Tag Archives: Music

Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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Here comes your band (25 years later)

Pixies, Roseland Theater, Portland, Nov. 2018

Pixies, Roseland Theater, Portland, Nov. 2018

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the Pixies (always with the definite article) were about the most mysterious band I’d ever encountered.

Back in the early Nineties the internet didn’t really exist (at least not for me), and music magazines were expensive. My teenage knowledge of the band and it’s music was therefore mainlined from their albums.

Throughout those years Black Francis seemed like some caterwauling, demented monk, hellbent on screaming his visions of violence, Catholicism, and sadomasochism over an explosive quiet-loud-quiet sonic tapestry.

Needless to say I couldn’t get enough. Even the last album of the classic Pixies era, the patchily-reviewed ‘Trompe Le Monde’, seemed daring and exotic to my 15-year-old ears – and even more mysterious than the other records, now that the band were singing zeitgesty tunes about the Roswell Incident.

Then, of course, the Pixies split up. In the years that followed neither Black’s solo material or Kim Deal’s outfit The Breeders – great as the latter were – could fill the gap. By the time the original band reunited in 2004 I was far too deep into a British folk music obsession to bother spending a three figure sum to see them in a big, windy park.

Slicing up eardrums.

Slicing up eardrums

And that was where I thought I’d leave it. Once every six months I’d blast ‘Surfer Rosa’, maybe read the odd interview, but I never really believed I’d see the Pixies live.

Until last month, when I did. Well, technically speaking at least. It might have been by way of seeing two bands on two different nights in two separate venues, but, either way, I finally ticked another one off my musical bucket list.

First up was Kim Deal at the Wonder Ballroom a few weeks back – a show I wrote about previously. This week it was the turn of her three former bandmates, Black, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering, touring as the Pixies with Paz Lenchantin replacing Deal, at the Roseland Theater.

It was a big night for 39-year-old me, and an even bigger one for the 15-year-old that’s still some inside my head. Where was my mind? Somewhere between being knocked out by the rapid-fire dispatch of indie classics, and being a little down about the fact that I never caught the original band in their prime.

Nowadays it seems that the Pixies constantly tour – and it shows. This was a tight set, with barely a missed note (if you discount Lenchantin’s wobbly vocal on the encore ‘Into The White’). At times it was a little too tight – no sooner had one all-time classic ended than Black was off again, lashing into the next tune.

If it felt a little overpolished at times, well, so be it. Mind you, their thunderous takes on newer songs ‘Um Chagga Lagga’ and ‘Head Carrier’ left little to complain about. And did I ever think I’d hear their version of Neil Young’s ‘Winterlong’?

Throw in ‘Something Against You’, ‘Nimrod’s Son’, and the Nineties Irish indie disco staple ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, and you had the makings of a good, and seriously loud, night. My only complaint was that it wasn’t 25 years ago.

But, as Black Francis would have screamed back then, ‘Cookie, I think your…tame!’

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Free jazz has killed my CD collection

Will I play these again?

Will I play these again?

I own hundreds of CDs. More actually, well into the four figures. I know this because, before moving to the U.S., I had to pack and carry four cratefuls of them to be shipped.

As I did so, I wondered: what’s the point? Do I need these things? Will I ever play most of them again?

And then I reassured myself that of course I would, that they were a vital part of who I was, that they were intrinsic to my well-being. Many of them had been a part of my life for years, so how could I live without them? Seriously?

It’s now November 2017 and I’ve not listened to a CD properly in 16 months. As I type this, the same crates are lying in my basement, alongside my CD player (which, damaged in transit, hasn’t worked since I arrived in Portland). With the exception of taking the occasional disc to the car to ease the commute, I haven’t unboxed any of them.

And – though I never thought I’d write this – it hasn’t mattered. Like most amateur music listeners, I now listen to music via a streaming service, aware that the sound quality is not as good, that the speakers are not as hi-tech as those with my old CD player, and that my booklet-perusing days are all but over. The audiophile I want to be is horrified.

Jan Garbarek. Pic: Yancho Sabev

Jan Garbarek. Pic: Yancho Sabev

Sometimes I feel a pang of regret – like, for instance, when I gaze upon my beautiful copy of Harry Smith’s Anthology. But rarely.

