Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Friday, 22 May 2015

Lick My Decals Off finally and officially remastered and re-released onCD!

Sun Zoom Spark ****

Lick My Decals Off, Baby is finally officially released. Allegedly remastered, it's embedded within a de-luxe 4-disc boxed set of material, much of which was already easily available.

I would really like to post a rave review of this release, as some other Beefheart fans have done. But I don't feel I can honestly do so. It's an expensive set, and a lot of the content - two of the four discs: The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (i.e. two albums, or 50% of the material) - has long been easily available elsewhere.

The only stuff that forms the exclusive 'previously unreleased' material, falls into two categories: Lick My Decals Off, Baby has never until now had an official release on CD, whilst the out-takes, officially at any rate, have never been released at all. I already had the vinyl release of Decals, so for me that doesn't constitute the great undiscovered gem type of stuff one might've wished for. But it might well do so for any gams of Trout mask Beef who haven't heard it before. For those lucky listeners, I'd say this is undoubtedly a five star affair, simply for making Decals more easily available.

The reason I bought this lavish and expensive boxed set was to finally own an official CD release of Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the post Trout Mask album that really is a work of maverick musical genius. That album, on its own, would certainly have merited five stars (or ten, frankly). As mentioned above, I already had these recordings, on vinyl (see my previous post about it here), but I had long wished for the day when it would come out as a decently remastered CD. But, frankly, I just wish it had been put out as a standalone entity. Being forced to buy The Spotlight Kid (a 3 or 4 out 5 album) and Clear Spot (5/5) again, when I already had perfectly good versions of them, was annoying. And the CD of our-takes has nothing on it that makes me think, 'wow, here's some long lost jewels to admire!'
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For those who don't know much about the Cap'n and his cohorts, a brief synopsis of the contents:

Disc 1: The absolutely sublime and totally essential Lick My Decals Off, Baby, featuring the Trout Mask era band, plus second drummer and percussionist Art Tripp. If you know Trout Mask Replica, this follows on nicely, being equally intense and crazy, but more focussed and tightly executed. All the musicians involved are brilliant - witness such beautiful instrumentals as Peon and One Red Rose That I Mean - but the much put upon and recently ignominiously ejected (literally!) John 'Drumbo' French deserves special mention.

French had acted as musical director on Trout Mask and, under the brutal dictatorship of the Captain, he helped give birth to a totally unique and new style of music, and also of drumming, both of which have never really been properly understood or absorbed into the mainstream. Despite being fired - Beefheart also, very meanly, left his name off the Trout Mask credits! - and replaced as musical director (Zoot Horn Rollo took on that mantle), French recorded the brilliant drum parts, sometimes augmented by Art Tripp on a second kit. Some of the twin-kit rhythmic chemistry, on tracks like Bellerin' Plain for example - a wonderful example of this band at the peak of their powers (film footage of the band from this era is really somethin' else) - is, well... I'm listening to it now, and words fail me... genius!

Beefheart's lyrical muse is in full spate as well. This isn't music for all occasions, as it's mostly really quite intense. But it's tremendously wonderful, and there's nothing else on this good earth quite like it. The band practically explode under Beefheart's free jazz sax solo on Bellerin' Plain: I'm a fan of some of the intense near free jazz such as late Coltrane, but most of what is usually referred to under the banner free jazz is, frankly, aural torture. Here the squalls of sax over the tempestuous rhythm section are simply sublime.

Just as Alice Coltrane made certain experiments (Infinity is a beautiful album) whose ideas were destined not to be fully explored, thanks to adverse critical and popular reaction, Beefheart and co. pointed a way that could have been usefully further explored. Japan In A Dishpan finds the Cap'n and the band doing just that, but, for my money, it works better when it's a small moment within a much bigger musical conception, as at the end of Bellerin' Plain.

There's plenty of lyrical humour ('I want to find me a woman that'll hold my big toe till I have to go'!), and there are even some tender or relatively mellow moments; the two aforementioned instrumentals are beautiful jewels, and titles such as Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop and The Buggy Boogie Woogie show that even in his 'weird' period Beehfheart and his band could vary the feel and turn down the weirdness without losing the intensity.

