Saturday, 31 December 2016

Apology and Reprise: Richmond Fontaine - You Can't Go Back If There Is Nothing To Go Back To

Top Eleven, 2016

An admission of stupidity and apology to myself, in essence, I am publicly acknowledging I missed this from my Top Ten list for 2016, which is ridiculous, but even from my Preliminaries list which is just fucking stupid.

I don't think I'd supplant Gregory Porter or David Bowie as respectively 1 and 2, but Richmond Fontaine's final album, released this year [and I saw them perform it this year, just to hammer home the nonsense of the omission....], would have been 3rd. Has to be.

How did I miss it? Stupidity. Forgetfulness. Only using my digital records rather than checking out the vinyl. Not paying fucking attention.

Who cares? Probably just me. But I do like to get it right and I do admit my errors and here's the original review as self-compensation:

Never Better

In all our worlds, time advances inexorably – it is a simple law of nature – but in Vlautin’s and that inhabited by his many personas, that ‘progress’ forward is not as the cliché would have it, even if ironically, a move to betterment. Invariably, it is about dissolution, or at best, change: but it is never the same. As the album title tells us – and I am sure the line is directly or indirectly stated in many of Vlautin’s songs over the years with Richmond Fontaine and The Delines – you can’t go back. You can physically and therefore literally, but if you do, things will not be the same and they will most likely be worse, in most cases depressingly so.

Documenting such a harsh reality, as Vlautin will do from the caustic to the tenderly empathetic, is the forward momentum of this final album from his long-standing band Richmond Fontaine, and one presumes that having made this decision to end, he and the others will not go back. In many ways, all of the song-narratives are brutal, but there are those that take observation to its plainest honesty, and even the music refuses to offer plaintive sympathies to sooth the story-line. That’s how it is with the third on this album, I Got Off the Bus, and even before we listen we know the narrator has returned somewhere that should have been left in its past:

Our protagonist has returned home where a ‘friend’ said he’d pick him up, but doesn’t show; he makes his own way to Little Mexico, once a small street but now a sprawl that never ends; he calls a girl he used to know, a nurse, who had a place on 7th Street, but her dad says she has moved and is married, living in Stockton with her baby, and the dad says he remembers him, but the narrator knows he is lying; he wakes up from a sleep somewhere to see a policeman standing over me [the chorus]; he goes to the movies but falls asleep there where a nervous 16 year old tells him he has to leave; the narrator – perhaps seeing himself in the boy – reflects you can’t go back if there’s nowhere to go back to; he goes to sit by the river where the sky was full of stars and the water was rust and the night was never ending; then there is a return to the chorus and he tells the policeman I didn’t mean to run out of everything but the policeman replies he doesn’t care as long as the narrator got out of there, and the song draws musically, and simply so, to its close.

This isn’t lyrical, but it is realistic, a tale told in the nothingness of its ordinariness but which touches because of that. The music here is more backdrop to the delivery than a mimetic carrier, and that gives it its own significance amongst the other stories of drifters and losers who reflect on their loss and misery. However – and this grows with the listening again and again – other songs are transferred with a greater musical partnership, this often conveyed through the inherent yearning of pedal steel, as with fourth Whitey and Me.

There are two songs that stand out for me in this memorable whole of such emotive storytelling, and the first is I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up and Remember. Rather than paraphrase the narrative – you will know its despairing reflection – it is Vlautin’s wholly empathetic vocal that pains here, the constant inflections upwards mirroring the hurt, it seems, and a beautiful wordless chorus line - also the guitar vibrato that slowly follows. The musical build-up to that cooed chorus – drums and bass so gently worked to offset the relative crescendo, and a brooding synth backdrop like we hear in Springsteen’s similar slow ballads – is unsettling.

The second is the penultimate song on the album, A Night in the City, and the pedal steel here, played by Paul Brainard, conveys the haunted telling again of unhappy living, this time the narrator breaking routine in some useless hope of the different and better: for once I didn’t go home after shift, called my wife and said I’d be late, every day it gets harder to go home after work, so he instead and ironically goes to the home of a workmate where his life is the same or worse, and the rest of the escape from this monotony is a tale of ordinary woe, and here the relentless slow beat of the drum drives to the mean poetry of the chorus the night in the city, oh the city at night [having arrived as listeners in a musical crescendo again], this symmetry offering no more than its platitude and this rhetorical question: is this all there is, is this what life is, a job that means nothing, a woman who sleeps right next to you – and she ain’t yours at all….?

