Category Archives: Music

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 onm “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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Music to waste hot dusty days to

Alfredo Bolona

Alfredo Boloña

Mid-August. A time of absence and lassitude, not helped by the smoky wildfire air that’s infesting Portland.

It’s a time of year when it’s all I can do to maintain my nine-to-five – it’s hard to raise the energy for much outside of that – or outside at all, given that temperatures are regularly hitting 35c.

Walking along Killingsworth Street in such heat last weekend I thought: what’s the perfect soundtrack for these days? One recording came to mind, one which sums up the slow, languorous nature of a hot August day.

“Aurora En Pekin” is a performance by Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos, a version of a song written by the Cuban guitarist Alfredo Boloña. Over the course of its five and a half minutes the pace, and the volume, rarely rise above a gentle whisper, the percussion slowly ticking the beat while Ribot’s guitar line meanders in and out.

It’s not urgent music, or music that draws attention to itself. It’s just there, simmering away, softly marking time until things become more urgent, more on-track, more September.

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Strolling around, waiting for the death-blow

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Sometimes a busy week leaves little mental space to write. So it’s been in recent days – a confluence of factors has ensured that it’s been about all we can do to keep up the daily schedule of work, chores, puppy-raising, etc.

The one exception was a stolen hour this morning, when I went for a three-mile dawn walk. And a recent resolution of mine is to listen to a new or old or heretofore-ignored album on such Saturday morning rambles.

What albums have I uncovered while strolling through sun or mist or (last Christmas morning) snow along Ainsworth Street?

  • Gerry Mulligan – “Night Lights”. Relaxing, very relaxing, not least Mulligan’s piano on the title track.
  • Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”. Fast and harsh and very good, not least Steve Nieve’s thumping piano.
  • First Aid Kit – “Ruins”. Sorry, I just don’t get it.
  • Thom Yorke – “The Eraser”. A trimmer, angrier version of Radiohead. Not bad, and “Harrowdown Hill” is one of the scariest songs I’ve heard in an age.

There are others, some that either elude me or that I didn’t engage with enough to rate. This morning produced the best find of the lot though.

I knew little about The Cure’s 1982 album “Pornography” before today. I had a vague impression that it was peak-Goth, not necessarily something I’d want to listen to 45 minutes of. But I love “Disintegration”, and those in the know rate “Pornography” up there with that one.

Turns out they’re right. Pounding drums, a searing, echoing guitar line, Robert Smith at his most echoey and depressed (the album’s opening vocal line is “it doesn’t matter if we all die”, and it goes downhill from there) – and that’s all on the first song, “One Hundred Years”.

It’s the sort of song that lesser acts have based careers or – at the very least – albums on (Portishead’s “Third”, for a start). As for me, walking around the polite streets of Northeast Portland singing “Creeping up the stairs in the dark, waiting for the death-blow”) made for a different sort of Saturday morning.

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Playing anthems…to 20 people

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

Some bands can’t catch a break.

Last week I saw The Low Anthem at Mississippi Studios in Portland, a small (smaller than intimate, in truth) venue. Just as well, as there were about 20 people in the room.

How could this be? Surely some mistake with the booking or the promotion? Were The Decemberists are playing an impromptu set in the bar next door?

Nope. Just the vagaries of popularity and music and trends and time. The one unimpeachable thing was the night’s music: a full rendition of the band’s latest release (a concept album about a salt doll immersing herself in the sea), followed by some older songs. It was a sublime, if unnecessarily low-lit (see above), evening.

Leaving the venue I cast my mind back a decade or so, to a time when The Low Anthem were being heralded as the new Fleet Foxes of sorts, and tickets to their Dublin shows were hard to get.

Somewhere along the way something changed – not least the band itself, whose members turned away from the ‘new folk’ (or whatever) label to indulge their own, more niche, interests (including building their own studio in a restored vaudeville-era theater).

Nonetheless, one assumes that when artists reach a certain plateau – of recognition at least, if not success – they remain there, maybe not ascending to the next level but, at the very least, not slipping down the hill.

Why care about this? Because The Low Anthem makes music that deserves to be heard, that may at times require immersion and focus but may also – when it comes to beautiful song like “Gondwanaland” – be the most sublime thing you’ll hear today.

 

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Listening back to Dublin in the 2000s

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

I wish I could remember more.

About my twenties, but more specifically about the music shows I attended back then. This occurred to me in recent days, when I listened to an album I hadn’t heard in a decade, by an artist who was once a major part of my musical life. The recording was “Ease Down The Road”, the artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham to his mother).

In the early 2000s I was a devotee of Oldham’s music – not as hardcore as some, but I knew his albums “Master and Everyone”, “I See A Darkness” and “Ease Down The Road” very well. Then, for some reason, I stopped listening.

This is one of those curious things that I’ve encountered in my relationships with certain artists – in music or literature or art. One day I’m deep into their rare studio outtakes – then I blink and it’s 10 years later and I can’t even recall the name of the record I played constantly for two months.

It happened with David Gray, with Jan Gabarek, with Francis Bacon and with Jonathan Franzen. One moment I’m hanging on their every note, brush stroke or sentence, the next it’s “oh, that guy”.

It seems, though, that if the roots have been laid deep enough, I can return. So it was with “Ease Down The Road”, which I came across while mindlessly browsing my music streaming service.

A single listen was all it took to bring me back to Dublin 18 years ago, to a friend who pushed a copy of “I Can See A Darkness” on me, to an ex-girlfriend who was even more into “Master and Everyone” than I was, to a half-remembered night at Whelan’s on Camden Street, where an irate old guy (who was probably younger than I am now) kept hissing “quiet!” at tipsy gig goers, cupping his hands around his ears to get his deep dose of Oldham’s gothic folk music.

At times it was hard to fight off a feeling of nostalgia. But this was outweighed by one of regret – that night in Whelan’s was one of many in those years, the highs and lows of which I’ve forgotten. Where are the crew I used to go to those shows with now? Why did they rebuild Whelan’s (to my ears and eyes it was an imperfect gem)? Could me-then have predicted than me-now would one day look back on that scene from a distance of almost two decades and 5,000 miles?

And why should any of this bear thinking about? Isn’t every day a new one? What’s the value to tracing past experiences?

Finally though, a most important question – how could I live through those intervening years without listening to this song?

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