It’s been a little quiet around here, I know. I should be grateful that I’ve got plenty of work happening at the moment, which leaves little time for writing for fun. Still, I found time to put down some thoughts on the Ruth Moody gig I saw last month, and they’ve just surfaced over at theRSL.com.
Go, read, and then have a look around. Ryan and co are doing something rather special over there, and it remains an undiluted pleasure to count myself a small part of it.
Ah, Ryan Adams. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma if ever there was one. Music hacks seem to revel in trying to simplify his narrative into pithy one-liners, usually centred on how prolific he is and/or the latest phase of his apparently cyclical relationship with various substances. I don’t have a copy, but whoever wrote the one-sheet for this album seems to have laid on the “Ryan got clean” narrative pretty thick if the mainstream reviews are anything to go by. If anything the clean-and-contented shtick seems a little late. I saw Ryan and the Cardinals in November 2008 in Leeds, and they were on fire. Not the wild, debauched, freewheeling, stumbling kind of Grateful Dead-worshipping Cardinals we once knew but a powerful, cohesive force playing, by DRA’s standards, practically a greatest hits set. Gone were the 12-minute jams and 5-minute inter-song gaps, replaced by well-judged moments in the spotlight for Neal Casal and Jon Graboff. His worst addiction at this point seemed to be Diet Coke and he was, we now know, mere months away from his marriage to Mandy Moore upon which everyone seems so intent on pinning the reflective, joyous tone of Ashes and Fire. To borrow an Americanism, I call bullshit.
So, PR-driven sobriety narrative aside, is it a good album? If his prolific tendency has taught us one thing it is not to expect a gem every time. For every Cold Roses there’s a Jacksonville City Nights, for every Love is Hell a Rock N Roll. And of course, for every actual album there’s a comedy black metal album about alien invasion. No, really.
It opens with “Dirty Rain”. If you were to play the game of trying to fit this into said back catalogue, this one belongs on Gold. It quickly becomes clear that Benmont Tench (borrowed from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) is not here to make up the numbers or add a recognisable credit to the sleeve; rather, Johns has him playing a lovely retro Hammond organ part. The soulful vocal seems to belong on side two of Gold as well. So far, so good, if not exactly revolutionary.
The title track follows, and captures a joyous mood rarely seen on his albums of late. A jaunty waltz-time and a Gram Parsons-esque delivery make it rare if not unique in his canon, but whether either were a good move remains to be seen. Perhaps we ought not to wish for too much reinvention of the wheel here. I think I prefer the acoustic solo version he put on YouTube before the album came out, which has a certain authenticity and purity that the album version lacks. Suck it and see.
“Come Home” is more like Heartbreaker than anything else. Pedal steel, gently shuffling snare, a longing lyric that seems to promise the safety and security that Heartbreaker spent most of its time looking for. I’m not the first to point out the connection. Produced by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, The Who, Eagles and, notably, father of Ethan Johns who produced Heartbreaker and Gold), there are moments that could slip unnoticed onto the inevitable deluxe edition of Adams’ solo debut a decade ago. “Rocks” is another of them, delicate, fragile and sweet.
There are glimpses of irresistible, melodic Ryan we saw on Cold Roses; “Chains of Love” betrays his love of Noel Gallagher’s best songs, if Noel had come from Jacksonville, NC, that is. “Kindness” has that Harvest groove that so much of Heartbreaker used so well, helped along by Tench’s piano.
Other bits drift past with no discernable hook; “Save Me” makes no impact whatsoever and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” makes me recoil. Your mileage may vary depending on your susceptibility to cute, or indeed to Adams songs with long, unwieldy, narrative titles (“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” anyone? “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old”?).
By this point, you’re not sure what to make of it. For an album with a fairly consistent sound, it is nonetheless all over the place in terms of style, delivery and influences. Just as well, then, that “Lucky Now” comes along.
