Monday, 23 July 2012

Joss Stone - The Soul Sessions Vol. 2

Stone Soul Picnic

Returning to the formula that launched Stone's singing career aged 16, this is a summer picnic spread with food from a more seasoned soul and a tasty treat from the seasoning of its predominantly soul roots. And its reassuring to say that the preceding line is more full of flash than Stone's honest and honestly very good interpretation and delivery throughout. It seems to me that there is a mature voice excelling here and never needing to indulge in vocal pyrotechnics, just empathy supported by both class production and excellent accompanying artists. Early reviews have seemed to be most positive and it would be refreshing to see Stone's clear talent recognised and encouraged through this wholly entertaining set. An early favourite from these Stone covers is the Cecil and Linda Womack song Teardrops, but that is also because it is such a beautifully written song.


The lock goes through the metal loop from the right,
not the left as you do it - though I know it locks in
both positions - and whilst this isn’t the only difference
that does not matter, there is more than metaphor in this
varying way we secure what is behind those doors.
It is the same with our eating diverse meals at our
differing times, or how each night as you go to sleep
I go to bed on the following day. And though we rise
at similar moments, it will be like this for the rest our
life, each of us heading for the equivalent place by
alternative routes.
                               So when I returned from being away
it seemed so much had been rearranged;
and whilst mere things remain as if the same
there is a sense that more has been forever changed.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Meat Market - Covent Garden

Another Hippie

Finally got to try the Dead Hippie burger at the Meat Market in Jubilee Hall at Covent Garden on Wednesday. Two beef patties, seeping juice and grease, winking pink, onions held: it was delicious. No queue, and great to sit up in the mezzanine watching the market surfers below. Next time it's the chili dog and the corn puppies [corn meal wrapped around polish sausage, deep fried]. My kinda food.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Black Dub - Black Dub

Flying Low, But Soaring

This is one of the strongest cover to cover albums I have heard for a while. Released in 2010, the band features more-than-solid drumming and bass from, respectively, Brian Blade and Daryl Johnson – funk and reggae rhythms underpinning most of what is played [listen to their tight performance on second track I Believe In You] – but the two star acts are without question dynamite if diminutive singer Trixie Whitley, daughter of the late Chris Whitley, and distinctive guitar from the great Daniel Lanois who also provides vocals and keyboards.

Opener Love Lies provides signature Lanois guitar laying a swathe of sound throughout, and Whitley’s voice, often echoed, dominates powerfully over the sweet background vocals. Second I Believe In You has that pulsating reggae beat at the start, introducing an even more sultry and sassy Whitley vocal to ride the strutting bass line. Third Ring The Alarm is introduced at length with classic Lanois soundscapes, and then becomes an 80s-esque pop song carrying this anti-80s listener along by those guitar loops and echoes. Fourth Last Time returns to a more gutsy number, funked-up rhythms and soulful singing from both Lanois and Whitley: the guitar here stabbing rather than layering. Fifth Surely is a more conventional ballad with Whitley ploughing deeply with her impressive voice.

Seventh Slow Baby provides a mesmerising masterclass in Lanois guitar work. It is superb. Eighth Silverado is a gospel’n’reggae amalgam driven by the Whitley voice – and her 2009 EP The Engine is worth a listen to hear more of this clear talent, as are the many clips on YouTube that feature her playing guitar, sometimes with Lanois - and these predominantly live sessions add to the impressive experience of her emerging talent.

The album closes on an instrumental, Sirens, and again the Lanois guitar and effects production is hypnotic in its brief repetitions. A truly wonderful album, perhaps flying under the musical radar, but soaring as an aural signal.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Rolling Stones - Happy 50th Birthday


A day late, but that's an industry in itself. Fifty years ago yesterday The Rolling Stones played their first gig at London's Marquee Club. In celebration I have today ordered their book celebrating 50 years together as the naughty boys/guys of rock, and I am writing this brief posting to add to the multitude already out there.

I've seen the band live twice: the Hyde Park concert and on their Voodoo Lounge tour, both written about somewhere on this blog. I was listening yesterday to some of their early R&B covers and it did strike me that there was a genuine affinity for the music and considerable passion and expertise in its playing. There's an understatement.

Favourite all-time tracks? Nothing esoteric or surprising: Jumpin' Jack Flash and Honkey Tonk Women are pure-rock-classic-without-thinking-in-the-bag-certainties. I love the ballads and slower numbers:  As Tears Go By, Lady Jane, Let's Spend The Night Together, Ruby Tuesday, She's A Rainbow, Wild Horses [with writing nod to Gram Parsons], Angie, Fool To Cry. The album Voodoo Lounge has an obvious appeal, and it was a later return to form, especially on the ballads again. Start Me Up holds a special place as I used to hold my young daughter and dance and sing with her as it played very, very loud. Especially early in the morning - what a way to start the day! Miss You is superb.

