Sunday, February 26, 2017

Songs Heard on the Radio # 186 Penny & the Quarters


An ideal Sunday morning song. Cerys Matthews generally knows. This seventies soul/ retro doo wop gem was pretty much lost until it was unearthed again on the 2010 film Blue Valentine. It's since featured on the Amazon drama series Goliath and now it's pitched up here.



Thirty Days of Politics # 23 Dexys Midnight Runners


In a Q&A article in Uncut Magazine a few years back Rock & Roll insurrectionary Bobby Gillespie asked Dexys leader Kevin Rowland about this song and particularly its kiss off line, 'You know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things.' 'Did you still hold that line?' Gillespie asked, no doubt hoping for a raised fist assertion in response. 'No of course I don't', was the gist of Rowland's reply. 'I was young and angry.' He of course has changed and mellowed considerably over the intervening years though the fire still clearly burns. As for the principle of political engagement the line in the song puts forward; it deserves a PhD.

February 26th 1932 Johnny Cash


                                          And where Merle is, Johnny is never far away!

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 686 Merle Haggard


'If there were such a thing as the typical Merle Haggard record (the sheer diversity of his music makes that impossible), Strangers with its deep blues feeling, biting guitar, and sweet-voiced reading of bitterly ironic lyrics, would probably be the one. Which only makes sense, for this is the hit - it was Top Ten on the C&W chart - that kicked off Haggard's career. The nicest touch was naming his band after it, as if they were the only friends he'd ever have or need.'



Album Reviews # 54 Kate Bush - The Dreaming

So, having mentioned The Dreaming, when discussing Jesca Hoop below, here's my review of that album which I posted on Valentine's Day a year back.


'You're listening to this on a record player in suburbia. And she takes you by the hand and you fly off through the sky like the snowman...' Comedian Steve Coogan on Kate Bush

Regardless of where you stand on Kate Bush, there are probably still some naysayers, Mark E. Smith probably the most notable among them, (though he would be, wouldn't he), it has to be said that she stands pretty much alone in recent musical history, in terms of her work, her persona and the way she's chosen to live her life. Bowie is probably the most immediate reference point, Bush was famously present as a young teenager at the last Ziggy Stardust gig at Hammersmith Odeon. But it's not as if any of her records actually sound anything like any of his. Bowie acts primarily as a guide to her modus operandi. Of seeing what she does as artistic statement, a mirror on the world and all its strangeness, humour, mystery,beauty, terror and love.


She was particularly odd and out of place on her arrival, with the release of her debut single, Wuthering Heights in January 1978, just as Punk was reaching critical mass and New Wave and Post Punk were beginning to formulate. She's quite impossible to bracket with any of that either, much more clearly categorisable with Prog than anything else, she was famously discovered and brought to record company attention by Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour. But she's much more sensual and melodic and undoubtedly in your face than most of the records associated with that genre which is why the Bowie comparison still holds. A female version of him, which is just one reason why her tribute to him on his passing last month was probably as moving as any that was made at the time.


'David Bowie had everything. He was intelligent, imaginative, brave, charismatic, cool, sexy and truly inspirational both visually and musically.  He created such staggeringly brilliant work, yes but so much of it and it was so good. There are great people who make great work but who has left a mark like his? No one like him.
I'm struck by how the whole country has been flung into mourning and shock. Shock, because someone who had already transcended into immortality could actually die. He was ours. Wonderfully eccentric in a way that only an Englishman could be.
Whatever journey his beautiful soul is now on, I hope he can feel how much we all miss him.'


Bush herself is probably as close to the sheer, fearless spirit of Bowie as anyone we've still got, working in the same field. I've spent the last couple of days immersed in her back catalogue, reading interviews, reviews and watching documentaries about her since listening to The Dreaming, her quite remarkable album from 1982 all the way through for the first time, (thirty three years too late), on Wednesday and tracking down a vinyl copy for myself yesterday afternoon. I've been listening to it ever since.

It's a key album in her history, marking her break from the recording and marketing treadmill that EMI had forced her on for the first four years of her career. She produced the record herself, it took the best part of two years to write, develop and complete, and though it was a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release, (by the standards she'd already set for herself), in retrospect it's come to be seen as the stepping stone to all that came afterwards. I think it's a masterpiece and personally prefer it to The Hounds of Love, which came out three years later, is often credited as her finest work, and certainly was the record that re-established her in the eyes of the general public as well as the critical esteem of music writers and broadcasters, as if they really matter. I still think The Dreaming is a better record in many respects.


