Saturday, 30 June 2012

CallmeKat - When Owls Are Out

Fits Like a Glove

Danish songstress Katrine Ottosen fits perfectly into the stylish musical glove inhabited by Leslie Feist and Joan Wasser - and if we add, just for fun, Katrine and Joan's respective monikers of CallmeKat and Joan As Police Woman, there's no room left for fey and affected other female vocals to infiltrate the fingers of fine singing.

[Oh get real: using just your surname - Feist - is hardly a moniker, and we're not talking about a six fingered mutant glove in this minor metaphor. Not yet.].

Ottosen collects and plays vintage keyboards which produce a noticeable nuance within her shared musical fitting, and this is added to here and there, sparingly, with electronic huffs and puffs and pulses to add atmosphere. Opener When Should We Go is a little too playful for me with its cowboy whistling, glockenspeil, and organ pumps, but the voice is immediately appealing. Indeed, the light electronic romps continue throughout the first five tracks, but as stated, their minimalism foregrounds the sensuous singing. To be fair, fifth track Bug In A Web starts to display the rich depth of the vocal more fully, but it's in the sixth Drawn Directly where a more jazz infused timing and tone dominates the groove, warbling keyboard/other effects providing an eerie backdrop.Tenth Sleepache is another slow and sultry song carried along by the stabs and struts of electric beats.

All twelve tracks, needless to say, form a delightful polydactylism fit for any musical mittens.

Tom Jones - Spirit In The Room

Spirit In The Car

With the car cd player now working, today's seaside/coffee sojourn was made to the masterful vocal of Tom Jones. Ridiculed here in there in the press for his name-dropping on The Voice, this vocal kicks those snide asides into trivia's touch, let alone the fact that Jones has every right to recall the musically grand company he has kept and now, at nearly 72, continues to be all by himself - but supported here on this album by a cast-list of well-known if eclectic songwriters.

The beauty of this album, as with his recent gospel Praise & Blame, is how it is pared down to the prominance of that voice. There is a noticeable rasp, but this is indelibly characteristic of the whole, and evident because on these tracks he isn't belting it out a la Delilah. Opener Tower of Song by Leonard Cohen could be an anthem written for Jones - born with a gift of a golden voice - and it sets a perfect scene for the absorbing vista to follow. There's Paul Simon's Love and Blessings and Tom Waits' Bad as Me, both familar numbers easily appropriated by Jones in the distinct moment of his delivery. Richard Thompson's Dimming of the Day is also lifted out of its angst to receive a new if gentle gravitas. The album ends with The Low Anthem's Charlie Darwin, beautifully accompanied by the vocal ensemble Stile Antico, the most pronounced production addition on the whole album.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Pearl Jam Radio

As we were leaving the arena carpark after the recent Pearl Jam Manchester concert, the car cd/radio player knocked itself out. Dead. I had planned well in advance to play Ten very loud on the way home that night, but perhaps in some empathetic musical and cosmic connectivism, the radio had decided it would be a spiritual irreverence to follow such an uplifting live performance with the nadir of a mere recording.

Perhaps. That was ten long silent days ago, but this afternoon I repaired the cd/radio. It was a blown fuse for the joint cigarette lighter and radio circuit that had been shorted when a dodgy Sat Nav connection spaked a far more mundane reality behind the night's mute reposte. I knew that all along, but writing it here gives me the opportunity to post a pic of my ticket, recall the brilliance of that night, and let it be known I listened to a belated Ten today. Very loud.

Oh Pretty Woman

I wrote the following some years ago about the thieving of my dad's Chrysler, self-published in a pamphlet called Years where various songs and the year of their recording prompted poetic rememberances. It's a poem I used to enjoy reading aloud:

Oh Pretty Woman - 1964
[Norfolk Nebraska]

the sister said

we took the car
just for a ride
and my boyfriend could drive
but it wasn't stealing, only borrowing
[with dad in Greenland
he'd hardly know]
and my brother would pay for the gas
with money from his paper round

so we headed out of town
with the Chrysler gliding up and down the long road
like it was floating on air
and in the black of night
speed wasn't really noticeable

then my boyfriend said something
which reminded me of
why Lenny Bruce was on trial
and my little brother was listening
so we should've been thinking
about getting home

her boyfriend said

whata cocksucker of a car
and we'd be on trial
if caught

so who's Lenny Bruce anyway
a real jerk
not tough like me
i got a razor blade and
carved her whole name down my arm
MELANIE in big letters
with the cigarette burns