Rarely that is, unless I want to listen to music issued on ECM. The German jazz-classical label opted to keep its output off all streaming services in recent years. Not being able to listen on Spotify was bad enough – knowing that I had dozens of ECM albums sitting in boxes close by was a tease.

As time passed, the only reason I had to buy a CD player was to listen to Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, and others who’d recorded for the label. Now that last reason’s fallen.

Last week ECM, making somewhat sniffy noises about piracy, relented, and placed its back catalog on a number of streaming services.

It’s great for me. I can now listen to Art Ensemble of Chicago while driving, or Tomasz Stanko while working out, or Dave Holland’s free jazz while writing blog posts (the latter’s probably not wholly advisable).

But, now that the initial excitement has faded, I’m left with an existential music listener’s question. Will I ever listen to my once-beloved CDs again?

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Kim Deal’s back – and she’s got business

The Breeders, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

The Breeders, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

A rainy night in Portland this week brought me back to drizzly 1990s afternoons on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge.

The link was a band from Dayton, Ohio. Before last night, the closest I got to seeing The Breeders perform was buying a bootleg cassette of a Dublin show of theirs, from a guy with a suitcase on a bridge over the Liffey.

Those who lived in Dublin in those days will remember this guy, or one of a dozen of his competitors, who flogged their wares from mobile displays (the more mobile the better, if the cops were around) on the bridge, or on Henry Street, or outside the Bank of Ireland at College Green.

Their market was – I’m guessing – the hardcore fan, those who couldn’t sleep unless they had a permanent, low quality, record of AC/DC’s 1991 show at the Point Theatre.

Not that I was a super-fan, or anything like it. I went to the bridge for a simpler reason. As a poor student at the time, the IR5 I spent on the Afga C 60 – with black and white photocopied insert, color being extra – was less than the IR30 it would have cost to buy The Breeders’ two CDs back then.

Kim Deal. Pic: Available light

Kim Deal. Pic: Available light

Of course, the quality of the bootleg (recorded from a microphone in the crowd, not the sound desk) was a pale shadow of what the band sounded like on the night they played the Temple Bar Music Centre in 1994, or ’93.

I bet neither could compare to the on-point performance I witnessed at the Wonder Ballroom last night – one which brought me right back: beyond Portland, or Dublin, to the first time I heard ‘Last Splash’ as a teenager, led to it by multiple viewings of the ‘Cannonball’ video on 120 Minutes.

Minutes before Kim Deal and her band mates took to the stage last night a pal remarked that being turned on to Pixies – Deal’s other band – was a seminal moment for many music fans of our generation. It was equally so with The Breeders.

All the stuff that blew me away back then did it all over again: that one huge bassline, Kelley Deal’s Hawaiian guitar effects, the 1 minute and 45 seconds of perfect pop that was ‘Fortunately Gone’, ‘Divine Hammer’s’ crescendo, which closed out an encore.

But enough nostalgia. Forget Dublin bootlegs, and ‘No Aloha, and “want you, cuckoo, cannonball” – the highlight of the night was ‘Wait In The Car’, a new track released just before the tour.

Above trashing drums, a distorted, chopping guitar, and a drilling lead line, Kim Deal’s refrain sounded like Your Mom the Nasty Woman. “Wait in the car – I’ve got business,” she snapped.

The Breeders are back.

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Woody lives!

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

The closest I got to Woody Guthrie was the morning I quickly shuffled through his personal letters, while a vigilant lady kept a beady eye on me, in a small room in a New York office block.

The office belonged to Harold Leventhal – the legendary music manager who’d worked with Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie himself. His staff had maintained the folksinger’s archive for decades after Guthrie’s death, and I visited there in 2003 to undertake some research as part of a writing project I’d planned.

My groundwork came to naught, but I did enjoy an hour immersed in manuscripts of Guthrie’s lyrics, letters, and notes (and briefly encountered Leventhal himself). Looking back, the ride up an old escalator to a small room in an ageing Midtown building was the culmination of a journey I’d been on for a few years.

