you when he can? Does he ask about me? […] oh, what I’d give to hold him”). It’s heartbreakingly raw and tender, and on both Happy Sad and on stage in London it inspired wonderful playing from his collaborators. Thompson’s bowed bass is more often felt than heard, but provides a mournful foundation for Underwood’s needling Telecaster and Friedman’s vibes.

As the song finishes, Buckley goes straight into Happy Time from Blue Afternoon, though taken a lot faster and in a higher key than the studio version, once again seeking to shake off the darkness as quickly as possible. Friedman’s vibes bubble over, but Buckley’s own vocal improvisations are as notable in their invention as anything his instrumentalists play.

The heavily rhythmic, raga-like strumming that begins Wayfaring Stranger suggests an interest in Indian music (an interest he was far from alone in holding in 1968. You Got Me Runnin’, the apparently improvised piece Buckley segues into, is, like Who Do You Love, a little drawn out for me, despite his impressive vocal pyrotechnics. In the opening and closing versions of Wayfaring Stranger, though, his explorations are more successful and breathe new life into a text that even fifty years ago was probably a little too familiar to many.

Once I Was is a gorgeous closer. The Dream Letter version, shorn of its Goodbye and Hello arrangement of brushed drums and cowboy harmonica, sounds even closer to Fred Neil’s style than it does on the album. It has one of Buckley’s simplest and loveliest melodies, and brings the concert to a wistful end. At its conclusion, Buckley says simply “Thank you very much”, and the the applause fades.

Dream Letter is an astonishing record. It’s axiomatic that Buckley’s studio albums contain snapshots of songs that found their truest expressions in live performance. In this respect, Buckley was more akin to a jazz instrumentalist – or a jam-oriented band like the Grateful Dead – than he was to most singer-songwriters. It’s the songs from Goodbye and Hello that benefit most from being reinterpreted on the stage. In the couple of years since that album’s release, Buckley’s voice and matured and deepened, and was more elastic, but more fundamentally than that, he brought greater emotion and maturity to his performances. There’s also the matter of Underwood, Friedman and Thompson, whose collective ability to follow Buckley wherever he went is astonishing; it’s worth reiterating that Thompson was a stand-in who’d had minimal rehearsal time. The way he integrates with the other players is incredibly impressive.

Serious Tim Buckley fans won’t need telling that Dream Letter (and Live at the Troubadour 1969) are as crucial to Buckley’s discography as the run of studio albums from Goodbye and Hello to Starsailor. But if you’re a casual Buckley fan, or a fan of jazz-inflected folk generally, this is must-listen, a marvel.

tim-buckley

*He claimed he had five and a half octaves, but that seems a tall story that’s been accepted and passed down among fans. The lowest note I can think of in on one of his songs is the low B he sings in the first line of Happy Sad‘s Strange Feelin’. It’s quiet and quite thin sounding, so I don’t think he could go much lower than that and hit a strong note. The highest comes in that extraordinary outburst at the end of Gypsy Woman from Live at the Troubadour, recorded in 1969 (“Gypsy woman, ca-a-a-a-a-ast a spell on Timmy”), which is four octaves above his low B from Strange Feelin’. It’s possible he could hit higher than that, but I can’t imagine he could go an octave and a half above it.

**Thanks to James McKean for pointing me in the direction of the demo versions.

 

 

Small Town Talk – Barney Hoskyns

This Christmas I’ve been reading Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, the latest book by Barney Hoskyns.

Hoskyns wrote about The Band (and Dylan) at length in Across the Great Divide: The Band & America in 1993, so Small Town Talk does retread some familiar ground. But while Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are major figures in Small Town Talk (after all, they stayed in Woodstock long after Dylan headed back to New York, and all but Robertson found their way back later for a second stint in the town), the book is more than anything about Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band and Joplin (not to mention Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Peter, Paul and Mary). And Grossman is a fascinating, if frequently appalling, figure.

Swimming in money from his early successes, Grossman built himself an empire – an Albertopolis, if you will (though for more than one of Hoskyns’s interviewees it was more like Charle Foster Kane’s Xanadu) – in Bearsville, just to the west of Woodstock: a recording studio, a record label, a restaurant, a bar and eventually a theatre. It was through Grossman that Dylan ended up in Woodstock, and most of the artists Grossman managed followed him there. But even those who benefited directly from his patronage loved and hated Albert Grossman in just about equal measure.* He was a bully, he was ruthless, and frequently cold and distant. Even artists he seemed to on some level care about as people were in the end merely a means for Grossman to make money; knowing full well her addiction problems, Grossman took out a life-insurance policy on Janis Joplin. When she died, he received $200,000.