It's certainly an altogether odder proposition. It has indescribable texture and tone, as John Lydon, quite the most unusual big Kate Bush fan, said about the record.  It's his own personal favourite, which makes a kind of sense as it's closest in terms of general feel to the stuff he himself made. Kate herself has talked about it in interviews as a really angry record, which is very much against her own nature and very much against the basic character of most of the records she put out before or since. Most of them are contented in their own way and giving, although she's always obviously restless and shifting as an artist in terms of her work. Never more so than here though.



Making the most of modern recording technology, most obviously state of the art Fairlight synthesisers, it's a jarring stop-start affair, but at the same time a wholly cohesive album. Unlike with Hounds of Love and other later albums, there's no over-riding concept, the record is an exercise in shape-shifting with Bush adopting a different character, identity, style and often vocal accent for each track on the record.


Like all of Bush's records it's deeply sensual, but also in this case the most directly sexual record she's ever put out. Sometimes the needle threatens to rise off the vinyl given the sheer heat that's given off. In terms of subject matter Bush moves from a failed heist, to the Vietnam war, to Aboriginal homeland loss, personal exorcism and onwards. Forwards and backwards and forwards again. Every song has its particular subject matter but what it is never lost is the sheer pure intensity of performance and delivery.



I haven't tried to describe individual songs here because the record is best experienced as a whole and I don't really have time to do it full justice given the immediate demands of my nine to five. If you're after greater detail I'd direct you to this, a great recent Quietus article on the same subject matter. This gets it quite right in placing the album in its immediate historical and musical context, in 1982. In this respect it was as immediately contemporary as Bush ever got, she wasn't hugely out of step in some respects with Associates, ABC, Japan, Simple Minds and the whole great, ultimately failed campaign of New Pop.



Nevertheless, Bush as always is quite apart. Set forth on a sea of her own voyage of self-discovery and all the more cherishable for that. Towards creative and artistic independence, a space she eventually got to, to all of our long-term advantage.



The Dreaming is a quite claustrophobic, suffocating record in its full on intensity and all the better for its incredibly heightened desire, sensuality, texture and drive. Misunderstood and unappreciated at the time of its release but all the richer for it given the restoring test of time. Perhaps 1982 is best left to Duran Duran and the encroaching Thatcherite pop hoards of Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Kajagoogoo et al. None of them have a record that compares remotely with this!




Song(s) of the Day # 1,134 Jesca Hoop


When it comes to Jesca Hoop, virtually every article ever written about her mentions the idiosyncratic fact that before she set off on her recording career she took a role as the nanny of Tim Waits and Kathleen Brennan's children. So I've got that out of the way in the first sentence here and can move on. There's plenty else to say about her.


Her new album Memories Are Now is a quite fabulous, glittering and many splendored object. A record the way they used to make them somehow but at the same time effortlessly contemporary. Twisting and turning, fabulously inventive both lyrically and musically and quite obviously one of the best things released so far this year. Nine tracks, all with specific attractions and identities.



Kate Bush is the obvious but inevitable comparison point. There's much to remind you of the wonderful Kate and for me particularly her 1983 album The Dreaming, (a real career statement), in its ceaseless, maverick, mythic dreaming (there's no other word which fits here!). Hoops's record has many similar tropes and preoccupations, layered, evasive but warmly melodic tracks about every aspect of life and human responses to relationships and the endlessly strange machine peopled world we find ourselves cast adrift in . You may not know exactly what she's getting at, it's a series of allusive hints but I hope you'll appreciate the questing, endlessly creative instinct that bring these songs into being. The musicianship throughout is beautifully thick and resonant. It reminds me of the enchanted forests of childhood bedtime stories told by parents whose own childhoods resonate within them and how we relate to them once we transition to adulthood and have to relate to that world, which seems to be dictated to by much less logical set of conditions and rules. 



So these are the immediate set of thoughts that have come to mind listening to Memories Are Now on a Sunday morning with Spring preparing itself outside my windows. It's a record I'm sure to come back to again and again and again and which I'm sure will find itself close to the top of my list of personal favourites come the end of 2017. I recommend it to you and hope you'll arrive at similar conclusions.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Thirty Days of Politics # 22 Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

 

It's difficult to put into words how fresh this sounded back in 1982.