we'll dump the car
and wipe it clean
like on TV

i said

this is neat
i'm with the boyfriend who
looks like James Dean
combs his hair back
and rolls up his t-shirt sleeves
i was in a car with him once
being chased and going around
a corner on two wheels

i got a razor blade too
and carved my girlfriend's name
but forgot the D
so have CINY on my arm

he reminds me of the pictures
on my sister's bedroom walls
Sal Mineo, Ricky Nelson,
Elvis Presley
i heard Roy Orbison's
Oh Pretty Woman on the radio there
what a song
as cool as being in this car

when we got home
i turned her bedroom light on
to tell them the car was missed
as they drove by

i was scared
the guys on that wall a lot
tougher than me

The reference to the missing D is a true story: trying to be a tough guy like the boys hanging around and chasing after my sister - though not going for the deliberate cigarette burns - I did carve my girlfriend's name in my forearm in front of her, but got it wrong. Had that misspelt scar for quite a few years, this future English teacher....

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Roy Orbison - Oh Pretty Woman

Roy Orbison and Friends - A Black and White Night

Still in the throes of examining so not posting much. Listening is mainly to the radio as I mark, though I have heard some exciting recent music like Neneh Cherry and The Thing's The Cherry Thing, but more on that another time.

Tonight I dipped into the A Black and White Night programme just as they were playing out on Orbison's classic song Oh Pretty Woman. There's nothing I need to say about how great this really is. I just wanted to observe I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard this: in my big sister's bedroom in Norfolk, Nebraska, and I was a 10 or 11 old kid and I thought then, immediately, that this was an amazing song.

Guitarist James Burton plays some superb licks on the televised recording from 1988, ably assisted by Bruce Springsteen.

It was in Norfolk Nebraska where my big sister and one of her tough boyfriends stole my dad's car one night - a beautiful Chrysler - and they had to take me along for our illicit ride because I used the money collected from my paper-round that night to pay for the gasoline. I don't think I heard Oh Pretty Woman on the car radio but it would have been a cool song playing as we glided up and down the hills on the long straight road I recall our cruising across that night.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Pearl Jam, Isle of Wight, 23rd June, 2012


Baudelaire has written how we all prostitute ourselves at some time in our lives, so if you subscribe to Sky you will be able to watch Pearl Jam live at the Isle of Wight tonight on SkyArts1 and be in good company. I bought my council house too back in 1987, but I think my links to Thatcher and Murdoch are tenuous enough to be completely overwritten by a lifelong love of great music and a principled stand on most important matters in my life.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Pearl Jam's Summer Solstice

whatever you dream on this night will come to pass

Shakespeare obviously didn't drive homeward from Manchester to the West Country today in torrential rain. Nor did he light the multi-fuel stove once home or put the heating on to 'celebrate' the summer solstice [I've always recognised this on the 21st June, though some say the 20th].

Outside it is still not completely dark at 9.47pm as I type, but hardly the bright of the longest summer's day as here in England we have an illumination of grey.

Thank goodness I saw Pearl Jam yesterday to bring a ray of light to the Northern Solstice. Much more secure and memorable than dreaming.

Pearl Jam - Manchester Arena, 20th June, 2012

Pearl Jam - Manchester Arena, 20th June, 2012

As an American resident in England for over 40 years, I have both an English and an American voice, and the former will occasionally exercise control over the latter, for example in preventing my ever saying the word awesome to describe a meal I have just eaten, or a view just seen, or a nap just taken - choosing instead words more precise and meaningful - and indeed the title of this blog, for anyone who hasn't noticed, takes pleasure in poking fun at that particular American superlative for anything better than bad, but after seeing Pearl Jam last night in Manchester, there is only one word that will do, though I will prefix it with an adjective I regularly use, accepting its attributing function is now linguistically international as a pre-modifier:

fucking awesome!!!

And in the momentary spirit of my laissez-faire attitude to communication, note the naive over-use of the exclamation mark too. You can see that I just don't care!!!

There's not much more to be said now either, that word for this exceptional moment sufficing to characterise this exceptional live performance. I've seen Pearl Jam only three times across their two decades of existence: at the Wembley Arena in the mid nineties, at Cardiff in 2000, and last night in Manchester. This was, without doubt, the best of the three. Launching their European tour, the band was fresh and exuberant; the sound quality was superb - even for those of us listening with the gods - and Eddie Vedder was in brilliant voice and evident happy spirits.

Before the concert began, my daughter and I were discussing the price of tickets these days - not complaining about last night's in particular because it was Pearl Jam [!], but simply observing how expensive it has become over the years to see the 'big' acts. Soon after this anticipation-filler, the band came on and the lights dimmed to deep blue and the opening song Release filled the stadium with its beauty, Vedder's vocal in awesome control. When finished, my daughter and I turned to one another and said the ticket price was worth that one song alone. And we meant it.

