Friday, 6 August 2021

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. - Ernest Hemingway[1]

I am happy to be a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen's work. His music and themes dig into an emotional core of mine, even though he sings of scenarios and situations very foreign to me. I did spend a year working in a warehouse so perhaps I do recognise things when Bruce sings on Factory:
End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
We didn't have State Troopers or turnpikes in South Manchester, and I didn't know anyone who worked "for the county out on 95" [Working on the Highway (1984)]. I assume 95 is the titular highway, and it has more musciality than "I work for the council out on the M56", but despite the specific themes being a fairly foreign concept, the songs were underscored by a humanity, a decency, and a belief in things like working hard, falling in love, family, duty and the challenges of life.
Musically, the Boss doesn't stray too far from the lexicon of bar band rock and roll, although the neat touch of Clarence Clemons' saxophone adds a soulful elegance that most bands can't touch. Throughout his career he has led a fantastic band, usually the E Street Band, but even solo he produces wonderful performances and recordings. What is interesting in the noticeable change in his songwriting from his earlier, loquacious work, to his more stripped down tracks. The three years between Born to Run [1975] and Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978] changed Springsteen, his approach to songwriting and his performance. In many ways the change can be seen on his face: the sprawling, wispy, straggly beard disappears, replaced by a lean, masculing, clean jaw. What I want to do over my next few blog posts is discuss the sprawling, wispy, straggly songs he wrote and released in the first few years of his career

The album

This wonderful record starts with an archetypal early Springsteen track. The twisting high guitar lines that are joined by a wailing sax line lead into a lyrical blunderbuss of a track: Blinded by the Light. Bruce uses internal rhymes throughout the song
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat...
Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the east
He says, "Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funny bone, that's where they expect it least"
It's a joy, and it's worth saying that it is much better than the godawful cover by Manfred Mann from 1976. As I said, it's the archetype of this time: lyrically dense, musically diverse and energetic. What he would do further would add more sections to his songs so they felt like a meeting point of different tunes. The next tune on the record, Growin' Up, is similar, the internal rhymes crossing over each other in this tale of coming of age.
And I pushed B-52 and bombed 'em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing
I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school, never once gave thought to landing
It came from the ashes of an earlier song, Eloise, which obviously sound the same but isn't quite as dense in it's language [I only know of that 1 minute outtake so who knows if there's more than this]. Musically it's fairly simple, originally rolling around a picked and then strummed pattern around F, C and G for the most part, which David Sancious copies on piano, and it was one of the songs that sold Columbia on signing him. It's blasted out by Springsteen, and became a focal point of live concerts [Brucebase has it being performed 606 times at the time of writing], including the famous 1978 version with the long spoken section for his parents ["Hey, Ma, give it up!"].

The Dylan influence

These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. - Bob Dylan[2]
Springsteen was signed partly on the strength of some acoustic solo performances and this is seen on Mary Queen of Arkansas. It evidences the influence of Dylan on his work, I think, and is a powerful song, hinting at the dreamer that would be more evident in his later work ["Oh, the big top is for dreamers, we can take the circus all the way to the border"].
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? is a joyful song, taking this rhyme-dense approach about as far as it can go. Look at the rhymes and half rhymes that litter the first verse, for example:
Hey bus driver, keep the change, bless your children, give them names
Don't trust men who walk with canes
Drink this and you'll grow wings on your feet
Broadway Mary, Joan Fontaine, advertiser on a downtown train
Oh, Christmas crier bustin' cane, he's in love again
I don't know how long he could keep this up for before he literally runs out of words to rhyme, but the next album saw a slightly different approach to his songwriting as we'll see. It's an enjoyable song. Interestingly, it wasn't performed live from 1976 until early 1993.

Springsteen's imagery

Lost in the Flood is a brilliant song, and one I can't imagine Bruce writing post 1978. It's a bursting with interesting and strange imagery, most of which I think he uses because it sounds good rather than having any deeper meaning ["And everybody's wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood/Sticker smiles sweet as gunner breathes deep, his ankles caked in mud"]. The band kicks in as Springsteen sings "Jimmy the Saint" and they sound great. A piano driven song centred around a few simple chords, Springsteen uses it to paint a dramatic picture ["Hey kid, you think that's oil? Man, that ain't oil, that's blood"] and the music works perfectly.
The Angel and For You which follow are both great numbers, different in their approach. The Angel is another Springsteen acoustic number, whilst For You is a piano led four piece rock song, but they share flamboyant lyrical flourishes like alliteration ("hubcap heaven", "precious pavement", "humpin' his hunk metal whore", " I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted").
Up next, we see the return of Clarence and his sax with Spirit in the Night. I think this track points to the expanding storytelling of the next albums, full of characters like Crazy Janey, Wild Billy and G-Man and their adventures up at Greasy Lake. Live it often expands into a longer performance, slowing down to almost full stop in the middle, like the amazing performance at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1975.

The album is completed by the superb It's Hard to be a Saint in the City, a song that rolls around dark alleyways, revving its engine, until it burst out onto the street ["I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra"] snarling and vicious, lyrically explosive and plosive ["I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar's bash"]. Bowie had a go at this, which doesn't work to my ears, but it's always worth revisiting.
From this partially solo album Bruce's backing band were emerging properly. The E Street band, who had been backing him for a good year or so, were given the chance to appear on his next record.

Get the album

Or you can download it or stream it.


