Monday, 25 September 2017
Yes - but - No
I’m not a Leon Russell aficionado, but I like his work and I do like this posthumous album, that distinctive growling vocal as powerful as ever, recorded a few months before his death at the age of 74. Anyone who could write and perform as he did A Song for You always was and is a musical great.
This album does continue a familiar long trajectory from that 1971 classic. But not being that knowing with his albums across this time, especially of late, I do not know how common massive orchestrations were. On On a Distant Shore they do, surely, overpower the whole. It is at times a seemingly add-on over-production, and I have no idea if this is the case for songs perhaps not quite finished before he passed?
The musical dichotomy is perfectly illustrated by two juxtaposed tracks on the album: fifth Black and Blue is a fine blues simply performed with tight band and a great guitar lick to enhance; sixth Just Leaves and Grass is as a composition and in Russell’s singing a highly charged, emotive song – he seems in performance emotively wrought – but the orchestration is lavishly naff to these ears – symphony-esque horn bursts and sweeping strings as well as a ridiculous echoing vocal chorus that mono-stabs Yes, then later Go. This does detract hugely from an otherwise potent love song. Check out the orchestration on the wonderful honky tonk of Love This Way which is large but playfully so, right down to the actual howling wind on the lyrical howling wind line, a vocal chorus of oh yeah with sass rather than silliness.
The album closes on A Song For You, here the orchestration slightly more in sympathy with the song’s apt meaningfulness as an ending, the pedal-steel in there fighting with those strings.
Saturday, 23 September 2017
Together Again Suite
Of a quintet of recent releases that got me interested – David Crosby; Steven Stills & Judy Collins; Chris Hillman; Van Morrison; Leon Russell – it is the second that has engaged the most, with Crosby, Russell and Morrison following, but all good.
The Stills/Collins is the most ‘familiar’ [along with Crosby], both sounding as good as ever and as original as ever. There are detailed reviews out there which plot the relationship between Stills and Collins in the 60s and how songs here reflect this, and Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows reminds of Collins and her influence on Cohen to become a singer. Judy Collins is as exquisite as ever in her vocal as I have observed in reviews of her more recent solo releases; Stills, who has hearing problems that have, apparently, affected his singing, still performs exact harmonies, no doubt set by Collins’ perfections: opener Handle Me With Care a good example where Stills holds his note and Collins takes on the melody [though this gets a highly critical take in Paste Magazine, panning Stills’ as painfully flat, not perhaps understanding his situation, and I think overstating as flat its intentional monotone]. But that’s opinion. Yes, this is, as I have said, ‘familiar’ territory, but that’s brilliant to me. Listening to second So Begins the Task, I don’t think the criticism of the harmonising holds, Stills sounding most like his past, and Collins again polishing.
There are songs where Collins is at the solo fore, like third River of Gold, though Stills does provide a fine foil to the chorus, and also in sixth Houses where she soars vocally. Fourth Judy is beautifully sung by both, and Stills on guitar is as crisp as ever. Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan get confident covers of their respective Reason to Believe and Girl from the North Country, while Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes is elegantly echoed by Collins’ equally gorgeous voice, and the lyrics resonate with the reflection on these two former lovers and lifelong friends in their seventies now performing together.
Closer Questions from Stills’ Buffalo Springfield days reasserts the nostalgia, and his guitar work reminds of his prowess.
Thursday, 21 September 2017
Resonance of What Once Was
I have always liked Cat Stevens and I like this in both its revisiting of his earliest work and in his renaming himself as Cat Stevens alongside Yusuf. I stress that the renaming is no kind of alteration or rejection or whatever – it would seem to be a simple acknowledgement of himself as a composite character, proudly the whole of who he was and is.
When an album like this is released I do like to check out a few reviews. What I have just read seem generally positive. There are those which focus on the obvious echo of early Cat Stevens, and the simplicity of that then and now, and those necessarily doing the same though being more positive about this, mentioning the gruffer but still signature vocal and a mature presentations of songs from his first two albums as well as some new.
I veer to the latter, though both are fine. The lyrical preoccupations are as simple and naïve as ever – they are of their time after all – but what is inescapable as a listener is the gulf that exists between that childlike optimism of the late 60s/early 70s, from folk and other performers and their listeners, and the dismal reality of that optimism’s failure to be realised over this time.
But there is no harm in reasserting the positive innocence of that thinking. There are plenty of candid alternatives. Any album with the song Mary and the Little Lamb about cuddling and loving is clearly still pushing the sweet and the probably twee, but it is a naivety that doesn’t grate – not for me anyway – because it is carried on the historical weight, light as it is, of the musical comfort zone which is classic Cat Stevens. More than nostalgia, it is still full of this. And if this is two sentences of rather obvious contradiction, I think that is the enduring appeal, because my harder side wants to deny the pretty simplicities but being hopeful is attractive still.
The one 'darker' tracks is opener Blackness of the Night which is from 1967 and the New Masters album. But even this is framed within the context of being about a soldier who is ruing what he has become/done, so it exists within that 60s 'peace protest' outlook. I mention because one review I read this morning appeared to appropriate its meaning as a reflection of an older Yusuf/Cat Stevens, but I don't think you can drag out that notion from its original context.
One of the sweetest songs is the last one, I’m So Sleepy, also from his 1967 album New Masters. It is the quintessence of him gloriously sung with overdubbed harmony, a resonance of asserted belief in what once was.