Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Top Fifty - Chris Smither

Chris Smither - I'm A Stranger Too/Don't It Drag On

I'm sure I've said and done this before, but I'm going to cheat because I can. This top fifty selection is a two-fer of Chris Smither's debut and second albums, brought out respectively in 1970 and 1971. They are both excellent - some of the finest songwriting and performance of the time and genre. I genuinely could not choose between them so this combo gets me out of a fix I don't have to suffer.

Of interest too, I hope, is that I have only discovered Chris Smither in very recent years. If I had heard and possessed these albums in the early 70s I know they would be as precious as my John Martyn albums/music of the time. Smither is a brilliant guitarist, and his more recent work is predominantly blues based. These early albums are mainly folk songs, with beautiful ballads. Smither's voice today is a distinctive baritone; in the early 70s it was a higher register with an emotive, natural warble that is much more gentle and appropriate to the folk melodies.

Of course I have made a compilation of the ballads from both albums that I particularly like. What is again interesting is that some of these melodies are so achingly plaintive in their beauty, musically and lyrically, that they have an impact on me now that I would normally only get from those songs that I have grown up and lived with for years. That is their genuine power. A track like Devil Got Your Woman from I'm A Stranger Too is a good example. This is followed on that album by Homunculus which is even more of a lament, and has echos of Bert Jansch's early work for a reference point. Other songs in this gentler vein are A Short Song For Susan, Neil Young's I Am A Child, Love You Like A Man, Skip James' Look Down The Road, and the gorgeous Time To Go Home.

The second album offers up similar gems: Lonesome Georgia Brown with slide guitar; the simple acoustic and vocal of I've Got Mine; the brilliant blues of Another Way To Find You; a piano addition in Jagger/Richards' No Expectations; title track Don't It Drag On with more piano and bass; the exquisite and sad Every Mother's Son [lyric at end], and the final track I Feel The Same. Background vocalists on this album include Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur.

There are more bluesy/rock tracks [I have focused on my softer, 'pretty' favourites here]. From Don't It Drag On there are two good representatives of this other offering to mention, both with the Smither vocal sounding like Michael Chapman from Family, and a more dynamic example of the warble I have already mentioned: Bob Dylan's Down In The Flood, and the classic Willie McTell Statesboro Blues. There are self-penned examples too on both albums.

As I have typed this I have listened to both albums and it has been wonderful. Again, as I've said before, I have the time and this is why I do what I do here.

Every Mother's Son

I speak to you. I think you'll
Understand. You know you've
Made your son Joseph
A dangerous man.
He's gone to town, he's bought himself a gun.
This could happen to every mother's son.

I spoke to Joseph.
His time has come.
"Vengeance is mine," he said.
"Come join the fun."
He looked more like a Judas on the run.
This could happen to every mother's son.

Since I spoke to Joseph he's
Gone into town. He killed
Six strong men 'fore they
Shot him down.
I hate to think it's only just begun.
This could happen to every mother's son.

Something to tell you I
Think you should know.
You think too fast and you
Love too slow, you know.
You needn't feel you're the only one.
This could happen to every mother's son.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Glen Campbell - Ghost On The Canvas

Huge Wings

If this is indeed Glen Campbell's musical swan-song then he is flying away with huge wings. The voice on all of these songs is strong and crystal clear, regardless of his age at 75. The songs are often simple - and often clever too - but it is the Campbell voice that resonates distinctively throughout and carries them to sustained heights.

The lyrics do matter so much on this album, whether his own in the co-writing efforts or those written for him, the Alzeimer's diagnosis informing the reflections and inner tributes, but no more than his musical past and achievements themselves warrant and prompt. What this collection does achieve is a magical representation of the Campbell oeuvre that made him famous, notably the Jimmy Webb songs and sound [with Paul Westerberg's Any Trouble - where Campbell's guitar playing works to its patent - and the album producer Julian Raymond/Campbell co-penned A Thousand Lifetimes proving clear echos here], but also a modern tone in, for example, It's Your Amazing Grace that marries past and present in its more sweeping, anthemic quality before leading into next song, Teddy Thompson's In My Arms which Campbell delivers with infectious gusto, the version also bolstered by great back-up guitar work.

This is a superb celebration of talent.

Top Fifty - Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell - Blue

The perfect album. This is Joni Mitchell's fourth album, released in 1971, and her best. The perfection is in the songwriting and performance; in the storytelling and poetry. It does seem to be totally honest, without melodrama or pretense, and there is a purity in the simplicity of playing and production. This isn't a difficult choice for a top fifty. An obvious personal tattoo.