[1]: Alleged response by Hemingway to a comment by William Faulkner, circa 1947
[2]: Speech given at the MusiCares Person of The Year award, February 2015

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Scott Walker is even better than you think he is

To be isolated is always to assert oneself numerically; when you assert yourself as one, that is isolation - Søren Kierkegaard [1]

When Scott Walker died aged 76, on 22nd March 2019, it brought a slew of articles saying thing such as "pop singer who turned experimental" (The New York Times), "experimental pop hero" (The Guardian), "experimental singer-songwriter" (Rolling Stone), " influential rock enigma" (BBC) and "pop idol turned avant auteur" (NPR Music). Notwithstanding the fact that there no such thing an an avant auteur, the articles all pointed to the same thing: the teenage pop idol who embraced experimental music in his later years. In fact, Walker was always somewhat experimental, at a time when many pop stars were also experimenting. The interesting thing is the way Walker did it. Whilst The Beatles were pushing new sounds in 1966 on Revolver, Walker was trying out new concepts for songs. The b-side of the single Deadlier Than the Male was Archangel, where the pipe organ of the Odeon at Leicester Square heralds a doom-laden tome poem:
To hear once more
Her footsteps
Down a shadowed corridor
You're overdue
The darkest day
Goes on until it's blessed by you
The chorus is pure Scott solo-period pop music, a touch of country but with a minor key twist. I don't imagine any other groups were producing material like this in the mid 60s. The three Walker Brothers, Scott Engels, John Maus and Gary Leeds were famous for anthemic pop songs but it was clear that Walker was already pushing at the definition of this. This was in stark contrast to their worst work, which was as uncool as could be.

Solo John/Solo Scott

In December 1966 a four-track EP called Solo John/Solo Scott was released, John Maus singing the standards Sunny and Come Rain or Come Shine and Scott singing The Gentle Rain and his own composition, Mrs Murphy. Whilst The Kinks were creating their own versions of short stories in song, there's something really powerful about this song. The strings add to this soap-opera drama of gossip down a mysterious street, and the actions of the "boy in 22" who seems to be Mrs Murphy's main focus of rumour: "Poor Mr Johnson being married to a wife who should be caged, It's the child who will suffer, And to think that young man is less than half her age". Musically it's not experimental, but coupled with the lyrics it becomes a Play for Today in song, full a drama, both overt and concealed at the same time.
By the final Walker Brothers album of the sixties, 1967's Images, Scott continued to try to create these dramas, songs like Orpheus sound like direct precedents of his solo albums, "I'll steal your dreams for my shiny gold chain, And you'll wake with your eyes full of rain." The strings swirls across four notes, repeated through the refrain, pulling him further and further away from the lounge voiced entertainer.

Album by album

Links to purchase from Amazon are found within the text.

Scott (1967)

Scott (Front Cover).jpg
Walker's first release after the break up of the Walker Brothers held on to the advances he had made within the group. A mature, confident sound emerged through his magnificent baritone voice. This album started Walker's relationship with Mort Shuman's translations of Jacques Brel's work, a roll of tympani kicking the whole record off as he launches in Mathilde, a song dripping with delightful drama. It also contains the definite version of Amsterdam (well, other than Brel's original), a version that David Bowie did his best to emulate in his early years. There are no bad songs on this record, whether Walker is crooning Angelica or intoning his self-penned Such a Small Love. A personal favourite is Always Coming Back to You, a song that starts tentatively, questioning: "What was it like when we were young?", "Was it only yesterday? I've forgotten anyway" and "What was it like to hear your name?" A drama of lost love, remembered days, "Just to find we've missed our bus, But we'd laugh , kiss, what the hell" and sad realisations, "Now I go aimlessly at night, Sleep with faces I don't know." It's a bedsit torch song that works perfectly, and sets the template for future such songs. I imagine Mark Almond listening and learning from this.

Scott 2 (1968)

Scott 2 - Scott Walker.jpg
The next year Walker followed up with more of the same, but this is not a criticism. The Brel tracks are a bit more daring: Jackie, Next and The Girls and The Dogs snap with different forms of misanthropy. Many of the other covers work well, and here he sings one of my own favourites, the dramatic Best of Both Worlds, with Walker singing the flamboyant chorus with panache. The Tim Hardin cover of Black Sheep Boy demonstrates how country folk suited his voice well.

His own compositions move forward in maturity, both lyrically and musically. The Amorous Humphrey Plugg a tale of a man hoping to escape his mundane world to "seek the buildings blazing with moonlight". The Girls from the Streets is a stomping, dark song full of incredible imagery demonstrating Walker's desire to move beyond the pop song. Where else would you get lyrics with poetic internal rhymes like, "Snap! The waiters animate, Luxuriate like planets whirling 'round the sun" It's a song full of tension that is only released when it finishes. And with Plastic Palace People we have a cold, mysterious tale over rising and falling strings that is punctuated by a chorus with true pop sensibilities. It's a song that could be about anything. Well, I have no idea what it is about.

Scott 3 (1969)

Scott 3 (Front Cover).jpg1969 brought an album of ten original songs that finishes with three covers (all of Brel's). It is, therefore, a very idiosyncratic album and is certainly a favourite amongst fans of Scott Walker's music. It contains some of his most beautiful and also most surreal music to date. The covers are the only tracks that don't really work for me, as Walker's self-penned songs have clearly stepped beyond the framework built by Brel. Copenhagen is a European love song that ends with a fairground carousel. Big Louise hums softly from her "fire escape in the sky" which gave Julian Cope the title of his now famous and impossible to find compilation album from 1981. (More of Cope later). Poor Rosemary, another of Walker's creations who wants to escape her world, "hears the clock and it strikes like a hammer, Pounding the nails one day further in the coffin of her youth", and the Two Ragged Soldier (if they are soldiers) are two hobos like Vladimir  and Estragon on the "road of their fantasies". It's incredible to think that the original US versions replaced the incredible, opaque 30 Century Man ("Saran wrap all you can") with the limp Lights of Cincinati but thankfully it's back in its rightful place now. Scott 3 is a remarkable record: a pop crooner breaking out of his pop restrictions and moving into dark territory.

Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs from his T.V. Series (1969)

ScottWalker TVSeries.jpg
For six weeks in 1969, Scott Walker presented a BBC TV show, complete with special guests like OC Smith and Blossom Dearie and singing some of his best songs. The BBC have pretty much wiped evidence of the show barring a couple of pilot shows, but a record of him singing in the studio songs he must have performed was released. It seems at odds with the man who had released Scott 3 only three moths before, but it was all done very professionally, I believe. I'd love to see clips just because we all know Scott would have been cool and calm and would have dropped in moments of his unique personality, I'm sure.
This record is very professionally done, Scott sings these standards well, his voice in good form, but compared to what came just before and what was just to come it's a bit of  curio.

Scott 4 (1969)

Scott 4 (Front Cover).jpgFive months afters his TV Series album Scott Walker released the magnificent Scott 4. Commercially, it was an absolute failure, possibly due, in part, to being released under his real name, Scott Engel. Also, it was possibly just too eccentric for the tastes of his typical fans. It is a record with no weak tracks, although not everyone agrees with me. In his autobiography, Repossessed, Julian Cope describes the moment when. listening to The Seventh Seal, he comes to a realisation that Walker is ridiculously pretentious, and never listens to him again. I love the song, as much as I respect Cope's opinions, and I like to note that Scott Walker's music could be provocative enough to turn away a long-time and well known fan.
Every track is written by Walker and he produces some of his very best work, from lush romantic pop like The World's Strongest Man to guitar driven and somewhat soulful rock like Get Behind Me. One of the most notorious songs, The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime) which allegedly refers to Operation Danube, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by five Warsaw Pact countries ("A shadow cross the sky, And it crushed into the ground, Just like a beast").  Like the Jorge Luis Borges story, The Garden of Forking Paths, a different timeline exists in an alternative universe where this record is a huge hit, and drives Walker on to producing similar intelligent songs driven by his powerful baritone. But perhaps we miss out on the heights yet to come.

'Til the Band Comes In (1970)

Til the band comes in.jpg
Another album front loaded with originals and rounded off with five covers (I've always liked his Reuben James), Till the Band Comes In doesn't go to where it could have done following Scott 4, but it's a very interesting record. It hints at his more abstract work with the opening drips of rain, strings and children's voices leading onto Little Things, which would not have sounded out of place on Scott 3, and keeps his work deep in the darkness:

It's on nights like these, That your neighbor dies, 'Cos he put a gun to his head, He was so alone, He had nothing left
There's a smoky, jazz driven core to many of the songs, such as Time Operator and Joe, and Walker's voice is absolutely fantastic, expressive and note perfect. Long About Now, sung by Esther Ofarim, sounds like a soundtrack song from a film I want to see. It's another great Scott album, although as Pulp sang, the "second side of Til The Band Comes In...[is] going to let you down, my friend". The originals far outweigh the covers. By the way, the producer of that Pulp song, Bad Cover Version? One Scott Walker.

The Moviegoer (1972)

cover of Contour edition
And so now we come to Scott "wilderness years". A few albums that don't include any of his original songs. As ever, he can sing the hell out of this material, but I'm sure being forced to sing some of these songs by his record company helped form his focus in later years. The songs are all from films (hence the title). Ones that work for me include Neil Diamond's Glory Road and the western sounding Morricone melody of The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti. It at least reaches the drama of Walker's own songs. Many of the sings don't, but just contain his peerless voice and therefore are dripping with some drama, weak as the songs are. There's an odd lyrical version of the theme from The Godfather, called Speak Softly Love which adds nothing to the striking music.

Any Day Now (1973)

Any day now (scott walker).jpgAnother record of covers came in 1973. This record is striving for the adult-orientated pop market. The strings are warm and welcoming, the music nonthreatening. It failed to chart and gave no hit singles either, despite the stellar cast of songwriters, including Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Barry Mann and Bill Withers. It's lovely and comforting for the most part, although the Brazillian sounds of Caetano Veloso's Maria Bethania threaten to push the record into more interesting places, spoiled, however, by Walker using a cod-Calypso accent on the songs.

Stretch (1973)

Scott Walker Stretch LP.jpgSigning for CBS, I wonder what the record company thought they had with Walker. What they did is package up a record of "more of the same": fairly weak cover versions of saccharin songs. There's a nice country soul feel to his version of the Oldham-Penn song A Woman Left Lonely, a song you can imagine Gram Parson's singing. Stuck in the middle is a funky Bill Withers' track, Use Me and whilst I've often thought that the one thing Walker struggles with is authentic soul music, this track stand up as the best of the record for me. Withers' tight tune slinks forward slowly under Walker's expressive voice. None of the other songs really take me anywhere, and I smile at the one line description in the Wikipedia article: "Stretch received negative reviews from the majority of critics."

We Had It All (1974)

Scott Walker We Had It All.jpgIn 1975, the Walker Brothers reformed. This was following another unsuccessful solo album. We Had It All is full of acoustic guitars, and is underpinned by the country sound of songs by Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote four of the tracks. It feels as if there was an aim to position him in the country rock market. Although many of his albums had the odd country sounding song, there are no standout track here that make that choice worthwhile. A commercial and creative dead-end, he probably had nowhere else to go but back to the band. The reformed Walker Brothers led to the next chapter in Walker's development.

Nite Flights (1978)

Walker Brothers Nite Flights.jpeg
A letter is an unannounced visit, the postman the agent of rude surprises. One ought to reserve an hour a week for receiving letters and afterwards take a bath - Nietzsche 
Following two Walker Brothers' records, that include great tracks like No Regrets and We're All Alone, the band came to put their last record together. All contributing songs, the record gave us the first original material from Scott Walker since 1970. Listening to the four tracks Scott wrote for the first time sticks deep in my mind. I didn't know what to expect, but I could have never expected what we got.


The pulse of the bass and the wail of the guitar immediately set Shutout apart from previous Walker Brothers work. This is no cool country rock. Scott (clearer in the mix) and John sing in strangely detached, processed voice. Lyrics as cut up as a William Burroughs novel. The listening Walker had been doing, to Bowie's Low and "Heroes" had moved him to a whole new experimental place, with a guitar solo screaming over a Neu-like incessant beat.

