Ryan Culwell – The Last American

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is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

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Sinatra’s career crisis

911218946-612x612Since watching a DVD (a gift from my daughter) with three of Sinatra’s late-60s TV specials on it, I’ve been pondering the crisis that clearly took hold of him when he hit the age of 50.

I can look at this period now with the personal experience of having hit 55 last year, which was the age at which Sinatra announced his (first) “retirement” in 1971. Much as I’d like to retire myself, this was in hindsight an astonishingly young age for an entertainer to announce the end.

It was the TV special featuring easy listening vocal group The 5th Dimension, and Sinatra (jokingly) adopting their Liberace-style costume that got me thinking. This was his clear attempt (in 1968) to get down with the kids and perform music that was somehow more contemporary and relevant than his usual fare. He had absolutely no need to do this, of course, but he was acting out a very public mid-life crisis (his short marriage to Mia Farrow, 30 years younger than him, had just ended) that was culminating, before our very eyes in him perching awkwardly on a stool in a Nehru jacket and beads.

The following year, 1969, his final TV special was just him and a swing orchestra, doing the old stuff, and reminiscing (hilariously) about his Hollywood career, which he was also giving up on.

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Beads, Frank?

For me, the crisis that led to his premature retirement started towards the end of his Capitol contract and the beginning of the Reprise years, which I’ve written about before. In 1961/2, his Capitol contract overlapped with Reprise, so that he was recording albums simultaneously for two labels, phoning in performances to fulfil his obligations to one whilst also trying to embark on something new with the other. The cognitive dissonance must have been extreme.

NehruNo6
That late-60s Nehru look in full

And what was Reprise for, really? A little bigger piece of the pie? Sure, and why not? Which is why so much of the Reprise material consists of re-recordings of his classics from Columbia and Capitol in order to tap the lucrative Greatest Hits market. But give or take the three albums he recorded with Count Basie (including the live one), not much of what he recorded for Reprise was particularly good. And some of it was desperate.

He knew that popular music was changing and he wanted to matter, but at the same time, he hated rock music. He was casting around for new songwriters, but he didn’t know this new material in the way he knew that Great American Songbook. I always thought it was a dead giveaway when he performed George Harrison’s “Something” on one occasion, but credited it to Lennon and McCartney. Anyway, this stuff is painful to listen to. He drags on the beat, his timing is off, he doesn’t swing.

There are four albums that lead up to the retirement.

SinatraCyclesCycles comes first, in Christmas 1968. He’s just turned 53. He’s pictured on the album cover sitting on a suitcase and holding the bridge of his nose, as if to say, either, “What have I done?” or “This stuff stinks” – or both! This is an album that features “contemporary” songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell (!), Jimmy Webb, and John Hartford. It was as close as he came to recording a 60s country pop record. It wasn’t a disaster: #2 in the Easy Listening chart, #18 in the Billboard 200 chart.

Then, just three months later, comes his late career motherlode, My Way, which is another pop album, with its title track a version of a French-style chanson, “Comme d’Habitude”, rewritten/reimagined by Paul Anka. Sinatra reportedly didn’t like “My Way” which thus became a millstone around his neck. I personally have always hated the fact that this is the one “everyone” knows. Other tracks on the record include more Jimmy Webb, a song by Ray Charles, a Stevie Wonder number, “Mrs Robinson” and “Yesterday”. Another decent chart performance, #11 in the US and #2 in the UK, but I strongly suspect that Sinatra absolutely loathed this material.

Just five months later, still in 1969, he released A Man Alone, which consisted of songs (or poems?) by Rod McKuen (sort of set to music). Sinatra is still only 53, but this now seems like a man who has given up on life. To quote the Wikipedia: “Despite his popular appeal, McKuen’s work was never taken seriously by critics or academics.” This album hit #30 in the US and #18 in the UK. My mum had a copy. It was terrible.

Finally, Sinatra takes a good long break, sits down and has a Big Think, and a wholeWatertown(1970album) seven months later, he releases an experimental concept album called Watertown. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes and told the story of a broken man from the titular town. It reached #101 in the Billboard charts, but inexplicably hit #14 in the UK. I don’t remember my mum having it.

(Christ knows what was happening in the UK in 1970. Ted Heath. Jeremy Thorpe. For further context, I’ve previously noted that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, also released in 1970, didn’t chart in the UK at all.)