The dedicated/obsessed have been listening to it for weeks now, but “Lucky Now” remains a glorious piece of pop perfection. I expect it may remain so for a while yet. Even Ryan Adams albums you don’t particularly like usually have one song where he hits it well and truly out of the park; “Dear Chicago” on Demolition or the title track of Rock N Roll. This is that one, destined to show up in encores years from now, already careering with tragic inevitability towards a million iTunes playlists.
I get the same sense of compact, to-the-point poppy efficiency I got the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”. It gets in, delivers its beautifully-weighted point and gets out again. The music geek in me revels in the simplicity of the IV-vi in the chorus that drives home the first and third lines:
And the lights will draw you in
And the dark will take you down
And the night will break your heart
Only if you’re lucky now
In the end, the album is encapsulated in the change between the second and final choruses, when the lyric becomes:
And if the lights draw you in
And the dark can take you down
And love can mend your heart
But only if you’re lucky now
Stop press, Ryan Adams believes in love. Probably. If you’re lucky. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the fragility of the place he finds himself, an expression of the fear that it might all disappear with the same roll of the dice that he thinks brought it along in the first place.
At this point in his career, Adams doesn’t need to, nor could he, try to encapsulate his entire career in one album. This isn’t definitive, nor is it his best album, but it’s a stop on a long road. It won’t change the world, or even the world’s perception of him. It won’t get more than a track or two onto my Best Of Ryan Adams playlist either, but at this point that’s probably about all we could reasonably expect.
Ashes & Fire is streaming at Ryan’s Smashing Life, where you can read Chris Fullerton’s take on it and make your own mind up.
Before I get the main event, a deserved mention for the support act. Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.
Tuesday night caught Joy Williams and John Paul White in an exceptionally playful mood, toying with their songs, flirting with one another. At one point Williams remarked “Outta the palm of my hand,” and she was right. From the moment they took the stage to the moment they finished their second encore, the audience lapped up everything they had to offer.
I’ve had a hard time in the past trying to explain what The Civil Wars do. “It’s sorta folky, country-ish but soulful, y’know?”, I said to the friend who was coming to the gig with me. In the end, they explained it themselves better than I could have done, telling the story of how they met at a kind of songwriter’s speed-dating event, where writers were paired up for an hour in a room with a piano and had to create something. Joy Williams’ heritage lies in California (Beach Boys, Carpenters) and her parents’ jazz records (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald) while John Paul White grew up in Alabama listening to Johnny Cash. The result has elements of all of those influences; Williams’ vocal delivery owes a lot to Ella and White’s tenor is capable of everything from authentic Appalachian high-lonesome delicacy to rough, bluesy growling. Shorn of their studio overdubs and accompanied by White’s robust guitar playing, their songs are compact, potent things. (more…)
Whilst Ryan Adams has never truly ceased to be prolific, the stream of new material has slowed in recent years, at least compared to the glorious three-albums-in-11-months period that gave us Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29. Halcyon days indeed. Oh, it’s not like he’s gone silent: we’ve had III/IV, a double album of Cardinals archive material that served mainly to demonstrate why none of the songs made it on to Easy Tiger, and of course Orion, an album of unlistenable metal about aliens. Yay.
All that, however, seems to have allowed Adams to return to something simpler and more elegant. There’s a delightful sweetness to “Lucky Now”, the advance track. It’s classic Ryan Adams, but less tortured than Heartbreaker or Love is Hell; not unreminiscent of Easy Tiger actually. Could it be that marital bliss suits him? Praise be to Mandy Moore!
There are a few other reasons to be excited about this album. It is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (Eagles, The Who and, bizarrely enough, Fairport Convention’s Rising for the Moon) which just might make Adams the first artist to work with both Glyn and his son Ethan Johns, who produced Adam’s debut album. It also features among its guests Norah Jones and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), all of which bodes well for an album positioned firmly at the tight, focused, 3-minute-song end of Adam’s artistic spectrum.
and the aforementioned “Lucky Now”:
Ashes & Fire is released 11th October.
Asking me to write an objective review of anything by Counting Crows is like asking a child to review a bowl of ice cream. Sure, it might not be quite the right flavour and there’s never enough of it, but you’re unlikely to catch me looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given how rare new material from them is, us Crows fans are prone to fits of rapture when it does appear.