For Hoskyns, the rise and fall of Grossman’s empire mirrors the rise and fall of Woodstock as a major centre of popular music. To compare Woodstock with its West Coast equivalent, Laurel Canyon (which Hoskyns wrote about in Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons), encapsulates the problem. The roll call of major artists in Laurel Canyon took both megastars and lesser known but huge talents like Tim Buckley, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs. It had a stronger bench than Woodstock. The names of Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are on the front cover of Small Town Talk, but they appear in it fairly briefly, and their stays in Woodstock were over quickly; to really enjoy the book , you need to be interested in learning more about people like Happy Traum, John Holbrook and Cyndi Cashdollar, as Hendrix and Morrison are out of the story by the time it’s halfway told.

Like most of the books Barney Hoskyns has written, Small Town Talk is full of tales of wasted potential and drug- and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction. But even compared to, say, Hotel California (which relates tales as tragic as Judee Sill’s and as hair-curling as David Crosby’s), Small Town Talk is a heavy read, as it paints a Woodstock as a cultural centre in terminal, irreversible decline. Woodstock, it seems, will never matter again in musical terms: its last truly great artist, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012 and there are no musicians left in town to compare at all with those on the front cover of the book (for all that Hoskyns looks favourably on Simone Felice and Jonathan Donahue, I’m sure he’d agree).

If Grossman had wanted to build something lasting and self-sustaining in Woodstock, he failed. But you have to wonder whether that was his intention at all.

Robbie Robertson, Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, and John Simon in an Elevator.
Albert Grossman

*Todd Rundgren, whose many uncommercial experiments were bankrolled by Grossman, said of him when he died: “He got what he deserved. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” About the warmest tribute Grossman received came from Mary Travers: “He wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”

Hey, Who Really Cares – Linda Perhacs

LA was crawling with singer-songwriters in the early 1970s, from the stunningly talented likes of Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill, through the foursquare and reliable Jackson Browne/JD Souther types, to the pleasant but inconsequential talents like Ned Doheny and Pamela Polland.

Laurel Canyon is the part that stands for the whole of the LA singer-songwriter scene, but Linda Perhacs was a Topanga Canyon resident, and the difference was all the difference. Physically further removed from Hollywood than Laurel Canyon, Topanga in 1970 was where Neil Young had made his home, and Young’s rather-be-on-my-own attitude epitomised the Topanga spirit. Perhacs was not a joiner or a hustler, wouldn’t have fit in among the more ambitious Laurel Canyon crowd, and indeed would probably never have been heard at all if composer Leonard Rosenman hadn’t have been a patient at the Beverly Hills dental practice where she worked.

In Perhacs’ version of the story, it was only after many appointments that Rosenman asked her what she did when she wasn’t working and, sensing she could be a gateway to the hippie community he wanted to access in order to come up with the right kind of a music for a TV project he was working on, asked to hear the songs she wrote in her spare time.

Rosenman was impressed by what he heard, particularly the song Parallelograms, and told Perhacs he wanted to make an album with her and would secure the budget needed to make it happen.

Hey, Who Really Cares appeared on Parallelograms, and became the theme for Matt Lincoln, the short-lived TV series for which Rosenman had been commissioned to provide music. It’s a stunning piece of work. In feeling and mood, it recalls the moody medievalisms of David Crosby (songs like Guinnevere, Where Will I Be and The Lee Shore) and Clouds-era Joni Mitchell; musically, the fingerpicked chords with ringing E and B strings sound a little like Love (on, for example, Maybe the People Would Be the Times and Alone Again Or). The sinuous bass guitar, meanwhile, reminds me of nothing so much as PFM backing Fabrizio de André. Perhacs’ voice is clear as a bell, often sounding like that of a cut-glass British folk singer. It’s a beautiful song, with some heart-stopping melodic twists and turns, and a wonderful arrangement by Rosenman. If Perhacs isn’t quite up there with Sill, Mitchell, Buckley, Crosby et al., she was light years ahead of many of the cowboy-chord mediocrities whose music receieved greater exposure than hers.

The hype over “rediscovered” artists can be off-putting, and their art seldom lives up to the grand claims made for it. At the time that Linda Perhacs’ 1970 album Parallelograms began to be reissued (and at this point, it’s been reissued five or six times by as many different labels), I was hyper wary – the media fad for freak folk was at its height, and I’d been left mystified by the popularity of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, and astonished at the reverence being afforded to Vashti Bunyan’s 1970 precursor, Just Another Diamond Day. So with Banhart singing Parallelograms‘ praises to the UK monthlies, it seemed wise to steer clear.