Anyway, Watertown is a flop, Sinatra is done, and the next thing you know, he’s announcing his retirement. Which seems now to be a bit of a flounce, but the voice was still strong in a way that it wouldn’t be later. I think he felt he’d run out of material to record, and couldn’t very well re-record all the good stuff for a 3rd or 4th time. But we know now, in a way people didn’t back then, that he could have given up recording and stuck to the live work. The audience would have continued to be there.

Sinatra’s mid-life crisis lasted at least 5 years, but that core period, 1968-1970, was the hardest for him, I think. My own mid-life crisis seems trivial in comparison. But you want to scream at him, Slow down, Frank! No need for three or even two albums a year. Just wait, the pendulum will swing back your way.

Fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen last released a studio album four years ago.

Wonderboom

wonder - 1Concerned as I am about privacy and the abuse of that privacy by companies like Amazon and Google, I was never in the market for a smart speaker. I was of course more interested in the Apple HomePod, but it’s not a product that would fit my particular life.

For example, the idea that you would have a speaker, or a pair of speakers, plugged into the mains in a room that you would listen to music in, is not something that happens round here. If music (or a podcast or the BBC Radio player) is on, it’s because I’m up and about, moving between rooms. I don’t want my speaker to be tethered to a particular spot. I have this anyway: there’s a decent speaker box sitting under the TV I can use for music in the living room (almost never), and I’ve got a pair of great music speakers in the conservatory with a Bluetooth adapter plugged into the back (used more often, but still relatively rarely).

What I most often want is a speaker that can move with me, or can be paired up with another speaker and play simultaneously in two rooms. Multi-room audio is something you can have up at the higher end, but again, something plugged into the mains in one place is not a scenario that would work for me.

So I want my speaker to be portable, truly wireless, and fairly robust. Which is where the UE Wonderboom comes in. I was skeptical that something as small as this could sound good, but it really sounds pretty decent. Whatever artificial means they use to boost the bass works very well for the kind of music I listen to. It doesn’t sound weird or get on your nerves after a while. It’s good for voices, and it’s good for country music and 60s/70s rock and soul.

It sounds great and is loud enough that I’ve rarely had it above 50% volume, and the battery life is very good indeed. In terms of range, you can take your phone quite a considerable distance away without losing the connection. This is ideal for me, for example, at our place in France, where I am frequently preparing food in the kitchen, then walking around to tend the barbecue in the garden.

I got my first one a year or so ago, and it impressed me enough that I wanted to get a second so as to pair them up. Which I now have. Pairing is a simple matter of holding down the central logo button for three seconds, until you hear one of its noises, and then waiting for 10 seconds or so while the speakers pair. The volume is automatically equalised between the two speakers, and you can control it with either speaker or your connected device. And you don’t have to download a special app to achieve any of this. Smart.

Now you can have stereo, which is fine, but the real beauty is in having the “radio on in every room” effect, where I can have one in the kitchen, and one out in the conservatory or the garden. And because it’s Bluetooth and not Airplay, no wifi network is required, which is great in France, because we don’t have wifi there.

Amazon sell a pair of these for £123, but you can buy two separately for about £60 each, and if you monitor the price you can do even better.

This, for me, is the perfect combination of sound quality and convenient portability, and I couldn’t be happier really.

A few album reviews

There have been a few big releases in 2018, and more to come. I wish Sugarland would drop their comeback already, instead of drip-drip-dripping pre-release tracks (four so far). The biggest surprise for me so far is that I didn’t prefer Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Ms Musgraves and Ms Monroe have been on the same release cycle since their debuts in 2013. So far, I’ve preferred Monroe’s releases: prefer her voice, her songs, her production – especially on The Blade, released in 2015, and which sounds terrific.

DbP9MieW4AEqehsBut now comes Sparrow, and I’m shocked to say, I don’t think I like it. I just relegated the opening track, “Orphan” from my phone’s playlist, and I never do that so early in an album’s life. But it sounds awful to me. Her voice sounds off key and whiny to my ears. I felt the same about the pre-released “Hands on You”. It sounds like someone struggling with their voice, struggling to hit those notes. Sounds like she has a cold, or is too tired. The same problem crops up throughout, on the chorus to “Mother’s Daughter”, for example. “Wild Love” starts off more promisingly, with some nice tremolo guitar, but then the strings kick in, and instead of the strong voice such production requires, you get this shaky, tentative, thin voice. In terms of music, the album sounds less soulful than The Blade, and there are more strings in the background. Maybe it will grow on me, but so far I’m disappointed.

