Friday, 27 September 2013

Roy Harper - Man and Myth


This is a glorious and gorgeous album. I have listened today with both a sense of nostalgic reverie and genuine awe of Harper’s present, each of course linked to one another. There have been moments of quite emotional appreciation at that link, partly because of my own age [though at 59 I have some distance to Harper’s 72, yet the shared preoccupations and perceptions are narrowed far more than the actual age gap], and this also is in hearing Roy singing as beautifully as ever – the nostalgia – and in listening to him singing of time and years and love with a wisdom that resonates in his present, and me as moved listener.

I have written already of the beauty of Time Is Temporary, the album’s second track, and one could have imagined this wouldn’t be surpassed. It seems churlish to say that it is, but I will do so simply to accentuate the overall beauty, unbearably so at times [in the way nostalgia intrudes on the present by recalling and reminding]. January Man, the third track, is one such exquisite song, and here Roy’s vocal soars so often to his distinctive falsetto and thus one aural reminder of the past. He also moves to bass notes and this variation and depth is mesmerising to hear. The song is swept along by the simple beauty of its composition: musically sweet, and then lyrically as he recalls the intense emotion of love from the past, but also by empathetic strings which become a feature of many songs on this album. The line I lost control of my emotions; I do apologise is so poignant in the context of the whole, and of course in the honest politeness of the gesture.

Fourth The Stranger is a more expansive romantic narrative, and the accompanying mandolin and strings and percussion pick up the pace from the sweetly plucked acoustic guitar. The roused emotion of this lover’s tale is taken to a different emotional height in a classic Harper protest song, fifth Cloud Cuckooland. The most upbeat on the album, with sax and rock riffs, the song rails at the way nothing has changed in the world [from the concerns of the late 60s onwards], we make the same mistakes over and over and over and over, and over and over again. He attacks the corporations and the arms trade here in cloud, cloud, cloud cuckoo land – we are condemned to make the same mistakes over and over and over...... and the song ends with Roy’s wonderful falsetto to bass vocal oscillations and some mean lead guitar. Rousing and meaningful – it may be a familiar diatribe, but the familiar need is what saddens.

The 15 minute epic song Heaven is Here actually merges with the ostensible final song The Exile making 23 minutes in all. 23 minutes of bliss. Whilst the previous tracks have dealt with Roy the man and his reflections on love and loss, this deals with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, though I haven’t listened enough to follow the narrative line completely where no doubt myth merges with the man in the way past has merged with present. I have listened to the brilliant guitar playing and Roy’s singing, being reminded of how much I admire him as a musician and just being genuinely, joyously swept away to hear this continuing in the present – and thrilled to be seeing him live at the end of October. Other reviewers have commented on Tony Franklin’s fretless bass playing on this long finale and it is an empathetic accompaniment, both in its own beauty and in the tone it brings to the contemplative whole. There is a choric end to Heaven is Here, all echo and snatches of vocal, before segueing into The Exile where there is more plaintive reflection, I am exiled from myself...if I wasn’t alienated, ruminations on age and distance from beginnings and hope perhaps – I’m not sure yet. I am still immersed in the wondrous sound, here Roy’s sublime singing – so profound to hear this now – also echoed, and the resonating electric guitar work.

I hope I have conveyed this to some degree, but I find it hard to recall a time when I have been this moved, indeed uplifted, to hear an album like this – so much expectation of course – but also reminded myself of my own past, and the distance from that time.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Birdy - Fire Within vs Layla Zoe - The Lily


I know this isn’t fair but life isn’t fair and there often isn’t any fairness in the acquisition of talent either, so comparing Birdy with Layla Zoe is a respective lightweight/heavyweight mismatch but it will serve to make a point.

When I reviewed Birdy’s eponymous debut I, like many others, was positive about this 15 years old's vocal talent and promise for the future. My review did acknowledge that I was at times impressed/engaged by her choice of material [e.g. a James Taylor], and that was quite a telling observation when I consider my feelings about her sophomore effort Fire Within. I’m really not going to waste much time. I’m disappointed, not that I really care that much, but I am. This is such a formulaic album with Birdy now adopting that affected staccato vocal that is such a fashion and such a musical death-knell in my aural opinion.

