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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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.

 

Visions of the old Johanna

piano-02I’ve long been of the opinion that the very best rock bands had a keyboardist. These players are often the best musician in the band, the muso, and can bring an added dimension of competence. Although the presence of a proper musician in any band can be a source of conflict (“Let’s do this in 12/8 time”), the pleasure they bring to the music is compensation enough. Consider three bands:

  • The Band actually had two keyboard players, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Hudson was considered the music teacher in the band, though Manuel supplied the soulful voice as well, and could double up on drums when Levon was playing the mandolin or something.
  • The E Street Band also had two keyboard players. The late Danny Federici supplied the glorious hammond organ (and was responsible for the horrid synth sounds that popped up on Born in the USA), but it is ‘Professor’ Roy Bittan who gives Springsteen’s band that sense of wide open space.
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are also a class act, helped in no small part by Belmont Tench’s in-demand piano and organ chops. Watch the video of Bob Dylan performing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with the Heartbreakers and you see what his playing can bring to a performance. There has been conflict. Mr Tench famously objected to being asked to play simple block chords when he would rather play notes (I suppose), but that’s why you have frontmen like Tom Petty.

I could go on. There have been great bands without full-time keyboard players, but they usually sneak one in somewhere. The Beatles had both John and Paul who could play piano, and George Martin could fill in in the studio. One of my favourite tracks is “Rock and Roll Music” from Beatles for Sale, which features (according to the sleeve notes) all three of them on one piano. You need look no further than Hey Jude and Lady Madonna for evidence of how important piano was to the Beatles’ sound. Billy Preston also added organ and electric piano to the tracks recorded for Let it Be.

Preston also played with The Stones, who famously kept another piano player in the wings, deeming him too ugly to be a full-time Stone. Nevertheless, Ian Stewart played on a lot of their records before his untimely death in 1985. Nicky Hopkins also shows up in the credits on many occasions.

The Who’s classic synth loops were created by Townshend in the studio, but, since the late 1970s, John Bundrick has supplemented the band on the stage.

My daughter is in a band, and I’ve been encouraging her to recruit a keyboard player. My own band fell short in this respect, and apart from my complete lack of charisma and talent, I’m sure this is what cost me my big break.

Notwithstanding the acts referred to above, here are a few individual songs by other artists I think stand out because of the piano playing on them:

Evil Woman (Stripped Down Mix) – ELO. Taking the string section away lays this one bare with excellent results.

Every Mother’s Son – Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is a guitar track, but the piano interlude in the middle of the song is superb, carrying that ‘rolling’ feel you get from skilful expression pedal use.

Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. Talking of pumping that expression pedal, watching Tift Merritt perform on piano is an education in how piano playing is about much more than the fingers and thumbs.

Still Rollin’ – Gretchen Wilson. A great track from one of her recent albums that features that same rolling, country-style piano.

The Fuse – Jackson Browne. You could pick any number of Browne tracks, but this one in particular put the piano in the foreground on the outro.

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.

Popmusicology, Volumes 1 and 2

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After creating some iPad film study guides for my GCSE students using iBooks Author, I wanted to do another project just for fun.

I decided to repurpose some of the material I’d accrued in teaching my “Musicology” 6th Form enrichment course, which was a survey of popular music from its origins. I’d done a lot of research and created presentations with embedded audio and video. Rather than just embed the presentations into an iBook, I decided to create a book from scratch, with both graphical elements and embedded sound files. Because I wasn’t happy with the included Apple templates and didn’t have time to create my own, I downloaded a template from iBooksAuthorTemplates.

The first volume (Origins) appeared on the iBooks store a couple of weeks ago, but will hopefully start to make more sense now that Volume 2 (Boom!) has appeared. Both of them are free of charge, and require an iPad and iBooks.

Volume 1 is concerned with where popular music came from: the regional folk musics that existed in the United States prior to the invention of the phonograph, which started to blend together due to proximity (especially in the Southern states), and later due to new media such as the radio and the phonograph. It’s fair to say that the horrors of the South (slave plantations, the Civil War, Reconstruction) were instrumental in creating popular music as we know it. Poor white people living alongside slaves and (later) poor black people had a shared love of music.

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Popmusicology Volume 1: Origins (THE RED ONE) looks at the impact of new media (particularly radio), the ethnographic work of the Lomaxes, and has sections on the Blues, Jazz, and Country music. There are illustrative sound samples – either out of copyright, or limited to a 30-second length for illustrative purposes.

Volume 2 is concerned with what happened in the wake of Jazz. It was hard to decide upon an order. In the end I went for rock-soul-country, but it could have been in any sequence and made as much sense. There are longer books about the first rock record, but there’s a brief discussion of that and samples of the few of the main candidates. My conclusion is that the first rock record is a bit like a tree falling in a forest. What really matters is when were (most) people aware that there was this thing called rock? 

Popmusicology Volume 2: Boom! (THE YELLOW ONE) looks at the explosion in popular music across multiple genres in the 1950s. After the section on early rock, there’s another looking at how gospel and rhythm and blues turned into soul music. Finally, there’s a section on the horrors of the Nashville Sound in country and the reasons it came about.

So the next step is to write Volume 3, which will look at the 60s beat boom and the changes in the industry wrought by the new generation of artists who wrote their own songs. This will be the hardest volume to write for me, because there is so much to cover and yet I need to be aware of keeping the file size down to a reasonable level. The reason there are already two volumes is that it became clear that even with a 30-second limit on most of the samples, the file size soon balloons.

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Would be great if you download and enjoy the Popmusicology books (or any of the film studies ones), if you would leave some feedback.

My next project is an updated electronic version of my MA dissertation on typography – this will be on the Kindle store.