Golden hour Kacey MusgravesMeanwhile, Kacey Musgraves has a solid hit in Golden Hour. Ironically, my criticism of her sound has always centred on her voice, which I think weak and limited for a country singer. But I think it actually sounds stronger this time around, and certainly doesn’t suffer from the problems afflicting Sparrow. There’s certainly an attempt here to take her across to the pop charts, but that’s merely to consolidate her popularity outside country circles. She’s broken through sufficiently in the UK to penetrate the obstinately retro UK iTunes country chart, which is usually wall-to-wall Dolly and Johnny with recycled compilation albums. Musgraves’ sharp witticisms are poignards thrust into modern relationships. Even now, weeks after its release, Golden Hour sits at number four.

And let’s not forget that Ms Musgraves’ (and Ms Monroe’s) breakthroughs are taking place in an industry where female artists still don’t get played on US country radio.

Golden Hour has a bright, modern sound, and of course Ms Musgraves’ voice is clear and pure, perfectly pitched for the songs she writes herself. And there’s nothing here to frighten the horses, a basic backing of drums and guitars with some modern keys. Yes, there’s pedal steel guitar, she’s not leaving the genre behind like Taylor Swift. But then there is “High Horse”, which marries her witty lyrics with dance beats and techno sounds. It’s a new Modern Sounds in Country Music, and a clear progression from her last release. Getting better.

AshleymcbrydeBut Ms Musgraves doesn’t win the prize for best country album of 2018 so far. That goes to Girl Going Nowhere by Ashley McBride, which kicks off with a simple song about being written off by friends and family, which when she performed this title track at the Opry a while ago brought the house down.

Elsewhere, Ms McBride trades in heartland rock, on the likes of “Radioland” and “El Dorado” – to the point that I wonder if Mr Springsteen has heard the latter, which reminds me of nothing so much as “Dancing in the Dark”.

Meanwhile there are more country sounding songs, such as “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”, “Home Sweet Highway”, and instant classic “Tired of Being Happy”, all of which foreground the witty, self-deprecating lyrics that make country great.

black-berry-smoke-2018Finally, I was prompted to check out Blackberry Smoke by their collaboration with Amanda Shires on the track “Let Me Down Easy” on their new album Find a Light. With their classic guitars-drums-keys line-up, they’re classified under Rock, but if iTunes had a category for Southern Rock, this would be it. Lead vocalist Charlie Starr sounds like a slightly improved Ronnie Van Zandt, and the sound sits somewhere between Skynyrd (with fewer extended solos) and the Allmans (with few extended solos). “Flesh and Bone” isn’t the strongest album opening, but the next track, “Run Away from It All” kicks off the record properly, with driving guitars and heavy hits on the drums. Occasionally, as on “Medicate My Mind” and the aforementioned “Let Me Down Easy”, they pull out the acoustic guitars and sound more like Country Rock. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but sound like what they are: a road-hardened, hard working rock band. And given that I recently filled my Phone’s playlist with the first five Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, Blackberry Smoke certainly fit fit right into my life at the moment.

 

Strange Town – the perfect single

Introducing my 17 yo to The Jam a while ago, I suggested that they were a singles band, and that their Greatest Hits was the thing to have. Knowing my daughter’s love for classic soul music, too, I revealed unto her the secret of The Style Council, which for her was like discovering that what you thought was a mere Hob Nob was in fact a Chocolate Hob Nob. The purchase of two Greatest Hits collections of Paul Weller solo swiftly followed.

I must admit I’d barely paid attention to his later career, so it’s mostly new to me. And I only ever lent half an ear to The Style Council because it was the 80s and there are all kinds of terrible crimes against production values on those records.

Deep breath.

Anyway, it’s been a blast hearing all that stuff again. I was in the 6th Form at school when “Going Underground” was a monster hit (three weeks at number one). That was when The Jam went mainstream, and everyone knew who they were. I only ever owned one album by the group (All Mod Cons), and I heard the follow up because someone at school had it, which was enough to confirm to me that while they were a proper singles band, in the same way the Beatles and The Who had been (meaning that they released singles that weren’t on albums), their albums weren’t much cop (like The Who, but unlike The Beatles).

“Strange Town” was about a year before that. It got to number 15 in the UK singles chart, though that was when you had to sell a lot of copies to even break the top 20. Weller has said it’s one of the best three songs he’s written. As a single, it’s perfect. There’s something viscerally thrilling about the instrumental breakdown in the middle, which is not so much a guitar solo as a riff that gets repeated and then layered, which when combined with the driving rhythm section (always the best bit of The Jam) lifts the song to another level.

