Monday, 30 April 2012

The Fugs – the fugs final cd [part 1] - 2003

Poignant Yodel

Arrived today and now plays, more of the political [Government Surveillance Yodel] and puerile [Septuagenarian in Love], set to country-tinged harmonies or rock’n’roll parodies, there is ironic wisdom in the humour, for example this sage advice from a band whose core members Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg will have obliterated so many personal bridges in their irreverent lifetime,

Don’t burn a bridge that you’re standing on
Never try to sleep down a burning bank
Don’t try to cling upon a burning plank.

Context is everything, and when you know these lines actually follow

Oh isn’t it true that sometimes
the river is more beautiful
when the bridge is gone

you realise the satire is tinged with real regret as well as silliness. As these hippies rage in their old age the compromise is embraced in the song’s chorus

Mix prudence with my ashes;
Write caution on my urn,
While life foams and flashes,
Burn, bridges, burn.

It’s not an abnegation of the past but an awareness of the present where death is the biggest joke of all, and it is the banal and mundane that drives us to the grave as well as the bigger issues,

Please can I have my job back?
Burn, bridges, burn
I don’t want a divorce, after all
Burn, bridges, burn
I’d like a security clearance, please forget my past
Burn, bridges, burn
I’d like to rent the same apartment, I know I trashed it last year, but
Burn, bridges, burn

[Burn, Bridges, Burn]

And just when you might think The Fugs really have regressed to a primary concern for the domestic, they come up with an absolutely gorgeous song that reminds us of those bigger issues, and the ultimate purpose and power of the yodel,

It’s time to think
of ultimate things
-          yodel
what will happen to the soul?
what will happen to the soul?

[Ultimate Things]

Another beautiful song is A Western Ballad – For Allen Ginsberg [by band member Steve Taylor with echoes of both Arlo Guthrie and Roy Harper], its potent and political poetry set to a gorgeous tune, and this is what The Fugs can merge so well: meaning with melody.

There’s the wonderfully witty too: getting there with A Short History Of The Human Race and its three core lines,

World War 1: The human race stinks
World War 2: The human race shrinks
World War 3: The human race extincts

and is fully realised with IS, where Bill Clinton’s ‘apothegm’ is captured as a soundgrab to be sampled within the song playfully, set up for its first ridiculing by the lines,

Get ready, Mr. Nietzsche  Get Ready, Kierkegaard
Stand down, Mr. Hegel, and Bertrand Russell too
‘cause someone has come up with a homily
that’s sharper than Plato and Wiittgenstein
& shivering with truth

It depends on what the meaning of the word IS is

It’s all good fun [in the album booklet’s introduction and description of the songs, it is acknowledged that Clinton was ‘unfairly hounded by an interlocking geek-pack of right wing nuts throughout his presidency’] so the attacking is assuaged by understanding and explanation rather than any outright contempt – the kind of contempt allowed for rebelling youth and revolutionaries, not senior citizens even with attitude.

It’s not therefore the caustic comedy of early Fugs nor the polished pillorying of It crawled into my hand....., but it is still the brilliance of social and political commentary coupled with clever songcraft, now tempered by the maturity of age and perhaps knowing that raging against it all doesn’t stop it coming.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Taking The Biscuit

Coincidence and fortuity are natural phenomena, and in the way these things occur – by surprise – both did so today.

A good friend rang this morning to chew the proverbial, but he also talked about having just bought another Cracker album, a recent one, and he enthused about their '93 album Kerosene Hat, at which point I talked about the coincidence of only yesterday writing about influential and rejuvenating rock bands of the early 90s, of which KH would be a solid representative.

So a little later, and only a few moments ago, I decided to research that album and the band's first eponymous one which I don’t know that well. When typing ‘cracker’ into a search engine it is no surprise that the foodstuff rather than band came top of the list [along with the TV programme....]. What also got presented was the ‘graham’ cracker: search engines being clever in their plethora of prediction and suggestion. Now for years – not consistently throughout the full 45 I have lived in England – I have had occasion to refer to and then need to explain to people here exactly what a graham cracker is. My memory of such is as a child in America and being given these with a glass of milk at nursery or kindergarten school. I know we also used to have them at home and I loved them, as kids do, because they were sweet. But I have always wondered why you couldn’t get them here, and why the only English cracker was what we called a ‘soda’ cracker in the States.


Well, praise be to research, and the apocalyptic moment that has taken all of 45 years – though, as I say, not a daily intense search and scrutiny for the answer – but I discovered just a short while ago that the English equivalent to the graham cracker is of course [drum roll] the digestive biscuit!


Fucking simple, when you think about it.

For 45 years, what should have been the easiest of extrapolations has been thwarted by the difference in nomenclature – graham rather than digestive; cracker rather than biscuit - and the simpler difference in shape – rectangular rather than circular.  A fortuitous discovery, if ridiculously belated, but I am enlightened, and relieved.

More on the band later.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

History Lesson

At the beginning of the 90s I’d been teaching for ten years and these were good professional times: independent, creative, fulfilling. I wasn’t financially comfortable, and there had been struggles in the previous decade, but I was three years into a mortgage [a principle shattered as I readily grabbed at Thatcher’s legacy of offering the cheap chance to buy a council house, mine having been rented as teacher accommodation] and there was plenty of 60s/70s music to keep me fully entertained as I’d moved up from the Amstrad stereo [though it did have that thundering volume boost button] to a Toshiba system – I think the Kenwood was later, and I now have Cambridge: these listening stepping-stones a critical aspect of the aural journey.

