Georgia Lewis – The Bird Who Sings Freedom. Or, How inexpert axe-wielding makes for a better record…
Like most writing-about-music, this is probably best enjoyed whilst listening to said music, so here it is on Spotify.
I’ve always wanted to make a record in a house on a hill. Some of my favourite albums were made in big old houses; Liege and Lief, August and Everything After (and Recovering the Satellites for that matter) and a whole lot of other peoples’ favourites as well, from Kitty Jay to the Basement Tapes. Luckily for me, about this time last year, that chance came along.
Georgia Lewis is my new boss/friend/client/bandmate, depending roughly on the time of day and professional/social setting. She’s also one of the most determined, dedicated students of folk music I’ve met. She lives, along with her parents and, when they’re not at university, two siblings, in a house on a hill. A mansion, really, albeit one that’s been divided up into many smaller dwellings to suit an age where people neither need nor can afford the whole thing.
Sometimes you meet a new singer and have to slam on the brakes, telling them that they’re really not ready to make the record they want to make. Other times, you have to shove them out of the proverbial plane, assuring them that their parachute will open and everything will be fine. Georgia is a perfectionist, so a gentle but decisive push was required to stop her simply waiting forever.
I think it was my idea. At least, I’m going to take credit for it. Sat in the kitchen one day, guitar on knee, I suggested that rather than spend money we didn’t have going to a studio we didn’t know, why not stay here? We’d always rehearsed in the kitchen, it’s a high-ceilinged room. It sounds great. With the help of another friend I consider myself very lucky to have, producer Josh Clark, we draped Georgia’s parents’ house in microphones, acoustic panels and miles of cable. I’d done a quick trial recording and I sent it off to Josh a few weeks earlier, and he agreed that it would take very little to get it sounding great. He was right. He usually is. Over the next three weeks or so, Georgia pretty much single-handedly produced her own first album; Josh was on the phone, but we didn’t have the budget to have him in for three weeks, and he had other sessions in. So Georgia did all the engineering, coaxing performances out of each of us, tracking her own parts, learning how best to build this thing she had in her head.The sound of the house is in the music. In a couple of places (certainly the start of track 5, Georgia’s setting of A.E. Housman’s True Lover) you can hear the crackle of logs in the wood stove that kept us warm during February sessions. If you were too cold or needed a leg stretch, it was your turn to go out and chop more wood, never mind if you’d never swung an axe in your life. Suffice to say some of us were better than others. We’d load the split logs into a wheelbarrow, haul them back to the house and peer through the window to see if someone was mid-take or not before opening the door. We fed the stove, helping it along with something called a Looftlighter, an electric contraption something like a hairdryer if hairdryers were designed by aspiring arsonists. I might be more scared of it than I am of the axe. If you’re already wondering how we made it through this process with all our fingers, you should probably look away before I tell you about the compulsory archery breaks…
Afterwards, we’d cook dinner, or retire to the nearest pub to unwind.
This is a band full of musicians who deserve,and will probably receive, more acclaim than they’ve had to date. Evan Carson is a ridiculously hard-working man, and very tasty drummer you may have seen with Sam Kelly or The Willows. He reminds me a little of my brother, in that he’s rather talented, somewhat too generous with his time for his own good, and I worry about him driving long distances in the middle of the night. He’s making a solo album that is guaranteed to be full of polyrhythmic weirdness I don’t begin to understand. One Sunday, my contribution not needed, I went out; it was my brother’s birthday and I drove north into Gloucestershire to meet him, his girlfriend and my parents for a celebratory pub lunch. By the time I got back, Evan had done all sorts of magical things. Part of me regrets going, because I will never know precisely how he made all those noises. Some of them are made with a thing called a pandero (not a pandorica, apparently), which is a bit like a tambourine and might originate from the Basque region. Others with a set of tiny (Indian?) bells that Georgia’s mother had. Most with one of three bodhrans, variously aluminium/synthetic and wood/goatskin.
