Category Archives: Music

No more heroes anymore – thankfully

Radiohead, 2006. Pic: Drown

Remember when rock bands really, really mattered?

When new releases were presaged by weeks of publicity, when liner notes were pored over, when tracks were listened to dozens of times to figure out just exactly what that lyric was?

A newly-published anthology of writings about Radiohead, “Present Tense: A Radiohead Compendium”, takes me back to that time.

The book, which (full disclosure) features a great interview with the band by my other half, Clare Kleinedler, documents 25 years of journalism about the group, from their earliest incarnation as On A Friday to global pop domination and beyond.

Reading the articles, what stands out less is their substance (although features like Clare’s, and Will Self’s, built on solid interviews as opposed to opinions drawn from lyrical or musical clues, stand the test of time) than their context.

Almost every one, at least those from the “Pablo Honey” era onwards, is written on the assumption that Radiohead matter, that they are necessary, that they have Something To Say. Reading many of these pieces at the time, from defunct (and missed) publications like Select, I’m sure I concurred.

After all, what else was more important in the year 2000 that the release of “Kid A”? Weren’t the scraps from the floor of the studio used by the creators of “Paranoid Android” worth more than the greatest political, sporting or literary achievements of the day?

Well, so we thought. Now, of course, the idea seems quaint. Other music, other writing, other points of view, all of it available online ad infinitum, along with the passage of time, served to place Radiohead within the cultural context, instead of above or before it.

Reading “Present Tense” is as much as act of nostalgia as anything else, then; I felt a warm familiarity with some of the mundane facts in the articles (mundane now, at the time, revelatory – like how the band was named for a song on Talking Heads’ “True Stories” album).

It also reminded me of a period in my life when I had more free time, and less distractions – enough to allow me to spend whole afternoons picking over the inner musical workings of “Lucky”.

I can’t say I miss this (and I’ve long forgotten the arrangement of that particular song), nor will I miss the last era of the Single Important Rock Band – a strangely reductive concept.

But it was enjoyable to read – for a few hours at least – about how things were. Everything in its right place – in this case, the past.

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A night in the house Richard built

The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Portland, February 2019

No one could accuse Richard Thompson of being on-trend. For almost half a century he’s written songs and played a guitar, rarely rising above the status of cult hero, musician’s musician, or – the most back-handed compliment of all – critics’ darling.

On a snowy February night at Portland’s Revolution Hall, he’s still at it – touring with his band and playing songs from a record he released last year. As for trends, some 850 people have come out, filling the venue to capacity, to hear him do so.

It’s the fourth time I’ve seen the Englishman (at this stage a living folk-rock legend) perform. The first was in a packed tent in rainy field in the Irish midlands more than a decade ago – the stand-out track that afternoon being a version of “From Galway To Graceland“, his song about a Elvis fan who makes that trek, believing she’s set to marry The King.

In 2011 and 2015 I attended his shows – the latter an acoustic set, not unlike a show in Thompson’s living room – at Vicar Street in Dublin. These two gigs had all the traits of the first – blistering guitar work and an acerbic, if not outright sarcastic, stage manner.

Revolution Hall last Monday was more of the same: the guitar and the palaver, underpinned by the songs. New ones too – at least half the set was composed of tunes from “13 Rivers”, Thompson’s most recent release – a stronger, leaner set of songs than his some of his recent albums.

As befitted the time (Monday night, heavy weather, mid-winter), the set leaned toward the ominous on occasion (new song “The Storm Won’t Come” in particular), before Thompson – job done, Stratocaster turned down – produced the classics, the old favorites he’d advised then audience to wait around for, at the start of the show.

These included – most notably – a version of Fairport Convention’s “Genesis Hall”, dusted off and remodeled after almost 50 years, “Beeswing”, “Wall of Death” and – his calling card (and possibly his albatross) – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, whose opening riff was enough to justify the audience’s weeknight trip through snow and ice.