So this was neither exceptional nor terrible in the life and times of a 36 approaching 40 year old English teacher and father of two whose loves were family, teaching [at that time], writing and music, but with regard to the latter where I’d primarily mainlined on nostalgia, bands like Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam, Brad, Alice in Chains and, to a lesser extend in terms of familiarity at the time, Soundgarden, all kick-started that new decade with their heavy albeit newly-named grunge sound, and it is clearly the quality of this music coupled with a rather amorphous other emotive reality that turbo-charged this launch. In my previous posting on Brad I also mentioned The Black Crowes who brought out the classic rock revival of Shake Your Money Maker in 1990, therefore joining this rejuvenating mix, and there were other bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Screaming Trees filling and exploding my 80s void. Students at the time were making me cassette tapes of these new bands – it’s how I first heard Temple of the Dog – and a close friend was also regularly introducing me to these contemporary musical riches: pulling one from the abundant offerings would be Mark Lanegan’s 1994 solo album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost

All of these bands had great rock/grunge vocalists and that did much to attract and appeal. The centrality of the guitar with wah-wah and/or fuzzed and/or extended solo also returned to detox the 80s’ contamination. Highlights from some of the bands mentioned would be all of Pearl Jam’s Ten [already a nailed-to-the-wall Top Fifty], Temple of the Dog’s Hunger Strike with Eddie Vedder taking over the lead vocal from also excellent and accompanying Chris Cornell, and consummate grunge anthem Rooster from Alice in Chain’s monster album Dirt. Brad’s generally softer sound, reviewed as such yesterday, earned its distinct placing but was also carried on the back of the overall sense of musical renewal linked to the palpable if inexplicably generated feelings I had at the time.

It’s a snapshot musical history of the time, but I wanted to try and articulate, what I think I intuited in yesterday’s Brad posting, how this period made such an impact. It can’t compete with those teenage listens to the life-defining sounds of the 60s/70s, but maybe that is the key factor: the early 90s’ experience was an adult one, informed by adult preoccupations but always attached to those teenage foundations – thus nostalgia and echo became another defining moment in the construction of musical appreciation, memory and meaning.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Top Fifty - Brad

Brad – Shame [1993]

Brad, a band formed in 1992 and including the core members of Shawn Smith, Stone Gossard and Regan Hagar, has just released their latest album United We Stand, only the fifth over their twenty years of playing together. A band often described as a Stone Gossard [Pearl Jam] side project, this is a typical PR but erroneous tag.

Their first album Shame earns its place in my Top Fifty because of its musical timing and triggering of significant memory. Brad in the early 90s - along with The Black Crowes [straight rock], Temple of the Dog, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam [grunge] - ignited my full engagement with contemporary music because it revisited and reinvigorated the 60/70s rock sound with which I had grown up and which the 80s had by and large replaced with synth-pop, fake drumming and glam/new romantic tweakings [I admit I should/could have taken more note of punk].

Whilst Gossard provides crisp guitar throughout, it is Smith’s distinctive vocals that make this album memorable for me – all four band members contributing to songwriting duties. And though I have characterised this as a resurgent rock band, opening track Buttercup is actually a rather slow ballad and establishes the sound that makes this such a fine album, Smith’s fragile vocal dominating the plaintive core and Goddard’s guitar striking out rising chords. Second track My Fingers is much more psychedelic with echoing, slightly fuzzed vocal and swirling guitar around a grunge drum and bass beat.

Third Nadine returns to the more melancholic tone of the first, Smith by now establishing his signature slight snarl and cracked high tenor, and the song’s rather sudden, lightly shambolic ending reflects the rawness of the album’s recordings completed over only 20 days and often emerging, apparently, from studio jam sessions. Fourth Screen continues the hypnotic lament and Goddard adds a softly toned guitar solo and then empathetic wails to close.

20th Century is a funky fifth, rolled out across its repeated grooves, simply but effectively. Next Good News, like Screen, is a Smith-penned number and continues the propensity for these slower songs with carefully structured melodies to foreground Smith’s singing, here pushing to a falsetto chorus. Seventh Raise Love is a pulsating grunge-come-softrock anthem with surges of Goddard feedbacked lead.  Eighth Bad For The Soul is a funked-up tease of a song – no doubt a snippet from one of those jams – but it sets us up neatly for the penultimate Down which is a classic [but incipient here] grunge dirge, the voice distorted with other percussive sound effects until piano, organ and a cleaned vocal emerge – then it segues into and finishes on a grotesque, brutish narrative that is the unnerving, fleeting track eleven We.

It isn’t an album in and of its time as brilliantly dominant as Pearl Jam’s Ten for example – not by a long way to be candid - and I’m not sure I have been able to characterise its particular strengths through the track descriptions above, so it may be one of the few in this category that really does hold its place by the skin of its clinging teeth, a bite that still draws blood from a mood and effect it created then for all kinds of reasons beyond the aural and which therefore bleeds whenever I play again.

Recent Brad

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer - Little Blue Egg

Posthumous Power

This album of posthumous songs and performance by Dave Carter – with musical partner Tracy Grammer - has brought a significant folk talent to my attention, having missed out in his lifetime where he had been, and still is, championed as a songwriter by Joan Baez as well as had his songs recorded by the likes of Chris Smither [Crocodile Man], and tribute songs written about Carter by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Mary Gauthier amonst many others.

The story of these songs’ discovery is special: they were found in the basement of the pair’s home recording studio, eight years after Carter’s death - songs that had been left off other recordings. Not a single track has the sound of a cast-off and therefore attest to the absolute quality of those already recorded as well as the difficult process of selection when there is such a wealth of material. And as home recordings they have an intimate and immediate quality.

The songs are all ‘traditional’ in their sound, a mix of classic folk and Americana, with their storytelling reflecting the richness of the lyricism. A cover of the Guthrie/Bragg song Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key is one of the more traditional sounding, beautifully song by the alternating voices of Carter and Grammer until they then harmonise on the chorus, with simple banjo and acoustic guitar by Carter and sweet fiddle by Grammer. Hard To Make It tells a highly poetic narrative of a tough life and has the simple quality of performance and storytelling reminiscent of Devendra Banhart. Cross of Jesus has the bright country echo of Drug Store Truck Driving Man. Carter’s excellent singing voice is highlighted on the fine song Any Way I Do.