One of my first guitar licks was [You Can't Get No] Satisfaction - that's hyperbole of course, but when it's the first guitar line you learn, as simplistic as it is, that's a 'lick'! And what a fucking simple brilliant lick! I have always been able to hand-tap the equally simple but brilliant drum sequence to Get Off Of My Cloud. Try it if you think you can: one hand/one beat, two hands/one beat, one hand/one beat, two hands/two beats, one hand/one beat, drum roll/six alternating beats. That doesn't account for the nuances of stress per beat, and timing, but you either have it or you don't.....

The song that perhaps always registers the most is You Can't Always Get What You Want. That's sublime songwriting.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Skeeter Davis & NRBQ - She Sings, They Play

Marriage Made In Eclectic Heaven

In continuing my brief NRBQ focus, here's an exemplification of the band’s eclecticism I have been mentioning: Country chanteuse Skeeter Davis teaming up with rockabilly/rock'n'roll/rock band NRBQ. It isn't just a musical matrimony as Skeeter was married to bass player Joe Spampinato, but whereas the nuptials may have conventionally expected an equal partnership, on this recording it is Davis’ classic, even twee Country that dominates in all its innocent sounding charm.

The band gives obvious able support, and there’s some fine pedal steel throughout. The album was recorded in 1981 but not released until 1985. There is a strong cover of Hank William’s May You Never Be Alone; and the twee Country stereotype is faithfully played to musical perfection – if you have the liking, as I do – but also to deeply ironic effect in the Davis original Roses On My Shoulder where Skeeter sings of a girl’s fatherless life as a woman of the world, or as the narrative explains with a further layer of euphemism, I grew up fast and moved to town where I could walk the streets: I was looking for my daddy in every man I'd meet

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Kaya Street - Sway

If you missed my review of this album, do check it out [type Kaya Street in the search bar]. I'm mentioning again as I listen now to Sway, which I wrote at the time was a 'grower'. Well, it keeps growing on me, and today I'm taken by the strong bass line and saxophone backdrop [solo and orchestrated], and as ever the vocals - Harry Birch's and supporting - which make this a full and impressive song. If you missed listening back then, here's the link again:

Monday, 9 July 2012

NRBQ - Keep This Love Goin'

Time Travel

I’ve been listening to and enjoying a variety of NRBQ albums from across the decades since revisiting and reviewing their debut album of 1969. This one from 2011 may have only one remaining member from the original line-up, but it retains the eclectic mix of rock’n’roll, pop, jazz, rockabilly and appropriated classical music established in that first memorable outing.

Terry Adams - keyboardist, main songwriter and original member - formed his new band Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet in 2007 but after a couple of years felt there was enough of the NRBQ sound and ethos in this reincarnation to bear the band’s original name and lay claim to this release. It is, as ever, varied without producing killer punches, and each track reflecting whatever rainbow genre of the moment to perfection. On this album I think its pop sensibilities dominate, and they in turn represent 50s/60s sounds a la Beatles and Beach Boys – as well as more generic rock’n’roll – and at times the lyrics betray their anachronisms in the innocent reflections on what sounds like young love by, from Adams at least, an elder statesman of Romance as well as musical experience. Keep This Love Goin’, Here I Am and Let Go are prime examples of such pleasant aural time-travelling.

Chris Smither - Hundred Dollar Valentine

Hundred Per Cent Outstanding

This is Chris Smither’s 12th studio recording and it continues with the finger-picked, foot-tapped, fulsomely-sung blues/folk brilliance for which he is rightly revered, at least by a dedicated informed if not more widely.

The title track and opener lays down the blues roots in wonderfully familiar fashion, and the accompanying vocal of Anita Suhanin provides a pleasing foil to Smither’s grittier tones. Second track On The Edge provides the folk nuance that has informed his music for 40+ years, especially reminiscent of the songs he was writing on his first two brilliant albums I’m A Stranger Too and Don’t It Drag On, references I will return to. There is some pretty violin background provided by Ian Kennedy on this track.

Third What It Might Have Been is a sweet, slow blues with Smither in empathetic voice, and Jimmy Fitting playing – wait for it – a fitting harmonica. Apologies. The upbeat Country blues of fourth track What They Say combines more of Smither’s fine songwriting talent [the album is entirely self-penned] with Suhanin, Kennedy and Fitting all providing their continued superb support.