I find listening to this a totally calming experience. This is partly to do, inevitably, with the nostalgia of memories prompted and conjured, but it is essentially the beauty of the music, and of course the lyrics which don't require analysis because in a song it is about sound as well as meaning and Joni Mitchell combined this with an instinctive compromise of ear and mind [you know what I mean - language can date and jolt but it's all about intention and effect and I think hers are sincere, lively and at times playful]:

Blue songs are like tattoos
You know I've been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away
Hey Blue, here is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
Well there're so many sinking now
You've got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs lots of laughs
Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go
Well I don't think so
But I'm gonna take a look around it though
Blue I love you

Blue here is a shell for you
Inside you'll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me

© 1970; Joni Mitchell

Acid, booze and ass - that's what I call a Magic 3!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Geronimo Black - Geronimo Black [1972]

Inventive Stuff

This is a brilliant, eclectic and innovative album, the only release from this amalgam of Mothers Of Invention alumni Jimmy Carl Black, Buzz Gardner, brother Bunk Gardner and Denny Walley, and a range of other musicians playing a full spread of instruments to create a mini orchestra to support full and intricate arrangements a la Blood Sweat & Tears and MOI themselves [there was a revamped, altered line-up for a 1980 release which included some reworkings of songs from this original].

Opener Low Ridin' Man is a raw rock stomper though, with Jim Dandy vocals and driving sax sounding like Audience. The eclecticism is established by the next track, Siesta, which is a beautiful flute-driven classical piece that sounds like BS&T's Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie [so it sounds like Satie!] - the flute playing is elegant and the light orchestration lush from this superb line-up: Bunk and Buzz Gardner - Piano, Trumpet, Bassoon, Flute (Alto), Sax (Tenor); Andy Cahan - Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals; Tjay Contrelli [from Love] - Flute, Sax (Baritone), Sax (Tenor); Scott Page - Oboe; Denny Walley - Guitar, Vocals; Tom Leavey - Bass, Vocals; Jimmy Carl Black - Drums, Vocals; Samuel Cytron - Violin; Philip Goldberg - Viola; Nathan Gershman - Cello; Arno Nuefeld - Violin; Keith Olsen - Vocals; Murray Roman - Vocals

Third track Other Man is straight rock in Guess Who vein, and fourth LA County Jail '59 C/S is a  slow blues, with soulful vocal and rising horns as the song climbs into its trudging climax of dissonant violins. The fifth Let Us Live is another straight rock number, but with an inkling of Zappaesque inner orchestrations and then wild saxophone and whirling violin. A harpsichord [synthesised?] darts inside the melody too and this instrument will feature later on.

Sixth track Bullwhip is a full-on funk number, great horn rolls running in and out until ending on a full-blown horn and oboe onslaught. The oboe features in seventh track Quaker's Earthquake with the harpsichord and other deft playing in this baroque instrumental. Eighth Gone is a sweet little pop tune with west coast harmonies.

Penultimate song An America National Anthem returns to the gravelly vocal of the opener and growls emotively on Native American reservation life. Closer '59 Chevy is another straight rocker, the relatively weakest of the whole album , but that's because it should have been about the much superior '57 model.

It is strange how an album with this calibre of music, and the pedigree of the musicianship, isn't heralded as a classic with others from this ripe period of musical experimentation and simple rock excellence.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Easy Over

if I had to flip hash browns
it’d be best in a diner
      better still in a late
60s diner

chrome counter like a mirror
and the guy with a beard
             reading his poems
       lips moving inside his head

is reflected like he’s
                           talking in water

crack of an egg
the yoke moving slowly along the page

            i’m in some city of love
cooking to the beat
hear it in the music
      the protests
      the hopes
      the chanting
      the gunfire
      the trips
      the harmonies
      the mantra
      the napalm
      the wow-wow
      the recitals

listen to the beat
the page is turning
     there waving through the water
and the man with the beard
gets up to leave

and i am ready to flip
easy over

Moreland and Arbuckle - Blistering Blues and Beautification

If you like your blues foot-stompin', thigh-slappin', hand-bangin', head-slammin' and any other bodily-movement contraction, then Moreland & Arbuckle are the duo for you. But they also play subtle arrangements and expand to country and folk. The more raucous side reminds of The Black Keys, and Seasick Steve at his rudimentary best, but Moreland & Arbuckle's range perhaps sets them apart and I mention this now in anticipation of their imminent October release of latest album Just a Dream.

