Three reviews: Career of Evil, Introducing Darlene Love, and Cass County.

career_of_evilCareer of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike 3)

I’ve noticed a certain amount of sniffiness coming from the direction of some established crime writers in reference to J K Rowling’s crime-writing alter-ego. It reminds me a little of the famous quote from Palm CEO Ed Colligan about Apple making a phone. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”

J K Rowling, noted children’s author, is not going to be able to walk in here and write a crime novel. Or three. I previously reviewed the first outing and enjoyed its old-fashioned, knowing, spirit. To those sniffy, established crime writers I say this: she knows, boys (they’re always boys).

By this third outing, we come to the core problem of the modern-day private detective. We, the audience, know that real-world private detectives do divorce cases and maybe some industrial espionage. This is all happening in the background for Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Dellacott. The real business, the reason we came, is the investigation of murder. And absent a client who wants them to disprove a police theory; or a pricy defence lawyer who needs a defence investigator, Cormoran Strike just won’t be doing that. Unless, as here, the killer specifically targets the partners by sending Robin a severed leg.

So are we, the readers, buying it this time? A little less so, I think. The police are investigating, of course, and getting it largely wrong, of course, so Strike and Robin are forced to investigate this very personal killing themselves. Which all brings to mind the worst aspects of long-running TV series like The X Files, ER, or CSI: once the cases start getting personal; once the stories start being about the protagonists, it’s all gone a little oroborous.

The killer is somewhere in there, one of the suspects, and there are clues and a little bit of a twist. It’s fairly satisfying, and still takes you to London landmarks that most of the readers will instantly recognise (Spearmint Rhino in Tottenham Court Road, for example), so it ticks the same knowing boxes the previous volumes did. But in the end, after months of not earning anything because they’re investigating something on their own behalf, your willing suspension of disbelief gets a trifle frayed.

If there’s a volume IV (there will almost inevitably be one), will I buy that? Probably. But next time, please let there be a paying client and a proper case.

darlene-love---introducing-darlene-love-cover-art_sq-9372c2dbe6e8d67cf27d39408a50d23597c2d8f1-s300-c85Introducing Darlene Love

Darlene Love should need no introduction, but here we are. She’s 74 years old, and for various reasons her status as one of the best singers of her generation is not as well known as it should be. Phil Spector had a problem with the women he worked with gaining any recognition (recording songs with Love, then putting them out under the Crystals brand); and Love herself was frequently in the 30 Feet From Stardom position as backing singer.

Here we have a Steven Van Zandt-produced collection of songs written by high profile songwriters including Van Zandt himself, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, J(oan?) Jett, Jimmy Webb, Weil/Mann etc. There’s even a cover of “River Deep, Mountain High”, just to take her back to her Philles days. Van Zandt is probably the right producer to evoke those 60s soul sounds.

In your mind, you probably have an idea of how a 74-year-old singer might sound. After all, history teaches us that Frank Sinatra’s great voice mellowed to a croaky croon by his 60s; Paul McCartney’s voice has taken some damage and takes a long time to warm up; Bob Dylan’s voice is gone, gone, gone; Bruce Springsteen’s voice isn’t as subtle as it was. Then again, women in the pop music industry have a different story. For various reasons, they disappear. Dating back to the 1950s, they’ve been discouraged from working once they get married; or they take a career break to have children; or they simply get dropped, ignored, or marginalised. Or they die. I’ve complained before about the absence of new product from some of my favourite country artists: Dixie Chicks are on tour but last released new material in the mid-2000s; Faith Hill: ditto; Wynonna: ditto; Joy Lynn White: ditto. Some of these artists have been performing, but their discography has an enormous hole in it.

So it was with Darlene Love, and yet her voice is strong. She sounds much like her younger self. If there’s a criticism of this record it’s that every song is a belter, and there’s little light and shade. If you’re familiar with the work Can Zandt did with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, you’ll have an idea of the sounds here: Somewhere between Stax soul and wall of sound; horns; major chords. There’s a couple of gospel numbers (12 minutes or so at the end of the record), but most of it is a blast: party music, who’s this? music.

f9h3_CCcoversmall_1Cass County – Don Henley

Talking of who’s this? music, Don Henley needs no introduction. His mellow voice is instantly familiar from his mega-selling group The Eagles, though he too hasn’t put much on record over the past 20 years. He released three solo records in the 80s, one more in 2000 (an Eagles album in 2007), and then silence until now. I don’t mind some of the Eagles’ stuff, but always found them a little soulless, music industry suits dressed as rock stars. Henley’s been at pains to point out in interviews that their backstage behaviour back in the day was wild, but drugs and alcohol don’t necessarily disguise the accountant within. Bankers probably behave worse than rock stars ever did.

So I was reluctant to engage with this, his first official country album. It’s not that I was sneering in an Alan Jackson “Gone Country” way. Nobody has more right than Don Henley to record in this genre. Most of the big country artists from the 90s onwards were heavily influenced by The Eagles (Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, to name but two).

No, it wasn’t that. I just suspected this would be all a bit low-key and (given the number of collaborations) sound a bit like a novelty collection.