There are eleven ‘discarded’ tracks in all and it is the definite treasure trove other reviews have labelled them, an album that really does deserve attention for its outstanding quality, whatever the circumstances of its construction.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Lacking Lemov

1.   Less is more: government initiatives should be limited to one side of A4
2.   Targets are for archers, not teachers: adorn your classroom with who you are
3.   League tables struggle to measure the sensitive inside leg
4.   You can lead a horse to a test but that won’t make it think for itself
5.   Teaching is like riding a bike: when you fall off it hurts
6.   Ofsted is awful: sound and symmetry and sense
7.   If they’re laughing they’re learning
8.   Don’t wear a tie just to look like a teacher
9.   A full house beats a flush and metaphor beats the literal, hands down
10. Praise everything said that is serious and genuine
11. The best objective is that which discovers itself by accident
12. Only one of the Gospels reports seeing a four-part lesson plan
13. The ‘wrong’ answer often reveals how learning works wonderfully
14. If a sonnet has 14 lines, is this a poem? Discuss, but there is no answer

Roughly 20 months into my retirement from teaching I am still incensed by the complete bollocks I hear about targets and testing and other crap. I continue to get emails from teachit, for whom I still occasionally contribute [ideas for creative writing with no measurement involved!], and today's advert for ActiveLearning online just dredged up all my anger against the compulsion for dryly drilling students to 'get that grade C or above' bullshit - the anger clearly not buried very deep...

...which has prompted me to post this, another in my sonnet sequence, written not that long ago in response to the stated 49 techniques devised by American educationalist Doug Lemov to help teachers 'teach like a champion' - yet another set of strictures and structures to convince the philistines there is no art nor humanity needed to do this job.

Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game

Father's Most Pop

Rufus Wainwright’s latest release is as pop-lush as he claims [“the most pop album I have made”], and whilst we know the production touch belongs to Mark Ronson, he would appear to have drawn on precursor strokes of lavishness from the likes of Todd Rudgren, Godley and Creme, and on fifth track Welcome To The Ball, George Martin with its Beatlesesque use of trumpets and other sundries. It is all very pretty with Wainwright’s polished tenor and the whirling choruses that sing hand in hand as they dance down this luxuriant pop boulevard.

It is this production that dominates over songwriting, nothing quite matching the quality of songs from early work on Poses, Want One and Want Two, but the confession and angst that ignited that creative spark has been lessened by that catalyst's familiarity and, presumably for Wainwright himself as much as family and the public, its acceptance. One of the strongest tracks for me on this album is in many ways the least ‘pretty’, Montauk, a song written for Wainwright’s daughter, and its internal key changes provide upsets to the classic descending melodic line. The lyrics drive this one, and Wainwright’s imagining of a future meeting and assessment of the father figure seems to reflect the preoccupations he has had with his own, and perhaps confronting the possible conflicts he now feels as the one dad who plays a piano and the other who wears kimonos. It is a song that has an honest anticipation about its hopes and fears,

One day you will come to Montauk
And see your dad trying to be evil
One day you will come to Montauk
And see your other dad feeling lonely
Hope that you’ll protect him

and it ends poignantly by appearing to invoke the memory of his mother Kate McGarrigle

One day years ago in Montauk
Lived a woman, now a shadow
But she does wait for us in the ocean

Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls

Soul Wheels Keep On Turning

Another soulful presence joins the retro resurgence of 60s sounds, with Alabama Shakes and singer Brittany Howard’s offering of Joplinesque vocals and Otis Redding timings, the latter sound echoed on You Ain’t Alone by the fine guitar work of Heath Fogg. Their live sound - seen on last night’s Later....with Jools - isn’t fully captured on the album, especially the guitar licks Fogg played with such character on that session.

Opener Hold On has a little of Creedence Clearwater ghosting in its rhythmic underbelly, Fogg again providing the subtle layers, and Howard’s vocal is at one of its strongest efforts here. Title track Boys and Girls gives Howard a slower showcase for her broader depth and tone, and those soul roots dig in deep on this gentle track. Be Mine, played on last night’s Jools, is a favourite already, Fogg pleasing with his funky picking, and Howard pushes herself to emotive heights – it’s a raucous climb.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Van der Graaf Generating at Weeley

Van der Graaf Generator – Weeley Festival, 28.8.1971

Having written about Peter Hammill and VDGG, here’s a link to what I think is a great bootleg recording [1971!] at one of the greatest unknown festivals ever, much of which I do remember and have written about here and there on this blog.

Setlist for this gig is

After the Flood
I Once Wrote Some Poems
Theme One

Peter Hammill – Consequences

Consequences of Language

Van der Graaf Generator aficionados could no doubt explain in detail the critical make-up and mix that made this band, in their initial 60s/70s incarnation and brief rebirth in ‘75/76 [Jackson leaving in ‘76, the group disbanding in ‘78], such a unique and memorable musical phenomenon, but it was and always will be Peter Hammill’s role that dominates in that creative and performance fusion for me, essentially with his distinctive vocals that combine their unique, often operatic sound and always dramatic emotion. I’m not excluding David Jackson’s electronic and electrifying saxophone playing – always a crucial part of the live performances, as well as recordings, I loved in those early days.

This latest solo release, Hammill’s thirtieth, is another entirely self performed and produced recording. The ten tracks are anchored wholly to that hypnotic vocal which at its core narrates each song’s story and/or thesis [the polemical is always somewhere] in the idiosyncratic way Hammill does, breaking into the melody with its suddenness of this, and in most tracks augmented then by the complex multi-tracking of his voice for harmonies and choric developments.

