Tag Archives: writing

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

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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.

 

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is so wet it beggars belief. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revivals less impressive vocal talents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denny
Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

Then Play Long is No More

Over the last eight years the most consistently acute and compelling music writing has come from Marcello Carlin at his blog Then Play Long*.

In 2008 Carlin set himself the task of writing about every UK number-one album in chronological order, starting from the very first, Elvis is Back! – the sort of foolhardy task only someone utterly besotted with music would ever set themselves. There have been times when Carlin’s labours were obviously bringing him little pleasure, as he slogged though the Black & White Minstrels records, or 101 Strings, or the Top of the Pops series. And yet he carried on, buoyed by the prospect of writing about the good records, or finding something unexpectedly commendable about a record that seemed unpromising at first.

It takes little away from Carlin to say that, while he’s strong on the records’ context (both social and in the context of the artists’ body of work), his great strength as a music writer is that he can combine formal analysis with a more subjective, associative response. Put more simply, he can tell you how a record makes him feel, and then have a good stab at explaining what it is in the music that makes him feel that way.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago after Ted Gioia’s jeremiad about modern music writing on The Daily Beast, and pointed out that the sort of criticism Gioia was calling out for was in fact alive and well and living on the internet. Taken together, Then Play Long, Chris O’Leary’s David Bowie blog (Pushing Ahead of the Dame, now published in book form as Rebel Rebel) and Tom Ewing’s Popular were my exhibit A. (Cards on the table, those guys’ work was my model when I started this blog.)

Problem is, O’Leary’s work always had a built-in end date, and after this week’s sad news, we know what that will be. Blackstar, a mopping up of whatever live and/or previously unreleased stuff the Bowie estate sanctions for public consumption, then that will be it. Reliable, dependable Popular rumbles on, often with long hiatuses while Ewing gets on with the business of everyday life, but over the course of the next few years, I’ll find myself reading more and more pieces about songs I never knowlingly heard. I lost contact with pop in the early noughties, and never really found my way back to it.

Today, Carlin announced that he’d written the last Then Play Long entry (he fast-fowarded to Blackstar, currently topping the UK album chart, and many others worldwide, I suspect), and would now be putting the blog to rest. This saddens me a lot, as there’s no one else out there who can do what he does, but the job of work he undertook when he started that thing was immense, and no one should feel beholden to finish something just because they started it. As he says, there’s 600 records between today’s entry and the Carpenters compilation he covered in the previous piece. I wouldn’t take that on, and can well understand why he doesn’t want to either.

So this is a thank you to Marcello, whom I’ve never met, for all that wonderful writing, all that insight and analysis. I hope he still continues to write about music in some form. In the meantime, if you’ve ever read one of my pieces and enjoyed it, head over to Then Play Long to see how it’s really done.

Then Play Long

*Many entries were written by Carlin’s wife Lena Friesen, but Carlin started the blog and wrote probably half a dozen or so entries for every one of Friesen’s, so I’ve always thought of it as primarily his blog. And really, it was Carlin’s writing that spoke to me. Nevertheless, he always acknowledged when an idea or association in one of his pieces came from her, and it’s clear that fans of the blog owe a large debt to both Marcello and Lena.

 

Voice-&-guitar one-offs – is originality possible for singer-songwriters in 2015?

I’m very late to the party on Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, mainly because I felt like he was probably going to be talking about a lot of artists and genres about which I knew nothing, and to get much out of the book I was going to have to get familiar with swathes of new (to me) music. As it turns out, I enjoyed it hugely. I was familiar enough with some of the artists to get the general point, and a bit of listening to some key tracks here and there filled in enough of the blanks for me when Reynolds was discussing stuff I didn’t know.

The whole idea of newness in art (music especially, but art generally) is one that’s occupied my mind a lot down the years. If you’ve read many of the pieces on this blog you’ll know that there are styles and eras I’m fonder of than others, and that I’m particularly interested in alt.rock from the 1980s and 1990s, and 1970s singer-songwriter stuff (some, like Paul Simon, I heard in my young childhood, but much of which I discovered as an adult).

This music, it hardly needs saying, is not new. Not on the level of sonics, not on the level of song structure, not harmonically, arrangementally, or any other way you care to mention. And yet, when I listen to, say, Judee Sill, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell or David Crosby I hear newness. At any rate, I hear uniqueness – I hear things that I’ve not heard in the music of any other songwriter, and I hear melodic, harmonic and lyrical ideas that seem to me could only have had one author. I don’t believe any other songwriter than Sill could have written Jesus Was a Cross Maker or The Donor. Only Crosby could have written Where Will I Be or The Lee Shore.

