I’ve been a fan of Natalie Merchant since hearing her pure, delicate vocals on Mermaid Avenue, the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration. The album was a mainstay of my student radio show back in the day, and I must have played this two or three times.
When I finally got round to listening to her solo albums, and then her band 10,000 Maniacs, I found a voice with a considerably greater dynamic and emotional range than that cameo betrays.
It’s been more than twelve years since her last album of original material, and time has weathered that voice a little more. Dropping the needle on Natalie Merchant is a less immediately dramatic experience than, say, Ophelia, her 1998 sophomore release, but the lyrical darkness remains, accompanied by a further drop in pitch and her customary gravity of delivery.
It’s no great sonic departure. Her band sound is still rooted in the 1980s, still laden with strings, but these aren’t necessarily bad things. “The End” has some of the best strings on a pop record I’ve heard in ages. “It’s A-Coming”, however, slips a bit too close to jam band mediocrity, Hammond organ and “funky” electric guitar, and the pastiche of New Orleans jazz on “Lulu (Introduction)” seems needless, heavy-handed.
Reportedly drawn from 14 years of writing, some of the material has dated in the meantime. If “Texas” is about George W. Bush, “Go Down Moses” must be about Hurricane Katrina, and back-to-back it feels a bit too much like a time capsule from the last decade, its potency somewhat lost in the intervening decade.
At her best, and this approaches it, Merchant is one of the most affecting vocalists of her or any other generation. Her phrasing is astonishing, Joni Mitchell-like in its ability to smooth occasionally wordy, inelegant lyrics and make them sound purposeful, even beautiful. Highly recommended.
And so hipster favourites-turned-How I Met Your Mother-soundtrack-providers Band of Horses roll up at the high temple of country music. I’ve always suspected that under the beards and flannel shirts lay a band who could really, really play, and so it turns out. They can sing, too; high, clear and gloriously in tune.
Stripped of their customary endless reverb and wall of distorted guitars, the songs are reinvented on piano, acoustic guitars and occasional double bass. It’s a brave move, for sure; their voices are exposed for all to hear, and in Nashville of all places. For the most part, both the songs and their voices stand up to this treatment. The set rests draws from all four of their albums to date, and the arrangements are simple but effective. The bowed double bass that now serves to open Detlef Schrempf is deft and satisfying, and by the time they arrive at Neighbor, they are in fine form.
If I have a complaint it is that the whole album runs to only 10 songs and 39 minutes; from two nights of recording, you’d imagine there was some gold left off this release.
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…)
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.
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…)
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…)