Tag Archives: Music

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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The dirty dream of the nineties is alive in Portland

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Much time has passed since I first heard the Scottish chamber pop outfit Belle and Sebastian.

I have a vague recollection of seeing the video for their 1998 song “Dirty Dream Number Two” on MTV, back in those ancient days when music television was a thing. I remember a college housemate singing the praises of the album that song featured on, “The Boy With The Arab Strap“.

But my listening interest was truly sparked when I picked up a copy of their debut album “Tigermilk“, likely in Tower Records on Wicklow Street in Dublin (now gone the way of MTV), and played it endlessly through fourth year of university.

For a number of years after that I dutifully bought Belle and Sebastian albums on their release, always intending to see them live one day. I never did of course, as the fates and my best laid plans conspired against it. In time, though no reflection on the quality of the band’s output, I eventually gave up buying the latest B+S album.

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

But ageing and perhaps nostalgia and – more likely – distance from Europe has recently led me back to seeing bands from my 20s, acts who heydayed in the late nineteen nineties and early noughties. And so, in the past year, I’ve seen live performances by Teenage Fanclub, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Lloyd Cole, to mention four.

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining how, on a sunny Saturday evening last weekend, I sat amid the toddlers on the grass, the 40-something indie kids and a family of bored elephants, watching Belle and Sebastian perform at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

The music was – as I expected – wonderful; bright, melodic and witty, it was easy to link the best of the evening’s songs to their writer, front man Stuart Murdoch, who himself looked just as he did in the MTV videos of my memory.

That was the charming thing about the evening. Belle and Sebastian didn’t sound or feel like they’d aged. Nowadays, when I look at pictures, or read cards, or reminisce about the nineties, my reaction is usually: “God, we were so much younger” or “what the hell happened to that guy?” or “I wish I’d time to read that book again”.

But for a couple of hours in a zoo in Portland my knees didn’t feel the ache of an old running injury, and my hair didn’t appear as gray as usual in a photograph. Nor did I have to fight through the mental distractions of everyday life just to focus on the music.

Twenty years later Belle and Sebastian were there and so was I. Ain’t that enough? And they even played “Dirty Dream Number Two”.

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All you need is…Paul McCartney in a car

A short post is in order this week. But it’s a good one.

Like most people, I’ve long since tired of the 24-hour news cycle, the depressing tumble of event-reaction-counter-reaction-analysis-argument that surrounds most major news events. (And this from an ex-journalist, too – I should probably just look at less online news.)

There are times, then, when I simply want to go online and see something that lifts me up, that brightens the world for a moment. For a brief 23 minutes this week, I’ve found it.

You’ve likely heard of “Carpool Karaoke“, a series in which late night host James Corden rides around with celebs, singing, quipping and gurning (he’s something of an acquired taste, and I’m not 100 per cent sold).

I’ve enjoyed some segments I’ve seen, but his piece with Paul McCartney, released yesterday, is one of the most heartwarming clips I’ve seen in a long time. It’s simple – McCartney and Corden driving around the former’s old Liverpool haunts, meeting old dears, shaking hands and kissing babies (McCartney mainly), culminating with a great reveal.

Death, ageing, the past – they’re all covered. But, because this is Paul McCartney, it’s all very “get on with it, always look on the bright side”. I could write more – not least about the bit that had me tearing up – but I figure you best watch it for yourself.

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One last shot love song

John Prine

John Prine

Every time I tire of the more-faster-newer-now (which is often) I turn to someone like John Prine.

The 71-year-old songwriter has been releasing records for almost half a century and, with 50 years experience, his voice is a sane, even and empathetic one – tinged with just the right mix of reason and sentimentality.

The characters in his songs are not unlike the grace-seekers of Raymond Carver‘s fiction: ordinary people, likely losing more than winning, but more often than not trying. Their hearts are “like washing machines”, their luck’s never boundless, their sons die and their husbands leave and return, they have habits that sometimes they kick and sometimes they can’t.

I wrote about Prine very recently, and this post is an addendum of sorts – an acknowledgement of how one of his new songs stopped me in my tracks this week.

“Summer’s End” is – in the truest country music fashion – a lover’s plea for reconciliation. But not just any lover or any plea – this is an entreaty from a person in their senior years, with a voice of gravelled experience, someone who knows this call might be – in every way – their last shot.

And, weathered, sad and loving – it’s also a beautiful listen.

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Prine cuts of country

John Prine. Pic: Ron Baker

John Prine. Pic: Ron Baker

Those who know, know. But those who really know, know John Prine.

And plenty do. The 71-year-old songwriter is touring the U.S. this summer and the cheapest ticket to his Portland show is a handy $107.

Which is as it should be, of course. Prine’s songbook rivals some of far bigger stars – there are few writers who could go toe-to-toe with Springsteen or Young or Petty, song-for-song.

And yet, there’s a feeling that this musician and his songs should and could have been on the same FM playlists as the above named. But, perhaps because of his country arrangements, or wordy (in an intelligent, not a verbose, way) lyrics, or inability to write a song a simple song about a car, a girl, or a hometown, without attaching a razor-sharp edge, he never made it that far.

