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

Looking Into You – A Tribute to Jackson Browne

BN-BD022_browne_KS_20140116072652This seems to have been released in a low-key way. These tribute albums are fairy standard fare by now, and they follow a common pattern. They’re always a mixed bag, but one for Jackson Browne was overdue.

Those who contribute do so out of respect for the original artist, and (probably) an affection for a particular song. I guess there’s a hierarchy at play, and that not everybody gets to record their first choice. I rarely bother downloading a whole one of these, but might pick up on a track that does something original, or just sounds great. I like Miley Cyrus’  recent version of Dylan’s “You”re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” for example; and (from a few years back) The Band’s version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”

But who is it really for? Fans of individuals among the various artists might well give at least one track a listen – and maybe, just maybe, get encouraged to listen to the original. This is the Glee syndrome. As to fans of the originals, I’m less sure. For a start, you might end up with two tracks in a row on your iPod and, depending on your mood, might just start skipping one of them.

I’ve only relatively recently started listening to Jackson Browne. I was always saving him up for later on, knowing that I might like a lot of his stuff, but reserving the pleasure for when I wanted something new in my life. I’ve done that with a number of artists over the years.

So given that I’ve barely scratched the surface, I was quite looking forward to this. He writes great melodies, great lyrics, and I was intrigued as to what other people might bring to his songs.

So, as I said, it’s a mixed bag. Most artists try to do something different, rather than a straight cover. This is risky. For example, Bob Schneider takes the up-tempo “Running on Empty” and performs it as a kind of dirge. Well, it almost works. I didn’t really like Lucinda Williams’ gruff (and down-tempo) version of my favourite song “The Pretender” – but then one of my students heard it this morning and actually commented that it was a nice song – a rare occurrence. So then you get Lucinda Williams opening someone’s ears to a wonderful thing.

Out into the cool of the evening

Strolls the pretender

I haven’t heard of a lot of the artists on here, and those I have I’m not particular about. But I like the album. It’s a good listen. The melodies and lyrics shine through. Don’t know how I’ll feel about the iPod clashes to come, though.



Taylor Swift, Matraca Berg, Jackson Browne: 3 songwriters, 3 albums

Cover of "Late for the Sky"

Jackson Browne was 25 years old when he recorded his third album Late for the Sky in 1974. I waited 38 years to buy it, and if you already have it you don’t need me to tell you it’s good. The eight tracks last just over 41 minutes and include the title track, “Fountain of Sorrow,” “For a Dancer”, and the suddenly-topical “Before the Deluge”:

Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused

The record sounds great in the way that only albums recorded in the 70s can: piano, guitar, violin, and soft drums that don’t overwhelm the mix. Best of all, it has a wonderful vibe, sounding spontaneous and loose, almost as if they’re making it up as they go along.

Matraca Berg has been the pre-eminent songwriter in Nashville for over thirty years, co-writing hits for the likes of Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Deana Carter and Martina McBride. She has a way with a witty lyric and a priceless pop sensibility, but these are sadly absent from her recent solo releases. The latest is Love’s Truck Stop, which follows on last year’s The Dreaming Fields so swiftly you might think her prolific.

The album starts promisingly with its title track, which has a good melody and has been recorded competently, but after track two things descend into the plaintive. The missing pop sensibility is compounded by Berg’s limited voice, which really doesn’t do justice to her own material. You can forgive a weak voice (not everyone can be Trisha Yearwood), but the absence of memorable tunes is an oddity, given her track record. (For evidence that she can bring some jauntiness, I refer you to her 1997 album, From Sunday Morning to Saturday Night.)

Taylor Swift has been accused in the past of having a weak singing voice, but she seems to have found it on her fourth album, Red, which sees her hitting a new peak. I suspect we may look back on Red in decades to come as Taylor Swift’s purple patch. Featuring songs that were written or co-written by Ms Swift, the album alternates between singer-songwriterly numbers in the Jackson Browne/James Taylor vein and pure, exuberant (and horribly catchy) pop-rock, packed full of wit and verve. “And you will hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” she sings, with a knowing wink to her audience. Yeah, right. There’s nobody on earth cooler than Taylor Swift right now.

She’s been criticised for writing too much about love and relationships, but she’s careful to remind us of her age (“22” neatly updates us from “Fifteen” on Fearless), and it turns out that Jackson Browne wrote a lot of songs about love and relationships too. Actually, she has an extraordinary talent, and like all the best songwriters seems able to pluck words from everyday speech and make them sound musical.

The sounds are modern, it’s all very produced, and every other track is an earworm, like the first single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which we all hated as soon as we heard it, and then couldn’t get out of our heads. This track deliberately evokes the experience of listening to an online stream, or perhaps using an FM transmitter with an iPod and encountering RF interference. Elsewhere there are a couple of trendy duets and a selection of her stock-in-trade looks back at failed relationships. The best of these is “All Too Well,”

Hey you called me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumbled up piece of paper lying here
Cause I remember it all all all too well

It’s a good one, Red, album of the year, and in 38 years time some old git will buy it and maybe write a blog about it.

Do you wanna see me crawl across the floor?

Cover of "Layla (Hybr) (Ms)"
Cover of Layla (Hybr) (Ms)

I’ve been on a 70s jag recently. A little bit of ELO, a lot of Tom Petty, a little bit of Jackson Browne. I kind of hate Jackson Browne, so I’m unbelievably fussy about the songs I download, but he does have a really pleasant voice, and “Running on Empty” is such a great song.

So I was watching a truly terrible film, The Box, and I heard something on the soundtrack that pushed some buttons. Sounded 70s. Was followed on ST by “Can’t You See” by the Marshall Tucker Band. So a quick Google later, I’d discovered it was “Bell Bottom Blues” from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

It may surprise you that, apart from the title track, I’d never heard any of this album.

I always liked “Layla” – not for the riff, not really for the song itself, but for the extended piano coda, which Radio Caroline at least used to play in full. Other radio stations tended to fade the song, I think.

So not only had I never heard it, but I never realised that the album never even made the charts in the UK (which fact is on both Wikipedia and Clapton’s official site).

So what’s it like? Muddy and gruff, in places. Don’t like that singing style. Some of guitar playing is good, but Clapton’s own guitar sounds thin on several tracks. I’m not keen on the blues so I only really like the poppier tracks like “Bell Bottom Blues” and “Anyway”, both of which are worth a download. Even those are marred, I think, by the muddy sound mix. Even compared to an Allman Bros record (with two drummers and two lead guitars), it doesn’t compare well. My ears have been spoiled by listening to country music.

Still, I’ve heard it now, 40 years on. But what does it say about the average British music fan that it didn’t even get in the charts? Not a recognisable brand? It suggests that music fandom is always more about peer pressure and wanting to impress people than it is about the music. Because it’s not that bad.