In an industry currently dominated by R&B influences, stomping beats, rock riffs and lyrics about beer, trucks, and girls in tight blue jeans, Henley’s Cass County turns out to be a quietly polite cough in the corner: excuse me, boys (they’re always boys), but this is what it should sound like. You’re welcome.

Because it turns out to be very good. From the opening Tift Merritt penned “Bramble Rose” (with guests Miranda Lambert and Michael Phillip Jagger) all the way through the 16 tracks of the “deluxe” edition, it’s a beautifully recorded, solid collection of good songs, with guest appearances from Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton. Henley’s voice doesn’t sound out of place in this company, and in fact the 68-year-old former Eagle doesn’t seem to have lost any of his vocal power: his voice was always the greatest asset The Eagles had. There are no out-and-out rockers, but I think that’s a pointed omission, a very deliberate swerve away from the so-called “bro-country” vibe.

So we were entertaining guests at our place in France this week, my wife’s cousin and her husband, and Cass County was on in the background. Who’s this? said the husband. Don Henley, you know, we said. Of the Eagles. 

Ah.

Of course, just as Apple weren’t going to walk in and show the phone industry how to make smartphones; and J K Rowling wasn’t going to walk in and show the crime-writing industry how to write detective novels, Don Henley wasn’t going to walk in and show the music industry how to make country albums. But he just did.

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Jennifer Nettles – That Girl – album review

Produced by Rick Rubin, beardy celebrity producer, it’s tough to categorise Jennifer Nettles’ new solo record, which finally arrived through my door this morning, but (at time of writing) is still not available for download from the UK iTunes store. Whereas the delay to the Sheryl Crow country record irritated me enough to boycott the album altogether, Jennifer Nettles is for me an artist of far greater stature, so I sucked it up and ordered an import CD.

(It used to be that I reserved CD purchases for my favourite artists across the board; now it’s just those whose pissant record labels don’t do simultaneous global releases.)

In Crow’s case, it appeared the record label, in their deeply out-of-touch way, delayed (and kept delaying) until the artist was available for promotional duties (a BBC Radio 2 session). It’s likely that they’re doing the same for Nettles. By all means, promote the record properly to the general public when the artist is available, but at least provide a without-fanfare availability to those who have been waiting to get hold of the record since the artist tweeted that they were in the studio.

So where were we? Categorisation. The last track on this is a bluesy cover of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock”, so you could put this under “rock”, no problem. Nettles is known for her work with country duo Sugarland, so you could call this country – but it’s not. Of which more below. The penultimate track, too, is a bluesy song, so, Jennifer sings the blues. The other nine tracks, however, are just your standard rock-pop, with added Nettle rash.

Produced by a rock/hip-hop producer, and with standard pop-rock instrumentation (Guitar, bass, drums, keys – the latter by Ian McLagan), this is a pop-rock record. Not country. Even Sugarland aren’t really country. On this, there are no pedal steel guitars, no dobros, no banjo, mando, or fiddle. There is nothing to make this sound remotely country, which leads us to Nettles’ big problem.

She has an incredible singing voice, and deserves a wider audience. Me, I’d prefer another Sugarland album, but the band has been on hiatus for a couple of years, with Kristian Bush putting out his songs on Music Mondays, and Nettles going for this glossy, Rubin-produced attempt at a breakthrough crossover product.

Has it worked? I love this record, but I don’t think it has.  The album peaked at #5 on the Billboard top 200 album chart, and has slipped down to 12 in its second week on the chart. Meanwhile, over on the Billboard Country Albums chart, it’s been at #1 for two weeks. Hardly crossing over, then. The lead single, “That Girl” peaked at #57 on the Billboard Airplay chart, and only managed #37 in the Country Singles chart.

So what are the record company doing? Clearly, they’ll always struggle with sexist country radio, but they’ve also failed to break into the Beyoncé, Lorde, Adele, Katy Perry area. So is it just that Jennifer Nettles isn’t good enough to be in such exalted female vocal company? I think you’ll find not. This is a supreme songwriting and vocal talent. I defy anyone to hear a single track of this and not think she has a fantastic voice. Furthermore, I defy anyone to listen to a single Sugarland album and not be astonished at the sheer number of brilliant songs. They’ve released four platinum albums and three of their albums have been #1 in both the Country and Top 200 Billboard charts.

The irony is that Sugarland only exists because three talented songwriters couldn’t get arrested as solo artists. It seems  as if – even after all that success – Jennifer Nettles on her own still can’t get arrested. Perhaps her voice doesn’t fit in with current fashions. People are attuned to Autotune these days.

This solo outing should have been a massive success. Sure, pissing around with release dates and pre-publicising it way too much was a mistake. I don’t think the title track was the best choice of single, either, but here we are.

This is good. I’d rather it was more country, and – as I said – I’d rather it was full-fat Sugarland, but there’s no denying this woman can write a song and carry a tune. The production sounds great, there is (as in all Sugarland albums) no filler, and the two closing bluesy numbers, including the Bob Seger cover, are immediate favourites.