The highlight – for me, at least – took place during the first encore, when Thompson performed “Dimming of the Day”, his love song for onetime wife Linda Thompson, solo and acoustic. The performance was simple, stark and clear – no irony, no pyrotechnics. Who doesn’t want a love song – albeit a desperate, pleading one – to end the evening?

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You’ve got to get this into your life

Imagine turning on a TV show and hearing a new Beatles song. Impossible, of course – unless it’s another Abbey Road crate-scaping exercise.

Or so I thought. Until I watched the final scene in the latest episode of “Crashing.” As Pete Holmes strolls into the loved-up distance with his new flame, out bursts a song so catchy, so jaunty, so 1966 Paul McCartney, that it could only be The Beatles – or so it seemed.

But I’d never heard it before. Cue a scramble for my phone, a quick Shazam, and there was the answer. It was “New“, it was McCartney, and it was released in 2013. Yet it sounds more “Got To Get You Into My Life” than, er, “Got To Get You Into My Life.”

The fact that I hadn’t heard “New” until now speaks more to my musical prejudices than the song’s impact, or brilliance. Since when have I thought: “Damn, I better drop everything and listen to that new Paul McCartney album?”

And yet McCartney keeps doing it. Half a century after he wrote “Love Me Do” with John Lennon, he still had enough creative juice to knock out “New”. Which is something of a lesson to creative folks – if you like doing something, never stop.

It’s also a lesson to those of us who give up on artists, or at least give up interest in the recent work. Don’t stop listening – there’s always something new (sorry.)

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The piano player and the perfect playlist

Elton John, Portland, 2019

It must be thrill to create a perfect piece of music, to touch or capture such a elusive thing. Some musicians do it once or twice, some a little more often – very few have achieved it repeatedly, over decades.

I’m not the biggest Elton John fan. For years – probably because of a string of cheesy ‘80s music videos – I avoided his work entirely. That’s long since changed, which is how I found myself sitting – with 20,000 other people – in Portland’s Moda Center last Saturday night, witnessing the man’s last go-round, his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.

Perfection was in the air. I’ve attended hundreds of shows over the years, but never one with such a bulletproof setlist.  

As he moved from one classic pop song to the next, I wondered how it must feel to be the guy sitting behind the piano, knowing that you’ve written a bunch of pretty-much perfect popular songs? To play a set so tight that there’s no room for “Honky Cat” or “Sacrifice” – tunes that would be the high point of most other composers’ nights?

Having written two dozen or more great songs, where do you go next? Are you tormented by them, or are they like cash in the bank (in more ways that one), a form of artistic security to be drawn down when necessary? Are you bored? (How may times and ways can you play the piano solo on “Bennie And The Jets”?)

Maybe the burden of perfection doesn’t weigh heavy. Perhaps, like Elton John, you handle it by just playing the songs. He looked like he enjoyed his three hours on stage in Portland. The audience – including this awed listener – certainly did.

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November

Best summed up by Tom Waits really.

No shadow
No stars
No moon
No care
November
It only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of bone

No prayers for November
To linger longer
Stick your spoon in the wall
We’ll slaughter them all

November has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November’s cold chain

Made of wet boots and rain
And shiny black ravens
On chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
You’re my firing squad
November

With my hair slicked back
With carrion shellac
With the blood from a pheasant
And the bone from a hare

Tied to the branches
Of a roebuck stag
Left to wave in the timber
Like a buck shot flag

Go away you rainsnout
Go away, blow your brains out
November

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Joni, “Amelia” and me

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

What one song celebrates Joni Mitchell’s genius?

At her 75th birthday party this week, it was – inevitably perhaps – “Big Yellow Taxi“, which closed out the night.

For me, it could be “A Case Of You”, “Woodstock”, “River”, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” or “The Circle Game” (though I’d have to favor Tom Rush’s cover of the last song). In fact, it could any song from her albums “Blue”, “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” or “Hejira”.