Their two superb precursors are worth a listen:

2008 album 1861

and 2010 album Flood

Guitarist Aaron 'Chainsaw' Moreland and vocalist/harpist Dustin Arbuckle joined up in 2002 in Kansas and have been ably supported by drummer Brad Horner, though I believe he has just left the duo after recording their latest album.

Karen Savoca - Promise


This is an excellent album. Karen and partner Pete Heitzman have in the past worked with Greg Brown and garnered some critical acknowledgement through previous album The Dirt in 2005.

This latest album features Karen's poetic lyricism [and storytelling], a range of country and funky skewed songs that are all appealing, and Karen's sparkling, chrystal-clear vocal. Great sustained background accompaniment from Heitzman [some straightforward but foot-stompin' guitar playing on Gonna Love You, electric and acoustic].

A completely cool album.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Poo Pipe

Today they put the poo pipe inside the wall,
jack-hammered a groove the length of its
fall and repositioned it into the cavity.
Then it was covered, the slit refilled with
wire and cement, and the plastic tube
concealed like a secret, as hidden inside
as the cast iron pipe at the bottom of the skip.

And now we must wait and see if the fall
of all our future flushings of pissing and shits
recall the remaining constant of gravity.
Although plastered, painted and covered with
its new look, behind will be the same lube
of human waste, and if bursting outside
we'll be falling into its dark slide and slip.

Smokestack Lightnin' - Off The Wall


Having recently played Howlin' Wolf''s 1956 Smokestack Lightning with a friend [he on guitar/vocals; me on harmonica] I came across this group and album and obviously checked out their version as well as listened to the rest.

It's a great, raw, rock and blues band and album. They were apparently the 'house band' for the Whiskey-A-Go-Go and the Cheetah Club. In researching the former gig lists, I found them featured a few times mainly in 1969, the year of Off The Wall's release: March 18-23, 1969 listed with Taj Mahal; July 2-6, 1969 listed with Love; July 23-27, 1969 listed with Sir Douglas Quintet [apparently replacing Flock who dropped out]; October 1-5, 1969 listed with Dunn and McCashen; December 10-14, 1969 listed with Bobby 'Blue' Band, and December 24-25 listed with Bread. I did find one reference to February 12-14, 1971 listed with Crabby Appleton, but I stopped looking for more as the point is they clearly played there! What did impress was the list of amazing bands that played this club around that time - how I would like to go back and be there.....

Opening track Watch Your Step poprocks with its R&B beat and female backing vocals, and second track Long Stemmed Eyes [John's Song] has elements of The Byrds and Creedance Clearwater Revival intertwined. Third track, Willie Dixon's Three Hundred Pounds of Heavenly Joy is a straight rock'n'roller. Fourth track Something's Got A Hold On Me showcases the powerful and gravelly voice of Ronnie Darling. The first 'heavy' track is fifth song Light In My Window with its strong lead guitar and the growling vocals again of Darling. The first blues infused track is the sixth, I Idolize You with its Paul Butterfield Blues Band sound [backing chorus and brass orchestration] - this is superb. Seventh track Who's Been Talkin' continues the blues, with the vocal again extremely strong, and the harmonica playing putting mine to shame. Penultimate track Well Tuesday wouldn't be out of place on a Stepponwolf greatest hits album, whilst last track, the 12 minutes plus Smokestack Lightnin', lets me know how it should be played, all members in the the band - Rik Eiserling [guitar], Kelly Green [bass], Ronnie Darling [vocals/percussion] and Art Guy [drums] - getting their moments to solo and shine.

The bonus track is a reprise of Smokestack Lightnin' by Howlin' Mart and Harpoon Glenn and it is an acoustic, softer version........oh sorry, that's a recording I mentioned at the beginning of this........

The Doors would watch Smokestack Lightin' perform at the Whiskey and you can sense that Morrison's love of the blues would have been fully satisfied by their playing with such a raw energy, simplicity and feel.

The Songs Survive

Two of the great songsmiths Jerry Leiber and Nicholas Ashford died today but leave behind a legacy of songs to survive their passing. Best known for songwriting partnerships Leiber and Stoller, and Ashford and Simpson, here are some of those musical memorials:


There Goes My Baby
Hound Dog

Jailhouse Rock

Yakety Yak

Poison Ivy

Love Potion No 9

Charlie Brown
Stand By Me

Spanish Harlem


Ain't No Mountain High Enough
Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing
You're All I Need To Get By

I'm Every Woman

Let's Go Get Stoned
Reach Out And Touch [Somebody's Hand]

The Onion Song

Saturday, 20 August 2011


Doors open to different rooms -
so few I have been able to walk through -
their dark stain added to by the grime of
pushing fingers themselves coloured with
age and wear, and pushed the same way
by all these years where there has been no
movement. I stand to watch and it is as if
each opening is closed by anticipation.