Fat Mama Kick

When discovering this album, I had been blown out of my chair by Shutout, and was still reeling when the electronic bass noises of Fat Mama Kick came into my hearing. Lyrics sliced even further into individual images: Sunfighters...The gods are gone...master corpses...Peeled raw, betrayed ; a melody that hovered between being in tune and dissonance and the yawp of the repeated, chanted chorus; "Deaf! Dumb! Blind!" It's an incredible piece of work.

Nite Flights

In many way, Nite Flights is the most conventional of the Scott songs, although the strings build in a different way to how he's previously used them. There's still a cold austerity to the track, and the chorus, two twisting voices is again staying just in tune. The influence from Bowie is clear here, and the guitars try to emulate Fripp's magic on the "Heroes" album. Still, the development from what sat under the Walker Brothers' title is profound.  Funnily enough, Bowie covered the song himself years later.

The Electrician

On his final track, The Electrician, Walker pushes the boundary of "pop music" as art form. Collapsing under the weight of a black hole, vocals phase in, echoing above a precipice: Baby its slow, When lights, Go low. Walker sets out his vision as he sings at the top of his register, almost straining through the imagery of his lyrics "Jerk the handle". This is film soundtrack as 7-inch single. The string section about 3 minutes in is the score to a long lost Sergio Leone film, both at odds wiht what has come (and is yet to come) and also perfectly fitting. A single bounce of electronic bass invents a thousand bands. I still smile at the thought of Brian Eno, bemoaning the fact that no one has yet gone beyond this track, as he does on the 30 Century Man documentary.

Climate of Hunter (1984)

Scott Walker - Climate of Hunter.jpg
It took six year until the next album from Walker. The wait is worth it; he pushes his music into a place that lies between past and future (note: not the present). Surely laughing at the waiting critics with that opening line: This is how you disappear. In fact, this is how you reappear: different, developed, serpentine. Driven by bass and drums through most of the tracks, it is a new type of music using the approach seen in Nite Flights. Almost out of tune, but also melodic, abstract, requesting difference interpretations to his imagery: "From the host of late-comers, A miracle enters the streets, Shining with rain", he sings, on the abstract titled Track 3.
A song like Sleepwalkers Woman again shows the relationship between cinema and song (cf: The Seventh Seal), because when his songs sound like they are birthing new films as they play, they slice icy images across your eyes: "He has gazed from my windows". This is not music to play at dinner parties, because it demands to move beyond easy listening and to be heard.

Tilt (1995)

Tilt - Scott Walker.jpgAnother nine years, and another leap forward. On Tilt, Walker's voice strains even higher as the farmer on the opening track, Farmer in the City. "Do I hear 21, 21, 21...? I'll give you 21, 21, 21" the auction sounds out before the operatic piece builds over the Strings of Sinfonia of London. It's an emotional work of art ("Paolo/Take me with/You") and this sense is repeated throughout the record. Walker seems to have moved beyond us all creating new ways of writing music: a former pop star in a cold spotlight, intoning mystical ice behind a hidden orchestra. Things do not always fit together, deliberately discordant, untouchable and distant. Swashes of keyboards play carefully behind Walker. On Patriot (A single) he starts,as with many of these tracks, slowly, carefully, before bursting into "As-in-the wind, As-in the rain, As-in-as in, As-in-without" - a cyclic melody. A song from a long lost musical, accompanied by piccolo and military drum.

Pola X OST (1999)

Pola X (soundtrack - cover art).jpgI have not seen Léos Carax's film, Pola X, but a soundtrack scored and produced by Walker seems like a natural step in his journey, taking the lyrical imagery and distilling it to mainly pure music. A soundtrack album for many artists is a collector's curio, but here it is more Walker music, and worth finding and cherishing, because he is not content to simply accompany the scene but also will not intrude. Like all of his best music, it sits between two ideas: it's overt and hides underneath. It is symphonic (Isabel) and cut up slices of noise (Never Again), murderous power chords in darkened alleyways (The Church of the Apostates) and music that would fit on any of his solo records (The Time is Out of Joint).

The Drift (2006)

Scott Walker - The Drift.jpg
It took a break of seven years for Walker to complete The Drift, and to me it is a masterpiece amongst his masterpieces. From the second the crime drama arpeggios of Cossacks Are plays out we are captives in Scott's world. When I first heard Trout Mask Replica I was amazed at how Beefheart managed to create melodies that seemed like they were from different songs to the accompanying music. Here, Walker goes one step further, shifting that connection: sometimes the melody stands outside the rest of the song, and then suddenly they intersect, often with a pause, a breath, and a chance for Walker to intone. Jolson and Jones is a horrorshow musical from the relentless synthetic violence, snapping drum and dark imagery of "As the grossness of spring lolls its blooded head". It's Walker as avant-garde comedian too. He knows what he's doing when yelling, "I'll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!" but the whinny of the screaming donkey in the song is painful and difficult too. Famously, he had his percussionists punching a slab of pork during Clara and it strikes me that he's committing to authentic sound, to analogue noise, to get as close as possible to reality[2].

And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball? (2007)

And Who Shall Go to the Ball And What Shall Go to the Ball.jpeg
An instrumental in four movements, commissioned by London’s South Bank Centre and given to choreographer Rafael Bonachela and the able-bodied and disabled dancers of Candoco, this rarity comprises sharp electronic and analogue blasts of noise. A music of "edgy and staccato shapes or cuts, reflecting how we cut up the world around us as a consequence of the shape of our bodies"[3].
It give the image of scrolling through a radio station, staticless for a digital age, alighting on the 2nd movement, like an escapee from Tom Waits' The Black Rider, that stomps under cello rasps. As a whole Walker demonstrates the beauty he can create with ease, and the challenge he affords us all. This record is often hard to find but worth it.