But there’s one Mitchell composition I continually return to, perhaps because its lyrics of travel and uncertainty and learned life experience resonate deeply with me, as does its wistful melody.

The song is “Amelia” (which I’ve written about previously). Lyrically, it’s an odd combination of travelogue, tribute and existential questioning, which contains one of my favorite lines in popular song:

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know

Musically, it’s in the “Joni tuning” of CGCEGC, with chord slides which create a yearning, searching feeling. But trying to dissect the song weakens the experience of listening to its full six minutes, and immersing oneself in its feelings of desire and disconnection, commitment and hope.

Diane Krall sang it at the birthday party at L.A.’s Music Center this week, and I’ve no doubt she made a fine job of it. But there’s nothing like the original. Thanks Joni.

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George casts a long, long, long shadow

George Harrison.

George Harrison.

The Beatles’ White Album contains a great many things for me. The proto-punk of “Helter Skelter”, the arpeggio wonder that is “Blackbird”, John Lennon’s heartfelt song to his absent mother, “Julia”.

And then there’s “Revolution 9”, the musique concrète sound collage that I only listened to for the first time in full this past week.

But, after almost three decades of listening and distilling the double album – the 50th anniversary of which falls later this month – what stands out to me, first and foremost, is George Harrison’s songwriting. Specifically, his two songs “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”.

While the rest of the White Album sways from musical beauty to discordant freak-out to music hall fluff – often in the course of a couple of songs – these two Harrison tracks appear as something different, music on and from a different level (given “Long, Long, Long’s” genesis in Indian meditation practices, perhaps “transcendent” is the word).

Dissecting them for meaning is somewhat pointless – they exist in the ear and the soul. One’s a song about love’s importance (“Long, Long, Long”), the other’s a song about love’s potential, with one of the most perfect guitar solos in popular music (courtesy of an uncredited Eric Clapton).

Both have been written over at length (my favored account of each is contained in Ian McDonald’s classic “Revolution In The Head“), as has the White Album itself, not least because a newly-remastered, bells ‘n’ whistles release is in the offing.

All this attention has brought me back to the original album, and listening to it has brought me back to Harrison’s songs. As the man, and the band, and the album itself – despite reissues – slip into history, his music sounds completely fresh, completely now.

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Borne back endlessly into the past

Mercury Rev, Portland 2018

Mercury Rev, Portland 2018

I’m now at the age where the albums of my youth are turning older than I was when I first heard them.

Hardly a day passes, it seems, without a social media notification that a record I love, or bought and liked and perhaps forgot about, or thought was overrated at the time and always planned to return to, is 20 or 25 or 30.

“Daydream Nation” – 30. “Siamese Dream” – 25. “Surfer Rosa” – 30. “Rid Of Me” – 25. “Deserter’s Songs” – 20. It goes on.

The last in that list really struck home recently. Not only did “Deserter’s Songs“, Mercury Rev’s beautiful, elegiac album about loss, recovery, nostalgia, life, the universe and everything, turn 20, but I was lucky enough to see the band perform it live.

The show, at Mississippi Studios in Portland, reminded me how listening to certain albums  – live or in their original recording – offers a direct portal to a particular times when the music played a central role in my life.

So it was with Mercury Rev. When Jonathan Donahoe sang the opening lines of Endlessly, the third song on “Deserter’s Songs” (“Standing in a dream, weaving through’ the crowded streets, leaving you again endlessly”) I was transported back – to multiple places.

The song put me in a room above “Botany Bay” in Trinity College, as I took breaks to listen to the music while studying for my finals; it brought me to my old family home in Athlone, Ireland, where I sat in front of the fireplace and listening to “Deserter’s Songs” during the Christmas of 1998; it landed me to a highway, somewhere in Utah or Colorado, as friends and I drove late at night (where to, I can’t remember, though we eventually ended up in New York).