Having duly shot myself in the foot as far as my credibility is concerned, I shall now proceed to tell you that this is a stunning piece of filming, a powerful performance and a restatement of the profound emotional depth of these songs which you should all rush out and buy, immediately.* Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
What we have here is a performance of Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After. Released in 1993 and an out-of-the-blue success the following year, it went on to sell more than 7 million copies. The original is a fragile, beautiful thing of sparse elegance and staggering, heart-rending power. It frequently crops up in critics’ lists of the best albums of that decade. They never matched it for commercial success or critical acclaim, and to some extent have been living in its shadow ever since. Still, as legacies go, it’s not a bad one to be stuck with.
Only three of this band actually appear on August as members of Counting Crows: Duritz, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and guitarist Dave Bryson. David Immergluck has the unusual status of having played on the album as a session player before eventually joining the band full-time in 1999, whilst Dan Vickrey joined the band shortly after they finished August in time for the 16-month tour that accompanied it. Two drummers and one bass player have come and gone since then, but the incumbents are more than worthy. Jim Bogios in particular is a potent addition, matching the drama and dynamic range of the songs with effortless competence.
Given there are three times as many guitars as there were on the record, it is both impressive and near-miraculous that the trio manage to add to the songs without treading on each others’ notes. If you’ll excuse a moment’s wild rock-journalist-hyperbole, I have been known to compare the arrival of Immergluck in Counting Crows to the introduction of Don Felder to the Eagles. Both arrived first on “difficult” third albums and brought a more natural, instinctive rock voice to their respective bands, liberating the other guitarists to do more interesting things in the process. Immergluck also plays mandolin and pedal steel, broadening the palette further. If you’ve pressed play on the video at the bottom already, you are by now experiencing Immy’s pedal steel abuse; I’m fairly sure that doesn’t appear in whatever the pedal steel equivalent of A Tune A Day is. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing and that all pedal steel players are mutants from the planet Zog, so little sense does that miraculous instrument make to the rest of us.
Vickrey is a charming country-rock guitarist, but he also has a wonderful, underappreciated voice; he nails the backing vocal on Time and Time Again, a beautiful echo of the lead. (Those of you who’ve seen Crows live know he also sings the good stuff on Goodnight Elisabeth and A Long December, and has a nice line in hats.)
Headgear notwithstanding, Bryson is without a doubt the coolest. Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch hollowbodies and a distinct lack of histrionics, Dave is just getting on with it. He has so many of the crucial little shapes and figures that make these songs, some of them no doubt dating back to when these songs were nothing more than him and AD at an open mic somewhere.
August opens with Round Here. Less a song than a creed to Crows fans (I have actually seen people, admittedly in the States, entering a state that closely resembles rapture in the middle of performances of Round Here…). It’s such a powerful song, such a sprawling musical object, that the album, and thus the show, runs the risk of struggling to follow it up. In this form, with Raining in Baltimore shoehorned into the middle, it runs to almost 12 minutes. There’s not much I can do to describe what they do to this song live, but seeing as you’ve already gone to the bottom of this post and pressed play on the YouTube video, I don’t need to. Ah, the wonders of modern technology… (more…)
Oysterband and June Tabor are making a new album together, the follow-up to their 1990 collaboration Freedom and Rain. The new album will be called Ragged Kingdom and is released later this month. Given that Freedom and Rain was probably the last great English folk rock album, I’m not sure how this news passed me by for so long. I feel like people ought to be shouting from the rooftops. Instead, a throwaway line on their website was the only sign of it for months, and even now there seems a relative lack of buildup for an album that seems, to me at least, to be the most interesting thing to have happened on the English folk scene in ages.
In anticipation, it seemed appropriate to post a few thoughts on their first album together for anyone who hasn’t heard it already. So, forget for a moment the imminent return of this collaboration, find your copy of Freedom and Rain and consider with me just why it holds a place in the hearts of so many of us, 21 years on.