And so it is by looking through this,
what might have been is in the distances.
It is only a moment, and swinging to
each shuts and shows the marks as patterns of
not going but moving here and there
and always in the stasis of this stare.

Lindi Ortega - Little Red Boots

These Boots Are Made For Country

This is a stone solid debut album from Canadian Country chanteuse Ortega, hitting all the requisite bases from lovelorncountry [So Sad] to folkcountry [Dying Of Another Broken Heart] to rockabilly [Little Lies] to rootscountry [the witty I'm No Elvis Presley] to popcountry [Fall Down Or Fly] and to rock'n'bluescountry [sultry title track Little Red Boots].

There is a strong echo of Dolly Parton in the singing throughout - good example Blue Bird - but this is no bad thing and it is varied enough to be more than mere copy. Her own voice certainly flies true and solid on Black Fly which ends the album. A genuine talent now and for the future.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Literary Humour

After Frost
-by Robert Creeley

He comes here
by whatever way he can,
not too late,
not too soon.

He sits, waiting.
He doesn’t know
why he should
have such a patience.

He sits at a table
on a chair.
He is comfortable
sitting there.

No one else
in this room,
no others, no expectations,
no sounds.

Had he walked
another way,
would he be here,
like they say.

This poem can be found in the 'Black Mountain Poets' section from the excellent and massive Poetry Foundation site I have placed in my Blog List. I like this because I enjoy Frost and enjoyed teaching him to my students - not an experience universally shared, sadly - and because I enjoyed teasing them with alternative and/or lack of meanings for The Road Not Taken, which probably explains why my enthusiasm for Frost wasn't universally shared, or not. Of course, Creeley was one of the greats too, indulging in light witticism here.

The Hunt is Over

Brute Heart - Lonely Hunter

For those of us with It's A Beautiful Day, Curved Air and Flock rock violin withdrawal symptoms, here's a Minneapolis trio who have resurrected the instrument with effective skill and psychedelic proclivities.

Lonely Heart is their sophomore album and it is a wall-to-wall painting of the most sumptious music, not a brutal note within hearing distance, and the amped viola[Jackie Beckey] laying its sweep of fuzzed/echoed sound throughout with the occasional finger-plucked melodic lines. There is an Indian/Asian tinge at times [e.g. Evil Eye] that adds to the overall psychedelia.

Great vocals from Crystal Myslajek, Crystal Brinkman and Jackie Beckey, harmonising or rising in howled or angelic swirls above the melodic lines, and with quite complex overlapping patterns and chants. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Johnny Boy Would Love This - A Tribute to John Martyn

Johnny Boy Would Smile, Giggle and Guffaw

In one sense, how could you go wrong: 30 covers of beautiful songwriting and, for those of us who know them so well, songs brimful with personal meaning and memory - and in addition a guest list of notable talent.

Of course it could all go terribly wrong if that affinity to John's recordings is so strong that the listener cannot physically and psychologically countenance any version, no matter how faithful to the original or noteworthy the performer.

I am firmly with the first possibility, and have been enjoying and internally critiquing since listening to this wonderful tribute album from its arrival yesterday to writing, and still listening, now. I also think John would indeed love this, and his essential gentle and good nature would smile and giggle at the versions that appealed; any that didn't would get a robust guffaw as he would be too confident, though humble, in his own legacy to ever feel angered or upset by someone's genuine if awry attempt at a tribute.

I am so committed to honouring John's memory and this album's part in preserving such that I will actually work through all 30 tracks. It is inevitable that my views will differ from those of other fans - not just of John but of the covering artists: that is a dynamic part of the album's offering and, of course, the nature of musical opinion itself. Platitude over, here we go:

Disc 1

David Grey - Let The Good Things Come: my second least favourite unfortunately starts the tribute! His strained vocal doesn't work for me.

Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler - Glorious Fool: these Blind Boys of Alabama give the song a wonderfully soulful and atmospheric delivery.