Bish Bosch (2012)

I hear an abundance of melody in it, and even better melody than I wrote before[4]
Scott Walker Cover Bish Bosch.jpgThis was seen as the third part of a trilogy: Tilt - The Drift - Bish Bosch, and so is very much in the vein of the others, but to me it is a much more challenging piece of work. This is music as a declaration of war, a full break from the past. As he said himself, "most of my contemporaries and listeners from that period hate the music I’m making now,"[4] like the industrial drill of the opening drum loop on 'See You Don't Bump His Head', and occasional groping, dark baritone guitar lines. As before, the deranged choirboy voice returns, sometimes alone in isolation. On Corps de Blah Walker plays with words like he plays with sound, putting things together with alchemy: "Cholesteroled mansions crowded with sulphured air". The remarkable centerpiece of the record  is SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), a thunder of insults, jokes and koans (such as "You're so boring, you can't even entertain doubt."). The title is explained here as the identification of an object in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) catalog.
Epizootics! has a groove built out of wind, string instruments and percussion with a lyric to match: Chirp chime clambaked cups. Writing in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, this songs touches a nerve. Epiztooics relate to diseases temporarily prevalent and widespread in an animal population. At the moment we are that animal population, "Clouds crawling through protracted blue/Like souls of insects". The music makes you listen, hammers at you, pauses and jumps back. A new jazz. Epizootics also was the language of hipsters in the forties. "Epizootics!" they would say, meaning cool.

Soused (2014, with Sunn O))))

Scott Walker & Sunn O))) - Soused.jpgName me a song by the Beatles and I can hum the melody straight away. The songs are in my blood and the melodies are memorable enough to live forever. Do the same for a Sunn O))) track and I'd struggle, even though I own most of their work. Their detuned industrial approach to music is music as artform, but not immediately memorable. Joining up with Scott Walker, as they do on Soused, makes perfect sense. Walker's music has always sat at the point of juxtapostion of ideas. Opener Brando soards like a Western aria ("Across the wide Missouri") and sinks under the weight of the drone of Sunn O))) guitars. This is music that fills me with genuine excitement, a track like Bull is more dangerous and confident than anything else you can find, ensuring you have no place to relax:
Quilt of corpses
Bump the beaky
Peal no
Pitch drop
This is a vital record. The last real album by Scott Walker. His last words "will be sung".

The Childhood of a Leader OST (2016)

The Childhood of a Leader (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)This soundtrack is Scott Walker as real composer. His score sounds like an aborted Hitchcock theme following the story of a young boy who will, we see, grow to be the leader of  fascist state. The music is part thriller, part dance, part mystery music and lives as an isolated entity. There's plenty of Walker in it's instrumental moves: at times brittle with beauty, other times hanging onto melody with fingertips, and throwing in references to his previous work with a smile. Walker writes for strings with huge confidence, and demonstrates his musicality with aplomb. He shows that discordance is a choice he doesn't have to make, throwing together gentle lines (eg Cutting Flowers) that flow from piece to piece. A soundtrack you can take with you day to day.

Vox Lux OST (2018)

Vox Lux (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)Scott Walker's final album was in fact a contribution of 10 instrumental pieces for the soundtrack of 2018 film Vox Lux starring Natalie Portman. The album contains Portman and Raffey Cassidy performing songs written by Sia, and then the instrumental film score be Walker. Walker writes well for strings, especially creeping cellos, although there are punches of voiced synthesizers that creep through from time to time.
It means that Walker's last vocal performance is Lullaby, a song I had hear 16 years previously on Ute Lemper's fabulous Punishing Kiss. Listening to Walker on this track, you hear him pushing his voice, droning two note guitars behind, classic breaks into silence and wonderful playfulness ("Hey non-e non-e"). "The most intimate/Personal choices/And requests/Central to your/Personal dignity/Will be sung."


[1]: Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
[2]: On the 28th of April 1945 Benito Mussolini was taken for execution by members of the Committee of National Liberation for Northern Italy. Claretta Petacci [his mistress] insisted on dying with him. They were shot, the bodies piled into a truck and taken to the Piazzale Loreto at Milan to be strung up by the heels side by side, their heads about six feet from the ground. They were mocked, vilified and riddled with bullets by the crowd that had gathered. [Note from album sleeve]
[3]: Press release: SCOTT WALKER - And Who Shall Go To The Ball?
[4]: MP3s are a Disaster.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Lions and Tigers and Bears? (Me) Oh My!

Cate Le Bon - Me Oh My (2009)

Cover of the Cate Le Bon album, Me Oh My
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I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression. - Dylan Thomas[1]
How to travel during the Coronavirus lockdown? This is why we listen to music, it transports us, although it won't always take you to where you hope to go.

Cate Le Bon came to my attention following one of my strange completist phases. I had noticed I was enjoying more and more female singers: Joanna Newsom, Angel Olsen, Courtney Barnett, Agnes Obel, St Vincent, Flo Morrissey and Aldous Harding (this list could go on). What was it about them that garnered my attention? Apart from their marvellous voices I think it was their clear individuality. I had grown up listening to a lot of men singing, and enjoyed it. As a teenager I'd had my embarrassing "masculine" phase (I owned an album by the Vinnie Vincent Invasion) but thankfully The Beatles and The Stones had pulled me away from that brink. I discovered James Brown, George Clinton and then Prince. I hit my twenties during that period where Public Enemy stood above everyone else in the rap game. I started to delve under all sorts of musical rocks at this time, collecting a range of music, no genres were off the table (Elton John was off the table). I'd grown up the child of two soul fans, so it seemed natural to me to listen to well known artists like Aretha Franklin, and the obscure sides of the Swan label. And most importantly, I liked what I liked, not thinking about anything like gender. It wasn't important, what mattered was good music. So, of course, some of my soul sides were sung by women, but I don't think a huge amount else was. The two female artists that stick out in my mind that I often listened to were Kate Bush and PJ Harvey. Both brilliant and compelling but rarities in my record collection. I'm now at that stage where my collection has smeared into one hazy memory so I can't always remember when artists came into my view. But I have to be honest: there weren't a huge number of females in my collection. Even Cat Powers' The Covers Record was probably a bit of safe ground - songs by artists I knew interpreted by a female singer.

