Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Top Fifty - Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch - Revival

This is a perfect album to bridge/connect my love for old and 'new' Country, or to put it another way, the traditional and americana. This album, released in 1996, certainly revived for popular appeal a more niched sound of bluegrass and Appalachian twang, the rural folk of America's past and perhaps more modern redneck appropriations.

It isn't difficult to find where that aural anchor grabs and holds: it's in the taut harmonies of Gillian Welch and partner David Rawlings. There is a vocal rapport in both timing and tone that is sheer perfection, and Rawlings' guitar work adds a stunning extra dimension in its virtuosity.

There is at times a sombre intensity to the pair's self-penned songs which is a consequence of meditative gospel lyrics and the live solo recording of these by T-Bone Burnett. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the overall impact is to describe the music as darkly beautiful, though it does 'rock' here and there.

I have seen Gillian Welch and David Rawlings twice, first in Manchester and second in Birmingham, and at that first gig they were supported by Old Crow Medicine Show - a Rawlings project - and they too brought, and still bring, good ol' Country twang to a modern nuance of virtuoso playing and energy.

Revival has a very strong place in my Top Fifty and is supported by a subsequent body of work that continues to impress and delight.

Mulling Over A Line

The cornerstone of civilisation is
human sacrifice is a taut line from a
tough-guy film which deals in
sex, violence, friendship, betrayal,
dying and the full widescreen of human
attributes - all for filmic gratification -
and I watched it for these very elements,
enjoying the eroticism in particular and
even the violence, but above all the
punchy acting, and in the end I cannot
feel lessened if my overall impression is
that nearly two hours of such visual
stimulation outweighs the weight of one
intriguing if thowaway line.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Top Fifty - Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith - Ron Sexsmith

It doesn't matter at all, but I wanted to make sure I had contemporary as well as 60s/70s albums in my notional top fifty - though I don't know why I should feel so compelled - and Pearl Jam's Ten is there, and now this by Ron Sexsmith. However, Ron Sexsmith was released in 1995, technically his second but in reality the first album that made him known as the brilliant singer-songwriter he is, and along with PJ's 1991 effort I don't seem to be all that recent in the end. Not that this is the end, but you know what I mean.

Ron Sexsmith is simply beautiful. When I first heard this eponymous album I knew instantly there was genius at work, for me at least, and that is one of those phenomenal aural experiences you have every now and then and never forget. This blog was created to articulate musical awe and has, but it has also been sidetracked here and there, so writing about Sexsmith returns me to address that initial purpose.

Ron Sexsmith has an angelic voice and all of the songs on this album are sublime. If it is appropriate to make a football analogy then this album is Barcelona and I will leave the reference there to avoid an extended metaphor that could ultimately detract from the music. But this album is in the back of the net.

As I read the song-list for his album I can hear each one instantly. That says something about the excellence of the songcraft. Whilst every single one is a Messi goal, extra-special free-kicks are Secret Heart; There's A Rhythm; Lebanon, Tennessee; Speaking With The Angel [and just writing that title I hear its plaintive, yearning and gorgeous vocal]; Waistin' Time; Galbraith Street, and There's A Rhythm.

In the Stadium of Singer-Songwriters this album is a true champion. Aural crowds chant Sexsmith's name.

Ron Sexsmith now has a body of work that firmly establishes him as one of Canada's greatest musicians and a singer-songwriter to compete with the best from any nationality. I don't think any of his other albums can compete with this one - and that is so often the case when such brilliance is crystallised in one remarkable musical moment - but throughout these there are echos of that incipient excellence as well as maturing depths both in musical variety and lyrics which plot a life and career [see my review of Long Player Late Bloomer].

I wanted Manchester United to win the Champions League Cup but the majestic football of Barcelona made them the rightful victors and it was a joy and privilege to watch. There is a connection to Ron Sexsmith over and above this playful if unoriginal football analogy: it was soon after the release of his second but significant album that I saw Sexsmith play live in the great city of Manchester. That too was a memorable experience.