The two and a half hour set was stunning. The performance finished on a second encore of five songs, the final three being Jeremy, Alive, and music-affirming Rockin' In The Free World. For that by now familiar Neil Young closer, the lights came up in the stadium and everyone was on their feet singing and dancing. It was a party atmosphere where crowd and band coalesced in the moment that makes live music so precious, especially on this one night with Pearl Jam.

I mustn't finish without commenting on McCready's brilliant guitar playing throughout the night, and of course the band's entire excellence, but as ever for me and so many it was Eddie Vedder's dominant, and certainly last night, fresh vocal that made this concert the word-I-don't-need-to-use-again experience it was. Exclamation marks.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Joe Zawinul – Zawinul, [1971]

I Dig, Do You?

I was delighted to get a vinyl copy of this on Saturday, though I didn’t know the album. Miles Davis’ hipster liner notes were enough to swing the purchase for me, mentioning, as he does, Herbie with the echoplex. That’s Hancock of course. Davis’ narrative reflects the cool ethos of the time, his closing eulogy being In order to write this type of music, you have to be ‘free inside of yourself’ and be Josef Zawinul with two beige kids, a black wife, two pianos, from Vienna, a Cancer and “Cliché-Free”.

It’s a mix of contemporary, sprawling jazz with Zawinul and Hancock on electric piano and some fine trumpet from Woody Shaw on the first track, and there are elegant, shorter pieces like In A Silent Way which I gather, in my continued musical education, is a rather famous composition. The soprano sax of Earl Turbington is caressed with a variety of background effects that signal 70s’ early experimentation with electronics.

The album opens with Doctor Honoris Causa, and the notes beneath the track read Dedicated to Herbie Hancock for his Honorary Doctorate at Grinnell University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I like that as I was born in Omaha, Nebraska which literally backs on to this twin town where my Uncle Glenn lived. Connections. Bill Bryson also famously wrote I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to. I lived in a small town in Iowa for a while so have some empathy.

I love the album’s closing track Arrival In New York at 1 minute and 59 seconds [which is a very precise timing!]. It is a brilliant horn, effects and percussive recreation of Joe Zawinul’s first impressions of New York when he arrived here as a boy on a ship from France.

As Miles encourages with his hip imperative verb: Dig it. I do. And only £4.99. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Nils Lofgren - Damaged Goods

Glorious Goods

Guitar god, hired gun, axeman - of the three I suspect the first label wouldn't trip off most tongues, but it would mine. Seen perhaps mostly as Springsteen sideman, that would not do justice to the distinctive guitar style upon which Lofgren has built his musical career. His songwriting may not top popular charts, but it is consistently good, and his voice is another distinctive feature if an acquired taste. It is always the guitar that excels. Lofgren rarely rips it up, and it is the control of dancing across harmonics and taming feedback for its glorious releases that delights constantly.

Just wanted to say this as I listen to this tenth studio album from 1995. As I write, the guitar is being reined in and out on Here For You - not the strongest song, but as ever enhanced by the guitar playing - and the earlier track Only Five Minutes is a fine one with complementary soprano saxophone by Branford Marsalis. This album does contain the great Lofgren song Black Books, always a live favourite.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Tower of Babel

A good friend suggested I might like to write a poem on his theme Tower of Babel so I have and here it is. Haven't got a clue what it means, but that seemed appropriate:

And Done

that sound of many sounds could just be inside
your head or my head

he said you said i said
                                      as if either matters when such
noise is made by so many morons

- and do you think you
hear the moronic ahead of my aural radar -

i could say fuck you in many languages but wouldn’t
stack them to detract and diminish any one salient,
resonant and crystal-clear vocal directing

he said you said i said

perhaps they all said the same at the same time the
same things that we are saying now

as if it matters when all is said

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio

Waving Goodbye To The Waves

Firmly hooked into the Beach Boys’ glorious pop past, this album reflects both the narratives and beautiful harmonies of that time. There is, thankfully, no attempt to update the template so there’s no rap or scratch or sampling or other inverted anachronisms, though I will comment on its other anachronistic tendencies anon. After the sonic reminder of the precision of their harmonies with nothing but this harmonising in the opening Think About The Days, second and title track That’s Why God Made The Radio is an adamant hypothesis for a deity I do not recognise, but after listening I’m prepared to twiddle the spiritual knobs invoked by its heavenly sound. I’ve read commentators call the music on this album unimaginative and slick and I think the latter adjective at least perfectly sums up the perfection. Would anyone really be expecting anything remarkably different to what we know, especially of Brian Wilson over recent years? To have this much of an echo of the Beach Boys’ familiar sound seems generous enough in the circumstances.