Beefheart's pessimistic eco-philosophy is expounded on the lyrically poignant and musically wild Petrified Forest, and his interest in evolutionary history as it feeds into these ideas is further worked out on The Smithsonian Institute Blues. Although it's not an even or easy listen, Decals is truly brilliant. Even the cover artwork is great, and they also recorded a weirdly surreal black and white promo video for the album (not, sadly, included in this package).

Disc 2: The Spotlight Kid - This might perhaps, by ordinary standards, be a fine album. But in the Beefheart canon it's merely pretty good. Beefheart and the band don't sound like they have the same extraordinary focus and zeal they had during the Trout and Decals era. The album is more patchy, confused, and less intense.

Some of the tracks here, like 'Glider' (a personal favourite) even sound like they're returning to the pre-Trout riffing blues of the Safe As Milk and Strictly Guaranteed period. Essentially the hyper-intense experimentalism of Trout and Decals wasn't landing the band any economically sustainable work, and so they were drifting back towards a more 'normal' sound world. There's plenty of good music here, but it's not Beefheart or the Magic Band at their best.

Disc 3: Clear Spot - Rather interestingly, Beefheart and his musical minions showed incredible flexibility, and could be at their very best at seemingly contradictory musical poles along a widely divergent spectrum - from the Dadaism of Trout and Decals, or the tightly focused and more commercial sounds that can be found on Safe As Milk (I'm Glad), here on Clear Spot (Too Much Time, My Head Os My Only House Unless It Rains, and Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles), or even on Bluejeans and Moonbeams (Observatory Crest).

Clear Spot manages to mix some of the most mainstream sounds these guys would make with some of their still quite experimental stuff. So you get the sweetness of the three aforementioned ballads, the ballsy New Orleans bluesiness of Low Yo Yo Stuff, Crazy Little Thing and Long Neck Bottles, through to the weirder numbers like Circumstances, Big Eyed Beans From Venus, Golden Birdies, and the superb title track. Where The Spotlight Kid was all over the place in a slightly unconvincing way, this is all over the map but still has real focus and conviction. It's also, thanks to Ted Templeman, one of the best produced albums in the Beefheart oeuvre.

Disc 4: Out-Takes - Some artists have material lying unused that makes you think, once you hear it, 'why the hell was that kept under wraps?' As a Beefheart nut, I find all this out-take stuff interesting. But, in all honesty, it's not like being a Steely Dan fan and then discovering the sublime 'Canadian Star', a Becker and Fagen track that Steely never recorded, on Dr Strut's 1979 album, or hearing Tom Waits doing his early pre-Foreign Affairs version of Burma Shave, live at Austin City Limits, over a chord cycle nicked from Summertime.

Instead this is like a glimpse into the Beefheart/Magic Band musical sketchbook, fascinating for diehard fans, but not necessarily throwing up much stuff that stands strongly on its own feet in comparison with the officially released material. One thing thing that might surprise newcomers, but won't surprise died in the wool Beef fans, is to see how much of his latter period stuff (e.g. Harry Irene, Dirty Blue Gene, etc.) had its roots way back, about a decade before it would see commercial light.
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So that's the music. Why else might you fork out for this de-luxe set? The four discs come in nice card facsimiles of the album covers, and there's a pretty little box - well, it's quite chunky actually - with a red ribbon to help pop out the discs and the booklet. The booklet is okay, if a bit cloyingly and even self-consciously hagiographic. Having interviewed John French for Drummer magazine (the interview, alas, was not used [1]), and read books by him and Bill Harkelrod... well, as much as I admire Beefheart the artist, I'm not sure how nice a man he was!

If you're new to Beefheart, I wouldn't suggest starting here, and if you're already a big fan you might feel complicated, as I did, about duplicating stuff you already have. But then again, you might feel, as some of the other reviewers over at Amazon UK clearly do, that Beefheart's genius, and the talents of his musical sidekicks, merit the expense. Despite my misgivings I did. And I am glad to have Decals as a remastered CD. But, despite Decals and Clear Spot both meriting the full five stars, I don't think the whole package does. So, this is an essential release, for me at least, but it's not perfect.
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NOTES:

[1] If you're interested, you can read the Drumbo interview here: [link]

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Jack Bruce - Gone but not forgotten.


'Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves.' Tales of Brave Ulysses

Napoleon famously said "the only immortality is the memory we leave behind in the minds of men." Well, aside from expanding that to include both the lives and minds women, of course, I think he was dead right about that. And, speaking of being dead right (right?), I was terrifically saddened to read today of the passing of Jack Bruce, singer, bassist composer and more.


Cream were a band of fundamental importance in my development as a musician, thanks to a record in my dad's collection, The Best of Cream. I was drawn to the album both for the music and for its unusual cover, including the moody looking trio of hairy hipsters pictured on the back of the sleeve. The assortment of veg on the cover turned out to be a painting by Pop artist Jim Dine; it's arguably the least dated looking album cover to grace a Cream recording.

 

Jack Bruce was a real gem. I must admit I was rather slow to appreciate his role in the group. And perhaps I only truly appreciated it with his passing? Upon learning of his demise I began seeking out and watching various YouTube clips of him in action, amongst which I found footage of him playing upright bass in a trio with drummer Jihn Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith (a number called 'Over The Cliff'). 

You see it was Ginger Baker that had really turned me onto the Cream sound, thanks to his baggy syncopations on the cover of the Albert King song, 'Born Under a Bad Sign'. I can pinpoint that specific song as being what got me started as a drummer! Much later I recall thinking Ginger Baker was a cocky mutherfocker when, as shown in Beware Mr Baker, he boasts of tag-teaming with such jazz drumming luminaries as Art Blakeyn, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams (and others). [1] 

I'd long known that Baker saw himself as a jazzer slimming itmin the rock world. I even knew that Bruce had played in a group with John McLaughlin and Tony Williams. I like music that all three had done in other contexts, but the sounds they made together have yet to 'reach' me. However, seeing Bruce holding his own on upright in a frenzied near-free-jazz mode with a couple of British heavyweights of the UK's jazz scene, was both an eye-opener and a reminder that many musicians back in those days were rooted in a jazz background, even on our perhaps more parochial side of the pond.


But because Clapton went on to so throughly eclipse both Bruce and Baker, and because, as a drummer - and not just any drummer, but the one who got me started - Baker held a privileged position in my life, Bruce was kind of squeezed out of the picture, in my mind. Indeed, whilst I admired his muscular electric bass playing with this early power trio, I was never all that keen on his singing. No doubting he had a good strong voice. But unlike Clapton's occasional and very straightforward vocal features with Cream, whose straight-ahead delivery would ultimately form the basis of his charm, Bruce had a rather strident and, I felt, mannered vocal delivery. 

And indeed, although there were some bona fide classic in their small catalogue, much of the music Cream made, like Bruce's voice, their clothes and their record covers, was really rather too '60s, almost to the point of cliché. As open-minded and omnivorous as I am musically, yet it was only really Clapton of the three who went on to do any great work, post Cream. Both Bruce and Baker, whilst they remained active musically, never really attained the dizzying heights their younger promise had suggested. It must have been hard for them to watch Clapton's ascent and compare it to their own fates.

One certainly senses anger and bitterness with Baker. But, to his great credit, Bruce always came across, post Cream, as a decent solid guy, with a ready wit, a gleam in his eye, and an essentially positive vibe. Of course with Bruce this is based on very minimal sightings, usually on BBC music docs! Clapton and Baker are still with us, the former in vigourous health, the latter looking and sounding pretty ropey. 



Okay, so I'm not one of those who spouts only the most positive of hyperbole here. But nevertheless he was an essential part of some truly magical music, and so, without overdoing it, I can trouble say I loved the man and what he brought to the music. And so it is that hearing of Bruce's passing was very sad news, as it adds him to the roll-call for the great jam-session in the sky, beyond the reach of my email or phone. I had, and still have, vague plans for a book on music of the late sixties to early seventies, and would've loved to have interviewed him for that. And every month brings new losses: Alice Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello... I think Bruce would be pleased to be counted amongst such august company, even if it was attained only in passing.

I'll conclude with a quote from Bruce's family that I read in an online Guardian obituary: 'The world of music will be a poorer place without him but he lives on in his music and for ever in our hearts.'

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I found this on YouTube. A 30 minute (or thereabouts) German program from 1971 called Swing In, dedicated to Brucey and his band du jour (or der tag?), which includes Soft Machine sticks-man John Marshall. Not watched it yet myself! As soon as time permits...