It’s really useful when your fiddle player is also a pianist. I’d never heard of Rowan Piggott when I first carried a double bass through Georgia’s door, but by the end of this year I think a lot of people will know his name. There’s his EFDSS-supported project about bees, Songhive, and his solo debut Mountscribe, both of which will be lauded if there’s any justice in the world. It’s on Must I Be Bound where you realise he’s actually a pianist by training. It’s so simple, but so effective. A real piano, again accompanied by the sound of the room it’s in; you can hear pedal noise as well as the wood burner if you listen hard enough.
I won’t put words in her mouth, but I think Georgia is grasping at some kind of dichotomy or dilemma. It’s a tug-of-war going on between the part of her that wants to dance and the part gripped by the emotional resonance, the real anger that these songs of women’s struggle, of abuse. We’re all in the game of finding something new in the old. Georgia is folding in all sorts of influences most of us didn’t consider. It can’t be overstated how great, how refreshing it is to meet someone whose goals are musical. I routinely meet aspiring professionals whose goals are mostly to do with their social media numbers. Georgia aspires to know more songs, to be a better singer. Rowan collects, publishes. Felix is sonic glue. Me? I’m mostly trying to keep up.
I’m immensely proud of this album for all sorts of reasons. Personally, because I learned a new instrument, a hard instrument, and played a few notes I’m happy with and a lot more that are perfectly adequate. Because I have a new group of talented friends who are growing and bonding and becoming a really great band. Because I’ve met a genuinely brilliant, terrifying, wild and untameable talent who loves folk music more than anyone I’ve ever met and is driven by an unquenchable thirst for more music, better music, for playing with her band.
It’s a privilege to be surrounded by people whose playing you enjoy. This is basically me gushing about how nice it is to be appreciated, and to be surrounded by people whose skill and instinct lines up in just the right way with yours that something ineffable happens. It’s a bit magic, and I’ve missed it.
You can buy Georgia’s album from all the usual places, but if you’d like to support independent music as best you can, here’s a link to my record label.
I was going to start this by saying, “Well, I didn’t write much last year.” As it turns out, I haven’t written much here for nearly four years. Time to sweep some cobwebs away.
It’s good for me to write, but it only counts if you finish things and show them to people. I’m going to start by rooting through the drafts folder and finishing things I started last year.
So, by way of a statement of intent, I will publish my musings on a record I played on last year, something on the death of Tom Petty and the first in what I hope will be a series of pieces about the kind of bass players I like. Watch this space. Begin it now…
I never did finish this, supposedly my customary end of year round-up, but I’ve dug it out of my drafts folder and polished it up a little. Better late than never?
A year of disappointments, perhaps. Hem reappeared after many years away and phoned it in, Richard Thompson continues in the vein that has seen my interest in his new material wane for a decade now, and my favourite band Counting Crows put out comfortably the worst live album of their career to date (but they’re back in the studio and hope springs eternal, right?).
Two shining exceptions to this wave of mediocrity; Ruth Moody‘s These Wilder Things and Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern (which I wrote about for Ryan’s Smashing Life, click it and read). These Wilder Things features the genius of Adam Dobres and Adrian Dolan, and you should take any available opportunity to see Ruth and band live. It’s a second helping of the easy-on-the-ear Canadian folk-pop that made her debut so appealing, with added guest gloss from Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker amongst others. The title track is a song of staggering emotional potency and showcases a singer and writer of great poise.
Midlake also returned, sans Tim Smith, songwriter in chief. I saw them at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds in August 2012, an improbable warmup to their semi-regular slot at End of the Road the following day. Still with Smith then, and with hindsight [perhaps raging against the restrictions of studio toil, they played an astonishing, vital, visceral set including some songs from the stillborn album we will now never hear. When Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson appeared back at the Brudenell the following spring, I ought to have wondered if something wasn’t amiss. They made no mention of it, but the band had fractured, and were beginning the process of rebuilding that accompanied the writing of Antiphon.