The polemic in much of this collection regards language and what we speak/say. With titles like Eat My Words, Bite My Tongue; That Wasn’t What I Said, and the line Chose your words as if you were constantly overheard from the beautiful song Constantly Overheard, it is clear that there is warning, regret and regard for how we communicate with one another. These narratives make the listening an intense experience, and in this respect Hammill is a demanding artist: it most definitely isn’t easy listening, either in sound or content, but anyone knowing Hammill will know this. Indeed, there isn’t a single track for me that stands above any other in melodic terms – though I have already mentioned the most ‘tuneful’, relatively speaking, in CO – and it is the collective voicing as narration and then soaring emotion that forms the whole experience. Closer A Run of Luck is classic in this respect with solo voice and piano slowly and portentously narrating Hammill’s musing, again focusing on language which when it stays unspoken will prove to be the truer word than any we shout out loud, but then also offering this seemingly hopeful if candid observation life’s still great though the wick’s burnt down.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Live and Fried

Various Artists - Hotels, Motels and Road Shows, 1978

In addition to my recent commentary on the Old Grey Whistle Test programme Macon Whoopee, here's a hard to get - but easy enough to find for download - superlative album collecting together live recordings of scorching southern rock from the Capricorn label. Check out the hot cast list:

01 - Out on a Limb - Stillwater
02 - Mind Bender - Stillwater
03 - Grand Larceny - Sea Level
04 - Refried Funky Chicken - Dixie Dregs
05 - Fire on the Mountain - The Marshall Tucker Band
06 - Superstar - Bonnie Bramlett
07 - You're So Fine - Grinderswitch
08 - Travelin' Shoes - Elvin Bishop
09 - Take the Highway - The Marshall Tucker Band
10 - Teaser - Wet Willie
11 - No Hard Times - Richard Betts
12 - Are You Lonely for Me, Baby? - Gregg Allman
13 - Statesboro Blues - The Allman Brothers Band 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Live Music 2: Against The Odds

Against The Wheel – headline act at The Flapper, Birmingham, 20.4.2012

I scored a wonderful musical brace to be able to attend this quite different gig the day after seeing Renbourn and Williamson. 

The band I went to see was Against the Wheel, reviewed last November on this blog, and there were other bands playing on the bill in this neat, independent live music venue and pub in Birmingham City Centre. I missed the opening act, and not sure what they were called, but hearing a little of their cd later today I clearly missed out on a cool grunge sound.

I arrived just before second act Bowen & The Tide took the stage. This was an interesting addition to the night’s entertainment, an indie folk trio playing amidst the potentially raucous antipathy of grunge, heavy metal and hard rock. Ironically – the guts of this assertion exposed as I write the whole review – this is the band/solo artist on the night most likely to ‘succeed’ in the business: lead singer [and songwriter?] who is, presumably, Bowen [another parenthesis: acts really do need to get their promotion information sorted – after accessing myspace, facebook, ep album info I bought on the night, ditto flyer, and a Balcony TV YouTube clip, I’m none the wiser on these fundamental details, and it’s only because I’ve started this review that I decided to persevere....I mean, they’re good, but not yet that good....] has a presence, and I mean essentially image, and possesses a fine singing voice so this marries presentation and talent into music industry potential. I enjoyed their set, particularly the opening numbers, though it panned out to be a little bland, apart from a fine guitar rip on the final number, perhaps in homage to the core genre of the evening’s assembled performers. Listening to the five song ep I bought I’m hovering uncertainly between the polish of this, including a more acoustic sound, and the at least slightly more gritty live sound. I also listened to a sweet piano ballad from their myspace page, a duet with a female singer - and again I’m none the fucking wiser who she is – which is the kind of ‘pretty’ music I do quite like. But, without the information I should be able to access much more easily, they don’t deserve anymore of this. But you’re getting the irony?

The next band was a heavy metal outfit called Only The Good. If only. But I have jumped to an apparent judgement before really expanding. The guys and one gal bass player in this band exemplify all that is phenomenal in live music on this planet and in this one genuine den of good gigs: these jobbing musicians with their full array of full-time day occupations and then other time of dedicated bedroom/garage/lock-up and/or any other space for practising/playing their music are the epitome of what makes live music so essential and exhilarating – whatever the quality [we’re not including crap here] – because it’s about desire and pleasure and commitment and fantasy and above all a love for the music they play and then the varying degrees of expertise that come with this. Now, this group had a pair of guitar shredders that had plenty of virtuoso expertise with occasional Wishbone Ash type dual interludes. Wonderful. And I should leave it there, but I do intend to be totally honest. They also had a distinctive appearance [and this is where I’m expanding I think on the terms irony and industry within the musical sphere] and because the lead singer and one of his guitar companions were Penn and Tellar doppelgangers they did preoccupy my interest beyond the playing. Indeed, the guitarist who looked like Penn could also double for a geek version of early ponytailed Burton Cummings. I know this sounds irrelevant, perhaps a little rude, but I’m talking about image and presentation too and there are times when no matter how good the music is, these other peripherals, and essentially lesser aspects, actually take on a huge significance for the music ‘industry’ and the potential for ‘success’ within it. To be blunt, this band’s sound heavy metal credentials were dented by the lead singer’s voice rather than the image ‘issue’. Full of enthusiasm, energy and joy, it just didn’t cut the heavy metal mustard. But the band didn’t seem to care and their clear collective love of playing is all that ultimately matters.

And then there’s Against The Wheel, and I can see myself writing less about the best band on the night, by a mile. As I’ve said before, they are a kick-ass hard rock band and last night’s performance was both tight and hugely entertaining. You could see the guys enjoyed themselves and there was a palpable sense [largely a consequence of the thumping decibel levels!] that there was for this ‘jobbing’ band all that commitment, desire, love, joy and expertise – and everything else – coalescing in a perfection that makes such small gig performances the genuine phenomena they are. And the other phenomenon is that this band, again as I have mentioned before, would not be amiss in getting airplay on any rock radio station [e.g. Planet Rock] and holding their own with the other rock ‘industry’ luminaries. They have both the sound and the image to be a ‘success’, and within their local gig world, which is vibrant and expanding all the time for them, they are successful, but they will find it hard to succeed further in a market saturated in equal yin yang measure by more marketable but less assured bands, and – because I want to celebrate the wealth of such bands – other talented musicians. So are you getting the point about the irony of the Bowen situation?