Fifth All We Need To Know is another slow and brooding song, beautiful poetic lyrics and virtuoso guitar picking adding to its gravitas – thundering drums and sustained cymbal strains playing their parts.  It’s a perfectly balanced album as sixth track Make Room For Me brings in its bright blues stomp. Seventh I Feel The Same is a welcome reprise for one of two superb songs from Smither’s 1972 album Don’t It Drag On, the additional harmonica and other band elements giving its differing sound; also in ’72, Smither’s vocal had a light warble whereas now it is much deeper and, as they say, lived-in. The other track reprised from this early album is tenth Every Mother’s Son which tells the gorgeous though haunting story of a son who buys a gun and goes on a shooting spree. Again, harmonica and Suhanin harmony provides a nuance to compare with the original.

The album ends on a raw, demo-like and foot-tapped song Rosalie that at the end has Smither recalling he wrote  it ‘35 or 40 years ago’, and the chair creaks as he adds ‘I haven’t sung that on stage in years...years and years’ and it recalls the brilliance of seeing Smither play live where all his simple excellence in and enthusiasm for performing is so evident. This album is as good as it gets from an artist who has always been outstanding.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

NRBQ - Top Fifty

NRBQ - NRBQ [1969]

NRBQ – New Rhythm and Blues Quartet – formed in 1967 and brought out this debut eponymous album in 1969 on Columbia Records. It is an infectious, eclectic offering including covers of Eddie Cochran, Sun Ra and Brownie McGee/Sonny Terry.

The album starts with the brisk C’mon Everybody, essentially a straight rock’n’roll cover, but second track, the Sun Ra Rocket Number 9, immediately introduces the lively variation on this album, its jagged jazz rhythms delivered with dominant percussion, monotone vocals and Don Adams on trombone as the song launches into its discordant close. Third track Kentucky Slop Song is a rousing and comic Country pastiche, and this opening trio establishes the delightful diversity that so appealed when I first acquired the album in ’69 not knowing anything at all about the band.

Fourth track Ida, written by band member Terry Adams and jazz composer/pianist Carla Bley, is the first ‘rock’ number in as much as this was the genre I was expecting in looking at the longhair photobooth snapshots on the album cover. The McGee/Terry track C’mon If You’re Comin’ is a wonderful and honest acoustic version, with fine harp playing by Terry Adams. Side one of the album closes on band member Steve Ferguson’s song I Don’t Know Myself, carrying its early Rolling Stones ballad echo with confidence.

Side two of the album begins with another Ferguson number Stomp, which according to the liner notes he introduces when playing for this recording as This is a tune ah wrote, itsa stompin’ song an’ ah hope it makes every one of you wanna do jes’ that, and the phonetic presentation accurately reflects the intonation and inflection of much of the singing, delivered again, for example, in next track Fergie’s Prayer where I can hear that similar modulation in the singing of Kings of Leon today. The album continues with another cover, the Cobb/Channel Hey! Baby, and it is Countrified rock of the best head-bobbing, foot-tapping kind. Side two closes with a Terry Adams' jazz tune Stay With Me, a neat final stamp of the whole album’s eclecticism, though it must be stressed how simply and unpretentiously that has been represented.

For a band that was never that well known and who certainly didn’t produce ‘hits’, they have a substantial discography and devoted following, and though going not surprisingly through a number of personnel changes, they continue today.  

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Blues Magoos – Psychedelic Resurrection


The Blues Magoos, as they exist today, are set to tour again, though there are no dates posted on their under-construction site, nor any idea of whether they would be touring outside of the States.

They were one of the first ‘psychedelic’ bands – perhaps as much because they used the word in the title of their 1966 debut album Psychedelic Lollipop – but they were also a garage/pop band rather than wholly lysergic, though some of the guitar and vocal experimentation was truly far-out, especially back then. Part of their lite-psyche persona comes from the sunshine-pop addition of the word ‘lollipop’ to ‘psychedelic’, as well as song titles like Life Is A Cher O’Bowlies [twee rather than irreverent].

But listen to the fuzz guitar and distorted organ on There’s A Chance We Can Make It, and the psychedelia is absolutely there with hippie bells a’janglin’. Listen also to Tobacco Road – the hard-core track on which all teen garage bands would cut their still-growing teeth – and especially its Vox Continental organ swirls and the rampaging extended guitar solo.

My introduction to them was in Germany in 1966 and I bought their great single [We Ain’t Got] Nothing Yet at the US Army Base PX. It has a stunning spiralling guitar that rises above a pulsating bass line, and the organ background sets a classic sixties sound. The B-side to this is the equally excellent Gotta Get Away where the far-outness is in the echoing/answering of the vocals Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey [yes, 13, and I counted as I sang along], which second time around leads into another rapid guitar solo.