I’ve no grand rebuttal to Reynolds’s theories, but I’m thinking a lot about how we account for this kind of originality within his conception of pop culture, where newness is most often seen as being a result of either technological progress, or the bringing together of genres that previously seemed impervious to synthesis with others and so on. This sort of uniqueness, newness, originality, call it what you will, comes from an individual’s (or group’s, if we’re talking about a band) ability to resist the lure of pastiche, to express themselves through a given medium, whether it’s a guitar, a piano, a laptop or a sampler), and to do so in a way that’s expressive of their own, what, emotions? Personality? Sensibility? All three?

I don’t know. Someone like my friend Yo Zushi might say that none of this has a bearing on the quality of the music, that everyone simply takes consciously or unconsciously from their influences and that their filtering and reuse of these influences constitutes their originality). All I know is that when I listen to, say, Joni Mitchell or Kurt Cobain (to take an example from the era of rock that’s marked me most heavily) I hear musical one-offs, people whose work could not be by anyone else*, and when I listen to, say, Jackson Browne or Dave Grohl, I don’t. It’s not that Mitchell’s and Cobain’s work is always or in any fundamental way better than that of those other artists, but it is their own in a way that I think can be felt by any halfway sensitive listener.

For someone who’s a pop fan and also writes voice-and-guitar songs, this is a pretty interesting topic. It’s something I’m going to keep chewing over.

Joni-Mitchell
Joni

*Both artists did have an imitative phase. All artists do. I’m talking about the work they did when they reached maturity with Blue and Nevermind respectively.

Time – Alice Peacock

One of the issues that was in the background of the piece I wrote the other day is, how original can you be as a singer-songwriter who plays piano or acoustic guitar and works with verse/chorus song structures in 2015, with hundreds of years of folk songs, over a hundred years of recorded music and 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll behind us? And if you feel the answer is, not original at all, does that matter? Should an artist strive for more than just going over the same old ground that our illustrious forebears have already covered?

It’s a question I’ve never been able to satisfactorily answer. There have been times when I’ve felt that singer-songwriters were becoming an unnecessary species, that almost everything that needed to be said had been said already, and that we may as well all pack it in and go home. That I didn’t need new records when I had all of those albums on my shelf already.

Then I hear songs that render all this debate irrelevant, songs so strong and self-contained that I stop worrying about all this.

I heard one last night. Time, by Alice Peacock.

I can tell you very little about Alice Peacock. She works broadly in the pop-rock sphere, but with elements of folk and country and jazz in there. She’s put out four records and seems to have done fairly well, as even a self-released album (on Peacock Records) like What I Am features orchestral arrangements and the services of a big-name session drummer (Jay Bellerose) and photography by the wonderful Henry Diltz. In her early going as an artist, she recorded a duet with John Mayer, which no doubt helped her profile.

Hearing a great song from an artist who’s entirely new to you is one of the finest pleasures of being a music fan. And Time is a wonderful song, possessed of grace and wisdom, a gorgeous, pensive tune, thoughtful chord changes and lyrics that achieve a sort of conversational profundity. In an interview with her that I saw on youtube, Peacock says she wrote the song very quickly after reading an article in National Geographic about time, relativity and how the light that reaches earth from stars allows us to look into the past while we experience it as the present. She talks about her she merely channelled the song, how writing it was scarcely a conscious act of creation at all. Time has that happy knack of sounding as if these thoughts are occurring to the singer just as she is giving voice to them.

When I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks. I downed tools to listen, then listened again.

The version I heard first was not the record (from the the 2006 release Who I Am), but a live recording. The arrangement on the album version – in both Peacock’s vocal and the strings – seems to emphasise the supper-club vibe inherent in the song’s chord structure, not that there’s anything wrong with that (I could easily imagine how the great Blossom Dearie might have this song). On the live recordings I’ve heard (mainly on youtube, though there is a live album), though, Peacock’s delivery is slightly different, perhaps more relaxed, knowing that she’s not in search of a definitive vocal performance. I’d still highly recommend seeking out the album cut, but perhaps the version below is the best one:

Alice peacock
Alice Peacock