Anyways, I was delighted that Against the Wheel opened their blistering set with their excellent self-penned song Bones. What a great mix of melody and mayhem! It’s always naff in one sense to cite musical reference points, but it can be useful, and I feel ATW have a little of the Foo Fighters about themselves with their increasingly melodic songwriting [I don’t mean pretty, but using harmonies and having defined hooks] and the stonking power of its delivery. Gavin Flint’s vocals are really attaining the power to lead such a heavy sound – and he adds fine guitar support – Jeff Gowen plays a mean bass and provides excellent vocal harmony, Dan Ratcliffe has a felicity with riffs and shredding that announce instinct over labour – though it’s clear he puts in some practise, as the whole band clearly do - and Kelvin Hayward flails the drums with an energy and skill complementing perfectly the whole fulsome sound.

The whole night and the range of performers were appreciated by a wonderful camaraderie of exuberant and genuine appreciation from a relatively small but typical independent gig attendance. I had a great time. And I got to go with my daughter and drink some bourbon. Life can be good.

Live Music 1: Incredible Blues Harp

John Renbourn and Robin Williamson – Phoenix Theatre, Exeter, 19.4.2012

This was a relaxing, civilised and even genteel live gig. I was most looking forward to Renbourn, having seen him once before with Bert Jansch, and I also know his music better than Williamson’s. Indeed, with only the Incredible String Band to go on as a gauge of the latter’s, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic as I’d always found Williamson rather too idiosyncratic as a singer and performer, and my experience of ISB, mainly Changing Horses, was that its often dissonant disorder didn’t appeal.

So it was interesting that as this gig became essentially the Robin Williamson show with John Renbourn in a supporting role, I actually warmed to the former. It is the voice, above all, that singles Williamson out [accepting his multi-instrumentalist prowess], and it is unique in its dancing tenor tone and dominance in song. Hearing him live, and experiencing his confidence and conviction in that vocal instrument, does much to help one appreciate its power and positive effect. It is a voice that has matured over time too, and there is a bass tone now that Williamson often dropped to with delightful intention, exploiting also its amplification. In early ISB recordings Williamson couldn’t reach these lower notes, but he would go for them with what I now understand is a trademark enthusiasm and ended up with a fragile and seemingly amateurish sound. I think what I then heard as rather shambolic is better interpreted as carefree in its attitude. It’s a revisionism which isn’t going to hurt anyone.....

Renbourn did get his solo spots and these were wonderful if few compared with Williamson’s control over song choice and overall performance. The pair was at their best playing the blues, and Williamson’s harp is an unusual but surprisingly sassy enough instrument for this. They played original as well as traditional material: a newish tune from RW about being in Texas, and a Willie Dixon song – at least that’s what RW thought it might be. There was one instrumental that was absolutely gorgeous, with Renbourn silky smooth on his guitar and Williamson getting a softly fulsome tone from his ‘Sheffield’ flute and then a sprightly jig from his recorder. But the two stand-out performances on the night were covers: A Jerry Lee Lewis number I’ve Tried Everything But You, a Country gospel, and a brilliant version of the Dylan/Danko This Wheel’s On Fire which I sincerely hope they record one day soon.

I’ve been revisiting ISB since my conversion regarding Williamson. It’s still a little problematic [and surprising considering the early hippie sensibilities in the musical irreverence, playfulness and communal spirit of performance – also the experimental instrumentation] but my appreciation is getting there slowly. The music is so clearly anchored to a British folk tradition and played often as rustically and naively as possible – some of the fiddle on Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is as primary school concert as it gets! There is also a music hall/light operatic tinge at times, again from HBD with the track The Minotaur’s Song which sounds to me like Gilbert and Sullivan: these are not my normal aural leanings.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Whoopee Cushty

Old Grey Whistle Test - Macon Whoopee

I have just watched my recording of the recently broadcast OGWT Macon Whoopee programme, shot originally in 1976, with Bob Harris visiting Macon Georgia to attend the Capricorn [Records] Picnic featuring the best of their acts including Wet Willie, Marshall Tucker Band, Bonnie Bramlett, Dickey Betts, Sea Level and Stillwater. It's available on iplayer for a few more days, and someone has already uploaded to YouTube, so catch it if you can. It's a must watch if you like your southern rock live and hot. Highlights are an interview and acoustic countryblues serenade from Dickey Betts, and a totally stonkingwhoopee set from Stillwater - the guitar solo is stunning.

Omaha - Somewhere In Middle America

[Kinda hard to make out on this map, but Omaha is on the far right of the State, bordering Iowa and on the Missouri River]. 

I was listening recently to Counting Crows' fine song Omaha from their great debut album August and Everything After and it reminded me how one day I want to compile and post all the quips ever mentioned in song about Omaha, the place of my birth, and/or Nebraska. Poetry is another place to look, and I will, but I know of two Carl Sandberg poems referencing Omaha, and this is the better of the two, if not as explicitly about Omaha as the other,

Sunset From Omaha Hotel Window

Into the blue river hills
The red sun runners go
And the long sand changes
And to-day is a goner
And to-day is not worth haggling over.

Here in Omaha
The gloaming is bitter
As in Chicago
Or Kenosha.

The long sand changes.
To-day is a goner.
Time knocks in another brass nail.
Another yellow plunger shoots the dark.

Wheeling over Omaha
As in Chicago
Or Kenosha.

The long sand is gone
and all the talk is stars.
They circle in a dome over Nebraska.

  - Carl Sandberg

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Parlor Soldiers - When The Dust Settle

If Others Are Going To Compare...s

I keep intending to review The Civil Wars and their album Barton Hollow, and will another time, but I reference them now because The Parlor Soldiers – Virginian singer-songwriters Alex Culbreth and Karen Jonas, with Dan Dutton on upright bass – are easily compared with this duo, as many reviewers of TPS have whilst at the same time expressing a preference for the Virginia natives.