It floats between the mellotron-and-flute floaty psychedelia of The Trials of Van Occupanther and the guitar-driven stylings of The Comfort of Others without being either, retaining the vocal signature even without Smith; sometimes unison or double-tracked, other times picking out the clever, unusual harmonies that betray their status as graduates of the University of North Texas jazz program.
I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor
I bought Philippe Petit a round
And asked what his high wire was for
He said, “I put one foot on the wire,
One foot straight into heaven”
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.
I was in a bar when they rigged the towers
Trying to leave all my sins
The barmaid asked my order
And where my mind had been
I tried to recall the high wire
Philippe and his foot in heaven
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.
The Low Anthem’s last album, Smart Flesh, is well worth your attention. This track in particular is one of the most glorious, articulate, intelligent responses to the events of 11 years ago I have heard.
With each passing year, the memories fade a little. With each passing day, Freedom Tower rises a little further towards its eventual 1776 ft height. Each September 11th, we are all New Yorkers for a moment.
It’s that time of year again. Actually, it’s a few days late because I couldn’t decide what to put in, but let’s gloss over that and get to the good stuff. Strap yourselves in and prepare for a whistle-stop tour of music I enjoyed in 2011, laced with witty asides and the occasional marginally relevant anecdote. In two parts because it got a bit unwieldy as a single post once I’d embedded videos; this post covers albums, the second one will take in gigs and miscellany. Where I’ve already written something about the gig/album in question, the subtitle will be a link.
In a move deeply predictable to those who know me, I think a Counting Crows album is the best release of the year. I’m cheating on at least two counts here, firstly because it’s a DVD, and secondly because it contains no new music. In fairness, it is also a CD/download album, but its well worth getting the DVD. Town Hall is beautiful, the lighting designer needs a medal, and Adam Duritz is still a be-dreadlocked whirling dervish of a frontman. He’ll never be particularly cool, but in 1993 he wrote some beautiful songs and in 2007 he performed them in front of some cameras. That’s really all there is to it.
June Tabor & Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom
It was a good year for reunited folk-rock colossi, and Shrewsbury Folk Festival had them both. But then they would, and this is why we love them. I saw a full set by June and the band in Nottingham in November, a gig marred by some of the worst live sound I’ve heard all year, but nonetheless a great night. Tabor’s voice ages like a fine wine, and the band are a more nuanced, delicate instrument than they were 20 years ago when they made Freedom and Rain. Their choice of material is eclectic but brilliant, and the result is an album garnering award nominations.
Graham Colton – Pacific Coast Eyes
The first four tracks of Pacific Coast Eyes are pure summer pop perfection. It’s not that the rest are bad, just that the first four are inspired,dovetailing beautifully into a little song-cycle of unrequited longing, nostalgia and sunglasses. It also features the runner-up in my Best Sappy/Cute Lyric of the Year Award, narrowly pipped by Teddy Thompson (see below):
You weren’t standing with who you came with,
You told me your name, it was short for Elizabeth.
You don’t drink cos you can’t stand the taste,
You talk like a boy but you still like a little chase.
(As an aside, the fact that people have started writing nostalgic premature-midlife-crisis songs about being born in the 1980s (see below) is making em feel dangerously grown up.)
File away until the sun comes out again, then roll down the windows and enjoy.
Lucky Now is beautiful. Musically it wouldn’t stand out if you dropped it into the middle of his first album, but lyrically it has real immediacy. It is a song of sober, 2011-vintage Adams looking ruefully back. It’s also a song of New York. The rest isn’t quite as lovely, but nonetheless a worthy addition to Adams’ substantial discography.
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
Suffers in comparison to their live performance only because they appear to accomplish more with less. Their vocal performances have grown since they made this record, and most of the overdubs don’t bring much to the party. If you can, see them live. I’ve got tickets to see them in Leeds in March, and there are still tickets for some of the tour dates at the time of writing. That said, this is still a pretty remarkable clutch of songs.