NOTES:

[1] From Ginger Baker's Facebook page: 'I battled Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Phil Seaman, Max, Roach [sic], and Tony Williams. Bonham played in Zeppelin. If he was still alive today, ask him! How I am grouped with Bonham and Moony....is laughable...'


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - For The Roses (1972)

"I want to take you higher." When I quote Sly Stone here, I'm not thinking of a descent into drug oblivion, the dark flipside to the hippy dream, I'm actually thinking of artistic ascent: how can an artist already as good as Joni has been on her first four albums get any better?

I love all Joni's albums up to this point, passionately. She is, and I say this unreservedly and unashamedly, my musical goddess. And it continues to blow my mind how fabulous so much of her output both was and is, and, for me, For The Roses hits some highs that are like choirs of cosmic angels in orgasmic epiphany, and what's more, it's a natural high.

Where Blue's cover photo bespeaks internal turmoil and intense emotions, on the cover of For The Roses she's a Nordic nature girl, blond, beautiful, and clad all in green velvet, elfin in her beauty, inhabiting a Tolkienesque setting of pure natural splendour. I'm guessing the picture was taken near her Canadian retreat. And, for those who, like me, yearned for Joni's love in our teen years, what capped all this off was the insert, which (in my LP version at any rate) had a photo of her buck naked, staring out to sea, stood atop some rocks. Seen from the rear, and from quite a distance, her perfect body nonetheless lived up to the promise her music and lyrics seemed to make: in as far as female perfection can be realised, this is it! And what's more, the music is magnificent. And, to cap it all, this was released in 1972, the year I was born. A meaningless coincidence, perhaps. But redolent with the kind of 'synchronicity' we humans are so wont to find in the patterns of our lives.

This is the first of her albums to commence with a piano based song: 'Banquet' continues her habit of leading off with a strongly poetic number - "I took my dream down by the sea / Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine" - in which, in this case, she's looking at the banquet of life ("Some get the gravy / And some get the gristle / ... Though there's plenty to spare"), from the vantage point of her British Columbia beach retreat. Whether the banquet itself, or the fortune cookie referred to in the last stanza, are real or imagined is hard to tell, but as usual, Joni effortlessly shifts gears through different levels, from the personal and specific to the general and abstract. Her piano playing has been developing, and, like her guitar playing, is very distinctive, mixing chords, licks, and lines, and frequently following the vocal phrasing which, as is normal with Joni, is anything but normal.

Having referred to drugs before obliquely or in passing, she now tackles the theme head on, perhaps as a result of having gone out with James Taylor for about a year, around 1970/71, prior to recording this album (there's a great story here from a guy who's record store they visited, after closing time, near christmas, in 1970). This is, in a way, an interesting foretaste of the direction she would take when she went more in a more electric/band orientated direction, with albums like Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira. It's the first time on record that it sounds like a full band, despite previous instances of tracks with bass guitar and drums, and the lyrics are very urban and gritty, reminding me of a feminine take on Iceberg Slim, whose excellent book Trick Baby (which deals more generally in prostitution and all-round hustlin' and scamming, rather than drugs, but shares a dark urban flavour with this song) I read some years ago, whilst I was, pardon the affected hipster patois, jonesin' on a Joni jag.

Here's an extract of her lyrics for 'Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire':

Red water in the bathroom sink
Fever and the scum brown bowl
Blue steel still begging
But it's indistinct
Someone's hi-fi drumming Jelly Roll
Concrete concentration camp
Bashing in veins for peace
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire
Fall into Lady Release

We've come a long way from the pastoral idylls of 'Sisotowbell Lane', or even the suburban hippy haven of Laurel Canyon as celebrated in 'Ladies Of The Canyon'. In fact her bleak urban poetry is so powerful I want to give you another hit:

A wristwatch, a ring, a downstairs screamer
Edgy-black cracks of the sky
"Pin cushion prick fix this poor bad dreamer"
"Money" cold shadows reply
Pawnshops crisscrossed and padlocked
Corridors spit on prayers and pleas
Sparks fly up from sweet fire
Black soot of lady release

It's interesting to me that two of my favourite singer songwriters, Tom Waits and Joni, both started out sounding sweet and innocent, and both felt the allure of the gritty urban scene, and jazz related culture. This track alone is enough to connect Joni's vein of beatnik lowlife to Waits circa Blue Valentines, and Heartattack And Vine. And of course, she would continue down this road on later albums, with themes such as that of 'The Jungle Line', which I'll be discussing when we get to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.