That preference is obviously fine but I have been a little surprised by the mildly caustic nature of its expression. When I first heard Barton Hollow I wasn’t blown away, feeling it was a little over-produced. It was seeing The Civil Wars – singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White – live and simply acoustic on Later...with Jools that got me hooked. I also came across a bootleg of another full live performance which consolidated that liking for their tight dual harmonies and catchy songs – also, a great cover of Jackson’s Billie Jean impressed [I think I’m now reviewing The Civil Wars.....].

The Parlor Soldiers, with recent release When The Dust Settles, are a little more varied and rougher at times, and perhaps some commentators prefer their less polished and less twee, as I could understand it appearing, performances when compared with TCW. TPS tell some darker stories too which might seem to give them more street cred? Whatever, I like both, and TPS add another notch to the genre-stick of the increasing number of male/female Americana combos. The song Crazy from this album playfully references Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard as it indulges in a more old-fashioned C&W verbal-duelling duet. They don't always harmonise, as with Karen singing solo on Mess, and the rock'n'roll dirge of Long Gone has them singing mostly separately, and with a rawness filling the song, so overall there is slightly more variation than with TCW, but it is in its own right a fine album.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Cormac McCarthy - All The Pretty Horses


As an American who has spent most of his life in England I have dual nationality by way of experience if not by legal right, not that the latter would make any real difference. As a writer I have and use both voices – often together; often separately - and as a reader I make a varying preferential choice for either of these two voices.

I feel that my best writing comes from my American voice and it is when it is conversational and attains a natural rhythm and sound. My English voice – though this is going to be quite simplistic – is when I impose structures/form on that writing, for example in my sonnets when I use rhyme in quite an obvious way. As I’ve said above, there are times when these are kept quite separate. It’s more complex than this, and I have explained more comprehensively elsewhere – though not in this blog – but this shorthand will do for now.

For those few following this blog you will know that I have been reading the American voice of late: quite a bit of Steinbeck, always Ray Carver, Patrick deWitt [I know he’s Canadian, but...] and most recently Cormac McCarthy. In trying out my next new read I thought I’d have a go at McEwan’s Atonement. I couldn’t get into it: far too English. Brilliantly so, a luxuriant prose in many respects, and so tuned into representation of character, thoughts and feelings, and sense of place, especially inside and interiors and what these too represent. I made about five pages.

Then I found I actually had McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and hadn’t read yet [as I’ve said, I’m catching up]. Hooked immediately. I love the simple flow – deceptively so, of course – of the narrative and dialogue. And as I continue to make simplistic claims, another appeal at the moment is his ability to write about the exterior. By this I mean the expanse of land and open spaces McCarthy can write about because of where his stories are set. But it is more than this and below is a particular example of that American voice I want to celebrate. I’m trying to not make this sound like a lesson, but that’s difficult, so you can either listen or chat amongst yourselves. Here’s the passage, the fifth paragraph into the opening chapter:

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes creating out of the night the endless faceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

It’s that long, wonderful sentence. And it’s because it follows the first three short ones – the most brilliant set-up. I think Raymond Chandler is one of America’s finest modern writers, and apart from his unique talent with similes, he is master of the long compound sentence. He is also master of mixing up his sentence lengths. But McCarthy’s takes this further. It is in the richness of the grammatical make-up of that long gaze, represented by the sentence, and how we as readers try to take in all the detail too, detail heightened by the weightiness of verbs, surprise naming [nouns yes, but it is more than this] and the succession of ‘and’ connectives that should jar but don’t because where they lead is too demanding of our attention.

Hey, I said you could chat – I didn’t say you could do that! If you’re not interested, I apologise, but do me the courtesy. Your homework is to turn to the third page and read the even longer paragraph beginning In the evening he settled his horse and rode.... The example of the meandering compound sentence is even more elaborate here. And it isn’t a style that McCarthy labours to produce. It happens here at the beginning and then tends to disappear. But you keep hoping to hear more. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Fugs - it crawled into my hand, honest [1968] - Top Fifty

Top Fifty - The Fugs

This album was my apocalyptic, first introduction to The Fugs and it was only afterwards, some years in fact, that I heard their earlier, rawer material. This record still contains their incipient, trademark preoccupations, essentially from the puerile to poetry and the surreal, but it is overall a much more polished affair, the ‘band’ [with core members Ed Sanders, Ken Weaver and Tuli Kupferberg] having succumbed to and/or exploited a larger budget and the production values going with this.

It was a supply English teacher who introduced my 5th year class to The Fugs, using a study of poetry as an excuse to play Ah Sunflower, Weary of Time taken from their first album. He must have shown pictures of them as well and I was hooked immediately with the obvious appeal of hippies and poetry and music and, though not with this track, irreverence and rebellion. I won’t write in detail about him now, but this lanky, informal, eccentric, seemingly worldly-wise and charismatic teacher had a colossal impact on me at the time and opened up new and exciting horizons, musical and poetic, for which I will always be grateful.

The album has two distinct sides. Side 1 is very ‘musical’ – surprising and maybe even unwelcome for those preferring their earlier iconoclastic style – and Side 2 which is a whole side amalgam of songs, chants, poetry recitals, subliminal oddities, and spoken extracts. Crystal Liaison is the beautiful opener on side 1, written by Sanders and Weaver, and it echoes the psychedelic sound-swathes of The Electric Prunes’ Kyrie Eleison, no doubt intentionally, adding blaring horns, pumping bass and a rock lead guitar. It delivers both pastiche and poignancy. Ramses II Is Dead, My Love follows immediately with yodelling and an expansive choral accompaniment. Burial Waltz is even more mocking in its sweeping strings and light operatic additions, but for all this jesting with genres there is an underlying beauty to The Fugs’ production and performance on this album. The humour one would more readily expect comes with fourth track Wide Wide River, beginning River of Shit, River of Shit, Roll On, River of Shit, Right from my toes right up to my nose....I’ve been swimming in this river of shit more than twenty years and I’m getting tired of it which then moves on to the spoken narrative Who dealt this mess anyway – that’s an old card player’s term... and the song mixes its scatology and straight comedy with possible elements of political satire – it isn’t wholly easy to work out. Side 1 finishes with the plaintive Life Is Strange, by Tuli Kupferberg, with its eclectic mix of oriental tones, folk harmonies and jazz piano. The whole side is a rich concoction of musical motifs and lyrical adventure.