Wilco – The Whole Love
Continuing Wilco’s slide towards middle-aged mediocrity, or the best instalment yet of their third age? The Whole Love has convinced me that Wilco are alive, well and maturing like a fine wine. Those of us who had our concerns around the time Sky Blue Sky emerged and were only partly assuaged by Wilco (the album).
It reminds me a lot of REM’s Automatic for the People. There are string arrangements and Wurlitzer electric piano textures. There’s also a sense that the best has probably passed by now, as has any sense of trendsetting or avantgarde, but that none of that really matters. It’s good stuff, it’s very Wilco and it has none of the hesitancy or laid-back laziness that at times killed Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album). It’s the first album on their own label, dBpm, and between that and their own festival (SolidSound) they’re fast turning into a cottage industry. Try the first track, below, and revel in the wonderfully bipolar nature of Wilco in 2011, swinging from weird, ambient noisemaking to glorious Nels Cline guitar solos via Jeff Tweedy’s driving, sinister verses. Long live Wilco!
Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing
Glorious retro-fest filtered through 21st century indie rock sound. It’s the Rolling Stones via the Black Crowes with Eagles harmonies as played by the bastard offspring of Band of Horses and Wilco, and it makes me grin like an idiot. This record has so much groove it’s ridiculous. I tried telling someone it sounded a lot like T.Rex and Led Zeppelin, and they looked at me like I’d gone mad. Had I continued and told them that there are hints of early Elton John or early Bowie in “Astronaut”, I have no doubt they would have asked me to stop flaying their sacred cows and leave. It’s true though; “Street Fighting Sun” is pure Zep, “Your Crying Eyes” is Bowie’s Suffragette City for a new generation. Is it original? Not terribly. Is it fun? Hugely. Is it bizarrely cool this year? Apparently so. And, thanks to the benelovent indie god that is SubPop, you can listen to whole thing for nothing on YouTube (below). Do so, then decide you’re going to buy a copy anyway.
Teddy Thompson – Bella
I guess it’s good loving that I want the most
Someone who turns my bread into buttered toast
but would qualify anyway, with a slew of catchy melodies and clever lyrics like this. Teddy’s voice gets better with every passing year, as does his sense of a good pop song. I have the feeling he’s building towards a truly brilliant album at some point, but until then this is a very, very good one. If you can, see him live, especially if it’s just him and a guitar in a cathedral.
The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars
More than ever before the Jennys are pulling in three disparate directions. David Travers-Smith produces once again, but there’s too much slow, jazzy contemplation. Opening track Swing Low, Sail High is gorgeous, but the good vibes dissipate quickly and leave behind a disparate, patchy collection of songs. Lovely in places, but I haven’t bonded with in the way I did with Firecracker.
Gillian Welch – Harrow and the Harvest
Eight years is so long to wait for an album that it’s almost impossible for it to meet with expectation. Not bad by any stretch, but part of a trend towards inconsistency that started with Soul Journey. That said, if your decline starts with Time (The Revelator), there’s a lot of room to make good music on the way. Revelator is desert island stuff for me, and probably something of a miraculous one-off even by the high standards of Welch and Rawlings. The Harrow and the Harvest is good, great in places, but dull in others. At its best, you believe every word Welch sings, and yearn to sing along, to join the tales of lonesome souls. David Rawlings is still a genius, his guitar parts and vocal harmonies top notch as ever.
Not a bad album, but suffers from being compared to Hayes’ remarkable and underappreciated back catalogue. Her first album, the Mercury-nominated Night on my Side is gorgeous and her third, The Hollow of Morning, is a delicate, harrowing collection that still transports me to a transcendent set at the Bodega in Nottingham whenever I hear it. I played it nine times the following day; I doubt I’ve played Let It Break nine times since I got it.
OK, so that’s albums. Tomorrow, good gigs I went to, EPs and assorted other musical things that aren’t full-length albums and a few thoughts for 2012.