Omaha mention

One day I'll compile a list of Omaha mentions in song, film and other. My place of birth. Prompted today by hearing a snippet of Ginsberg on Cerys Matthews' BBC Radio 6 programme, so here's an exerpt on the banjo and Nebraska:

...as the western Twang prophesied
thru banjo, when lone cowboy walked the railroad track
past an empty station toward the sun
sinking giant-bulbed orange down the box canyon -
Music strung over his back
and empty handed singing on this planet earth
I'm a lonely Dog, O Mother!
Come, Nebraska, sing & dance with me -
Come lovers of Lincoln and Omaha,
hear my soft voice at last

- Allen Ginsberg, from Wichita Vortex Surta

Friday, 20 May 2011

Whales Singing

What if you go unannounced
to your neighbour's house
and enter through the back door
because you hear music from a bedroom,
and for no good reason become
suspicious, imagine an affair
between her and a former lover,
yet when you get to that door,
turning the handle slowly and silently,
what you actually hear is the
recorded sound of whales singing,
soothing her to sleep and you
to a surprised, part-guilty but
intensely perfect sense of peace?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Top Fifty - Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam - Ten

I was in the States in '92 and first heard of Pearl Jam when Jeremy was playing on MTV, the third single from the album Ten released in 1991. I was hooked immediately, blown away by Eddie Vedder's vocals - it is one of the most distinctive and dominant rock vocals of all time [and it does well on current Ukulele Songs to just about stay superb above the incessant strings of the title and whole album's unusual star instrument!].

Apart from the brilliance of the vocals, songwriting and instant rock credibility, it was the 'new' grunge sound that finally put the eighties back to the nowhere from which they sprang musically. I know it was - and still is - a nostalgic sound in reality, but the 70s rock roots were always going to be what I wanted to hear again and again, and Pearl Jam pushed all of those time-shift buttons brilliantly. At some stage I might write about all of the other retro-rock bands that emerged in the 90s to kickstart my aural awakening.

Other classics from the album are Even Flow, Alive and Release, though all the songs are outstanding. It's a polished rock/grunge sound in fact and I can imagine those who revere the 80s for its punk creations would be less enthusiastic about this album in particular. Pearl Jam's rawer sound was and is always in performance and of course in albums like Binaural, Yield and Riot Act.

I have only seen Pearl Jam twice, once at Wembley Arena and once in Cardiff, and I missed a more recent gig in Birmingham with a bad back that prevented my travelling: getting on and fragility fighting the pursuit of rock longevity, the latter of which Pearl Jam and Vedder in particular have certainly nailed.


I was combing and shaping my hair
when she began to die - making my vain
arrangements for the day - and from that
moment of her violent pain there were
no more words or looks, and whatever
had been said would have to do, forever.
Having travelled all those miles to
hold her hand and to say goodbye
this was the most domestic of ends;
I did not see her turning from life
but only my face in the misted mirror
and what I could hear of the others' cries.
There were more days before I was bereft;
more days for me to groom before I left.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

John Martyn - Heaven and Earth


John's final and farewell album arrived this morning and I have listened with the mixed emotion of love and loss inevitable in hearing his last recording. I wasn't expecting to find Martyn at his best but instead to hear him finish with enough echo from a distinguished musical past as well as the growl and guffaw of his enduring if at times problematic character and personality.

It's all there. The musical echo is in the funk and groove of most songs that reflect the thread of his latter recordings, and Heaven and Earth and Can't Turn Back the Years reflect the other songcraft of earlier work, the second through, interestingly, the empathetic songwriting of his great friend Phil Collins.

The album begins powerfully with the gruff Martyn vocal strong in the mix and that's the familiar authority you want to hear. Indeed, the opening two tracks Heel of the Hunt and Stand Amazed have the loud and laughing funkgroove one has come to expect from him in his latter recording years as well as live performances.

Heaven and Earth doesn't have the memorable strength of earlier writing but it allows Martyn's voice to slide and slur and giggle along the simple melody with its declaration of love that does recall so many of his powerful romantic declarations: 'I'll move heaven and earth just to be with you', and the sax slurs its cool groove too.