Man, those were the days.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Shannon Stephens - Pull It Together

Just One More Song

Listening to seventh track Faces Like Ours in another room from where it was being played, I could hear one of those vocal echoes of another great female singer which prompts the comparison – sometimes overdone, but apt if touchstone and compliment – and here it was recognising the later-life, mature tenor of Joni Mitchell: that is until I worked out this was the one duet on Stephens' fine album and it was Bonnie Prince Billy’s dulcet tone I was actually preparing to cite comparatively in this imminent review. Perhaps a first - this comparison of the Prince with the Queen of female vocal.

The album gets off to a potent start with Wax and Feathers and its slow echoing guitar riffs with Stephens’ voice powerful and clear above this and the subsequent brief but atmospheric angelic chorus. Second Care of You is all percussion and banjo and that strong vocal again. Fourth Girl seems to be self-addressed and contains lush vocalising as well as the directive you got to love your own soul and this is certainly realised in the depth and quality of her singing. Fifth Cold November gives more opening playtime and scene-setting to an angelic chorus, leading to this piano driven autumnal ballad – played today on another apposite grey English summer's morning! Still, Shannon Stephens is from Seattle.

Stephens writes sassy as well as introspective lyrics, and in sixth track Out of Sight there is a smartass irony that exemplifies her intelligent songwriting,

Oh, the Lord owes me a livin' cause I am his child.
Oh, the Lord owes me a livin' cause I'm meek and mild.
I think God should write my checks; he's got all the money, after all.
He's the one who made my life; how 'bout making it less difficult?

Someone put me on the payroll; I'm completely qualified.
Someone sign me up with that great big sugardaddy in the sky.

Faces Like Ours, mentioned at the start, is a pretty duet with beautiful harmonising and sweet steel guitar. But the lyrics again display a satirical thoughtfulness that belies the pleasing melody,

We’re gonna be alright; baby, we are still young.
Baby, we are still young, and that’s more than some people can say.
We’re gonna be okay; at least we have white skin,
and when you have white skin nobody can send you away.
And people are inclined to help, to help
other people who look like themselves.

The album ends on another beautiful song, eleventh track Remember Too Long, where the request for just one more song is lyrically within a plaintive, yearning context but is also an apt and positive response in listening to this album.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Exam Break

Ready For Posting

Yesterday I finished the GCSE English Literature marking of a centre of 230 students that I had been working on since the end of May. With two exam jobs running concurrently, there were times when I would obviously be marking/moderating other work, and a feature of both jobs is to review the work of other examiners as well as check Report writing, so it wasn’t a case of working on this one centre full time for four weeks. However, it is still the case that over that four week period this has been a consistent focus. In this respect, that is an interesting phenomenon of the marking process: to have the responsibility for the work of all the students in that school’s large cohort.The bags in the photo contain all I have done to date, including the one large centre.

Spending that amount of time on this single centre – even if spread out – one develops a strong sense of the candidates’ particular characteristics, which includes obviously teaching styles/approaches and how well the students have absorbed and interpreted this. I’m not giving anything away that is confidential – and wouldn’t – but individual schools can develop quite distinctive and therefore richly variable characteristics and that is phenomenal to experience. Now, rather than map out the ‘difficult’ territory of that comment, I’m going to leave the observation unchartered for now, and just say that this school’s students responded with consistently informed understanding and could articulate this at least clearly and often with considerable flair [that latter observation just wants to poke a hole in so many recent - and annual - hot air voice bubbles wherein cartoon captions constantly and erroneously debase the writing skills of the young].

This wasn’t meant to be an essay and I simply wanted to get that picture posted at the head of this posting, but I have a little more to say: it also takes a certain kind of resilience to read the 230th response to Of Mice and Men and know you must treat that response with the attention and freshness it deserves. The paradox is that Curley’s wife only wears so much red to signal danger as well as sexuality, and she has a finite number of sausage curls hanging meatily or metaphorically about her infinitely interpretable face, but each time such details are reported and explored there is an individual start point to that long and indefinite lineage of answering.

In closing this cathartic little break from the further marking I still have, it’s worth mentioning a glorious educational resonance from the tens and tens of thousands of students responding to An Inspector Calls. This year they should have an absolutely rock-solid appreciation of Priestley’s presentation of the insidious evil of capitalism, now played for real in the recent and continuing revelations about British banking practices. Where the rare student still hasn’t fully grasped the ironic complexity of Curley’s wife’s presentation, not one has been under any illusions about Birling’s representation of greed and selfishness. Informed, articulate, politically and morally astute!