The executive summary runs something like this: in one corner, you have England’s finest living interpreter of traditional song. In the other, a young, lean, hungry and well-drilled folk-rock band. Together, they distil the essence of the nation’s folk-rock heritage, throw in a few choice covers and produce a modern classic.
Freedom and Rain sits in an interesting point in both their careers. Tabor is established, respected but yet to record some of her best-known works (including her harrowing versions of Eric Bogle’s First War laments And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and No Man’s Land, two recordings that presented her to new audiences). Oysterband are young, but evolving. They are still The Oyster Band, yet to drop the definite article and the gap, and yet to release the definitive, revisionist 1994 release Trawler and thereby imprint on the public imagination new versions of some of their best-loved material.
Into this unknown territory, our collaborators stepped, forging new musical partnerships and creating something new, unique and perhaps a little strange. A cocktail of traditional songs and contemporary covers, a rock album with uncommon musical and emotional depth. (more…)
I’m sat by my window, watching the last of the inky blue drain from the sky, replaced by the dull orange glow of the motorway and silhouettes of houses and trees. I’m sipping a dram of Bowmore 12. The soundtrack to this moment is an album by a New York band called Hem.
Eveningland is an impossibly beautiful album. At first glance it seems almost Disney-soundtrack-esque and chintzy, but it runs deeper than that. It’s a country album made by city-dwellers, a folk album made by people writing their own tradition, an album full of the high, lonesome sound of the pedal steel then layered up with the orchestral strings and woodwind to give an appropriately cinematic scale to what critics have variously called their “countrypolitan” or “chamber folk” sound.
It’s tough to pick highlights; part of Eveningland‘s charm is how cohesive a piece it is, how coherent and pervasive the themes are. It is full of stories of fear; the fear of loss, the fear of change, of losing the things we care about.”The Fire Thief” is a lullaby of sorts, the refrain ‘Leave the light on…’ plays on the child’s fear of the dark, a theme that returns in “Hollow”:
But it’s a hard road that we follow
The saddest cities, and the darkest hollows
There are musical moments as frequent as the lyrical delights: “Redwing” has a double bass line that drives the pre-chorus along, arriving at a euphoric, jubilant vocal that makes every right-thinking person grin uncontrollably. “An Easy One” is just a delightful songwriting premise perfectly executed.
The album moves from merely lovely to downright astonishing somewhere in the second half. “Strays” is adorned with clarinet and, eventually, vocal harmonies that drive home the power of the melody. I’m even rather fond of their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”, a song I could take or leave before I heard this slow, langourous, light-as-air version.
But the undoubted highlight is “Pacific Street”, the first song of theirs I ever heard, thanks to a friend who sent me the track and then directed me to the album from which it came. (Your musical companionship is much appreciated, as is your predilection for Chablis…)
It is preceded by the title track, a 62-second instrumental where the clarinet and violins take turns to lead a simple ascending three-note motif before a harp plays a VI-minor chord, accompanied by shimmering strings. The listener is unsettled by the surprise minor chord and this feeling remains in the ensuing silence. Into that uncertainty comes Pacific Street, the musical equivalent of being wrapped in a blanket of softness and reassurance. Sally Ellyson’s smooth, Karen Carpenter-sweet voice tells a simple story of two people meeting on a street corner, two relative strangers seeking mutual comfort, perhaps both running from the same unspecified something. For me, it has the same jaw-droppingly elegant, simple perfection as Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark;” it gets in, says its piece and gets out, deceptively simple yet somehow profoundly moving. You find yourself going back wondering how they did it, looking for some musical trick of the half-light.
Eveningland is the soundtrack to countless happy evenings. What in the cold light of day might seem facile or mawkish in the evening becomes perfectly-weighted, delicate, exquisite. Pour yourself a glass of something good and give it a spin.
