Tag Archives: Music

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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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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