Bruce Springsteen once commented that when he heard the opening of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time, “that snare shot…sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”.

My snare shot was the first few fingerpicked bars of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 and which I heard for the first time – and listened to heavily afterwards – in my rented room on Cadogan Road in Dublin in the late 1990s.

Every verse hit home, not least the last:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

I’ve long since lost the CD that contained that track (and others, including a great Cisco Houston version of ‘Deportee’) – probably because I moved on from it so quickly. Within months, I’d picked up and devoured whatever budget-priced collections of Guthrie’s music I could afford.

Shortly afterwards, on a trip to New York, I came across a copy of ‘Bound For Glory’ at Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, five minutes’ walk from ‘Alamanac House’, the apartment Guthrie used as a writing space with Pete Seeger and others in the 1940s.

All the while, I played and sung Guthrie songs on my battered Hohner acoustic guitar – at parties in Dublin, at cook-outs on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and – an occasion which sticks out in my memory – far above New York’s pavements on the balcony of an Upper West Side apartment I crashed at on another brief visit to the city in the 90s.

So Woody Guthrie meant a lot to me back then. He still does – a small part of me takes heart in the fact that every time I see the mighty flow of water which runs 10 minutes from my home in Portland, my first thought is ‘Roll On, Columbia’.

Guthrie’s been back in my mind in recent days, as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, next Tuesday.

I’ve also seen more of him in recent times – in the humanity displayed by those who comforted the dying and helped the survivors after the Las Vegas shooting, and in the actions of citizens helping one another in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Like Guthrie’s writings, the practice of people simply helping one another – whether they be lifelong neighbors or complete strangers – stands in contrast to the rancor of partisan politics and the seemingly-constant slew of bad news.

Such actions, like the best of Woody Guthrie’s songs, offer hope.

As the folksinger himself wrote of his life’s work:

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

So next Tuesday I’ll listen or strum a few, remember Woody, and keep the hoping machine running.

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More soul than Salford – Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Take’

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl was – by most accounts – a difficult man.

A titan of British folk music, who contributed a number of songs to its canon, he was also a man of some strongly-held prejudices – mostly against anything that didn’t fit with his conception of ‘folk music’.

So when it came to cover versions of one of his most famous songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, he didn’t just dislike one or two, he detested the lot.

As his daughter-in-law recalled: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’.”

While certain attempts at the song should be buried in a chamber of concrete, sealed, and never opened again – not least The Kingston Trio’s insipid early version – not all justified MacColl’s curmudgeonly wrath.

Roberta Flack’s 1969 take, for one, achieved a depth of soulful longing that few others reached, and which MacColl’s own version only hints at.

Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

But even Flack’s cover – from her debut album ‘First Take’ – wasn’t enough for MacColl, just as other admirable attempts at the song (by Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, or Erykah Badu), also fell foul of his standards. Or surely would have, had he lived to hear them.

What would MacColl have made of the most recent cover of his love song, then? Singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists last week released another take on the song, under the moniker Offa Rex.

Though the world hardly needs another cover version of the song, the striking thing about this one – to me – is MacColl might actually like it. After all, Chaney’s vocal channels just enough of Sandy Denny for the song to pass as a late ’60s Fairport demo.

Not that MacColl was a fan of those electric guitar-friendly folk rockers (I’ve no idea, but I’m guessing not), but Offa Rex’s drone-heavy version is closer to a finger-on-the-ear folk cover of the song that just about anything else over the past half century.

It’s certainly more Salford than soul, and perhaps that’s why it can’t compare with what is – despite the songwriter’s objections – the definitive reading of one of the 20th century’s great love songs: the one produced by a 30-year-old North Carolina singer on her first album. MacColl may have known songwriting, but singing? Take two, sir.

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‘Amelia, it was just a false alarm’

Detail from the 'new' photo of Earhart

Detail from the ‘new’ photo of Earhart

Amelia Earhart’s back in the news this week. Or rather, her disappearance is – an event that has sparked 80 years of speculation, books, films, and expeditions.

On the outer fringes of the Earhart story is a song written by Joni Mitchell, which came to mind this week as I squinted at a blurry picture, supposedly that of the American aviator on a wharf on an island in the South Pacific.