Robert Smith - Small Hours: there are versions on this tribute that are totally faithful to the original and those that stamp their performer's signature on it. Smith certainly stamps his Cure's emblem on this, and it works - a mimetic reconstruction of guitar effects building to a repeated capture of the song's essence. It is similar in effect to his band's excellent cover of Hendrix's Purple Haze.

Beck - Stormbringer: the first of three-in-a-row acoustic and faithful versions, a lovely cover of early Martyn and sounding, appropriately, Nick Drakeish in the vocal delivery.

Ted Barnes - Over The Hill: respected but unknown Brit, Barnes, proffers another authentic cover, with an aptly plucked banjo providing its nuance.

The Swell Season - I Don't Want To Know: double bass and soft harmonies provide a gentle take on this gentle classic.

Emperors of Wyoming - Bless The Weather: the first of the heavyweight songs to cover, it could be seen as a burden, but this americana version works well enough, though its rougher edges are anathema to John's sweet vocals on this great title song from my favourite album.

Lisa Hannigan - Couldn't Love You More: my least favourite as she makes a dirge out of one of Martyn's most beautiful and powerful love songs. It is dissonant and affected with that lazy female vocal style so prevalent today.

Vetiver - Go Easy: a lovely honest version with adherence to the song's beautiful chord sequence.

Syke - Solid Air: the other large song of burden, but done atmospherically.

Cheryl Wilson - You Can Discover: this is one I have had for a while as a pre-release, and it is a sweet version with distinctive vocals by Wilson and the bonus of John actually playing the guitar, the beginning a false start as John counts himself in, giggling.

Joe Bonamassa - The Early Blues: and the album doesn't perhaps have enough of this side of John's songcraft and performance, but Bonamassa provides, as one would expect, a finger-picked and blues infused empathetic take.

Sonia Dada - Dancing: new to me, but this is a great funk/gospel version, with Paris Delane, presumably, on main vocal.

Sabrina Dinan - Certain Surprise: again new to me, but Ennis-born Dinan provides a cool jazzy vocal on this cover.

Paolo Nutini - One World: one to polarise opinion I would guess, I quite like this and it is one of the more distinctive versions, making the song his own, but if you don't like Nutini's vocal then you won't be endeared to the ownership. I think John would be smiling at individual takes like this and the others on this tribute.

Disc 2

Snow Patrol - May You Never: I didn't want to like this, and don't. It's a blatant enough prejudice, but here underpinned by pretentious light orchestration.

Beth Orton - Go Down Easy: but so quickly back on track, this has sweet melodic guitar to mirror the emotive vocal, with piano echoing this too.

The Bombay Bicycle Club - Fairy Tale Lullaby: this captures the folk-innocence of this lovely song, sweet harmonies and a tambourine as requisite tools.

Syd Kitchen - Fine Lines: the late Kitchen provides the most idiosyncratic take on the whole album, its chanted opening and flute accompaniment setting the scene for the most original version of a song from John's first experimental album.

Vashti Bunyan - Head & Heart: my all-time favourite Martyn song, I was positively expectant in as much as Bunyan has her own distinctive musical legacy, and here, her vulnerable voice is empathetic to another of John's memorable musings on love.

Morcheeba - Run Honey Run: a lesser known song and thus less 'baggage' in the covering stakes, this is effective enough.

Nicholas Barron - Angeline: another newbie to me, the folk and blues guitarist from Chicago provides an oxymoronically and loudly whispered but ultimately sparse take on an 80s Martyn classic.

John Smith - Walk To The Water: good to see Smith on this album, I saw him supporting Martyn at a Birmingham gig and thus he has earned his covering stripes. This is a wonderfully faithful version, Martynesque guitar slapping and neat harmonies and another beautiful, beautiful song.

Judie Tzuke - Hurt in Your Heart: this is such a powerful, heartfelt song it needed a big vocal to carry that and I thought Judie would deliver, but it is a little subdued for me.

Jim Tullio - Road To Ruin: Jim, along with Gary Pollitt, produced Martyn's final posthumous album Heaven and Earth. His version of another early Martyn classic has a strong vocal, slows the song down, and includes a short fiddle solo.

Oh My God - John Wayne: one of the great growling Martyn songs - brilliant live - this has the most aggressive and therefore appropriate vocal delivery on the album.

The Black Ships - Rope Soul'd: an OK version.

Ultan Conlon - Back to Stay: well these guys earned their tribute stripes with the superb Really Gone featuring John Martyn and John Conneely dueting, and Martyn in such gruff vocal distinction. This is a pretty version and a vocal opposite to the one I have just described.

