Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gene Clark: Lady Of The North

Former Byrd Gene Clark is responsible for one of the all-time great albums 'No Other', which until recently was considered one of the great ‘lost’ records of the seventies, along with Dennis Wilson’s equally magnum opus ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’.

How such a remarkable piece of work came to be lost in the first place is the usual seventies story of too much time, money and largesse. As recording costs had ballooned to over $100,000, Geffen basically disowned the album, refusing to do promotion and allowing it go out of print, until the much anticipated first CD pressing in 2003.

With a vast array of session musicians and backing singers, the album was an amalgam of country rock, folk, gospel and soul with poetic, visionary lyrics.

The process for creating the album started when Clark retreated to his coastal home in Mendocino, removing himself from the L.A. party scene. He took a full year in this serene surrounding to compose the eight songs which ended up on the album. Towards the end of writing, Clark set-up a home with old cohort Doug Dillard in the Hollywood Hills. Initially, his wife Carlie Clark and children relocated with him to Los Angeles in the hope that the family routine of Mendocino could be preserved, but Clark had settled back into his old ways of erratic behaviour and his family abandoned him.

The climax of album ‘Lady Of The North’ an ode to the departed Carla was written in this later frantic period . The track itself gets a production of the kitchen sink variety, eclipsing even Brian Wilson for obsessive detail and awe inspiring intricacy. Every second of the song allows for some other instrumental flavour to flourish brightly. This isn’t a case of ‘too many cooks’ though because Clark has the requisite genius to see the bigger picture and weave it all together. The song floats achingly across the American landscape, as Clark sings majestically “passing the shadows of our tears”, matching the epic lyrics with a bold major chord sequence of enormous ambition and hope.

The album met with a tepid critical response and reached a disappointing peak of #144 on the charts with Clark henceforth relegated to relative commercial obscurity. With the failure came bitterness, and he would die of alcoholism-related causes in 1991, sadly underappreciated in his lifetime.

No Other (1974)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Suede: 'The 2 Of Us'

The partnership of Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler produced some superior songs in their mid-nineties heyday, moulding their overt influences from glam rock and sixties pop into a couple of era defining albums.

By the time the band had settled on its definitive lineup they had already stepped into an alternative media frenzy, due in no small part to their fresh sound which proved to be a remedy to the dying Madchester scene and U.S. grunge overkill.

Their first album Suede became the fastest-selling debut since Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome To the Pleasuredome, they picked up the mercury prize but couldn’t quite crack America.

By their second album Dog Man Star they had become unwilling participants in a scene they helped create, namely Brit-Pop. While Blur and Oasis were building their careers, the tensions within the band mounted. Anderson and Butler fought constantly; a major issue was the production direction of the album. Butler had enough and walked out, leaving the remainder of the guitar work on the album to be completed by studio musicians or Brett Anderson.

The album itself features a spacious sound that was fleshed out by strings and other effects, designed to take focus away from the lack of Butler’s guitar. A glamorous aura of death pervades much of Anderson’s lyrics, exploring darker territory at odds with Brit-Pop’s optimism. The band revels in the new gutter chic atmosphere.

‘The 2 Of Us’ features a grandiose piano over a lavish chord sequence with Anderson oscillating wildly between overwrought baritone and high Bowie-esque yodelling. Of course, copious histrionics abound, but when you listen to Suede you know what you’re getting into.

Following the demise of Suede in 2003, Butler and Anderson would finally patch things up for a single album reunion under the pseudonym ‘The Tears’ in 2005. The album was well received but sold zilch, leading to a hiatus. Anderson has released a couple of solo albums which haven’t been well received at all and Butler moved into the production side of things, working with ‘The Libertines’ amongst others.

Where to find: Dog Man Star (1994)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Scott Walker: 'Jesse'

Scott Walker, the man is all shadow and no body. He leaves you clasping at straws in vain attempts to predict or decipher his actions. In fact attempting to classify his work would do injustice to something in essence unclassifiable. We know the history, the Walker Brothers, pop stagnancy, the first classic four solo albums, the wilderness years punctuated by moments of infuriating brilliance. Trying to pin Walker down is an experience not unlike shovelling dust against the wind, but that could be part of the allure.