A shame. Some records, some artists, really are deserving of their reputations. I’ve chosen Hey, Who Really Cares as a representative track, but if you like it, you’ll dig the whole thing.

Clap Hands – Tom Waits

Tom Waits was an early signing to David Geffen’s first label, Asylum, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. For his debut album, Closing Time, they paired him with producer Jerry Yester, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Yester, it’s said, emphasised the folk and country elements of his music at the expense of the jazz (he has been accused of doing the same thing to Tim Buckley, with the story being that Buckley made Happy Sad the record it is over Yester’s objections). Closing Time was, then, a pretty pallid singer-songwriter record of the sort that were ten a penny in the early seventies, only a couple of songs – notably Grapefruit Moon – standing out as a cut above.

Waits’s second album The Heart of Saturday Night, recorded and produced by jazz veteran Bones Howe, was the breakthrough, the first recognisable Tom Waits album – the late-night feel, the beatnik persona, the double bass and muted trumpet, the beat poetry, and – crucially – the sly sense of humour all in place. A very strong album that still provides material for modern jazz singers (that said, I don’t need to hear another version of the title track, thanks very much), Saturday Night remains highly rated but was arguably eclipsed by Small Change, his fourth album from two years later.

His voice now more gravelly than ever (Louis Armstrong with laryngitis), Waits recorded the whole album live to 2-track tape, no overdubs – the old-fashioned way. Waits’s whole mission, it seemed, was to be in a 1940s movie, a small-time loser who coulda been a contender, complete with hat, trenchcoat, battered suit and bottle of whiskey. The problem was that although it marked him out from his Canyon Cowboy contemporaries, even in 1976 that persona was more than a little clichéd. Certainly it was leading him into a creative cul-de-sac. He lived the part so completely that he was dangerously close to coming apart: drinking too much, sleeping too little and constantly finding himself in places he shouldn’t have been with people it would have been wiser to avoid.

His songs seemed to know more about the dangers of alcoholism than he did, and it wasn’t until a year or so after he wrote Bad Liver and a Broken Heart and The Piano Has Been Drinking that he got himself clean and sober. At that point he started to move away from the extremes of that beatnik persona, spending a few years in an artistic holding pattern before re-emerging in a New York on a new label and with a new character – the disconcerting carny complete with junkyard orchestra – and eventually his second great masterwork, Rain Dogs.

Yes, Rain Dogs. Swordfishtrombones may have been his first album in his new style, but Rain Dogs is the better one, taking all the ideas suggested by Swordfish and developing them, taking them to the obvious conclusion. Swordfish tracks including Underground, Shore Leave and the title song make it clear that a suffering marimba is going to be a key part of Waits’s new sound world, but it’s Clap Hands from Rain Dogs that’s Waits’s marimba masterwork.

The arrangement is a simple one: Waits on acoustic guitar, Marc Ribot on electric lead, Tony Garnier on double bass and Michael Blair, Stephen Hodges and Bobby Previte on marimbas and various drums and percussion. Percussion instruments both found and exotic were the crucial instruments in Waits’s world in the 1980s, and few instruments are given traditional r contemporary treatments (the overtly 1980s-sounding electric guitars on Downtown Train come are shocking in their conventionality in the context of Rain Dogs – much as I like the song, I’m not sure it belongs on the album).

Lyrically, too, Clap Hands employs a simple trick. It takes the chanted nursery-rhyme vocal rhythm (and some of the lines verbatim) of The Clapping Song and refracts them through Waits’s surrealist sensibility, always resolving on the song’s title:

Sane, sane, they’re all insane
The fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame
A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame
Hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain
Clap hands, clap hands

Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime
All the way to Baltimore and runnin’ out of time
Salvation Army seemed to wind up in the hole
They all went to heaven in a little row boat
Clap hands, clap hands

If you find yourself one day in a waking nightmare world where nothing makes sense and see some children out on the street corner skipping rope, Clap Hands is the song they’ll be singing. It’s a crucial text in Tom Waits’s post-1970s work. If you respond to this – if you like the percussion, the skronky guitars and the black humour – Waits will likely be a big deal for you.

MCDWOLF EC004

 

Holiday harmonies, part 1: Silent Night – Modern Folk Quartet

Hi there. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re having a great festive period. I’m going to look at some harmony groups over the next week or so, starting today with something appopriate to the season.

Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. New Edition. Modern Folk Quartet. Bands that are just perhaps more famous for giving a start to the people that passed through them on their way to bigger things than they are for their own accomplishments.