It doesn’t help that Birdy’s opening track Wings is a Coldplay-esque anthemic nothingness, the vocal affecting a pitch shift here and there to generate ‘interest’ in a song that plods along in its plodding anthemic beat going nowhere. Next Heart of Gold does put the vocal to the fore and it is strong as I praised two years ago, but those broken syllables [forced gaps between] are just dreadful. Not having any discernible melody doesn’t help. Last one: third Light Me Up accentuates the affectation, though it isn’t perhaps as bad as a first listen suggested – my prejudices kicking in strongly – and as I listen now I realise it really is again a lack of engaging melody: it is mainly repetitions of fairly uninteresting melodic lines as well as lyrics. 

Whereas Zoe’s opening unaccompanied vocal on Glory, Glory, Halleluiah is soulful and mature and, well, damn good! It’s a different vocal and style of course – essentially a blues vocal with a gutsy edge – and the songs are, I must admit, formulaic in being blues numbers, so there is also that element of musical preference in this judgement – but I have declared my love of the pretty and other so there is also this other judgement about talent and its application. Lily is a fine album, and third Green Eyed Lover exemplifies the raunchy, with fourth Gemini Heart offering a blues gospel ballad that pairs the full vocal with some neat electric lead. Two other slower gems are Father and title track The Lily: both sublime sensual singing.

Differences, choice, preference, judgement. Not sure if any of this matters. Maybe it is also about those who advised Birdy – assuming she took advice – to produce an album as anaemic as this one. Perhaps it will sell because it isn’t targeted at someone like me! Not convinced. 5 star reviews on Amazon – well 8 of them – and polite if not gushing reviews in the newspapers. Maybe I’m just not in a polite mood. Maybe I’m just enjoying funky raunchy allsyllablesandsentencessung Canadian female vocal excellence more. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Kimmie Rhodes and Willie Nelson - Picture In A Frame

Obviously Beautiful

Two distinctive but unaffected vocals joined on this simple but delightful duets album, ten tracks of this vocal excellence and straightforward acoustic guitars – though Nelson’s trademark nylon-string and at times complex note-climbs always stands out. The songs are mainly by Rhodes, with two by Nelson and then a Tom Waits and a Rodney Crowell. It is Country and it is the acquired sound of Nelson’s voice, with Rhodes adding her own occasional tentative tender touches, though also sounding like Emmylou – but I think both are beautiful, and they do harmonise beautifully as on the Crowell song Till I Gain Control Again – so if you enjoy all of this, you’ll enjoy this sweet 2003 album. Obviously.

Monday, 23 September 2013


What if I had met Olin, lived with him a while, called him
Stan like his friends, grew up with those big hands he
must have had [I need to wear his wedding ring – that other
woman’s - on my thumb] and if he maybe put his in mine
like fathers do, watched him work on a Chevy, handing down
tools probably barked for if I only ever knew as much then as
I do now about cars, saw him going off to work at school
teaching other young boys he will obviously have known
better than me how to tune an engine or smooth out a scar,
observed the  patterns for my job exploring the mechanics of
words, finding some point where I begin - and listened to the
dreams he must have had, bigger than me, talked about love
I wouldn’t understand then and still don’t today: something
shared, though as a ladies’ man he spread his much too thin?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Roy Harper - Time is Temporary

No Myth to His Greatness

You can listen here to this simple and beautiful song from Roy's album Man and Myth being released tomorrow. Finger plucked acoustic guitar, light banjo strums, and strings. The ease of greatness from the great man.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Shannon McNally - Small Town Talk

Bobby Charles Tribute

This is easy to review and recommend because I refer you to this site where you can listen to an informative video of Shannon talking about the recording of these Bobby Charles songs and the friends and artists who contributed. You can also download for free four acoustic cuts from the studio album. How simple and good is that?

I am a big fan of Shannon's singing: it is full and warm and carries emotion with a mature ease. A favourite track from the album is the rather lush String of Hearts, a gorgeous melody, here draped in empathetic strings and an accompanying vocal from Vince Gill whose honeyed tone is also totally apt [and the acoustic version is superb]. With Dr John aiding the production as well as other input, you can guarantee there is also some rousing blues honky tonk - as with Charles' wonderfully titled Love In The Worst Degree -  so don't imagine it is all as prettified as my stated fav. 

And for interest: John Martyn performs a fine version of Small Town Talk on his covers album The Church With One Bell.