Not that it matters to those who know. After a battle with cancer in 1998, Prine’s fans have spent the last two decades simply happy that he’s around and touring – and the fact that he’s releasing albums is a bonus.

On the latter note, he’s just released his 20-somethingth album, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (named after a defunct restaurant near Greystones, this Irishman was interested to learn). A quick listen indicates it’s more of the same prime Prine, with a little more mortality thrown this time.

The album is what brings him to Portland this September but – for most of those with tickets for his show – it’s the early songs that will fill the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

His first batch of albums produced an array of Americana (he’s the true owner of that belabored moniker) classics: “Sam Stone”, “Hello In There”, “Angel From Montgomery”, “Souvenirs”, “The Great Compromise”, “The Late John Garfield Blues”. And on, and on.

Today though, I’m listening to his ‘let’s all be decent to each other’ classic, “Everybody”. It’s a song that contains the perfect Prinesian couplet, which when heard to music sums up all the ironic, melodic talent of the man.

“I bumped into the Savior And He said ‘pardon me’.
I said ‘Jesus you look tired’. He said ‘Jesus, so do you’…”

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Commuting with George Best

New sounds from 31 years ago.

New sounds from 31 years ago.

Portland’s music radio doesn’t cut it.

Not the hip-hop, or the jazz, or the country stuff – but the alt stations. I live in a city renowned for its musical impact, and spend hours every week listening to the radio, but have yet to find a solid alternative station.

When I tune in to the Rose City’s best known one, for every interesting tune I sit through repeat plays of decade-old White Stripes’ numbers, Radiohead’s High and Dry (again), or, I kid you not, Blink-182 songs.

To be fair, the nighttime playlists are more interesting. But I listen during morning and evening commutes, when Mumford & Sons doesn’t cut it. (Any chance of James Blake’s ‘If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead‘)

Maybe it’s an age thing. At 40 I’ve been through the wringer of three decades of alternative movements, from grunge to Britpop to landfill indie to whatever ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion‘ was. Maybe I’m tapped out, and the only alt rock I really want to hear is ‘Goo’, or ‘Let Love In’, or ‘Repeater’ (again).

But every now and then I come across a band or a song that blows that theory apart. The thing is, it rarely happens on radio. Unable to handle another listen to ‘Stupid Girl’ last week, I switched to Spotify for the drive home. And a playlist randomly threw up The Wedding Present.

I’d heard of the band over the years, and once endured a serious ‘come to Jesus’ chat from one of their fans. But I’d never bothered to listen to them. Until ‘Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft‘, the opening track on their best known album, ‘George Best‘, came through the speakers.

Here’s what I’d been hunting – a driving beat, jangling guitars, droll lyrics, a seamless blend of punk sensibility and pop melody. All in three minutes. It’s just a pity that it was recorded 31 years ago.

I almost – almost – told myself: ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’.

But I didn’t, because I remain in hope – hope that the next The Wedding Present, whoever they are, will come over airwaves on tomorrow’s drive home; hope that I’m not backing into a cul-de-sac of ageing musical snobbery; hope that – basically – they still make them like that.

We’ll see. Until then, I’ll be enjoying my honeymoon with David Gedge and his crew. As they sang, “everyone thinks he looks daft but you can have your dream”.

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Whatever makes you happy, lads

Can you hear it? Thom Yorke. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Can you hear it? Thom Yorke. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Reports that Radiohead’s publishers plan to sue Lana Del Rey for plagiarizing the song ‘Creep’ are – like the band themselves – a bit rich.

Not least because ‘Creep’ was written – not by Radiohead – but by two Seventies’ songwriters, Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.

Or parts of it, at least – specifically the parts that led Hammond and Hazlewood to themselves successfully sue Thom Yorke and Co. in the Nineties, alleging similarity to their soft-rock classic ‘The Air That I Breathe’. (The pair later secured themselves a spot on the song’s credits.)

Just as there’s little new under the sun in music, so there appears to be little new in music litigation – with Radiohead now adopting the Hammond/Hazlewood playbook to pursue Del Rey, claiming her ‘Get Free’ uses “musical elements” found in ‘Creep’.

For their part, the Oxford outfit – or their publishers at least – have refuted reports of a lawsuit per se, but have confirmed that they have been in “discussions” with Del Rey’s representatives since last August. Read: we’re seeking a few bucks.

If Del Rey feels like coughing up in this regard, perhaps she should skip the alt-rock middlemen altogether and throw a few dollars the way of the two original songwriters? Just a thought.

That’s unlikely though, as the singer says her people will deal with the matter in court. And how much does it cost to ‘Get Free’? Given that similar settlements have run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars it could be an expensive outing.

Accentuate the positive, though. If nothing else, this minor side-alley music spat has brought me back to The Hollies’ version of ‘The Air That I Breathe’  – a perfect AOR start to 2018. And, thanks to YouTube, effectively free – but that’s another conversation.

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