His incomparable return with ‘Tilt’ in 1995 set us up for what promised to be a series of new major works, but Walker yet again disappeared for a decade, before the surprise announcement of a new album in 2006. ‘The Drift’ is a deeply challenging album for the listener. In short, one must re tune their ears from the drudgery of mainstream audio mush to fully appreciate what is going on here. Walker knows the old trick that the things you can't see are the most frightening, so uses minutes of stealthy ambience before letting loose the violent outbursts. In an interview following the album’s release he stated that he doesn't do arrangements any more, just puts "blocks of sound" here and there, the bitter melodies and discordant vocals, assault the senses and leave you reeling.

Jesse is one of the few straightforward ‘songs’ on the album, in which Walker enters into the lonely, desolate mind of Elvis Presley in his final days, searching for the ghost of his still-born twin Jessie. Mixed in here somewhere is the nightmare vision of September 11th and when Walker intones “I’m the only one left alive”, you believe him. Musically we get a solitary plucked guitar over the colossal orchestral sweeps and bubbling darkness. Walker’s voice has lost none of the intensity that made him famous, even though he’s content to use it for different purposes then before. He reveals the overwhelming melancholy and jaded soul of Elvis, all through his painfully fragile vocals which are pushed to the front of the brutal uncompromising mix. A different level.

Where to find: The Drift (2006)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chuck Berry: 'Let It Rock'

He is the one of the first and one of the greatest early songwriters and guitarists of rock music, the main crafter of its instrumental voice and an electric live performer.

While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure, by being the one who put all the essential pieces together by drawing the disparate elements of the jigsaw onto one piece of vinyl.

Although albums were not a concept taken seriously as an artistic vision in the era,
his 1960 album ‘Rockin' at the Hops’ shows that Berry never produced substandard or lazy material in his original golden period. Simply put, In a time where long players were a collection of contractual obligations, Chuck Berry made the first standalone albums.

Released the same year as the album it would figure on,“Let It Rock, was put out as the B-side of the ludicrously titled single “Too Pooped To Pop”. Though history has forgotten about that latter gem, the flipside has become something of a rock standard and has been covered by The Rolling Stones and Motörhead amongst others. Infact when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had their faithful reintroduction in the early sixties, Mick was carrying a copy of ‘Rockin' at the Hops’.

Lyrically the song shows the beauty in the economical word usage that makes Berry such a unique songwriter. The first line “In The Heat Of The Day Down In Mobile Alabama”, immediately sets the scene. Berry knew that every second counted on these brief radio songs so he trots out every classic guitar figure he can cram into a song lasting under two minutes.

Elsewhere we get the usual bluesy railway working clichés (well they’ve become clichés anyway) ‘rolling them bones’ and ‘steel driving hammers’ etc. The sheer ease with which he throws out the liquid licks and ragged riffs prompts the question, has anybody really eclipsed Chuck Berry in the 2 minute masterpiece stakes ?

Where to find: Rockin' at the Hops (1960)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Fury: My Bloody Valentine, 'Soon'

Kevin Shields is one of those unique musicians that comes along every generation or so, equal parts genius and infuriating perfectionist. The bands zenith came with the release of ‘Loveless’ in 1991 an album made over the course of two painful years, worked on in 19 separate London studios with a laundry list of recording engineers. Shields dominated the record, agonising over the minutiae of every note. He later revealed that he played all the guitar and bass tracks on the album while the vast majority of the percussion came from cut up samples of Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drumming.

When Alan McGee of Creation records signed My Bloody Valentine he expected great things, but his patience was tried when the costs started to spiral out of control. Shields and vocalist Belinda Butcher became affected with tinnitus due to playing at obscenely high volumes, Shields insisted on using as little guitar effects as possible preferring elaborate routes to achieve what was essentially the same result and Butcher refused to let engineers hear her vocal takes, cutting off the sound to the booth and recording behind a curtain. Studio assistance was hired and fired with alarming regularity as Shields stove for immortality.

All of this meant that there was pressure to deliver something special and Loveless proved to be just that. With his furious tremolo bar wavering, Shields conjures a gargantuan wall of impressionistic feedback with gives the tracks an out of time floating quality. He reveals inner melodies within the melodies burying the muted dreamy vocals, which tend to run together into one vast cloud. The closing track ‘Soon’ first appeared on the Glider EP and was a conscious attempt to produce something more suited to the dancefloor. The sampled, almost baggy drumbeat propels the track forward with singular intensity while Shields continues to burn forcefully melting his guitar and mixing the remnants with Butchers punch drunk, almost inaudible vocals. An unforgettable woozy blur.