Phil Collins may be a prick politically but he has been a close and dear friend of Martyn and made sustained musical contributions to John's work over the years, most notably on Grace and Danger. His song Can't Turn Back the Years is the most Matrynesque on the album and I believe this must be a genuine reflection of the empathy he has for John both musically and as a person.

The album ends ironically with Willing to Work with John's spoken, partly inarticulate intro and opening scat line 'woopee do.......I'm willing to work', and the smooth groove core is a fitting manifesto for the last glow of his unique career.

If you are not a fan this isn't the album to purchase to represent John at his best; if you are, this is compulsive and joyous and celebratory because genius endures as a whole and this is a glorious part of that.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Severed Hand

Holding on to the severed hand of a man
you only met today but took an instant
dislike to - sound of the voice and false
wave of the hair - there is a sense that the
amputation was an overreaction, a brutal
riposte to his unwelcome demeanour that
might have been better addressed with
words or a simple, aloof body language.
But who can be wise in the white heat of revenge
Macbeth once put it sharper than this
and when any kind of action seems the only
reply in a world full of terrorists?
If gunships can strafe shadows on the ground
this rough handshake is justice just as sound.

Top Fifty - Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced

Jimi asked his question in 1967 and, aged 14, I clearly wasn't. However, learning to explore and have those experiences would have its catalyst from the moment I purchased this seminal album in that same year, newly arrived in England, and Axis Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland would add multi-colourings and 3D texture to the aural and other journeys of those later years.

It's hardly a surprise to place this album in a top fifty and I'm not going to compete with the thousands of reviews and commentaries already out there. The psychedelic was also already out there in the latter 60s but Hendix defined it for my generation and me with the extra-terrestrial sound of his guitar playing as well as his super-cool appearance and demeanour. His lyrics added further momentum to the incomprehensible but palpable swirl of growing up at this time.

My original vinyl was spirited away by someone who also enjoyed the 'open-door' spirit to my country cottage that I megaphoned to anyone I met from 1971 onwards: friends, friends of friends, people in pubs, people who gave me lifts as I hitch-hiked home or away to gigs/festivals. Losing that record wasn't what I meant by the genuine if naive attitude to sharing I emanated so freely at the time. I do have my replacement American vinyl edition [small picture] and you are not welcome to help yourself. I now use the locks on my doors.

I also have original posters of Hendrix from the time, as well as concert reproductions. I just wish I hadn't stuck his albums to the wall alongside these: Axis Bold as Love is one of the supreme gatefold psychedelic covers, and the outside of mine is still glossy and far-out after all these years. Shame about the inside and those long ragged sellotape tears. As a teenager you're not thinking of future vinyl value - just those artistic dreams adding their hues of hope for different futures on bedroom walls.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Top Fifty - Hoyt Axton

Hoyt Axton - My Griffin is Gone

Released in 1969, this must be about the time I bought the album at Woolworths in Ipswich, Suffolk. It was loose in a scattered luckydip of cheap lps presented, as I recall, in a chrome display cage. I bought a number of albums at Woolworths around this time and wish I had purchased more: usually completely unknown and selected by cover design and perhaps the linear notes if I bothered to read. So many have become 'classics' [though that is a relative term] but certainly a number are rare today.

This album too is inextricably linked to my formative years, two into living in England and having had my American roots and attachments challenged either by direct attack or ridicule [fellow students are a tough crowd, especially when they wear a black school uniform and you turn up for the first day at your new secondary modern wearing baby blue slacks with matching sneakers and yellow shirt with matching socks. I didn't need to wear the neon sign that flashed Pick On Me]. But the point is by this time I wasn't alienated by, for example, the anti-Vietnam war song Beelzebub's Laughter, my Beach Boy sensibilities having been beaten out by then.

There is a strong sense as I listen now that these songs are crafted to reflect their time: the socio/political and even more ethereal themes of the 'flowerpower' generation targeted as a commercial rather than wholly committed audience appeal. Sunshine Fields of Love with its evocation of San Francisco backs this up, as clearly do the Country oriented albums Axton produced from '64 to this date with their more homespun preoccupations.