Sometimes the best gigs are a little out of the ordinary, one way or another. It’s certainly not often you find major-label acts with Radio 2 A-list singles under their belt inside the relatively modest walls of Sheffield Cathedral. Unfortunately, rather than seeming like a remarkable piece of good fortune, this felt more like an admistrative blunder. Can it be true? I found myself wondering, checking Teddy Thompson‘s official website, double-checking the ticketing page. This was a one-off solo gig for Teddy, having toured new album Bella with his band earlier this year, and I can’t quite work out how it came to be, or indeed why it wasn’t better publicised; the audience can’t have numbered more than 300, and with tickets at £10 something wasn’t adding up.
Support came from Teddy’s younger sister Kami, mostly seen thus far featuring in the many Thompson-Wainwright-McGarrigle extended-family gigs that seem to happen every once in a while (For anyone not versed in the lore of English folk-rock, Teddy and Kami are the offspring of legendary couple Richard and Linda Thompson, who made six albums between 1974 and 1982. Richard is a good friend of (and collaborator with) Loudon Wainwright III, who married Kate McGarrigle, mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Keeping up? Good.). Those of us who keep an eye on the every move of Rufus, Martha and Teddy (writing songs about one another, singing backing vocals on each others’ albums, swapping producers…) have been wondering for some time if Kami was destined to join their little cabal. This tale of two siblings holds plenty of parallels between the pair, but at the end of the night (nay, at the end of the first song of Teddy’s set) it was clear why one of them gets top billing. (more…)
It is the fate of most artists (at least those who achieve a modicum of success; van Gogh probably didn’t have this trouble) that their later work is viewed through the prism of their earlier triumphs, particularly if their debut was nominated for a prize as illustrious as the Mercury. It is, then, difficult to give a new Gemma Hayes album a fair write-up. In the name of full disclosure, I consider two of her three LPs to date works of near-genius. On the one hand, I’m rooting for her, but on the other I’m the ultimate tough crowd, holding this new album up to the highest of standards.
So then, to Let It Break, which has crept into the world with less of a bang and more of a whimper; it was released in Ireland on 27th May, but only available digitally elsewhere until the following Tuesday, and then only through HMV UK, who claimed 14 days for delivery. Hardly a blaze of glory, but then nowadays Gemma is self-releasing, a casualty of Virgin’s purchase of Source, her one-time label. (more…)
Apologies for the lengthy absence. Am finally carving out some time to write a few things and hope to have a series of posts for your delectation as the week progresses. New theme! Prize, as yet unspecified, for the first person to tell me where the image above was taken and why it is significant.
I am something of a John Mayer apologist. I bashed this out in response to a Tumblr post but I thought I’d put it over here where more people can read it in its own right.
The assertion, by Kasey Anderson (singer, songwriter, Tumblr-er) was that John Mayer engaged in “incessant blustering about making art that is ‘true to himself,’” only to then “produce [...] banal, toothless music.” Anderson then suggest that “no one would begrudge Mayer his success were he just to say, “I like making a shitload of money and I’ve figured out a way to do it on a consistent basis.”” However, he puts forward an alternative:
Maybe, when John Mayer reaches deep within himself and grapples with The Muse, or whatever it is he needs to do in order to make his art, what comes out is that tepid vanilla custard sound. Maybe that’s his passion. If that is the case, then The John Mayer isn’t infuriating at all; he’s just sad.
Every interview, live comment and “exclusive in studio video” I’ve seen suggests that Mayer is being honest, or at least thinks he is. He believes his own hype. He really does look inside himself and discover dross like Your ‘Body is a Wonderland’ and ‘Waiting on the World to Change’, both of which sound like they belong on a Sting solo album.
That said, sometimes he comes up with some genuinely satisfying stuff; I am very fond of most of Heavier Things; ‘Clarity’ is gorgeously produced and has a fantastic horn section, ‘Bigger Than My Body’ needs some sort of award for the best use of an innovative effect (the AdrenaLinn modulation on the intro). (more…)
A little something I wrote for Folktales on LSRfm, Sunday 6th February 2011, 3pm. It belongs next to this track. If you tuned in as you were encouraged to a couple of hours ago, you’ll understand how it works. If you didn’t/couldn’t, you should be able to listen to the show here when it’s available. Enjoy.