The first three you probably know about, as those groups were all successful in their own right.* Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina were all members of the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons were Byrds veterans. Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe and Ralph Tresvant between them comprise around 50% of the noteworthy new jack swing artists.

The Modern Folk Quartet, though, were not hugely successful in the US or Britain, though they retained a big following in Japan. Its members, though, are all noteworthy for their accomplishments away from the band. Cyrus Faryar went on to make solo records and played on Fred Neil’s magisterial Fred Neil and Sessions albums. Jerry Yester worked as a producer with the Association, the Turtles, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, also moonlighting as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful after Zal Yanovsky left. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles on bass, and produced hits for the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer. Henry Diltz became one of the finest photographers in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

The members’ individual achievements, then, are hugely impressive, so much so that they overshadow those of their band. But the Modern Folk Quartet (who became the Modern Folk Quintet when drummer Ediie Hoh joined) deserve to be remembered as one of the great harmony groups.

They sung complex, jazzy four-part, and they have what so few harmony groups can honestly claim: a really excellent voice on the bottom. Cyrus Faryar, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (at a time when I wasn’t familiar with the MFQ), had a gorgeous baritone, deep, rich and agile. He was a lead singer in his own right. They all were.

Singing together, they blended the earnest folk harmonising of the Brothers Four (same instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, double bass and 5-string banjo, too) with a jazzy sensibility seemingly learned from the Four Freshman, the same vocal group that had a profound influence on the young Brian Wilson.

The Modern Folk Quartet made two albums in its initial early-1960s run, the first slightly heavier on trad. arr., the second leaning more towards contemporary writers including John Stewart, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They remained very popular in Japan, though, and reformed several times to tour and release records over there. In 1990 they cut an album of Christmas carols, MFQ Christmas. Their vocal arrangements are imaginative and beautifully performed. My favourite is the brief reading of Silent Night that closes the record. The magic happens at the bottom (unmistakably Faryar)  and on the top (Diltz, I think). It’s just gorgeous.

MFQThe Modern Folk Quartet: l-r Jerry Yester, Henry Diltz, Cyrus Faryar, Chip Douglas

*Very successful really, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about “Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield”?

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.

Turnham Green – Colorama

I should acknowledge upfront that I would never have heard this song if it hadn’t been written about by Pete Paphides in the Beside the B-Side blog he and Bob Stanley wrote very sporadically between 2010 and 2012. Possibly it’s not dead and just sleeping. I hope one day it comes back.

Woodwind, percussion, a sitar drone. When it starts, Colorama’s Turnham Green sounds cut from the same cloth as the Portico Quartet’s Life Mask, which I think I’ve written about here before. But the moody, free-time intro is actually an 80-second fake-out. When the song begins, it has two obvious precursors: in mood, it strongly recalls the sun-drenched psychedelia of Donovan in his Sunny Goodge Street phase, a whimsical, light psychedelia with just the merest hint of late-afternoon shadows; while in rhythmic feel (and in its chords too), it’s a dead ringer for Tim Buckley’s Strange Feelin’.

This sort of bucolic English acousticism – and for all that Turnham Green is self-evidently set at the point where inner London starts to bleed into Outer London, it is a bucolic song, and for all that Carwyn Ellis is self-evidently Welsh, it is an English song – was a staple of 1970s progressive/alternative music. EMI’s Harvest Records imprint, home to such artists as Kevin Ayers and Barclay James Harvest, was its ground zero, and Witchseason (Joe Boyd’s management/production stable) an important forerunner. This kind of music is somehow durable. It might disappear for a few years (the coked-up 1990s were an inhospitable decade for it), but it always seems to return, with a faraway look in its eye and a joint in its pocket.

I like the idea that there’s a form of music just floating out there on the breeze, ready to be plucked out of the air by any songwriter who reaches for it. Indeed, Turnham Green is not all that indicative of Colorama’s usual style, which is as likely to feature vintage monophonic synths as jazzy piano and strummed acoustic guitar. Sometimes Ellis’s work recalls the smashed and slightly scary Beach Boys of Smiley Smile. Sometimes Ellis is a Les Cousins troubadour. Sometimes he’s a Super Furry Doppelganger. Turnham Green, such a perfect little moment, sounds as if he just reached out his hand and found it resting there. And if it’s not quite of the same mood and feel as the rest of the band’s debut album (Cookie Zoo), I don’t think it says anything negative about Ellis to say that, at least early in Colorama’s journey, he didn’t quite know what he wanted to be. Stylistic consistency is overrated, anyway: the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Carwyn Ellis
Carwyn Ellis of Colorama, live in 2009