An undiscovered country

There was no overarching plan here. I collected music that was well reviewed (often by men) and well renowned (often by men). I bought stuff I enjoyed. Nowadays every streaming site has an 'artists like this' link allowing you to explore new and old musicians. In my youth this was done through the NME, Melody Maker, Mojo and then Uncut. I listened to what I could discover, but I didn't work too hard at it. And then one day I discovered I had been listening to music by women all along. It had appeared in my music collection and was some of the best stuff I owned: Time (The Revelator), the aforementioned Covers Record, Punishing Kiss by Ute Lemper(I think I'll do a post about this one day), Bavarian Fruit Bread by Hope Sandoval and more. Whist I hadn't consciously avoided female-led music, I came to a decision to consciously enquire further. I was enjoying music created by women more than anything else I was listening to. And somewhere in that journey I found Cate Le Bon.
Cate Le Bon is a Welsh singer and songwriter who most definitely deserves your attention. No relation to Simon, she's a quirky and unique folk singer.

Thoughts on Me Oh My

Her first album plays out over spooky, phased guitar lines and dramatic crescendos.

Me Oh My

Our first introduction to the phased guitar that picks out a tune underneath the nursery rhyme song and lyrics. A delightful minor key folk piece that sets the scene for what is to come. The middle eight section is an instrumental, laughing, mocking synthesiser and the Le Bon jumps back in, a glassy voice an octave up from before. The synthesiser returns and then it's brought full circle, her voice low and back with the opening lines leading to an expansive, free ending, cymbal crashing, synth growling.

Sad Sad Feet

Here Cate Le Bon sounds out her influence - a Super Furry Animals melody over strummed guitar. A beautiful folk song that takes us into Le Bon's dark territory "It's just, baby, I'm headed for the black". 

Shoeing the Bones

To hear Le Bon sounding confident and in control is a thing of beauty as she intones a poem-like lyric over her guitar, her melody rising and then returning to the main key for each couplet. The song builds to a coda that in another time could become a group singalong, "These are hard, hard times," but here she repeats it alone, then falls away to a single guitar line.

Hollow Trees House Hounds

The band all kick in to this track, driven by an Edwyn Collins like fuzz guitar that ties together the lines of this danceable song. A high guitar line copies the melody most of the time, again slightly phased it wobbles alongside her voice looking for an opening and finds it as a stabbing note over and over after the chorus. Le Bon sounds folky, imperious. The voices (all Le Bon?) meld together in the swell before a final verse that rounds everything off perfectly. It's a pop song hidden as spooky folk piece.

It's Not the End

We are brought back to a simple folk song after the mania of the previous track, guitar and accordion (or harmonium) support her incredible voice. A slight song, this one, feels like a breath before the next numbers.

Terror of the Man

Keyboard driven, the melody line is picked out on the harmonium sounding keys before Le Bon's dramatic voice enters to describe the situation, the terror. Over a single kick drum snapping.
Spread fire through the grounds
Obliterate the towns
But spare us from the sounds
Another song that builds, and after around 2.15 minutes the whole band explode into a hypnotic charge - Terror of the Man is repeated seven times - is this a charge against male dominated problem in society (Make frightening plans, And see them with your hands) or is that a simplistic reading of the song? When Le Bon sings in her higher register she sound cold, icy and aloof, but always in control, and she chooses her voices well.

Eyes So Bright

A love song. The magic of Le Bon is in full force on this one. The acoustic gently rolls out blocked chords and that phased keys in the background. Cate Le Bon's sings a song for her sister, but is she perhaps a horse in this one, "I ride behind, keeping hounds in line" she sings, and I can't help imagining the hunt taking place: "Mark its time, it's a terrible time". It enters its final phase with another repeated line, "I love you" which is distant enough to not sound cliched and ragged enough not to sound trite.

Digging Song

Strange Welsh folk as gorgeous pop music, Digging Song has a delightful, hummable melody that could sit over a great 80s arrangement if it wanted to. Here is sits atop guitar and harmonica. The harmonica copies the melody line after the verse which is another songs that bring to mind the land, the earth with its reference to digging, but of course, in a hip world "dig" means something else too. "And I dig all night with tired eyes". The joy of Le Bon's music is that it invokes the country with ease, but also makes you questions your interpretation - perhaps she's not singing about what I think she's singing about. Where is she taking me with this? Ultimately the melody is strong enough to enjoy on its own and take you away from questions of interpretation which don't necessarily enhance the song anyway. I'd play this track and just smile.

Burn Until the End

Opening chords like an Elliot Smith song, but that all changes when Le Bon brings in her Nico-like descriptive vocals. She pleads in her higher register before a manic episode with a wailing guitar that blows like a flag in the wind over a cantering rhythm. The dust settles and she continues, "I want to burn until the end"...