He opened his eyes. Everything was rotated, out of place. Lying on his side, sofa cushion forcing his neck into painful contortions. The ceiling flashing blue, white, blue, reflecting the light of the TV, left on all night. He looked up at the window; dark, the sodium glow of the streetlight turning the window frame amber. He glanced down at his watch. A little after 5pm. Wednesday had slipped by unnoticed.
On the screen, a young man in a white t-shirt and black leather jacket stepped out of a car, wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead and ran his hands through his slicked-back hair. He stood for a moment then was knocked stumbling back into the side of the car, embraced by a beautiful girl. Detroit perhaps, Motown itself. Dark streets, rain, streetlamps and stop signs, spots of colour reflected on the wet roads. Camaros, Thunderbirds, girls in denim, chrome-plated glory. (more…)
If all the big mags can have end of year lists then so can we all, right? Yay for the democratising power of teh interwebs, or something… I’ve written about a few of them already, so I’ll just link to these with brief, flippant executive summaries and you can click through to the full reviews should you so wish. Consider them all recommended:
Too bluesy, but if that lets Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench show off a little, it’s probably not such a bad thing after all. Docked points for not touring Europe yet, about which I will continue to sulk until they do so.
The best Wailin’ Jenny cuts loose, makes solo album and tells us how she really feels, in the process writing a couple of heartbreakingly incisive love songs, meanwhile gathering around her a strong cast of guest artists including most of Crooked Still and her fellow Jennys.
LA band that no-one had ever heard of suddenly rocketed to, well, slightly greater fame thanks to Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz and his obsession with Twitter. They put the album up for free download, which many of us took advantage of. I wrote about it. They promptly retweeted my review and caused a small virtual stampede in the process. Great songwriting, tasteful banjos and mandolins, nice people, heartwarming story of modern day goodwill between musicians and music fans.
Brian Fallon and co return, make an album that isn’t quite as good, or quite as Springsteen-y, as The ’59 Sound, but seeing as how that was a slice of almost undiluted genius, this one is still quite good actually. Unfortunately, there are no Tom Petty lyrics hidden in this one, just a U2 line, which isn’t nearly as cool.
And now, the rest. I look forward to seeing whether you agree with my choices!
Midlake – The Courage of Others
Even if for no other reason, this would merit inclusion purely for the astonishingly detailed study the band made of early Fairport Convention LPs (see track 9, “The Horn”, for the best Richard Thompson impression anyone has committed to tape in recent years). Indeed, if I were scrabbling around for reasons to put this in, I could do worse than mention that they originate from Denton, TX, a college town home to the University of North Texas with a special place in my heart. As it is, it’s really not necessary to resort to such underhanded tactics, because The Courage of Others is one of the best albums I’ve bought in the last few years and a worthy successor to The Trials of Van Occupanther, a favourite that still gets a lot of play round these parts. TCoO is darker than TToVO (mmm…ungainly abbreviations) though, almost exclusively in minor keys and riven with a sense of foreboding and an epic scale. “Acts of Man”, “Core of Nature”, “In the Ground”; the song titles rightly suggest big themes and a kind of reverent mystery. “I will never have the courage of others / I will not approach you at all,” sings Tim Smith on the title track, just one of a number of lyrics laden with sinister couplets. The idea of cycles and seasons pervades a number of them: in Winter Dies, he sings
As the spring is made alive the winter dies
And the final cries of creatures are long behind
And full of spirit the village starts again
With one more year for a man to change his ways
amidst countless other references to the earth/ground, seeds, growing, dying, no more so than in “Core of Nature”:
I will wear the sun,
Ancient light through these woods,
Woods that I walk through alone
I will take my rest
Several of them have hymn-like qualities, resonating like big pipe organ swells, echoing like empty cathedrals with their choral harmonies. Woodwind textures feature heavily too, with the flute particularly prominent, all giving credence to the suggestion that Tim Smith harbours a latent admiration for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
All in all an astonishing achievement, a coherent artistic statement the likes of which we see all too seldom from popular music in today’s major-label-dominated world. Give thanks then for Bella Union, the artist-run, London-based label with the faith to let Midlake create.