Peter Reading - Early Works

More Poetry

Simply wanting to celebrate Peter Reading a little more, I am looking forward to reading this early work in its original form - and also, obviously, to collect - but I will mention that this can be found in the first of the two editions of his Collected Poems from Bloodaxe, though I think their site directs you to Amazon.

And I will also mention Amazon Marketplace through which I purchased the four editions in the picture. It is an excellent resource, and the books from these four separate and independent sellers arrived exactly as described, very promptly, and all at a cost I thought very reasonable - if you are collecting that cost will be relative, but none of these was expensive even excepting that context.

Of the four, my treasure is the Outposts edition of Water and Waste, published in 1970. Outposts was run by Howard Sergeant, MBE, and it was Britain's oldest independent poetry magazine. I didn't get to know Howard Sergeant until the latter part of the 70s and early 80s. He was a most thoughtful and encouraging editor, and whilst he never published my poetry in his magazine - but always urged me to continue writing and trying -  he did publish a review I wrote of Ted Hughes' then new collection, Moortown.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Jackie Kaye - Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, 20th September, 2013

Fucking Great

Had a delightful and genteel late afternoon in the calm autumnal sunshine at Budleigh Salterton, and then at the Public Hall to hear Jackie Kaye read her poetry and prose. I had the pleasure of Jackie visiting my school to work with sixth formers 14 years ago in July 1999. I recall how warm, friendly and humorous she was then. Nothing has changed.

It was an extremely entertaining reading, especially when Jackie regaled us with extracts from her memoir Red Dust Road, in particular meeting with her birth father in Nigeria. For those who don't know, Budleigh is a quiet seaside town on the East Devon coast populated predominantly by the retired and those of an age to make me feel reasonably sprightly. It was therefore reassuring that there were no gasps of outrage nor indeed heart attacks as Jackie managed to say the word fuck, denigrate Christianity [well fundamentalism, but it was a broad attack] and read aloud with alacrity the wonderful expression lesbian belly flap [you need to read the book!].

Actually, the audience who I have characterised quite accurately age-wise was extremely appreciative of her reading and her banter and her strident irreverences. So, had my prejudices and perceptions knocked around a bit today, and it was thoroughly enjoyed.

Lemn Sissay was the visiting poet last year and I mention now just so I can post this amazing photo:

Peter Reading - 27th July 1946 - 17th November, 2011


I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t realise – at least I really can’t remember being aware, which exacerbates that embarrassment – the great English poet Peter Reading had died, passing two years ago on the 17th November, 2011. Seamus Heaney’s recent death received quite rightly considerable media attention, and whilst Reading’s was referenced in, for example, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The TLS at the time [which I clearly hadn’t seen], it definitely didn’t make the TV news. Not surprising on the one hand as he certainly wasn’t a ‘popular’ poet, being complex and really often quite miserable, but it is sad as he was original, utterly candid, consistent, complex [again!], and if you bothered to listen, also often hilarious.

His death has come to my attention as a result of a comment recently left on my review of Reading’s superb pamphlet Shitheads, a comment it was rewarding to receive for a review of poetry on a music blog, but also because the person writing had gone on to also enjoy Reading’s work. In being prompted by this to read some more of his poetry, and to research online, I became aware of Reading’s death.

As a belated tribute to that fact and of course the man himself, I am going to post a few of his poems from the appropriately titled Ob. from 1999 – a title typically and darkly humorous by a writer who documented general and specific decline in our world with his characteristic candour – sometimes caustic, sometimes comic – and the challenging complexity of love for esoteric language and metrical forms.

I am presenting the following poems because they are accessible, funny and biting. They are about writing and about others writing, and I suspect refer to a writing tour in America and reading to and working with aspiring poets. They are indignant as well as rude: a potent mix.


   You say you love words?
Hmmm, let me see: ‘Sweet zephyr...’;
   keep up the good work.


...poetry reading...rare opportunity...
one of the leading...whose reputation is...
   recent collections: Foibles, Frog’s Breath...
        gained international...lyric beauty...

At the Reading

The sham-coy simper,
the complacency,
the frisson titters,
the sycophancy.

In the SCR

The puerile academic quips,
the smugly learned repartee
withstanding little scrutiny.


Possibly I may find some time to peruse your
    puerile outpourings
         (I don’t remember your name);
         more likely, though, I shall not.


an A in Histrionics
   doesn’t count for much.