That said, the drugs lament Snow Blind Friend has its honest and heartfelt core, a song made famous by Steppenwolf as was the other great Axton penned and Steppenwolf cover The Pusher, itself made famous in the film Easy Rider. Indeed, those who know just a little of Axton will probably do so indirectly by these two songs, and perhaps Joy to the World, or by his screen appearance in Gremlins.

Other songs on this album that resurrect powerful teenage memories are On The Natural, Way Before the Time of Towns, Childhood's End and Revelations. Axton's singing voice is unique. At times the long notes have the waver of Buffy Saint-Marie but in bass-baritone.

Another great Axton album I'll mention now is Love Life with stonking versions of Maybeline and That's All Right. It also includes the beautiful Billy's Theme from the film Buster and Millie as well as another Axton gem Boney Fingers, with a great vocal accompaniment by Renee Armand. Linda Ronstadt guest-vocals on When the Morning Comes. Perhaps a superior musical album all round, but it just doesn't have that similar significant place of When My Griffin is Gone in the nostalgic reconstruction of who I am.

Maybe the category needs to be refined to Top Fifty Influential Albums.

Earle's East Anglia Inspiration

Steve Earle - All My Heart

Just listening to a bootleg recording of Steve Earle Live in the Studio on KEXP Seattle, Washington [7th May, 2011] where as well as talking about his new novel and other aspects of his life/writing he talks about the writing of All My Heart which I have previously commented on as a beautiful ballad.

As Suffolk is very much my spiritual home - having grown up there in the late 60s/early 70s - it was fascinating to hear Earle talk about having to tour on his own when his heavily pregnant wife Allison Moorer couldn't/shouldn't anymore, and that he wrote this song then because 'this is what happens when you're lonesome in the wilds of East Anglia'. So, this touching love song was inspired near my former abode which has a coincidental but nonetheless personal appeal - though I do have to assume he was in 'wild' Norfolk for the actual composition....

Monday, 9 May 2011

Top Fifty - Tír na nÓg

Tír na nÓg - A Tear and a Smile

A Tear and a Smile
is the Dublin duo's second album, released in 1972, and is a folk gem, full of Irish lilt in the singing and fine guitar pluck and strum. The self-penned songs are gentle, earnest offerings - melodic, occasional harmony and simply sweet lyrically - and this album is indelibly mixed into the tiedye of my growing up at the time.

Before forming in Dublin, Leo O'Kelly came from Carlow and Sonny Condell from Newtownmountkennedy. Though their next album and later releases included more electrification, this is pure acoustic folk.

Wonderful songs are

Down Day
The Same Thing Happened

So Freely


Lady Ocean

Goodbye My Love

Two White Horses

That's 7 of the 10 and I am nitpicking the great from the good.

This post is the first in my new venture to account for my top 50 albums. I have no idea if I can confine myself to such a number but that's the challenge and discipline. Once I have accounted for the 50, I will then rank them. That'll be interesting.

Then it's the next 50.....

And I'm not the first nor the last to start this kind of paradoxically perpetual task.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Fuck Introspection

Fuck introspection when it sounds so corny
in the cold light of following days - you cannot
edit honesty that is still tuned to the sow's ear -
so the idea is to keep the misinformation going full
blast and writing on the edge of meaning
as a camouflage, a secret visible only to the
trained eye of a fellow con. It is like a political act,
seriousness and sincerity no more than the sham
of how it sounds; and if that isn't satisfying enough,
shit on the paper and leave your honest smudge,
but be prepared for the probing questions and
analysis of what you thought was an open life.
That lack of introspection could in time prove to be
the one and only shallow cut of the writer's knife.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Orleans - Dance With Me: The Best Of

Orleans again, and Others

In addition to my post about Before The Dance, I would recommend this 'best of' collection which actually draws together a host of standout 'west coast' tracks that certainly do stack up against those towers of other more famous bands.