Side 2 is so much more wild and wicked. Opener Johnny Pissoff Meets The Red Angel begins with the redneck tirade of Johnny, his racist and homophobic rant as manic and real as it still is today: it is a dangerous parody because of this realism and I won’t actually repeat the words here. But it isn’t left unanswered. In another musically beautiful twist, Johnny’s angry persona is answered by the graceful Country Rock harmonies of the Red Angel who seeks to change Johnny’s ways with its wisdom and urgings for peace,

When The Red Angel comes and the TV is cold,
Will you pray in the dawn for the rest of your soul?
When you lie in the dour death coma,
Do you think you’re gonna go to heaven, oh Johnny,
With a violent heart? With a violent heart?
Are you ready Johnny? I'm the Red Angel.

Ahimsa, oh Johnny, ahimsa!
In the spinning confusion, ahimsa!
In the blood of life, death, and torture,
Ahimsa! Ahimsa! Ahimsa!
Ahimsa, is the seashell of Buddha.
Ahimsa, is the rose and the lamb.

When The Red Angel comes and the TV is cold
Will you pray in the dawn for the rest of your soul?
When you lie in the dour death coma,
Do you think you’re gonna go to heaven, oh Johnny,
With a violent heart? With a violent heart?
With a violent heart? With a violent heart?

Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘peace’ and literally translates as ‘no violence’, or ‘no himsa’. For a teenager full of fear about this redneck mentality and also full of idealism for achieving world peace and love, this song’s double narrative spoke volumes. So much of the album’s themes and my attraction to these are wrapped up in the cultural concerns we shared – theirs real and mine at this time vicarious – and whilst this is in many ways obviously dated, it still resounds. Another example of this cultural context is the gorgeous and surely satirical second track, a Gregorian chant of synonyms for Marijuana, its title. As satire and protest it is beautiful. There are sixteen snippets and fuller songs on this side, and one of the more multi-faceted numbers is When The Mode of the Music Changes, again by Kupferberg, which is complex in its array of musical styles, ranging from beautifully sung balladry to militaristic beats, and back again to lush harmonies and orchestration, then into a funked-up groove, back to a military anthem, and finishing on the peace and calm of its pretty central melody. The songcraft is superb. The snippets and oddities that follow are primarily vaudeville and circus acts, performed as puerile titillations, what Frank Zappa labelled ‘smut rock’, and again as a teenager I thought it was hilarious – and still do. I learnt most of these by heart and sang them when drunk. It seemed cool at the time. Lines like whenever I see the moon on the shore....or see a piano leg touching the floor.....I get horny! [then sung as a rousing chorus]: horny horny horny horny! It is a recurring theme. Another favourite learnt ditty is the song Life Is Funny, sung in the most morose of tones, life is funny, life is free, got all of them goodies coming to me, it’s so funny I could cry, it’s so funny you could die,  it’s so funny..... and I felt then and still do today that the elliptical existentialism of that ending has great meaning......

There are other jokes, for example The National Haiku Contest, the winning entry coming from a William Chain, a senior at South West High School in Kansas City, Missouri,

do not tell me I am source of you knock-up
the mud elephant wading through the sea
leaves no tracks

and it is juvenile certainly, but it is this mix of the absurd and silly and at times musically sublime that teases and delights and fulfils. It made the late 60s/early 70s cultural revolution seem like a lot of fun. The album finishes on a simple ‘peace’ chant with crashing cymbals, and we are reminded that within the smut and comedy there has been social observation and commentary. And above all there has been the unbridled joy of The Fugs’ creativity.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Sassy Songs

Hound Dog/Gigglebush Boogie - Bugs Henderson, At Last  [1978]

Of course that’s not Bugs, it’s moi, aged about 7, and the reason I’m on display with guitar is that I used to entertain the family ‘playing’ it and singing You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, just a cryin’ all the time – that is all I ever managed as I recall – and my performance always brought the family house down, which is why I will have continued, being my one early success for obtaining attention.

On Bugs Henderson’s great live album At Last, this closing 13 minute long track begins with a gloriously talented guitar solo, speed and subtlety both on sassy show, and its many twists and turns are superb, keeping you on your aural toes, and then the singing begins with A you ain’t nothing but a Hound Dog....! which is a wonderful surprise. The singing too has its attitude as it plays with the melody and teases with its varying pace [though playing a song made famous by the King of Sass is a good starter]. As Guitar One magazine sassily says of Henderson’s playing: The world's greatest unknown guitar player. He can flat out blow most pickers away. Bugs will fry the skin off your butt with his monster chops and fatback tone. 

More Dixie Than Electric Lady Land

Mina Agossi - Red Eyes

I was interested in this latest release by French jazz chanteuse Mina Agossi having seen a couple of her Jimi Hendrix interpretations on YouTube: Voodoo Chile and Manic Depression. In each she gives fairly straight slants to the melody, but it’s her psychedelic, instrumental vocal that provides the idiosyncrasy. There’s another Hendrix presented on this latest release, Red House, and that was an immediate interest.

It is an eclectic album, from lounge jazz to a cover of Stretch hit Why Did You Do It? [with a Doobie Brothers guitar intro], an underwhelming version using an ineffectual limited bandwidth ‘telephone’ effect on vocals.  But then there’s Archie Shepp guesting on two tracks!