There are a couple of good lines in the lyric, too, delivered with a broad English accent, which totally nail both the national character (“They worry themselves about the dreadful snow”) and being a teenager in the 70s (“RUSH my money to the record shops”). That last defines my teenage self perfectly. I would get paid at my supermarket job, then walk around the corner and spend it immediately on records.

Weird isn’t it, what a national institution Paul Weller is, how popular the Jam were, and how little impact his various incarnations have had across the pond. I know there’s no rhyme or reason to that kind of breakthrough. The Cure, for example, have broken the US top 10 on a couple of occasions, but the best Weller has managed is with The Style Council – in the lower (three figure) reaches. And as far as his great run of singles with The Jam goes, well. “Start” managed a number 31, and that’s it.

He does have a US audience, but when he plays gigs over there it’s at venues like The House of Blues (somewhere around 2000 seats), but he probably likes it that way.

Saw them play from the back of a lorry at a CND rally once.

Desssert Isssland Dissscs – Take 3

[Speaking to Roy Plomley’s head in a jar] For my third appearance on the show, Roy, I’ve selected eight disks that mean a lot to me, right now. For those spotting trends, this selection sees a welcome return of two from my first island visit, but none at all from my second. What was I thinking?

Here’s the 2018 eight:

  • I Won’t Dance – Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra. This particular song is my favourite Sinatra track twice over. First of all on his best 50s album (A Swingin’ Affair) and second of all on his best 60s album (Sinatra/Basie). For this latter version, he used a stripped back, slower-tempo arrangement by Neil Hefti, and he leans way, way back. The Basie orchestra’s instrumental interventions build to a rollicking climax, but most of all, they play in the white space left by Sinatra’s horizontal vocal. This one I can trace back to my younger years: my mum had the record, released in the year I was born. But I didn’t like it: it took me years to gain the musical education to appreciate what was going on. The song is a wondrous piece of work, too: from a Fred Astaire dance sequence to Sinatra’s definitive versions with Nelson Riddle and the Basie. For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos. If the wind changes, I’d select the 1957 version, for Sinatra’s “Ring-a-ding-ding” improv on its own.
  • Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. Sullied as it has been by the Top Gear years (Clarkson edition), I’ve carried an affection for this track since my teenage years, when I would occasionally hear it on Radio Caroline, which I would listen to with the radio pressed up against my ear, under the bed clothes. Even so, the Top Gear it reminds me of is the William Woollard version, because the Clarkson era used that shitty el cheapo BBC cover version. As I said the first time I picked it, I especially love the bit in the middle that you would never hear on Top Gear. It’s pentatonic, man.

(No video of this one, so the audio will have to do)