And in addition to previously mentioning those very bands, I'd also recommend the following if you like your music layered in harmony:

JD Souther [solo or Souther Hillman Furay Band]
Pure Prairie League
Loggins & Messina

Ian McNabb - Head Like A Rock

Better for being Crazy

Listening to this today in the car I was reminded of how much I like it, certainly the opening four tracks, and that its echos of Neil Young and Crazy Horse are a significant reason for that aural affection. Then I recalled - doh - that Crazy Horse actually support McNabb on four of the album's ten tracks, including the first three [and the last]. Those Crazy Horse tracks are Fire Inside My Soul, You Must Be Prepared To Dream, Child Inside A Father and May You Always. The fourth track is Still Get The Fever, and McNabb, who fronted The Icicle Works in the 80s [a decade that largely passed me by musically and thankfully], is in fine singing and songwriting mode throughout.

Released in 1994 I was then shocked to recall that this is now 17 years old - and imagine the trajectory from that apocalyptic kick in the ass, considering most of the music I like [and recall...] is from the late 60s/early 70s.

Oh to revel in the timelessness of musical excellence, the perpetuity of art and its beneficent attributes, the consolation of interpretation and manipulation of meaning......


John Martyn - Heaven and Heart

If you're as keen as I am, you can engage in the tease by listening to the sample temptations on Amazon from Martyn's imminent release. Not surprising, most are jazz/funk tracks in the style of Snooo... and Cooltide, but the growl and slur of the vocal is mixed dominantly right there in the front where it should be.

'Wildlife' by Rupert M Loydell

I'd relish observing a Jehovah's Witness call at the home of Rupert Loydell to present the singular certainty of his or her perverse world view. This desire is more than surreal or mischievous imagining: on the evidence of the playful and poignant poems in Rupert's latest collection Wildlife, that JW representative of decisiveness would get combative short shrift from this poet's rampant pluralism.

Rupert Loydell is Senior Lecturer in English with Creative Writing at University College Falmouth, and the editor of Stride and With magazines. He is also a prolific and distinctive poet/writer. What I admire most is the honesty of his contemplation - from the domestic to the complex, to offer a simple set of poles - and the craft of the writing, the latter honed from years of experimentation, collaboration and a determination to use style and pattern for purpose, never affectation or adornment.

Two poem titles from this latest collection Asking Why and Learning Curve would provide neat summations of all the poems' preoccupations. The book title too offers its clues: 'wildlife' does have its obvious definition, but if you bifurcate that to its two root words we begin to engage in the collection's exploration, for example how the adjectival 'wild' comments on 'life' as a whole in its uncertainties and uncontrollability, or more precisely on the wildness of language and meaning used to interpret and define our lives/living. The poems represent this by showing variously the child's innocent misreading/misunderstanding/misinterpretation, for example from the poem Wildlife where someone

'asks if you could draw crows
but you drew ants in a wood'

and from 1 of 21 Animals Are Not Your Friends

'Animals are not your friends. They lie.
The egret on the river bank turned out
to be a plastic bag trapped in the reeds',

and then the adult's unwillingness and/or inability to be sure about the complexities of these same realities. Everything is here in this collection: drinking, sleeping, war, watching TV, sailing, death, going online, teaching, feeling lost, taking the piss, loving, watching your children, and questioning the reality and meaning of any of this.

If the above sounds convoluted and pretentious then that's the point because it's my fault as reviewer whereas Rupert Loydell manages to tease it out through playful and genuinely profound - but always accessible - ruminations. His is art; mine is stumbling to narrate and analyse what the careful control of a poem is so much better at presenting.

That playfulness is evident in the self-mocking and utterly honest When I Sleep and a poem about the writing process Rescue Mission that promotes streaking. Ink Blots is a manifesto for the multiplicity of meaning and comprehension

'....I prefer the enormous power/of doubt and reticence'

as well as a premise for living: there we go - 'wild' as a 'premise'. I like that.

There are 21 repetitions of Animals Are Not Your Friends - that's if I counted the number correctly - and of course these are not really repetitions but versions and echos and rewritings and they are the core of the collection's search and discovery.

I want to write more about individual poems, for example Notes From the War Against Going Mad which is beautifully contemplative, but the idea is to encourage others to read and enjoy and engage.