After lounge opener Eyes Without a Face, it’s second The Crying Girl, penned by Agossi, that lights up the jazz firmament, a slow and vulnerable vocal echoing a little of Rickie Lee Jones with naive acoustic guitar and background electrical noise. Then lounge merges with nightclub in third The Stars Are In Your Eyes with Archie Shepp’s surprise vocal as pub-crooner foil to Agossi until the saxophone asserts its quality. Nice. There’s a sweet-soft blues Sleep Baby Blues next by Agossi which has trumpet playfulness by Sue Richardson and a little of Mina’s instrumental vocalese.

Red House romps in at seven, a perky offering with Shepp again providing signature saxophone and Agossi letting him lead – why would you scat with Shepp on sax? Penultimate track Oh You! applies simple multi-tracking of Agossi’s vocals on this self-penned Dixieland number, Richardson providing the Orleans trumpeting. Closer and title track Red Eyes is a slow blues, again understated with simple vocal echoing. Where I expected more vocal experimentation, Agossi surprises with her gentle restraint and, as I’ve been noting, conventional jazz and blues compositions and presentations. Is that a problem?

Not at all.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Understanding More Than Language

Joy Denalane - Maureen

Neo soul sung old style, German chanteuse Joy Denalane has the tone of Diana Ross but with a gutsier style. This album, originally released in Joy’s native language, is now sung in English – should of never done that to me from Should Have Never demonstrating that she has captured soul’s street grammar at the very least [one reviewer wrote that she sings in Shakespeare’s language which wasn’t, I don’t think, being ironic or jocular] - and will/should bring her to a wider audience. Still I’m A Woman is a fine example of her strong voice ably supported by 70s style orchestration and backing vocals - and there is a sweet cover of Heatwave’s Happiness Togetherness - but the album isn’t mere homage to the past and has its more contemporary soul sound, for example Picture Me with its gentle bump and grind rhythms [I know that makes it sound like the 90s....]. Steppin Up stamps its 80s credentials with a liberal application of the LinnDrum machine or similar. So, eclectic soul is probably the best tag if it needs one, but it certainly never sounds badly dated and is a strong, enjoyable listen across a fulsome thirteen tracks.

There’s a cutesy story behind the album’s title – I don’t think it’s PR – that Maureen is Joy’s middle name, given by her father because it’s the name of the love of his life, not his wife nor Joy’s mother, and speaking of Joy’s mother who is apparently more than happy with the reasons behind the naming, she clearly demonstrates a considerable amount of Verstehen....!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real - Wasted

More Promise Than Real

Lukas Nelson’s vocal is a little less the acquired taste than his father’s, but it still occupies that familial higher nasal’n’twang register. It is for me a welcome, distinguishing feature. In reviewing Lukas’ previous album, Promise of the Real, I like other commentators referred to the father/son link, and this has been reinforced by the shared vocals on their Pearl Jam cover Just Breathe to be released on Willie’s new album Heroes. This is essentially a softly crooned version that does little other than re-present a good song with the noted Nelsonesque tone. As tributes go, it’s good enough to see Willie at least keeping the ear in, not that this is his first time.

On Lukas’ previous album there were two stand-out tracks – Toppers and Pali Gap – Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) – and that’s the quality of what I’m looking for on this latest offering. After quite an average start, 4th track Frame of Mind gets nearest at this point, though this too is straightforward rather than anything sparkling, but it is a tenderly sung ballad that demonstrates the attraction of Lukas’ voice. Next track The Joint is similarly slow and melodic, focusing lyrically on one of the running themes of this album which is smoking pot. It is a strange narrative indulgence, but I guess it has occupied much of Lukas and possibly his band Promise of the Real’s time on their recent extensive touring. 

It’s not until 6th Don’t Take Me Back that we get some reasonably aggressive guitar work leading a song. Interestingly, and worryingly for some early observers, that narrative preoccupation sets the immediate scene: I was sitting in my daddy’s car with a joint in both of my hands smokin’ until the smoke wouldn’t stop and the window rolled down and I’m rollin’ around in my mind and that injection of the ‘rolling’ metaphor seems a tad unimaginative if honest. The song turns out to be a chugging blues which is reasonably engaging, but it doesn’t really take us very far down the road musically or in illuminating the point of concentrating so heavily on smoking dope.

9th Running Away gets lively with its use of percussion – various drumming and handclaps – as well as whistling. By 10th Heart of the Matter I’m finding that it’s these slower country blues ballads [thanks here to pedal steel] which connect the most, and that’s because of the vocal which by now seems to draw on Willie’s country tinge for impact as much as the genetic sound. It is an emotive singing here, rising climatically to its end. Ditto 11th Can You Hear Me Love You. What I thought from the beginning would be another rock album, as average as that sound is, has actually leant much more to these ballads, and 12th I Won’t Fail Her is quite a pretty acoustic folk tune with a dominant angelic chorus providing a sonic twist at this near-end of the album. Perhaps my favourite on the album. The title track Wasted comes in as the penultimate 13th song, and, naturally, this revisits the marijuana mulling in a belts and braces basic rock. One presumes it was selected as the title track more for its story than sound, and this is borne out by Lukas’ comments on how the songs on this album reflect the time wasted on the tour road with the journeying itself but also late night indulgences, as well as the more poignant sense of loss and wasted time in being away from loved ones.

The album finishes on the nine minutes of If I Was The Ocean which continues with the slower pace that I have preferred as a relative choice on this. Pedal steel and guitar sweeps provide an expansive sound, but it isn’t a particularly distinct melody, and the closing guitar jam is something I would like to have heard more within other tracks. Anyone reading this would understandably question why I’ve written so much to celebrate so little. It’s a review written on the listen which I like to do, and I had some genuine, positive expectation because of Lukas’ previous which had impressed in parts. It is only a first listen too, but my feeling is there was more compulsive urge than thoughtful composition in the recording and release of this material. I’d like to see Lukas and the band live where they are widely reported to be brilliant, and I look forward to a third album release that reflects and then builds upon the occasional excellence of the first.