  • Detroit Medley – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Winterland ’78). Is there anything that sums up the peak of Springsteen’s performing career better than this? The 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour was his moment: not yet so big that he’s having to play stadia, nor even yet profitable – if you take him at his own autobiographical word. And yet: he’s big enough to have an arena-filling cohort of devoted fans and enough local radio stations who want to broadcast whole fucking shows and thus gift posterity a series of bootleg recordings that stand apart for their clarity and quality. And this is still six years before his crowds grew with the addition of The Normals, who were attracted to the pumped up, shouty, Born in the USA Bruce. The Medley’s origins lie in a pair of singles put out by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The first was a traditional blues number (C C Rider) combined with Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” (also known as (“Jenny Take a Ride”). Spotting a winning formula, the band next put out “Devil with the Blue Dress” (a hit for Motown) and another Little Richard classic, “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Springsteen turns these three minute pop songs into a 9-11 minute show stopper. His cover versions are in themselves quite faithful to the originals, but it’s in the improvised breakdown before the climax that he combines the roots rock ’n’ roll with the showmanship for which he is famed. With stage antics falling somewhere between James Brown and Orson Welles, Springsteen drops the band down to a pulse for his twangy  bass-notes guitar solo, and then builds it all up again before calling a halt and reading out what seems like an emergency announcement from the hall management. If you are in possession of a weak heart, or a weak stomach, can you please step out of the venue during the next section of this song because it might be DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH. He then calls up Clarence Clemons to aid him in demonstrating the actions which will do no harm, before adding, “You can even get off with light injuries an a short trip to the emergency room when we do THIS. Now… I bet all them guys on the radio are wonderin’ what we’re doin’.… I didn’t do it YET!” At which point, together with Clarence, and freely baiting the radio audience who had the temerity to stay home, he begins a cross stage boogie to Professor Roy Bittan’s rock ’n’ roll piano that descends into chaos before the band bring it back to “Jenny Jenny” with a massive finish. And the remarkable thing about the Detroit Medley was that it would always come at the end of a three hour show, and almost certainly leave the audience begging to be allowed home. But Springsteen would never be satisfied with that, and would leap from this incredible piece of theatre into a version of “Twist and Shout” or “Raise Your Hand” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, leaving all concerned wrung out. At Winterland on 15th December 1978, he followed this extraordinary performance with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and then “Raise Your Hand” and then “Quarter to Three”.
  • That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke. My daughter’s great insight about Sam Cooke is that he is all the evidence you need to understand that songs aren’t poems. Cooke’s smooth, mellifluous voice can do wonders with the most unpromising material. Listen to him sing “It’s All Right” or “We’re Having a Party” and you understand that the most pedestrian lyrics become poetry when performed by a master vocalist. My personal favourite is this: the almost conversational hesitations, stumbles, improvisations, snatching at the words at times, weaving in and out of the simplistic backing vocals and droning horns. The only problem with this is that it’s only 150 seconds long.
  • No Next Time – Allison Moorer. I love the way Moorer uses the (male) backing vocal on this: seeming to anticipate what he’s going to say, echoing his words even as he sings them, demonstrating in song that she’s heard it all too many times before and that she’s had enough of this shit. There are two ways this song uses such musical cutting. The second is the juxtaposition of the just breaking up distortion on the lead guitar as it plays against a lush background of strings
  • Learning to Fly – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Live at Bonnaroo). The counterpoint to the show-stopping energy of Springsteen, Petty’s way with an audience was to carry them with him on a wave of weary joy. This live version of this so-simple song has a poignancy that only feels stronger following his death in 2017. Stevie Nicks stands in the wings to sing BVs, and Petty carries most of the song’s weight on his shoulders, with a strummed acoustic guitar. From the first chords, the audience are with him, singing every lyric, providing the beat, so that you barely notice that the band are, after all, accompanying him with a stripped back arrangement. I think Mike’s on an electric mandolin. At the second chorus: that’s where the tears prick into my eyes, as Tom says, “Yes it is,” and Benmont plays some piano. Then the song is stripped back again for, “Some say life will beat you down…” On the third chorus, Petty sings “But I ain’t got wings,” in his Dylan voice, then lets the crowd take over. And there you have the blessing and healing power of music, the communion between an artist and his audience, as he improvises lyrics to their singing of the chorus.
  • Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. This single is quite an obscure one in Tift Merritt’s back catalogue. I love the rolling piano, the relaxed heartbeat of the song, and the lead guitar’s counterpoint to the vocal. The song was supposedly written about Hunter S. Thompson, but I don’t think it matters if you know that or not. It’s a great uplifting song for when you’re feeling, well, weary.
  • The Pretender – Jackson Browne. My theme song.

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender.
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor:
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there

Best record of 2017 addendum

I am afraid that I have become a little evangelical about this late entry into the best-of-2017 listings. I dared recommend it to a friend, and now look at me, writing a blog about it.

I’d never heard of Hiss Golden Messenger before Tift Merritt Instagrammed her involvement in backing vocals on this record. They’re a North Carolina outfit (hence the Merritt connection) best described these days as Americana, though Wikipedia describes them thus:

The band’s music contains elements from various musical genres, such as folk, country, dub, country soul, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, jazz, funk, swamp pop, gospel, blues, and rock. The band’s style was also described as “alternative country” and “country rock.” The band’s main influences include the Beatles, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield. The band has been compared to Will Oldham and Bill Callahan.

Indeed. The not-misspelled name Hiss Golden Messenger hints at religionism whilst also acting as an open text you can interpret in any way you want. As someone who once started a blog called Hoses of the Holy, I appreciate the not-thereness of the name. Like my own band name, it’s a placeholder for whatever the creator(s) want to put there.

So to the music. Hallelujah Anyhow was released back in September, and (last I looked) was available for cheap on iTunes, and you can download it from Amazon for £6.19. It’s on Spotify, too, I hear, though I won’t have Spotify in the house. It’s a great-sounding record: something like Tom Petty’s Wildflowers with the rolling rhythmic groove of 70s Fleetwood Mac. The lyrics are literate and the vocal style is a less grating Dylan (John Prine is a close analogue).

Most importantly, this record is uplifting: a ray of sunshine in the world of 45 and Brexit, economic misery and hardship. It’s the antidote to our dark times, and unlike an opioid, won’t kill you.

This comes with my highest recommendation, which is that I might whisper it’s name to you.

Sinatra Sings the Blues

2435472Sinatra was very open about his influences as a singer. It’s well-known that as a young man he idolised Bing Crosby, but he also spoke of the inspiration he drew from the singing style of Billie Holiday.