I only received my copy from Amazon today - and strongly encourage anyone reading this to also buy - so I have much more reading and re-reading and revealing to enjoy. I'll close this brief review with a casual close from the poem Line by Line which is deceptively simple in the way it dismisses art and intention, and, in doing so, reminds the reader that there is uncertainty, the mundane and decisions to be made about the meaning of this in what we do and how we try to write about it:

'Earache has subsided but tiredness and flu
appear to have set in. If this poem wanted to
it would reveal more and try for tears
but as it is, my daughters are hungry
so this is the last line.'


One geometry of my disintegration, which is
down a black hole, should force me to be
extruded like toothpaste from a tube -
according to the experts - and this extrapolation,
representing the results of fourteen billion years
of evolution, could well explain our need for
faith and other mythologies. The nirvana
of another potential end is that the universe within
will meet the universe we all know and love
as it expands for so far beyond the death and
worshipping of today, that it plateaus
with everything - everything - reaching the
beautiful nihilism of absolute zero degrees
and all the home truths of our geometries.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Mount Moriah - Mount Moriah

Breakfast mount

Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller are the core of Mount Moriah, McEntire having begun her musical career in punk band Bellafea. This was a band I didn't know and in reading one review this morning their debut release is described as 'aggressive post-punk, noisy indie rock'. That's precisely what this new incarnation release isn't.

That same review describes the then musical dichotomy of McEntire: Bellafea's loud and raucous live and recorded performances set against her solo, intimate and hushed performances. It is clear that Mount Moriah reflects that latter persona with its plaintive and poetic americana. All the songs are slowly paced and lyrically charged. There is a particularly pretty track Old Gowns with tight vocal harmonies and string accompaniment. Plane and Lament are other early aural attractions, with one more country offering The Reckoning nakedly displaying its pedal steel. It's only a brief flash [though there is a sneaky banjo in We Don't Need Much].

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Orleans - Before the Dance [1977]

West Coast Dance

I always have and always will be an addict of vocal 'west coast' harmony, epitomised by The Beach Boys, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Eagles - as classic choices with so many more - and tracing that lineage through to today, Fleet Foxes whose latest album Helplessness Blues I haven't reviewed as so many others have, most referencing the very artists I have named here.

One of those 'many more', though less well known bands, is Orleans. The album Before the Dance was a re-release of their first two - not that I knew this when I bought it back in '77 - and two songs Dance With Me and Let There Be Music perfect that west coast sound, and when I have compiled an actual list of favourites in the past, rather than just invoke my favourite 'favourites' phrase, Dance With Me has been Number 1.

Another great west coast song of theirs was the big hit Still The One, not on this album. Obviously, three songs can't stack up against the 'trip-off-the-tongue' towers you could name from the first three bands I mentioned, but within the overall and phenomenal west coast family tree, they blossom in perfect harmony.

Ahhhhhh [in four part.......]

Al Kooper - White Chocolate

Kooper's Own Kite Mark

It goes without saying - though it will now be said - that Kooper is one of the greats, but the £50 price tag for this recording on Amazon co. seems to overstate that greatness in the relativity of musical supply and demand. You could coax that from me as the fee for a live gig, but it would be worth searching more widely for this studio representation.

Kooper's cv is one of the more impressive: recording with Dylan in the mid 60s and playing Hammond organ at the infamous Newport Folk Festival gig; member of The Blues Project; forming Blood Sweat & Tears and playing on their great first album Child is Father to the Man; part of the Super Session first ever supergroup with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield, and subsequent production of and playing with rock's greatest over a 50 year stellar career.

This album, released in 2008, is simply superb and reflects Kooper's soul leanings as well as clever pop sensibilities. Opener Love Time is the stand-out for me as a smartly smooth song with full-on horn orchestration and little Mexican trumpet rolls; there's the funky version of I Love You More Than Words Can Say; a reprise - 4 decades on from the Super Session album - of Dylan's It Takes A Lot To Laugh (It Takes A Train To Cry); another full-on orchestration with soul choir for I Cried So Hard; the fine and funk personified tribute to Stax Records Staxability; those finely honed pop sensibilities in You Make Me Feel So Good (All Over); the classic soul of Hold On featuring the vocals of Catherine Russell who also supports with two others throughout the album; the retro No 1 2 Call Me Baby that could be a Stylistics track from long ago but without the falsetto, and a stonking version of Candy Man.