Is the shadowy image of a woman on the dock Earhart, last seen alive on July 2, 1937, some days before the picture was taken? Possibly, and possibly not. And so the mystery deepens.

In the absence of fact the fate of Earhart, if not the woman herself, has become a common property, open to scrutiny, interpretation, and debate.

As W.H. Auden would write, three years later, on the death of W.B. Yeats:

He became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections

Among the interpreters, some 40 years after Earhart’s disappearance, was Mitchell. The Amelia of her composition is not only the missing pilot (a “ghost of aviation”), but also the songwriter herself. Earhart’s attempt to be fly around the world becomes Mitchell’s own bid for meaning, in life and in love:

Amelia Earhart, 1928 (Pic: Library of Congress)

Amelia Earhart, 1928 (Pic: Library of Congress)

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…

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes

Each verse of the song ends with refrain, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” – a phrase whose ambiguity mirrors both the pursuit for the truth about Earhart’s disappearance, and Mitchell’s own disappointment, in the face of her life coming up short.

Fittingly, given the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate, this ambiguity extends into the final lines of Mitchell’s song:

I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams Amelia – dreams and false alarms

Forty years later, the Earhart story still turns on those words: dreams, and false alarms.

Update – July 13, 2017: It appears that the ‘newly-discovered’ photograph may have been taken two years before Earhart disappeared, which debunks the claim that the woman in the image is the aviator. The Joni Mitchell song, however, remains as true as ever.

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‘I can hear the fireworks’

I can see the boats in the harbor, way across the harbor
Lights shining out, lights shining out
And a cool, cool night
And a cool, cool night
And a cool and a cool
And a cool and a cool, cool night and across the harbor

I can hear the fireworks
I can hear the people, people, people shouting out
I can hear the people shouting out
Up and down the line, up and down the line
And it’s almost
And it’s almost Independence Day

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Quiet is the real loud – Nick Cave in Portland

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portland

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portland

Death, anger, violence, retribution – no one said a Nick Cave concert was going to be easy.

Lyrically (and musically too, on a few of the numbers) his performance at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this week was raw id – as the 59-year-old prowled the stage like an enraged preacher.

Words were declaimed, rather than sung:

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals
And a child is born on his brother’s heels
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red…
Tupelo!

So Cave described the coming on a devastating flood on the Mississippi town, while his band, the Bad Seeds, created an apocalyptic din behind him.

Later in the evening, early lines in “Stagger Lee” gave us an indication of the direction the murder ballad was set to take:

So he walked through the rain and he walked through the mud
Till he came to a place called The Bucket Of Blood…

But the real sturm und drung wasn’t to be found in such surging, nihilistic narratives. Towards the end of their two-and-a-half hour performance, Cave and his cohorts dimmed the lights, fired the projector, and slipped into the stately “Distant Sky”, a recent composition widely speculated to be about the tragic death of the singer’s son.

"Distant Sky" at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

“Distant Sky” at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The song is a narrative of escape, as one lover tells another that it’s time to leave a painful place. It opened with Cave himself speaking his lines, to the sound of a church-like organ: “Call the gasman, cut the power out, we can set out, set out for the distant skies”.

Then the lights dimmed, and a ghostly image appeared behind the band – that of soprano Else Torp, who echoed Cave’s call to leave:

Let us go now, my darling companion
Set out for the distant skies
See the sun, see it rising
See it rising, rising in your eyes

The specter and the singer made for a ghostly, poignant performance, undercut by the grief of Cave’s lyrics: “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us…but they lied”.

The performance also made for something far more desperate and affecting than the earlier, louder songs – not least for Torp’s painful prayer at the song’s end.

Soon the children will be rising, will be rising
This is not for our eyes

It was a moment of grief mixed with resurrection mixed with pain, that left the audience of 2,800 people standing and sitting in respectful silence.

Not for long. Within minutes “The Weeping Song” brought us back to the preacher Cave, pacing and proclaiming.

But the effect remained – for some emotions, quiet is the real loud.

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PJ Harvey at the Crystal Ballroom

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Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.

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