It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.

Holiday and Sinatra were of an age, born in the same year, though she’d have been in the year above him at school, not that she spent much time in school. The year of their birth was before the release of the first “Jass” record and the first vocal blues record, but by the time the two of them started singing professionally, in the 1930s, jazz had become the first pop craze, and radio had spread the blues far and wide. As they were growing up, recording technology had progressed from singing into a horn as part of a mechanical recording system to an electrified system with microphones and loudspeakers. As you step forwards with technology, however, you sometimes lose something. The loud, raucous music of the 1920s had to be tamed and smoothed somewhat so that the new apparatus could cope with it.

Bing Crosby learned to sing into a ribbon microphone, one that would break if you sang to loudly into it. So his singing style was adapted accordingly, and became known as crooning.

Sinatra first saw Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, and at some point she offered him advice on how to sing the blues:

‘I told him certain notes at the end he could bend. … Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Frankie with.’

Holiday didn’t have much of a range, but her phrasing was a major influence on Sinatra whose voice was a more powerful and versatile instrument. I’m not a fan of how Sinatra sang in the 40s (still constrained, I think, by early microphones and still considered a mere adjunct to the real business of swing jazz, the orchestra and its leader); and I didn’t like what he started to do as his voice started to fade in his 60s, which was to (obviously) limit his dynamic range and lean into the gravel in his voice and to flatten his notes just a little too far.

But in his Capitol years, as previously discussed, and into his 50s with Reprise, his singing was spectacular. Of course, Holiday didn’t live into her 50s, a tragedy that hit Sinatra hard, but he was able to take full advantage of advances in recording technology: specifically, the Neumann U47 condenser microphone:

A major contributor to Frank Sinatra’s signature vocal sound when he moved from Columbia to Capitol was the U47 valve capacitor microphone that Neumann had begun manufacturing in 1949.

This mic was less fragile than the RCA 44 ribbon microphones that had been used up till then, which allowed for more attack from both brass sections and vocalists, and offered a brighter high end.

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a short playlist of Sinatra singing the blues in the blues style. Of course, much of the Great American Songbook he drew from was based in the blues, and even a lot of the Broadway songs he chose had been influenced by the blues, but Sinatra’s torch songs and dance/swing numbers didn’t always sound terribly bluesy. I’ve selected a few, however, where you can hear the flattened blue notes that are characteristic of the blues. Sinatra did this often enough that it didn’t seem contrived but was a natural part of his style.

That’s Life (1966)

For me, this is the last great Sinatra track, before all the “My Way” and “New York, New York” nonsense that came after. While those latter two songs became show stoppers, they don’t appeal to me as they are both too on the nose to ring true. His kind of town, as any fule kno, is Chicago. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon in the early 60s, “That’s Life” is perhaps the Sinatra record that most sounds like it might come from 1966. That’s mainly because the band includes members of The Wrecking Crew, including Michel Rubini on Hammond, Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, and … it’s only fucking Darlene Love and the Blossoms on backing vocals.

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ (1957)

This Gershwin number from Sinatra’s best Capitol Album A Swingin’ Affair comes from the controversial 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed with an all African American cast, but having been written by white people was seen as a horrible kind of cultural ventriloquism. The song comes from Act 2, and is sung by the title character of Porgy. Taken out of its context, and in Sinatra’s hands, it loses its power to offend, and is simply a pop song based on the blues. Perhaps the most offensive thing about it is the spelling of ‘Nuttin’’ I absolutely love the instrumental interlude in this, as the band plays through the entire melody and really parps on that brass.

Stars Fell on Alabama (1957)

This 1934 song was composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish. The title phrase comes from a book and refers to the Leonid meteor shower’s appearance in 1833. The song has been covered by both Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as well as the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It is certainly one of the songs that people mean when they refer to the Great American Songbook. Sinatra’s version (again, from A Swingin’ Affair) has bluesy overtones, with extended and slurred words, alternative readings of the line, “My heart beat (just) like a hammer” and (most mysteriously) substituted “fractured ‘Bama” for “fell on Alabama.” So the Leonid meteor shower is breaking Alabama, shattering and cracking it. These Sinatra improvisations were his gift to the song, and you should by now be starting to believe that A Swingin Affair is the album to buy.