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 687 Carl Perkins


Spell's Seasons in the Sun # 12 Kryzsztof Komeda


And more Scotland as one half of Spell was Scot Rose McDowall. The last of this particular series as it's the final song on the record, a take on the theme from Rosemary's Baby.originally by Polish jazz musician Kryzsztof Komeda.





Song(s) of the Day # 1,133 The Skids


A great day spent in Scotland at St. Andrews leads to a slightly facile late post today on my evening arrival back in Newcastle. The Skids second and breakthrough single Into the Valley and their last Iona. The band were always known for their distinctively Scottish sound. Guitarist Stuart Adamson would go on to chip away at it further with his next band Big Country and perfect exactly what  he was looking for. Unmistakably the sound of guitars that replicated bagpipes regardless of how you choose to listen to it. In any case, they were a fine band!



Friday, February 24, 2017

Songs About People # 307 Thomas More


Sixteenth figure philosopher, and statesman gets this almost whispered eulogy from Dan Craig. Appropriately, performed here in a religious setting.


The Heart of Rock and Soul # 688 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers


Spell's Seasons in the Sun # 11 Jody Stephens


This has featured before a couple of times on this blog before. As a death song and in the countdown for The Heart of Rock & Soul. In any case it slots in well with the general mood and sensibility of this Spell album.



Thirty Days of Politics # 21 Marvin Gaye


The whole What's Going On album really but this was always a particular favourite of mine. An incredible mix of musing, philosophy, social circumstance and life. Oh and Marvin of course who sounds semi-divine throughout the course of this song as well as the entire record. The sentiments meanwhile will never date

Song(s) of the Day # 1,132 Alex Turner


Submarine, one of the best coming of age British films ever made, from a few years back, soundtracked wonderfully by Alex Turner songs written specially for the project. This is a particular highlight.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Miles Davis


Things Found on My Local's Jukebox # 190 Cameo


Sat at the end of the bar on another quiet week-night before going out to listen to Kind of Blue at the Record Player at Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. I thought I looked so cool in my duffle coat and Hugo Boss hat. I put on Pretty Persuasion by R.E.M. and then Needles in the Camel's Eye, the first track off Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets. Then came The Go Go's Our Lips Are Sealed, Reach Me by The Go Betweens and other choices of impeccable cool before this came on, Which took me straight back to 1987 and my second year at university and reminded me of a friend I spent some time with round about then who I haven't seen for more than twenty five years. These are the things that life and music and memory do to you. Cameo, meanwhile sounded just great, and strangely jazzy, (at least towards the end of the track), which led me naturally off my stool and on my way down the road to listen to Miles.



Songs About People # 306 Mark Rothko


For Mark Rothko, pretty much the most abstract of all abstract artists.  A thoughtful, lovely musing on him and other related things here.


Thirty Days of Politics # 20 Pere Ubu


The political as personal taken to almost nuclear extremes. One of the greatest ways to set off a debut album ever recorded.

Spell's Seasons in the Sun # 10 Nancy & Lee


There probably just had to be at least one Nancy & Lee song on this record. This is it!



February 23rd 1958 David Sylvian


The Heart of Rock and Soul # 689 Conway Twitty


' Before he stuffed his shirt to become a Nasville fat cat, Conway Twitty came up with this record, one long crescendo whose title seems to be an internal pun because it's probably the greatest-ever impersonation of Elvis Presley's booming early ballad style. I mean right down to the Jordanaires'



Song(s) of the Day # 1,131 Frontier Ruckus


One thing I like to do when I hear a new band is to try and imagine where they would have sat in class at school. With Michigan's Frontier Ruckus, it's fairly readily apparent that they would have sat right at the front. They'd have been teacher pleasers, fresh faced geeks from nice homes. No criticism intended. I was very much one of those kids myself.



Their latest album Enter the Kingdom is 'nice' in the best possible sense. Cosy, warm songs for cosy, warm living rooms with a logfire aglow, with thoughtful unwinding lyrical sentiments that don't readily repeat themselves, articulate, literate and essentially deeply loving of humanity and life itself. They're the kind of people you might bump into after they'd played a gig who would be genuinely and sincerely grateful and surprised and utterly lacking in attitude when you thanked them for the show they'd played. Not the Velvet Underground then.