Out to Sea

An opening line like "When the tide comes in" sounds almost like a folk cliche, but it is carried off well because Le Bon's imperious vocals means she sounds like she is stood high above, looking at the sea. Even when she feels unsure...
And if I head for ground
Fearing I may drown
...there's never a time she doesn't seem in control.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

It's High Time we talked about Detroit, Michigan

MC5 - High Time (1971)

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Detroit's just a great place. It started with the music that I like, but the whole area (is great). I like to go up to Mackinac and fish. I got a lot of reasons to like Detroit, but most of all, the music has always been the greatest part. I've been working with the kids - George Clinton [1]

Late 60s Detroit is a place that exists best in my imagination.. I picture it as normal to see the odd Motown star strolling into the studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and hear Berry Gordy's particular brand of driving soul pouring from every radio and car window. Obviously this is not the case, and Gordy himself felt that the Motor City had given him all that it could when he started the process of moving out to Los Angeles, but any place that births the music of Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic, Iggy Pop and the MC5 is going to be alright by me.
So, of course, I picture myself studying at the University of Michigan and getting the opportunity to see these great bands (and Ted Nugent) in the flesh. Late 60s Parliament must have been a pretty incredible sight as George Clinton broke away from the Motown mould to get funkier, dirtier and nastier. And quite simply cool.
Clinton was on Revilot records, home of Darrell Banks and the wonderful Debonaires, both of whom will feature in future posts. After a few non-hits for The Parliaments the label dropped Clinton. He later emerged on the Invictus label and by then Parliament had become as heavy a funk band as could be heard. Their sound was influenced by The Stooges and the MC5 as Clinton said in 2016: "Oh, we played with them all the time. ...We saw that Detroit had its own version of rock 'n' roll coming out. They influenced us a lot." [1]

As Clinton was twisting the Motown sound the MC5 were updating rock and roll, trying to play their own sonic versions of surf tunes and R&B classics, like James Brown's I Don't Mind. To my uneducated ears, their early tracks have the sound of The Who, and you can hear that even in 1966 they have a sharp, energetic crashing sound that has that wonderful cheap mid-60s production that makes drums sound like shoeboxes and some sort of wood block knocking out little triplets.

An album whose musical value doesn't quite equal it's shock value[2]

I first started listen to the MC5 by discovering their debut, live album, Kick Out the Jams. I think most people growing up in the late 80s who were trying to understand the history of punk music were led to Kick Out the Jams. Funnily enough, I wasn't too enamoured by the record. It was alright, which is good enough for me, but often seen as a criticism nowadays. I particularly liked Rocket Reducer and album opener Ramblin' Rose with it's declaration:
"Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there. I want everybody to kick up some noise. I wanna hear some revolution... Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution! You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds - five seconds of decision, five seconds to realise your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realise that it's time to move, it's time to get down with it! Brothers, it's time to testify. And I want to know - are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial. The MC5!"

Back in the USA

The MC5's second album is called Back in the USA. It's a mixed bag for me, because their covers don't really work. Let's me be honest, I have never heard a version of Tutti Frutti that works, other than the original, of course, and on this one Rob Tyner's voice just cannot carry the song. The tracks the band write are all pretty good, and for me the stand out tracks are Call Me Animal, The American Ruse (this is what 3-chord garage rock should sound like) and The Human Being Lawnmower.
But what I want to discuss is the third album.

High Time

Sister Anne

This blasts into existence with a deep opening chord, followed by a riff that leads into a great rock'n'roll groove that drops into that wonderful genre of songs that describe some mysterious woman, slowly giving us more and more information about "every man's saviour". The harmonica (Rob Tyner) screams along after a superb 'Sonic' Smith solo. The song wails like a ramshackle gospel chorus stopping but not stopping, as the riff bursts out at the end, a choir of backing singers repeating "She's my Sister Anne" over a feedback driven collapse. Out of the crumbling collapse marches a band of trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn, tuba and bass drum.

Baby Won't Ya

This one snarls out of a riff that the rock bands of the mid to late seventies would have loved. It's clear that this album is less political than the earlier stuff, but for sheer entertainment it wins for me. The chorus of this one apes Dylan's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down". The twin guitars of Fred Smith and Wayne Kramer twist around each other perfectly in the solo, building to the final verse and another run through the chorus. The song becomes choppier and choppier, with everyone fighting for space as the song slowly fades out.

Miss X

A Wayne Kramer piano riff, copied by the guitar leads out this anthemic track that Kramer himself wrote, which is an undiscovered mid-70s classic rock track. Actually atypical MC5 stuff, and I can imagine any fans of the band from the early days feeling a bit let down by this one, which seems like a template for Guns 'n' Roses and a millions other radio friendly rock bands This could have easily been a hit, but it seems like no singles were released from this record.

Gotta Keep Movin'

Back in the land of garage rock and roll here, 3 chords Mouse and the Traps like groove, touching on the political in a simplistic way
Presidents, priests and old ladies too
They'll swear on the Bible
What's best for you
Atom bombs, Vietnam, missiles on the moon
And they wonder why their kids are shootin'
Drugs so soon
It sounds like it would be quite at home on the Nuggets sets and it wins wiht a delightful solo after 2 and a half minutes that then brings in the second guitar as they fight it out to the end over the top of Dennis Thompson's rolling drum fills.


From a bouncing, moody bass line this one feels more like it's rooted in the heavier supergroups like Cream and rather than being derivative it demonstrates how versatile the band were. And this track enjoys another monster drum pattern from Thompson, even if they are recorded to sound a bit dull.
The guitars dance left and right through the opening 3 minutes. A shout of "The key to the mystery" by Tyners brings everything to a calm stop. Reverbed guitars play quite little patterns into the more psychedelic section of the song. Tyner's voice clearly warping through a Leslie cabinet or some other processing as it washes in and out. All of this is designed to demonstrate the birth of a new future:
A strange new day for the people of the Earth
Traditions, burned away by the rising sun
It's a bit of a weak ending to a song that starts so well, and sounds like an unfinished idea of Tyner's to me.


A staccato riff pushes the band through another great rock track. The real star here is Michael Davis's bass that bounces under a track that sounds like it would not be out of place on one of the Norman Whitfield experimental soul-rock tracks for The Undisputed Truth. This has one of my favourite guitar solos on the record, blistering out of the speakers after a minute and a half. Tyner brings everything down quietly after that, which works more successfully than Future/Now because of how the anger returns with a final verse.