I felt happy and older and nostalgic. Carried along by the music, for the first time in a long time I felt connected to myself in those memories: I wasn’t just recalling event, I was among them, back there, for a little while. It was a fleeting feeling, a song long, then I was back. And being back was fine, because the now is where I live and listen.

Also, 20 years on “Endlessly” hasn’t aged a day.

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Bob’s boots were better from a basement

The weird mystery.

As a crate digger back in the 1990s, with a pretty deep interest in Bob Dylan recordings, there were bootlegs and there were bootlegs and then there was “Blood On The Tapes“.

I clearly recall first reading about this pirate release, which was recorded in New York in 1974, in an article in the Irish Times – in which it was cast as buried treasure from a golden period in Dylan’s songwriting. The 11 recordings were solo first drafts of songs that Dylan would later re-record in Minneapolis with a band and which would make up his famous “Blood On The Tracks”.

The New York songs were rawer and closer than the re-made versions, most of which went onto the official release of Dylan’s famed marriage break-up album.

I also recall travelling from Athlone, where I was working as a reporter on a local paper, to Dublin on a 1990s midsummer Saturday afternoon, solely to visit a basement record shop on Wicklow Street and pick up my £5 cassette of the bootleg.

This led to a probably-not-wholly-healthy period of listening to and learning to play all the songs, an activity which occupied most of the rest of that summer and probably didn’t leave me in the sunniest state of mind. I’ve kept the bootleg close to hand ever since – buying it on CD, pushing copies into the hands of friends, and generally regarding it as 40 minutes of peak Dylan.

Last week’s news then, that the songwriter is now set to release an exhaustive haul of “Blood On The Tracks” outtakes, alternative versions and forgotten takes (essentially “Blood On The Tapes” on steroids), should be a cause of celebration.

But it’s not. After my initial excitement at reading the news, my heart sank. A piece of esoteric musical history, a little-known-of Pandora’s box known only to the faithful, will now be cataloged, opened and exposed. The air of weird mystery that saw me spend weeks teasing out every nook of the recordings, learning every cadence and breath and bum note and cough, will evaporate.

The New York recordings will still be great, but they will be buried amidst many others, and the wonder of the 11-song artifact that was “Blood On The Tapes” will be lost. Except to those of us who have the old cassette or CD, though, and who know just when those coughs and bum notes pop up.

 

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My end of the world nightmare sounds like this

"I shuffle along an empty beach...ash in the air". Pic: Cormac Looney

“I shuffle along an empty beach…ash in the air”. Pic: Cormac Looney

When I picture the aftermath of a catastrophic event – a nuclear attack, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, the “Big One” hitting the Pacific Northwest – I’m rarely focused on the soundtrack.

In my mind I picture something not unlike the closing scenes of “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s movie of Cormac McCarthy’s novel: I’m shuffling along an empty beach, polluted waves washing ashore, ash in the air, everything a tundra brown. It’s raining, I’m hungry, I’m terrified. I hope my loved ones are safe, if not near. There’s an acrid scent on the shoreline breeze.

This is how I think the apocalypse would look, smell and feel. For a while I’ve wondered what it would sound like – having listened to the new Low album, I think I know.

Double Negative” sounds like an album recorded in the basement of the last, dilapidated house on that shoreline in my end-of-days nightmare. Huge, static bass, martial drums, vocals half heard, creeping in and out, broken radio transmissions, fragments of melody – it’s exactly what I’d expect to hear as I boiled my last leather shoe for soup.

The lyrics may be more personal than ‘death of civilization’, but the themes of disconnection and doubt fit the vast, jarring eruption beneath them. It’s the sound of something gone badly, hugely wrong, and the sound of its fallout.

I try not to think of a slow, tortuous Armageddon. But listening to “Double Negative”, challenging and, in equal parts, brutal and beautiful, it’s hard not to.

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