I do acknowledge the unsettling anachronism of 70 year olds singing about ‘digging’ summer vacation, cruising in their cars, going steady, good vibrations and summer weather and other whitewashed teenage dreams from a past that was never this innocently utopian anyway, but in many ways that’s the fun of the album: its happy reconstruction of a world by old guys who know better but still sing it so prettily. Even the do bee do bee dos seem somehow acceptable when wrapped in the California sun and Pacific coast namechecks, and our recent British heatwave has given this some aural Anglo-credibility. Today’s rain hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm either, and when the guys sing in Shelter - I’ll give you shelter and keep you warm – my listening accepts in full this musical architecture.

The album’s firmer grasp on reality does, however, get revealed at the end. The final three tracks have a sound and focus that feels more genuinely self-aware and mature. Tenth From There To Back Again presents some of the most exquisite harmonies on the album, followed even more beautifully by Pacific Coast Highway where the yearning to go home is perhaps more than a geographical location. Then final track Summer’s Gone is achingly melancholic in the most obvious of Beach Boy metaphors where summer fun and all its memories of youth fade into the song’s ending with a haunting sound of waves crashing goodbye on the shore, just after the closing line and dream about our yesterdays.

Kaya Street - Harry Birch

Hammock Heaven

Where Hot Dub Bikini Party intuited sizzling summers and lively alfresco partying [reviewed 18th March, 2011], this latest release Kaya Street from Harry Birch – driving force of that former reggae-infused band – suggests lounging in warm summer hammocks to absorb and enjoy in peaceful repose, not that the lyrical preoccupations confine themselves to fretless narratives, as here lost love and missed opportunity provides an edge just like that hammock’s occasional precarious swing.

It’s a natural inclination to listen for influence and/or echo in music that captures your attention, and by way of providing some overall complimentary context I do hear Devendra Banhart at times in the sweet simplicity of some songs, the tone of a Paolo Nutini in Harry’s fine vocal – a welcome focus on this album’s 13 tracks – and the noticeable move from reggae rhythms to generic African guitar riffs, these often cascading delightfully around the melodies.

Opener This City immediately features those African guitar cascades and the pleasing harmonies heard on many songs. Second How Much Longer? puts the vocal to the centre and highlights the gentle falsetto that Harry employs throughout the album. Fourth Morning is a pretty song full of folk credentials that slowly rises to an emotional height and is then eased out on violin strains and guitar, perhaps a little long in its journey. And when I say ‘pretty’ I do mean to stress its sweet attraction.

Fifth You Should Have Been Mine opens with brash saxophone to poke us out of the pretty lull of the former, the vocal again rising to falsetto peaks to perhaps empathise with the heightened emotions of the title’s lament. Sixth He’s Not The One has us pondering in the comforting caress of our aural hammock if there is real or imagined loss in the triplet of lovelorn storytelling completed by seventh The Fool. Eighth Sway provides more saxophone from R. Beavis [I would have liked Christian names – even Harry is H. Birch] and this dances enticingly in the background amongst the harmonies that open the song as well as Harry’s strong vocal that follows. This is a genuine grower. Listen here:

Ninth The Border is my favourite. It has catchy guitar work and an equally catchy but simple melody, and is predominantly acoustic guitar and solo vocal that I imagine is great to hear live. J. Mansfield provides pleasing violin strains, presumably multi-tracked, to close the song. Tenth Never Enough opens with a continuation of the violins as well as the by now signature vocal falsetto breaks.

Eleventh Low returns us to a Bikini reprise with its opening reggae sax riff which shifts to Booker T and then back to reggae roots, supported with echoing guitar. On a grey Jubilee day with a nation entertained by a flotilla of fleeting royal patriotism, I was better entertained by the empathising - but hopefully equally fleeting in respect of the weather – penultimate track Summer’s Over. The album ends on Brother, an almost secret track that fades in from an apparent distance and seems to stay there in a background, Harry’s fragile falsetto suggesting something from afar, and it is this gentle breath of a song and singing that in many ways characterises the whole album, though I trust I have also reflected its other confidence, especially in the African rhythms [or as tagged at pop  alternative  soul  folk  indie  raggae  soul  Exeter ] of Harry Birch’s fine guitar playing and songwriting as well as distinctive singing.