Over and Over

The MC5 channeling The Who on the brilliant track. Electric and acoustic guitars vie for space after a neatly picked, wobbly opening and another bass riff from Davis. Tyner sings this well, setting out his frustrations with technology and revolution when views through the lens of real life where "he cat next door spends all his time trying to think up new antisocial crimes" and "I was working in a factory, over and over, just trying to make it satisfactory". It's not a Springsteen like tale of working the factory floor but more like another of songwriter Smith's free association of rhyming ideas
The cop on the street wants us down on our knees
The president says we've got to have peace
The whole thing works because it rocks it's riffs so well and the Townsend like clangs of the acoustic guitars drive the whole things on incessantly.

Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)

Drums, drums and more drums. The "sonicly speaking" sounds thunder out at the start of this, Thompson's drums joined but an array of percussion for a good minute until Smith and Kramer hop on board with a great garage rock riff. It's more 3-chord stuff that the MC5 could do so well. This is the kind of music you can imagine just killing on stage. The drums rumble along non-stop and allow the rest of the band to open up properly. More dumb but fun lyrics carry the song along until out of nowhere a horn section appears, neatly bookending things after the horns of Sister Anne. These horns feel more free association, a touch of Albert Ayler's Music is the Healing Force of the Universe rather than the marching band sound. Funnily enough, Ayler started life off with a marching band sound which opened up to more freedom as time went by, and the horns on this album seem to do the same.

I haven't found any of this music on any bootlegs, even though the band continued to tour for a good year after this before breaking up in 1972. There were reunions (although all after Tyner had died) and I'm not a big fan of these things. According to wikipedia Wayne Kramer was leading some sort of "MC50" tour with him and "rock stalwart" that surely no-one needs to see.

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[2]: Richie Unterberger: Music USA The Rough Guide

Monday, 6 April 2020

Somethin' Else to listen to

Cannonball Adderly - Somethin' Else (1959)

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"Is that what you wanted, Alfred?"
Recently, I've been listening to a lot of Miles Davis, and this led me on to Cannonball Adderley.

I like the fact that Miles Davis allows Cannonball to really shine here. Often Miles sticks to the main melody giving Adderley the chance to deviate and solo in a more dramatic way. Miles' understated performance is key to the whole album.
Is this a masterpiece?

Autumn Leaves

Starts with lovely echoing piano notes and then Miles Davis' perfectly noted trumpet plays the melody. Adderley comes in after about 2 minutes, immediately stretching the melody. It has what I would feel is that 'cool' jazz sound: walking bass from Sam Jones, hissing ride cymbal from the masterful Art Blakey and busy but not fussy horn playing. Davis was already a big star at this point helping out one of his sidemen. The sound of Miles' trumpet is one of the things that drew me into jazz. There is a lovely, bluesy lick that both he and Cannonball play in this piece which just feels so right, and Miles' solo is quite wonderful.
In the final 2 minutes there is a lovely, piano led coda that returns to the mysterious latin-like groove that starts the song. Hank Jones on the piano, here. Looking through my records I only have one album by him: Lazy Afternoon from 1989 (will post about it someday) so it looks like I have to start delving into the work of someone else soon.

Love For Sale

The melodic intro suddenly 'pings' into a shuffling and sexy groove. Again, Miles starts off squeezing out the melody notes over a beat that makes me want to samba (or is it rumba? I know nothing about these dances, it's probably a foxtrot for all I know). Cannonball plays much faster than Miles, adding an extra zip to the tune with his runs up and down the scales and the drumming soon falls into line. As a jazz novice I love how far away from the melody the sax seems to wander, and how the trumpet comes back, restrained, to the original tune. This is a real 'standard' with versions by Dexter Gorden, Sidney Bechet and an upbeat version by Miles own sextet on the '58 session album. This version contrasts with the Davis sextet by being slightly slower, which is necessarily better, but the piano lines are what make it for me. Little riffs on with the left hand makes it so danceable.

Somethin' Else

No need for a groovy intro - this swings right in - sax and trumpet talking to each other, swapping notes, until Miles takes over with a great solo taking in some nice high notes but never too busy.
As Cannonball plays his solo the tune is moving along quite briskly and there's a wonderful moment about 4 minutes in when Art Blakey does this kind of double time rat-a-tat with his high hat. The sax never loses its stride.
My favourite moments are when the two horns battle away ('trade licks' they usually say in books and magazines). Not sure I understand enough about music to enjoy the piano solo here - I would prefer more notes and less chords!

One for Daddy-O

A mix of delicious piano and side-by-side horns brings this one in and it then blasts with a bluesy Cannonball solo that I just love.
The bass (Sam Jones) picks out a quite perfect line here, I love the more metallic high notes that pop up from time to time. Miles' solo is fantastic too. After my moaning about the piano on the last track, Hank Jones plays just what I want on this one, fingers snaking up and down the keyboards, slurring notes everywhere. By the time the piece returns to its main theme every musician has shown their talent and ability perfectly.
"Is that what you wanted, Alfred?" is Davis to producer Alfred Lion, who had a measly few paragraphs written about him on Wikipedia which is a bit odd considering he co-founded Blue Note.
Alfred Lion and Hank Moberley (found at Times of Israel)

Dancing In The Dark

Smoother, melodic, time for a slow dance. Adderley is so expressive during the opening bars it makes me want to weep. The descending scales are blown so perfectly to these inexperienced ears - this is Cannonball's track.

Alison's Uncle

A double horn blast into the main theme and everyone's up and at it on this one, which just barrels along. This was recorded in 1958 but not released, what a shame! And how great we do get to hear it, because both horns play great solos, especially Miles. Art Blakey gets a few nice solos on this one; I'm not too keen on drum solos but these are nice and quick and set the tune up for a bopping finale!

Somethin' Else get a showing in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings Core Collection. Adderley's most famous record, but not necessarily his best. For me, that goes to The Black Messiah.

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Buy the CD from Amazon
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Have a listen to the album on Google Play

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. Bu...