Brendan Cambell - Anna: John's signature echoplex gets an airing, and this beautiful song is beautifully sung.

Phil Collins - Tearing and Breaking: another one to polarise. Lyrics by John, music by Phil, this will be for some over-produced with its polished and overdubbed Collins choric harmonies dominating the song. It is what it is and as a great friend of Martyn's, both personally and musically, I respect the tribute. Phil Collins perhaps has the most stripes of all on this tribute.

Out of interest, here are a few other great cover versions, not on this album, but out there if you look:

Courtney Pine [David McAlmont vocal] - Bless the Weather
Don Ross - Head & Heart
Caparcallie - Don't You Go
Catie Curtis - Don't Want To Know
Bridget St John - Head & Heart
Taj Mahal - Love Up
America - Head & Heart
Richie Havens - Don't Want To Know
Rod Stewart - May You Never

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Celebration of the Lizard [The Doors - Absolutely Live, 1970]

Wake Up - The Ceremony Is About To Begin 

Having mentioned in a recent post, and not listened to for a while, I have revisited this wonderful musical and poetic theatre, the 'full' version of The Celebration of the Lizard on this great live album. Jim plays the game 'go insane' with an eye and ear for art and artifice, theatre and theatrics. Hypnotic storytelling sets the scene with Lions in the Street, Wake Up and A Little Game. The music takes off with sombre The Hill Dwellers then dramatically into Not To Touch The Earth, a faithful but more manic and therefore appropriate version to that on the Waiting for the Sun album, then slows down to the sombre again Names of the Kingdom, and finishing to the surreal poetry of The Palace of Exile. It's pure storytelling with the edge of its time, defining its time. Far out.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Chinaski Talks About The Riots

'I've got a system to explain why you had the riots,'
he says, pouring another drink. 'It's like the one I use
at the races - the Artillery system - and you get a bunch
of people to give you their reasons for the riots and then it's
simple: you select the one that is repeated the most. That's
the explanation.' He pours another drink. Downs it in one.
Pours another. 'You just have to make sure,' he says, 'that
the people aren't all bankers and other cunts from finance
and any parts of the capitalistic world, because ironically
you won't get anywhere near the truth about winners and
losers, and the system is going to let you down. Then look in
the crapper for your reasons, or try another system. I've got
loads of them and overall I'm running about even at
the races, but not rolling in it like some rich asshole.'

Friday, 12 August 2011

New Pear Tree

After two years the pears have grown and now
drop on their own, ripe and perfect. Or is it the
other way around? Whatever the order of their fall
they are ready to eat, only two tasted first by birds
rising before me in their opportunist dawn raids
for insects and worms and grounded fruit.
Pecked by gentle beaks, it is no more than a nibble -
minute craters of gouged-out flesh; rounded indents.
I take a knife to mine and slice it down the middle,
discarding the core cut from my four quarters of
bite-size joy in this new and home-grown treat.

How utterly twee and at ease is this rural sharing -
no need for an even earlier look about the tree
like a vigilante forced to watch in a troubled street.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Top Fifty - The Doors

The Doors - Waiting for the Sun

On this album, Jim Morrison was not just the mysterious Lizard King - he was also the Crooner King. I don't know if this is their 'best' album - perhaps that is LA Woman - but this is the first The Doors album that I bought and was in fact my major introduction to their music, having heard, naturally, Light My Fire and radio plays of other songs, but not a whole album's set of tracks. It was an influential introduction.

The album opens with two crooner tunes, the radio friendly and hit Hello I Love You followed by Love Street, a beautiful ballad foregrounding Morrison's mature and polished vocals. These two tracks reflect the pop sensibilities of the band, perhaps commercially skewed, but I think more genuinely a reflection of the band's love of melody and varied songcraft.

Third track Not To Touch The Earth is The Doors at their rock and poetic best. A shortened version of The Celebration Of The Lizard, this track grabbed a different attention from this listener and prompted its more specific influence on my emerging love of poetry. I didn't then and do not now understand the lyrics, but they had their mysterious impact:

Dead president's corpse in the driver's car
The engine runs on glue and tar

C'mon along, we're not going very far

To the east to meet the Czar

And I went along. Reading Ginsberg too and other American poets of the time [the Evergreen Original The New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen] I wrote my own surreal but naive verse, clouded in its own obtuse and colourful imagery but, unfortunately, not having the inkling, let alone depth of real experience these adults and intellectuals and performers had actually lived.