Enter the Kingdom is an upbeat and consistent set of songs for you to play when your nice friends come round. There's always a danger that such uninterrupted positivity might curdle eventually, there's not a sharp angry moment all the way through (it's all sweetness and light),but the record is such a well-managed package and no song is a weak link in any respect  that ultimately you've got to hand it to them, most of all for final song and title track, the best thing on here and a genuinely touching denouement. I imagine they all did well in their exams too!



Monday, February 20, 2017

Songs About People # 304 Neil Young


Poco came out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield, formed by Jim Messina, Richie Furay and Rusty Young in 1968. Almost fifty years on Young is the only original member left in the current line-up and a few years back they released this, just to make the point clear. 


Spell's Seasons in the Sun # 7 Terry Jacks


The centre piece and title track of the record and originally a global # 1 for Terry Jacks in 1974. A cover of a Jacques Brel song that is actually much, much better but this still has a quaint, corny charm brought out a couple of decades later when Nirvana decided to cover it.



Thirty Days of Politics # 17 R.E.M.


R.E.M were always pretty political, never more so on Lifes Rich Pageant. Written mostly by Bill Berry and Mike Mills it's one of their most interesting melodies. The Cuyahoga is a river in Ohio. Peter Buck said of it: '(it's) a metaphor for America and its lost promises. This is where the Indians were and now look at it. It's one of the ugliest fucking rivers in the world.'

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 692 Gene Pitney


Song of the Day # 1,228 The Proclaimers


The Proclaimers. Because I haven't posted anything by them before and they were great. Their first single, (above), when they were just a cult concern, and a second choice, (below) when they were pop stars, although this one, strangely, fell shy of the Top 40 in the UK.



Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Shins - Mildenhall

'Cheap beer and Rock and Roll. Which in time, put things in my mind...'

The Shins have a new album called Heartworms coming out soon. I'll get back to it when it comes out, on my mother's birthday, the 10th of March. In the meantime, here's the pre-release single Mildenhall. This is the name of a town in Suffolk, England where James Mercer, the man behind The Shins, relocated as a fifteen year old with his family from the States to the military airbase located there.

It's a beautiful song about all those precious memories of formative youth and the way we deal with them as time passes and we get further and further away from them but the experiences we had then stay within us, foment and change strangely within us as time passes. It's driven wonderfully by the tip tap rhythm of English rain, so much a part of our national condition every bit as much as our perennial climate. Oddly for me, I've heard it just now only a day after I was invited, out of the blue, to a university reunion just slightly up the map from Mildenhall in Norwich, Norfolk where I started in 1985 round about the time Mercer arrived in Mildenhall and the idea begins percolating in my head about revisiting that city, one I haven't been back to since I eventually  graduated five years later and meeting up with a whole set of people I haven't seen since those times.

The song anyhow is a perfectly realised evocation of both times past and life continued. How memories can be such sweet things when you allow them to live again, but also about how you inevitably end up like Mercer, older but not necessarily wiser, sitting in a bar drinking beer, travelling on the London Underground, or just standing in the street. all the time rekindling these moments in your head. For Mercer it's also about the time when the idea started germinating in his head to become a musician: 'I started messing with my dad's guitar/Taught me some chords just to set me off/ Whittling away on those rainy days. That's how we get to where we are..' A beautiful resolution to the idea that the song contains. These things can be sweet as I already said, but they can also be bitter and corrosive and  it's up to you to ensure that you come to the same conclusion as Mercer and it ultimately remains the former. It's always good to look back but always make sure you keep going forward if you can, as that's what we were put here to do. 

Spell's Seasons in the Sun # 6 Twinkle


Another classic death disc. Also banned initially by the BBC on its release. Spell change the lyric at the end of the song to 'wait at the gates of heaven' to 'hell' at the end of the song. Cheeky monkeys!



February 19th 1940 Smokey Robinson


Thirty Days of Politics # 16 Billy Bragg

'The revolution is just a t-shirt away...'

The most political of artists, though he understands the personal very well too. Make what you want of this song. I think the title itself is the main message.

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 693 Artists United Against Apartheid


Song of the Day # 1,227 Dutch Uncles


                   Coming up to the end of February and good albums already piling up to post on here. This one, Red Balloon, the fifth album from Manchester's Dutch Uncles is definitely up there. I hadn't really listened to any of their previous stuff before coming upon this one on Friday.