I do not understand tapers that get upset about people using mp3. So rare is it that the final file format is the limiting factor that it’s just a non-issue for most of us. How often is a recording made by a microphone on a stick 20 rows back in a windswept acoustic nightmare of a concrete bowl going to be further compromised by file format? Does the resolution of the recording impair your enjoyment more than the comments of the people around you, the noise of them opening beers, standing up to get past, singing along…
Even in the best case scenario of a great desk mix with audience mics, I’d be surprise by someone who could tell the difference between FLAC and mp3 encodings of it.
All this for recordings you’re probably going to listen to on standard-issue iPod earbuds on the Tube.
PS. I’m sure there are people out there who love to collect high-quality recordings of their favourite band and then sit in front of highly accurate, expensive hi-fis and listen to them, and these are the people for whom this sort of thing makes an actual, measurable difference. To them I would simply say step outside, walk/drive/catch a train to your nearest pub/club/venue and stand in front of an actual band.
It’s taken me a while to really reflect on how I feel about this album. Like most nowadays, it was trickle-fed into our lives with the release of a few preview tracks and a free streaming online before actual physical release. No long do we tear off the shrinkwrap with no idea what’s inside; instead, we’ve heard the highlights already on YouTube, and to be honest that’s where the problem lies with Mojo. Take away the three songs I’d already heard and it feels like an awful lot of filler. (more…)
I am a sucker for well-produced, folk-poppy Americana with good female vocals. When the promotional email for Ruth Moody‘s new solo album The Garden landed, it was never going to take much to convince me to order a copy. By the time I’d listened to the samples on her website I was seriously considering breaking with habit and downloading it from AmazonMP3 rather than wait for the CD to show up. In the event I managed to find the patience and ordered it just before I took off to Prague. (more…)
I know, I know, I said I was going to write about lots of things, not just music, and certainly wasn’t going to post any more music things until I’d finally whipped a piece of fiction/prose/comment of some sort into shape, conceivably even the sort of narrative writing of which blogs are *supposed* to consist. (The fact that I may have only said these things to my self in no way lessens their validity, honest…)
But then this happened.
A battle is being fought within me, the battle lines are drawn. On one side is the cynic, the critic, the musician and music industry person who knows a manufactured product when he sees one and derides it as such. Facing him is the guy who just saw a rocking festival set from a young artist with talent, attitude and, more than anything, good songs.
Tiffany Page is, as far as I can see, something of a novelty in the music industry at the moment. Amongst countless reinventions, repackagings and relaunches, endless attempts to be more flamboyant, more spectacular than the next artist, Page is a female pop singer with no pretensions. This is, no doubt, cultivated in and of itself, a calculated lack of bullshit designed to cut through and access a demographic turned off by over-the-top pop. All the same, when I caught her set at Godiva Festival this afternoon, she and her three-piece band turned in a set of satisfying, well-structured, hook-laden guitar-pop that put a smile on my face. It’s rock’n’roll lite, a step away from the Courtney Love/Shirley Manson/Chrissie Hynde namechecks in her marketing copy, but none the less enjoyable for it. (more…)
From out of a cultural drought, a long stretch devoid of any new releases that really excited me, emerge three at once. Three sparkling shards of American cultural output, missives from the City on the Hill.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album in eight years, Mojo, emerges in the same week as the third album from a band who count the Heartbreakers as a major influence; The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang. Completing the trio (but only available in the States at the moment…) is Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel Imperial Bedrooms, hotly anticipated by British readers until 2nd July.
My review of The ‘59 Sound was one of the first things I wrote on here, and is available for your delectation. The record is bound up inextricably with memories of last summer; finishing university, long train journeys, watching Glastonbury on TV. Just in time for another summer comes American Slang, arriving on a wave of hype and anticipation created, in part, by the band’s appearance at Glasto last year and Bruce Springsteen’s guest spot with them, affirming what is now a bond of mutual appreciation.