My GCE English teacher at the time was a nasty person: a bully and a patronising older man who constantly ridiculed and challenged my and a few others' incipient political and cultural awakenings. I do recall, however, taking my gatefold album into class and his agreeing to play Not To Touch The Earth and then give an interpretation of the full poem The Celebration Of The Lizard printed on the inside. I can't remember what he said, but it was, surprisingly, calm and genuinely exploratory. Perhaps Morrison had if but for a fleeting moment blown away his prejudices and myopia. It didn't last.

Summer's Almost Gone is the fourth track on Side One and another gentle ballad. This side ends though with the powerful anti-war song The Unknown Soldier which at the time was particularly evocative, especially the military snare drum roll and shooting that peak in the story's melodrama.

Side Two begins with the flamenco guitar-driven Spanish Caravan that is musically distinct because of its virtuoso opening as well as lyrically romantic and exotic. The chanted song My Wild Love continues this sense of mystique and magic with Morrison's vocals powerfully inflected at the ending of words. The next two tracks, We Could Be So Good Together and Yes, The River Flows are classic pop gems at about 2.30 minutes each - the first a punchy number and the second another sweet, sweet ballad with its seductive mystic heated wine - then this side and the whole album ends on the pummeling Five To One where the lyrics again beguile:

Your ballroom days are over baby
Night is drawing near

Shadows of the evening

Crawl across the years

Others had crafted lyrics to act as a code for real or imagined experiences, often drug oriented or simply to suggest and tease about hallucinogenics, or simply as a code to prompt endless and fruitless decoding. The Doors and obviously Jim Morrison were the band to put language out there as an uncompromising key element. As I said, I can't remember what my English teacher made of the language, but it was surreal in its own way to hear him reading the following to a group of 15 year olds, most of whom couldn't give a toss, apart from myself and a few others:

I am the Lizard King
I can do anything

I can make the earth stop in its tracks

I made the blue cars go away

For seven years I dwelt

In the loose palace of exile,

Playing strange games

With the girls of the island.

Now I have come again

To the land of the fair, & the strong, & the wise.

Brothers & sisters of the pale forest

O children of the Night

Who among you will run with the hunt?

Now Night arrives with her purple legion.

Retire now to your tents & to your dreams.

Tomorrow we enter the town of my birth.

I want to be ready.

Turn Out The Lights

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite - William Blake

Just finished watching two television programmes on The Doors: the 1968 Danish black and white studio gig recording, and a 'Classic Albums' presentation on the recording of The Doors' first album. Both remind us of what an immaculate band they were, straightforward but virtuoso.

In the latter's interviews with surviving members, drummer John Densmore comes across as the most articulate and perceptive, honouring Morrison's genius without mythologising it. Indeed, he makes an incisive observation on how the creative impulse and musings on darkness/death do not necessarily have to coexist - obvious enough - but he says it to dispel the myth that it must and directs the observation at a younger generation who might imagine it as fanciful. Robby Krieger, who wrote the band's first and most famous hit Light My Fire [though Jim added the dark rhyme 'funeral pyre'] is rueful about Morrison's anger and angst, but acknowledges how significant a part of his being this was. These paradoxical remembrances are honest and fond and proud.

The 1968 Danish studio show is superb. Densmore's drumming is succinct - it is jazz drumming in many ways, and subtle as well as central. Krieger's guitar work is crucially psychedelic and so often provides the mood and atmosphere to underpin Morrison's poetry. Ray Manzarek's keyboard playing is iconic in terms of the band's signature sound, but it is his pivotal playing of the Fender Rhodes keyboard bass that struck me the most when watching. Morrison is mesmerising and he doesn't need to strut or pout or snarl or gyrate to achieve this. It is a genuine presence, and of course the voice is the centrepiece, ranging from crooner to screamer to incantatory. The artifice of the audienceless set is the only pretense. In penultimate song When The Music's Over, the band is wonderfully tight and perfect, and the final song The Unknown Soldier is staged with a dramatic Krieger guitar-as-gun shooting of Jim to end. This track is on the first The Doors album I bought, Waiting For The Sun.

It is amazing to think that The End [weird scenes inside Jim's head] concludes The Doors first album, recorded in 1966 and released in 1967. Such a powerful psychedelic and poetic song that hasn't lost any of its potency over all these years. You can turn out the lights but the music so clearly isn't over.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

August Moon, 2011

An August and near-full moon rises above Devon
ignited entirely by the sun. I pause to watch it burn in
its safe reflection before returning to the television and
singe in the heat of London's burning streets where the
night's neon sky is blackened by smoke like a balaclava
drawn over someone's usual bright face. Cars are
beacons as are people's homes, their flames
fanned by marauding winds and other people's unusual
voices - words that sound familiar but out of place -
and the light attracts a swarm of something.