It's not straightforward, either musically or lyrically. No clear shape to their songs in terms of verses and choruses or narrative that can be easily assimilated but that's to its credit. Influences are cerebral and arty. Steve Reich, (who I'm not familiar with), Kate Bush and Wire come to the fore with a bit of rudimentary research and listening. Immerse yourself in the record though and I hope the least you'll think is that it's interesting. They seem to be scientists in a laboratory as much as music and it's always refreshing to see a band taking this route.


Sometimes, when listening to new music I search for and appreciate the familiar, Dutch Uncles are more out there although this is still pop music of some description. In that respect I appreciate coming upon this. Not a band to sing along to as you do your house chores, but one to wonder why are they doing that as you listen to and one to come back to I imagine. Again and again. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Peter Skellern 1947-2017


A personal memory here. When I was six my parents relocated from Zimbabwe, (then Rhodesia), to England. We moved to Nottingham. For several weeks, (it may have been months), we, and there were seven of us, stayed in bed and breakfasts around the town until my parents finalised buying a house. This is the song I remember coming from the radios as we were having our breakfasts. The singer, Peter Skellern has just passed.

Songs About People # 303 Karl Burns


And while we're with ex-members of The Fall here's a great gloomy slab of noise named for the band's legendary drummer Karl Burns. The song is by Portuguese Shoegazers 10 000 Russos.


What I Did Last Night - The Blue Orchids and The Nightingales at The Cumberland Arms in Newcastle


The Blue Orchids are playing their first song on a small raised stage in a small upstairs room of The Cumberland Arms, one of the best old school pubs in Newcastle on a Friday night. I'm not sure what the song is called but leader Martin Bramah is intoning a sermon about the strange, unreal monotony of life, the way so many people around us seem to sleepwalk their way through it in almost drugged, conditioned conformity.



They were always the most interesting of cult bands. Formed when Bramah and Una Baines left the original line up of The Fall but took with them no small part of the gothic magic and mystery that held them apart and made them so  special in those early days. Their best songs, and there are many of them, are like experiencing a black humoured dark seance somewhere in Lancashire. A sideways look at the skewed rules by which our lives are governed.

 

I'm here tonight to see a band I've thought highly of since I first came upon their remarkable debut album The Greatest Hit from 1982. An ironic title since The Blue Orchids never had one or probably even wanted one. It's one of the very best underground albums of all, a perfectly realised vision of an alternative way of looking at life.



They play my favourite moment of theirs Bad Education and the hit they should have had, (it wasn't even a single - why not?) midway through. They almost chuck away a wonderful anthem which makes a glorious point very simply;  choose your own way, don't eat what's served up to you without taking a good look at what's on your plate and deciding whether it's for you or not. We all actually do have a choice.



They're gone and the friends I'm with and I go outside for some fresh air. We're undecided about whether to go back and see The Nightingales who none of us were quite so enamored with in terms of their recorded output. But we go back anyway and it's the right decision. They are quite splendid in an utterly bizarre way. Unlike The Blue Orchids they are not playing a similar brand of music to that for which they were known for in the eighties. They have changed. 

Lead singer Robert Lloyd is an enormous, overweight man in his fifties wearing NHS looking spectacles ranting into a microphone while allowing very little that's available for deciphering. He's either very angry or laughing his head off. On the drums is a young, long-haired woman who flails madly throughout the gig and occasionally joins him for utterly ludicrous, fully committed, howled duets which are at once inexplicably funny and utterly bewildering in terms of imagining what might have brought them into being.  The only musical reference point that really makes sense is Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Otherwise the band almost defy description. I leave before the end, not because I'm not enjoying it but because I'm tired and have more than had my money's worth. A wonderful evening! You get the sense that old punks know more than many of the rest of us ever will.


Thirty Days of Politics # 15 Bryan Ferry


Halfway through this it seems appropriate to have a Dylan song. Though it's debatable whether in Bryan Ferry's hands this remains a political song or just an exercise in over the top, camp, theatrical, melodrama, (though the video suggests that it's still looking to make a point in that respect). In any case I'd have to say I prefer this to the Dylan original which although a masterpiece in terms of its lyrics might not have been in terms of its melodic structure. Still, those words:

'Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin'
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin'
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin'
I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you meet my blue-eyed son ?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

And what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what'll you do now my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I'll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singing
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.'