Where to find: Loveless (1991)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Monday Mystery: The Sonics, 'Strychnine'

Garage rock, that raw form of rock and roll that flourished in North America from about 1963 to 1967, gave birth to an aesthetic that would later be described as a punk attitude. A major contender for the title of “the first punk band”, are ‘The Sonics’, who were part of the Pacific Northwest American scene at this time.

The term Garage rock comes from the perception that many such performers were young and amateurish and that is exactly what The Sonics give you. The performances were often slapdash or naïve simple chord sequences, played hard and fast to cover up for any musical shortcomings. But don’t underestimate the ingenuity at work, the crudity was well studied, the band for example played their guitars through self customized amplifiers to achieve the harshest tones possible.

Their debut album ‘Here Are The Sonics’ was recorded very, very cheaply on a two track recorder with only one microphone to pick up the whole drum kit. The lyrics of The Sonics' original material dealt with early '60s teenage culture; cars, guitars, surfing, and girls but much more interesting was when they delved into darker and more subversive subject matter such as drinking strychnine for kicks, witches, psychopaths.

The track ‘Strychnine’ is a lesson in audio vérité, the vocals are bellowed and hollered with little attention to sound levels, the guitars are viciously overloaded, while the drums batter furiously to be heard above the din. It’s all here; microphone pops, fluffed notes and outrageous (for the time) lyrics.

You’ll be inclined to agree with Larry Parypa’s summation: “We were nasty. Everything you've heard people say about us is true."

Where to find: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968

Friday, November 7, 2008

This Friday: Grinderman, 'Love Bomb'

In the decade prior to the release of the Grinderman album the music world had seen Nick Cave take the Bad Seeds on a major stylistic departure from their earlier raw sound. Starting with ‘The Boatman's Call’ in 1997 the seeds moved towards an intimate sound with Cave's solo voice accompanied by piano or a few other delicate instruments.

The intervening years had seen several acclaimed releases following the in same muted vein, but following a heavy touring schedule in 2005 Cave started to write on guitar, an instrument he had previously shown little interest in. His rudimentary riffing gave the new material a taste of unrefined energy which summoned up the ghosts of his early post-punk work with ‘The Birthday Party’.

Cave then made the decision to release the fruit of these sessions as a side project, Grinderman, consisting of several Seeds including his soundtrack composing partner Warren Ellis. Shedding the Bad Seeds tag, the participants were liberated from the shackles of expectation, which shows in spontaneity of the music, the sound of middle aged men behaving disgracefully and loving every minute of the illicit noise.

The final track on the album ‘Love Bomb’ is a sweltering gem, and features all the best elements found on the album, Cave’s guitar recorded upfront and jeering backed by a gutter rhythm and swells of awkward screeching feedback. Polished this is not.

Cave has recently said the next Grinderman album will feature a completely new direction, which proves that he is never one to dwell to long on any one subject, his busy mind dragging us to new places.

Where to find: Grinderman (2007)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My Tuesday: Neil Young, 'Long May You Run'

Neil Young and Stephen Stills have had something of a fractious on-off relationship since the mid sixties, crossing paths intermittently in the following decades, like magnets drawing together but more often than not ending with acrimonious recriminations. It seems that Young used the Stills collaborations as a means of recharging artistically, using his erstwhile partner as a point of reference to his own past.

The Stills-Young Band recorded an album and began a tour in 1976 prior to the album's release. The album stemmed from a desire by both Young and Stills to pick up where they left off with their Buffalo Springfield-era guitar explorations. CSNY cohorts David Crosby and Graham Nash got wind of the project, hoping to be added to the collaboration they provided backing vocals for the original version of the title song. Young and Stills decided to wipe Crosby and Nash's vocal harmonies from the track when they left the sessions. These harmonies are now present in their restored form on the ‘Decade’ album.

The tour following these sessions proved to be a massive anti-climax when Young dropped out having grown bored with the project and Stills’ behaviour, forcing Stills to complete the concert tour solo.

The title song itself is the most notable thing to arise out of the collaboration, supposedly a loving tribute to a black ‘48 Buick Roadmaster hearse he christened ‘Mort’, that Young had driven around early sixties Winnipeg. But a car is more than a car to Neil Young: “Mort was part of my identity, like a cowboy and horse”.
Musically the beach boys get a name check and ‘Caroline, No’ is given a few bars of melody. Emmylou Harris later commented “that’s an odd song”, “it’s about a car, but there’s other things in there too, I think Neil writes on other levels.”

The most hilarious part of this Stills-Young episode was Young’s telegram sent to Stills to end the tour, “funny how things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil”

Where to Find: Long may You Run (1976)
Decade (1977)