Going back outside to spot my Devon moon
it has disappeared, no doubt behind summer's clouds,
and rain will come eventually to wash things clean
or, like smouldering ash, turn bright light to grey.

Monday, 8 August 2011

America - Back Pages

Covering America

They've earned it. America's latest album Back Pages is a covers tribute, perhaps predictable in that so many other artists have taken this marketing route, but there is enough of the duo's distinctive sound stamped across known territory to make it a pleasant and pleasing stroll. Who wouldn't walk a familiar path enjoyed for so many years when this slight but safe detour is on offer?

The album begins eponymously with Simon and Garfunkel's America and I like the neatness of the platitude. The distinctive voices of Buckley and Bunnell make it their own though the beautiful melody truly carries the song. Third track Woodstock does, admittedly, evoke Matthews Southern Comfort more than their own sound, but with such a similarity that is a nuance for the most critical of ears. I was pleasantly surprised to hear their version of the New Radicals song Someday - a song I have always enjoyed and which gets an appreciative version here. Perhaps because the song choice is so appealing in itself and my love of America so deep-rooted I am bound to be an instant fan. I have had a long affinity with the band: they too were American boys growing up in England in the early 70s - Gerry Buckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek [sadly, very recently deceased] going to school in vibrant London whilst I had my midwestern culture reshaped in more provincial but tolerant Ipswich. We shared so much: a love of melody and harmony, these guys having an actual talent to produce and thrive, my nurturing an appreciative ear and only dreams of such achievements.

The Jimmy Webb penned and Garfunkel beautification of the ballad Crying In My Sleep is a little cloying as another version, but the Zombies' Time Of The Season, the eighth track, continues the melodic song selection and homage to pretty songwriting of the past. This marriage of America's harmonising with established hits is furthered with ninth track's covering of James Taylor's Something In The Way She Moves.

The album ends on probably the stand-out cover, this time Bob Dylan's My Back Pages. Solo piano chords lead into a heartfelt vocal harmonising of the familiar lines and meanings which is then continued with an accordion accompaniment. It's a simple but sweet version letting the words control rather than seeking to redefine its sound.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Shelby Lynne - Identity Crisis

Identification Crisis

I am still marking scripts, but coming to the end of my examining for 2011. It's been a long haul - from the middle of May to now.

Students in the final centre I am currently marking - and have been for most of the day - have been taught about and like to use the term juxtaposition. Characters and ideas and themes and language have all been juxtaposed in one way or another. Students usually handle this quite well and make sense of what has been, frankly, a little imposed on them. A few, however, tend to merely identify this term and that is a skill lacking the umph they need to make good progress. They need to explain and perhaps explore what is being juxtaposed.

So I have been listening to a range of music, as usual, as I have been marking. I have just finished listening to Shelby Lynne's Identify Crisis. In this fine album Lynne juxtaposes a rich range of musical moods from stonking to subtle to sultry to sassy. That's alliteration. And that is identifying.

In this spirit of identifying features I am delighted to post another picture of Shelby Lynne on this blog.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The McCoys - Psychedelic Years

Real Deal

This is an impressive amalgam of the songs, bar two, from albums Infinite McCoys and Human Ball reflecting the band's move from teenage rockpop Hang On Snoopy [as good as that was in the genre] to genuinely complex and varied ventures into jazz, blues and psychedelic rock.

The album gets scant reviews and those that exist refer to a 'completists only' temptation or its 'pretensions' which belie the album's rich mix of fine playing, singing and songwriting that admittedly do not tap into immediate pop tuneage - this being the point of the 'psychedelic' transformation. Listened to as a whole I think it creates an impressive take on this band's skills and strengths as musicians.


Crooks, according to thousands and thousands of
students, is primarily punctual, rising in alarm
to a day dreamed through gold-framed specs but
tightened by the reality of batterings he has endured.
They dream too of his multitude of shoes for all
terrains - bar the one he has to tread - and wishful
readings of his mauled life take on a life of their own,
being young and hopeful and having futures.
We know different. Though they too know his is old,
we understand the vernacular of what truly possesses
age; want to ask what snippet of the day he can
seize from dirty secrets isolated on a special shelf,
urge carpe diem to define a moment for those who
read into his chapter the risk of satisfying the self.