In honour of Stuart Cable and in defence of his former band, I dug this out, written a couple of years ago. It is n attempt at a semi-articulate defence of a band I loved when I was 13, so much so that I dragged my parents to the wrong end of the country to see them. Thanks for the memories, Stuart; I hope the Great Gig in the Sky is everything it’s cracked up to be.
There is, or was during the height of their fame, an established way to write about Stereophonics, and it tends to utilise cliches like “stodgy”, “pub-rock”, “unsophisticated”, “well-loved by the public but derided by critics”. For those too young/old/prone to living under rocks to recall, it is worth remembering that for a few years either side of 2000, three lads from a small village near Abedare could sell out arena tours at the drop of a hat and filled the Millennium Stadium several times. Undoubtedly, the band responsible for “Mr Writer”, exhorting the journalists to “tell it like it really is”, didn’t do themselves any favours with the NME. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a band that polarised the public/press divide so obviously around that time. Almost to a man, the music press wheeled out tired one-liners and derisory reviews while down the road a queue of paying punters lined up to buy the next album or fill venue after venue. It is, then, easy to say that Stereophonics made popular but ultimately ungainly music that pleased many without ever really achieving anything of artistic merit. However, I’d like to put the case that once upon a time, back in the bright, optimistic late nineties, Stereophonics made a Good Record. This is commonly considered heresy in the music press, but bear with me. (more…)
Or, if this were an academic paper, Wilco and song forms: an exercise in subversion?
In a departure from our scheduled broadcast, I bring you the first of what might be a few articles about music that came to my attention over the Christmas/New Year binge.
I’ve been a Wilco fan for years, but in the last weeks of 2009 two things cemented their place amongst my all-time favourite acts: seeing them live for the first time, and getting a copy of Ashes of American Flags. (That it took me three months to finish this article makes it slightly less immediate, but that’s what you get for reading the ramblings of a chronic procrastinator…) (more…)
One of the things that distinguishes Shrewsbury from its fellow English folk festivals (apart from the excellent site, organisation etc) is the consistently high quality American/Canadian acts they get in. In previous years we’ve been treated to The Wailin’ Jennys, Crooked Still, Richard Shindell and others, and the quality was maintained this time.
Ollabelle were a revelation; I wandered into the back of their gig and discovered a group doing one of the best impressions of what The Band might sound like if they’d appeared last week; hardly surprising when you learn that Amy Helm (their regular singer, absent from Shrewsbury whilst giving birth) is Levon’s daughter, but impressive and highly enjoyable all the same. They took turns to sing lead vocals, each band member in turn proving that they could take the spotlight (even a singing drummer, so the comparison stands up!) and some impressive instrumental versatility as well. That much honest, straight-up groove couldn’t be carried off by a British act, it seems. (more…)
Anyone who’s been within earshot of my speakers recently will already know that I’m rather enjoying The Gaslight Anthem‘s second album The ’59 Sound.
I don’t like punk. As my good friend Richard will testify, getting me to listen to anything that sounds like it got too close to a Pistols record in its youth is next to impossible. I’d probably put it down to being scarred by exposure to terrible early 2000s American pop-punk (blink182, Ataris, New Found Glory…), an unavoidable consequence of going to school with posh English boys who aspired to be skaters. The wholesale commercialisation of the idea (not for the first time, many would argue) by the major label machine the US brought us such delights as Avril Lavigne and also tended to put quote serious unquote music fans off the idea of anything vaguely fast-paced and guitar-driven from the US.
So it is all the more remarkable that The Gaslight Anthem are the first US rock band to creep into my consciousness, and onto my iPod, in a while. If there’s an obvious reason for this, it is the Springsteen influence that every critic for miles around has flagged up on this record. When the Killers put out Sam’s Town, everyone screamed SPRINGSTEEN! They were, in fact, misled by one moment of descending chromatic E-Street impersonation and concluded that Brandon Flowers and Co had written the new Born to Run. They had not, but fear not, ladies and gentlemen, because Brian Fallon and Co have. (more…)