One for My Baby (And One for the Road) (1958)

This is another one from a musical – The Sky’s the Limit, the film version of which starred Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie. The youthful Sinatra dreamed away in many an Astaire musical, and this song was written for Fred Astaire, whose performance of the song is inevitably accompanied by a dance number. The bartender character, Joe, appears in the sequence too. To watch this, complete with uptempo tap-dancing bit, and then listen to what Sinatra does with the song (as performed in another movie, Young at Heart, made in 1955 with Doris Day as the love interest) is to experience popular music whiplash. This song plays straight into Sinatra’s self-image as a depressed torch singer (on every other album, at least). The original studio recording is on Only The Lonely (with Sinatra made up as a Pierrot clown on the Commedia dell’arte themed cover!)

https://youtu.be/NpZp7awjSJ4

I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good (1957)

This is a Duke Ellington number (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) from 1941. You’ll find versions of it by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and so on. It’s a proper vocal blues, and Sinatra tackles it with a fabulous vocal, which you’ll find on what I’m going to call his bluest album, A Swingin’ Affair. But of course.

Nice Work if You Can Get It (1962)

This Gershwin tune is from 1937, and was again performed by Fred Astaire (with tap) in a movie: A Damsel in Distress, which also featured Joan Fontaine, who couldn’t dance. The film lost money. Sinatra recorded it at least twice, once on A Swingin’ Affair, and then again on Sinatra/Basie, an Historic Musical First, an album on which he radically reimagined several of his classic numbers, in new arrangements that explode the songs and make them new again. The Basie version is almost punky with its staccato rhythms and unusual phrasing which all but obliterates the original melody.

I Wanna Be Around (1964)

Another recording with the Basie orchestra, from the album It Might as Well be Swing.

This was written by Johnny Mercer in 1959, after receiving a message and a sample lyric from an Ohio woman who had been inspired by Sinatra’s two failed marriages to come up with the line, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” The song is from the perspective of a spurned first wife who watches her partner leave her for another, just as Frank had divorced Nancy to marry Ava Gardner, only to be dumped in his own turn.

I Can’t Stop Loving You (1964)

This is a country song, by Don Gibson, written in 1957 and recorded by Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra in 1964. Ray Charles was the first to blues it up, in 1962, and Sinatra followed his lead in ’64. By the end of the 60s, Elvis also started performing it live, and artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Van Morrison have covered it. Sinatra’s version is performed with many blue notes, and he sings with such relish that you can’t help but feel it a shame that he only recorded three albums with Basie.

Learnin’ the Blues (1962)

Sinatra first recorded this as a successful single in 1955, but then again with Basie on their first collaboration. It was written by former beauty queen Vicki Silvers, and dropped into Sinatra’s lap when a singer hoping to get signed took his recording of the song to Sinatra’s publishing company. The Hefti arrangement on the Basie album has more polish than the original recording, which many critics prefer. But you can’t knock Basie and Sinatra together, and I like the call-and-response brass arrangement and the more laid-back tempo. Sinatra puts a little less into the vocal, stepping back to make it seem casual, but he also makes it bluesier, so it works better here.

Sentimental Journey (1961)

This song was Doris Day’s first hit record, in 1945. Its release coincided with the end of the second world war, and became the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” hit of that summer. It has since been recorded in over 150 versions (including one by Ringo), and translated into French, German, and Japanese. Sinatra’s version is on his second-last release for Capitol, Come Swing with Me, with orchestra conducted by Billy May, though May only arranged three of the songs. This was Sinatra’s last swing record for the label that relaunched his career, and he was already recording for Reprise. Because of this, I’ve always felt this record had Contractural Obligation written all over it, with some of the arrangements feeling rushed, as if speeded up simply to get it done quicker. Sinatra was recording four songs a day for Capitol, and then four more for his upcoming Reprise release. Then again, it’s an experimental record, with a doubled brass section playing in stereo, and Sinatra is still pretty damn good, even when he’s phoning it in.

Blues in the Night (1958)

Another Arlen/Mercer track, this was written for a film of the same name, a film noir (!) musical that starred almost nobody I’ve heard of. One scene required a blues song to be sung in jail, and this is it. I always find it interesting when an immortal song features in a forgettable movie. I’m even given to understand that the version in the movie “murders” the song, which turned out to be strong enough to survive such treatment. Sinatra’s cover, on Only the Lonely, isn’t even considered one of the important ones, but, well, he sings the blues.