A little delayed by work and Christmas, here’s my full review of this gig. Parts of the below formed a piece I wrote for Ryan’s Smashing Life, written as a preview of the Staves’ support of the Civil Wars next month in the States.
A new venue is always cause for celebration, albeit sometimes with caution. The Navigation is a pub by the canal and isn’t really new at all, but is under new management and they’re booking music. They’re also playing host to what smelled like a pretty remarkable burger-making operation. Note to self: next time, don’t bother having dinner before you go.
It’s probably a good thing I can’t remember the name of the first act, a local support, because his Jeff Buckley impression was so painstakingly, studiously crafted that to watch it fall so inevitably short was really quite uncomfortable to watch. It should be obvious to anyone that it’s a futile thing to attempt, but it’s also about 15 years late.
Moving swiftly on, the first two proper acts up was Paul Thomas Saunders. By way of a disclaimer, or at least some background, I should say that I’ve known Paul a long time. We went to school together for a while, and he was in the better of the two teenage rock bands that formed around that time. We played at some of the same gigs. I then had the good fortune to end up in Leeds at the time his previous band reached their peak. It could be said I’m fairly au fait with his oeuvre, if you’ll excuse the rampant francophony of that sentence.
With that taken into account, it’s all the more astonishing that he managed to deliver a set that was at once surprising and familiar to me. Above all it was impressive. During songs Paul and band oozed confidence, overcoming the challenge of the sound, not to mention a few talkative audience members, to deliver their carefully crafted slices of ethereal pop.
Paul has assembled a stellar band of sonic magicians. A guitarist who plays his effects pedals like another instrument, layering textures and fading chords into complex walls of delay, aided by keyboardist Kate’s Wurlitzer chords and strong backing vocals. Long-time drummer Ali leant power and poise to the arrangements, giving them huge dynamic range.
With this trio behind him, Paul is free to sing, something he is really rather good at. His vocal range is huge, extended by a smooth, powerful falsetto that lends itself to the dreamy, echo-drenched songs that populate his set, typified by Appointment in Samarra, below.
Our headliners took the stage around 9pm.
I first encountered The Staves supporting The Civil Wars at the Union Chapel Islington in September. I wrote at the time that
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.
In essence, not a great deal has changed since then. With no Grade I-listed venue to add gravitas and reverb, it wasn’t as dramatic a performance. Instead, we were treated to an intimate show with plenty of chat.
The Staves are Camilla, Jessica and Emily, sisters from Watford. Conveniently blessed with complementary vocal ranges, they sing in close harmony, accompanied by Jessica’s simple-but-effective Paul Simon-like fingerpicked guitar.
Whilst on first listen they belong somewhere in the Fleet Foxes/Midlake/Low Anthem ballpark, seeing them live reveals that they’ve taken these ethereal close-harmony stylings and done something distinctly English with them. Unlike the Mumford/Marling-type response to that particular US nu-folk pack, they’ve done something that appears both genuine and natural, powerful but never forced. They are wise old heads on young shoulders, and if you’re ready to spot them you can hear the influence of Simon & Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills & Nash in their harmonies and Joni Mitchell in their phrasing. They sing with an awareness of the power they wield, more knowing than naive.
They also sing with astonishing precision, seemingly able to start and stop singing together, moving from solos or duets to full three-part harmony without cues, snapping suddenly into unison for a line before swooping gloriously back into lush, full harmony again.
Their Mexico EP is out on December 11th:
Their debut album, the first ever collaboration between father and son producers Glyn and Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year.
They support The Civil Wars on tour in the US in January 2012, followed by more UK dates in February in support of Michael Kiwinuka.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that I managed to write an entire piece about them without once mentioning cunnilingus. Unlike the Guardian.
I reviewed the eponymous Tender Mercies album at Ryan’s Smashing Life. It’s a great record, and an honour to write my first piece for RSL. Go and read it, then have a browse of everything else Ryan and co are doing. If you subscribe now, you’ll get his near-legendary end-of-year best of list, which never fails to unearth something that I’ve missed during the year.