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Another piece on RSL

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.

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Music: Best of 2011 Part I

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.

Albums

Counting Crows – August and Everything After: Live at Town Hall

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.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

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

Deserves a place on this list simply for the line

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.

Gemma Hayes – Let It Break

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.

The Staves + Paul Thomas Saunders, The Navigation, Nottingham 6/12/11

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.

The Staves

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:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/preorder/mexico/id485033701?i=485033705

http://www.amazon.com/Mexico-EP/dp/B006BZ8442/

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.

Tender Mercies review at rslblog.com

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.

Guitar Geekery, or Why the Godin SD is a slice of design genius.

Prompted by answering a couple of questions about the sounds on Ghosts & Heroes (no, seriously, people ask these things!), I thought I’d write a short piece on the guitar that did most of the heavy lifting in those sessions. Some of this is going to be a little heavy on the guitar-geekery, but I’ll do my best to keep it interesting for a broader audience.

There are many things to love about my favourite electric guitar, a 1998 Godin SD. It is beautiful. It is, I believe, a unique and clever hybrid. There aren’t many of them on this side of the Atlantic. It was also a screaming bargain on eBay, which always helps.

Why Godin guitars are so relatively affordable is hard to understand; they’re all made in Canada (with the exception of some of their electrics, like this one, which are assembled over the border in the US state of New Hampshire from Canadian timber for reasons that I suspect have to do with minimum wage laws/healthcare/dental plans). They depreciate significantly, because they’re not Gibsons or Fenders, I suppose. The loss of the crowd-following types is the gain of those of us in the know! Read the rest of this page »

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

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.

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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.

The Civil Wars + The Staves, Union Chapel Islington, Tuesday 27th September 2011

The Staves by p_a_h on Flickr

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. Read the rest of this page »