The Lonesome Road (1957)

Finally, it comes to this, another track from A Swingin’ Affair, which is the most venerable song in this playlist. Written in 1927 by Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin, it first appeared in the mostly lost mostly silent film Show Boat in 1929, which Wikipedia insists was not based on the musical Show Boat but instead on the book upon which the musical was also based. Huh. Apparently, it was originally a silent film based on the book, but then panic set in when the musical was a hit, so they added 30 minutes of songs with some cast members. Which explains, maybe, the inclusion of this song instead of “Ol’ Man River”, which is certainly the most famous song from the musical. “The Lonesome Road” isn’t even from the musical, but I guess is a gospel-style song in a similar vein. Sinatra’s version is beautifully arranged, properly bluesy, and opens the second side of the album. Another classic from a forgotten film.

The Old Grey Calendar Test

StarKickerI mentioned in my previous post that I have 200-and-something songs in my 2017 4-star songs playlist. It made me wonder: how does 2017 compare to earlier years? Has it been a pretty decent year for music? A few years ago, I had a theory that there were on years and off years, with the even-numbered years generally off. It’s not quite that simple, but – before looking – I’d say 2017 has been a solid good, but will this music pass the test of time?

I start the smart playlist-of-the-year at the turn, and let it build. I still acquire a decent amount of new music every year, and I’m still interested enough in new country artists that I’ll try most things at least once. One change in my habits this past year is that I haven’t actually paid for much music. It’s a trivial saving in the big scheme (over £200, though), but given that so much music is available for free on YouTube (and I’m talking official artist accounts as well as user-uploads), I’m just using a download utility. Rather than accumulate a mess of mis-labelled music, I always take the time to make the metadata as much as possible. I feel a little bit bad about this, but the music industry has done pretty well out of me for 40 years or so, and most of these artists are making their living playing live. YouTube is obviously seen as a loss-leader.

So. 208 songs (I’ve added the balance of Chris Stapleton’s From A Room Vol 2, which was released on December 1) in the 2017 playlist. But how many of them will still have 4 stars or more in a couple of years?

They come from around 25 albums, which means I’ve acquired a couple of albums per month this year. In the 2016 playlist, there are still 192 songs, from around 20 albums. Not a bad hit rate, though only 15 of them have been awarded 5 stars, making them keepers.

In the 2015 list, there are just 77 songs remaining, from around 10 albums, give or take. So 2015 looks like one of the off years, suggesting that 2017 might see a similar falling away.

2014 was definitely an on year. There still remain 118 songs from 13-15 albums.

The last year for which I retain a smart playlist is 2013, which still has 40 songs from 11-ish albums. Only 6 have been awarded the coveted 5-star rating. But back then, I was still paying for most of my music, whereas my new status as a freeloader means I’m downloading stuff I would never have paid for.

But how much music has been rejected from each year? That’s the true test, right? So, the total number of tracks in my iTunes library with 2013 as a release date is 354. The 40 survivors represent the top 11%.

2014: 440 total, so the 118 survivors represent 27%.

2015: 274 total. 77 survivors represent 28%.

2016: 318 total. 192 survivors = 60%

2017: 208/218 = 95%.

Turns out, 2017 was a below-average year for new music acquisition, demonstrating, perhaps, the difference between just clicking a “Purchase” button and consciously taking the time to download and edit metadata. This is not to say that I haven’t added stuff released in prior years, but I’m not going far down that rabbit hole (the answer is 354). I don’t imagine this 95% situation will last long, so we’ll have to see what starts to irritate me when it comes on in the car.

17 music downloads for 2017

natalie-hemby-puxico-600x600There are 203 songs in my released-in-2017+4-stars-or-better playlist. Twelve hours of music, mostly in the Country genre. Here is a selection of the 17 best, ruthlessly paired down from another list of the 30 best…

  1. Deep is Love – Band of Heathens – Duende
  2. Broken Halos – Chris Stapleton – From A Room – Vol 1
  3. Friendship – Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Vol. 1
  4. Millionaire – Chris Stapleton – From A Room – Vol 2
  5. Wishing Well – Jaime Wyatt – Felony Blues
  6. Giving Back the Best of Me – Jaime Wyatt – Felony Blues
  7. Stone Hotel – Jaime Wyatt – Felony Blues
  8. Tupelo  – Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
  9. Hope the High Road – Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
  10. Female – Keith Urban – Single
  11. Bottom of the Barrel – Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone
  12. Wash Me Clean – Lillie Mae –Forever and Then Some
  13. Happy People – Little Big Town – The Breaker
  14. We Went to the Beach – Little Big Town – The Breaker
  15. This Town Still Talks About You – Natalie Hemby – Puxico
  16. The Colour of a Cloudy Day – Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer –Not Dark Yet
  17. Heartache is an Uphill Climb – Tift Merritt – Stitch of the Word