I’ve written previously and many times how it is hard to know/describe the engagement one has as a listener to this despair without redemption of any kind [though the music, of course, in all its – there is no other word – plaintive glory does affect] so I return to the ‘answer’ I have suggested before, and that is its utter honesty.

For a final album, Richmond Fontaine as a band and Willy Vlautin as a songwriter have never been better, especially in their musically melancholic but memorable evocation of lives that are never better for being lived, compelling us as listeners to engage with this certainty even though we believe it will never happen to us.

Into the Distance Music 47

Nigel Kennedy - My World, album review

Coffee Table Brilliance

This latest from Nigel Kennedy, as he turned 60 this month, could have been a contender for my top ten of the year had I heard it earlier – because it is such a delightful musical offering. Two symphonic pieces – Dedications and Three Sisters – are in many ways coffee table music. I do not mean this disparagingly or to belittle at all: whilst complete entities, when taken in their separate movements they are beautiful classical pop pieces, accessible and immediately, melodically pleasing/emotive.

Take the opening two dedications: Dla Jarka (for Jarek Smietana) and Fallen Forest (for Isaac Stern). The first is a conventional piece for the Polish jazz guitarist, ‘conventional’ in its simple repeated melodic line, raga-ish, but it then breaks into a fuzzed ending as more direct reference and also reflection of Kennedy’s wide musical tastes; the second for the great violinist Stern is gorgeous, and immediate in the way a beautiful film score can be, if that doesn’t seem to diminish [and prompts my ‘coffee table’ idea].

The fourth dedication is Solitude (for Yehudi Menuhin), a tribute to his teacher and mentor and it is not surprisingly another sweet, affectionate piece.

The Three Sisters, based on Chekov’s play and in eight movements, is similarly engaging, emotively and in its direct musical appeal: playful at times; those film-score orchestral sweeps, and immediate melodic finesses. Always Kennedy’s sublime playing, including occasional effects, like the echoplex [or similar] on the lovely Rode's Pictures - Andrei's Love - Vershinin's View of Destiny - Solyony; and then there is the raging psychedelia of Link Acts 2-3 (Fire)-Chebutykin's Despair-The Sisters' Fate, a fuzzed freak-out which blows the mind!

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Quintessence - Spirits from Another Time 1969-1971, album review

The Most Perfect

There isn't much to say about this collection of alternative versions and live tracks other than how it continues to swell my nostalgic love for Quintessence, previously articulated by me here across a number of their albums/releases.

For a detailed account of the discoveries and performances on this compilation, released in May, I would recommend this illuminating and informed review, and especially the notes on each track, at The Afterword [with thanks for Colin H's insight].

I loved seeing this band live in the 70s, especially at a number of free concerts, and listening to this album the music/musicianship clearly survives brilliantly. My favourite members in a genuinely all-star collective were and always will be vocalist Phil 'Shiva' Jones and guitarist Allan Mostert, and there are stunning examples of both performing in this collection.

Monday, 26 December 2016

George Michael singing Queen/Freddie: 2016 with a real sting in its tail

I was lucky enough to go to this great gig. George Michael was one of the few, maybe the only one really, who could carry a Freddie song: such a gifted vocalist - regardless of one's musical tastes, this is a simple reality.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Music 5

Status Quo - Pictures of Matchstick Men

Not to forget this early pop-psyche gem

Rick Parfitt

So as we near the end of 2016, the year decides to take yet one more musician with it. Early Status Quo played some of the best riff-rife rock there is, genuine artistry in its consistency and longevity. Can you imagine the heads that have banged over the years to those steady rhythms?

A fav joke, a tad disparaging on the surface but I think in reality an ironic homage, was C'mon out Status Quo, we know you're in that riff somewhere. Or something like that.

The sound will endure.

Christmas Music 4