Track three is one of my favourites from the album, and in fact one of my all time favourites in the Joni Mitchell songbook, 'Barangrill'. After the urban drug hell of the previous track this is like the sunnier side of the beatnik dream. Joni's Kerouackian vibe is strong, and comes over well in the lines of the opening verse:

Three waitresses all wearing
Black diamond earrings
Talking about zombies
and Singapore slings
No trouble in their faces
Not one anxious voice
None of the crazy you get
From too much choice
The thumb and the satchel
Or the rented Rolls-Royce
And you think she knows something
By the second refill
You think she's enlightened
As she totals your bill
You say "show me the way
To Barangrill"

Barangrill becomes a mythical Utopiua, and the waitresses are a combination of siren, muse, and boddhisattva. Joni observes all this, and their easy-seeming ways, contrasting it with her own 'crazy', torn as she is between the rock 'n' roll queen's life of luxury, and the "thumb and the satchel" (already a dichotomy she's been increasingly aware of in songs like 'Carey': "My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet / And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne"), that would later seem to be a theme on almost the whole of the Hejira album, with tracks like 'Refuge Of The Roads'. But for the present, at least on this song, the mood is relatively light, as witness the following extract of the last verse:

The guy at the gaspumps
He's got a lot of soul
He sings Merry Christmas for you
Just like Nat King Cole
And he makes up his own tune
Right on the spot
About whitewalls and windshields
And this job he's got

But with Joni it can never be that simple, and she finishes the song by singing:

And you want to get moving
And you want to stay still
But lost in the moment
Some longing gets filled
And you even forget to ask
"Hey, Where's Barangrill?"

And I have to say, this little bit of the song kills me, every time. It's a Zen insight into life: caught in the gap between wanting to change and improve, and wanting to be satisfied with things as they are, lost in those moments some longing does indeed sometimes get filled, in a transient way. And in those moments, even within the bigger picture, we do indeed forget to ask 'Which way Utopia?' Genius, pure genius. And this song also combines fabulous guitar, beautiful vocal melodies, and one of the best woodwind arrangements ever, bar none. At this stage of her career, Joni is getting the best from her talented sidemen. Some might say that later on (exactly when you think this happens is probably a variable matter of opinion) her musicians might occasionally overdo it. Not so here, Tom Scott's contribution to this track is sublime.

In this live recording of the song (below) she talks, in her intro, about the philosophical search for the meaning of life, and how she "started seeing gurus everywhere". Ironically, she says she was at a very low ebb, and therefore thought that everyone was more enlightened than her: "So I walked into this restaurant one day, and I thought I saw my guru... As a matter of fact there were three of them [the waitresses mentioned in the opening line], and I was so spaced out that I was sure that they were The Trinity, you know?" But the resulting song, certainly on the album version, manages to turn this 'saudade' into something beautiful and uplifting, albeit still tinged with melancholy.


'Barangrill', live, 1972, with a great intro explaining the origin of the song.

An interesting footnote to this, one of my absolute favourite Joni numbers, is that Mark Murphy has recorded an excellent cover of it (and as noted elsewhere, a good cover of a Joni tune is, in my opinion, a rare thing), on his album II, which I discovered here.

The next two piano numbers, 'Lesson in Survival' and 'Let The Wind Carry Me', continue the soul-searching theme addressed in 'Barangrill', but in a different manner, both also taking in romantic love, and, in the latter, some family history. These are both good songs, great even, by normal standards, but I'll gloss over them and concentrate on the songs that have most power for me, and the next of these sees Joni back on guitar, singing the bleakly haunting title track, 'For The Roses'. Sounding harmonically and melodically like it could've been on her debut album Song To A Seagull, a mark of the continuity as well as the development of her talent, it's both a threnody for the lost love she shared with Taylor, and her disenchantment with the 'music biz':

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who's to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so

I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can't give up just yet
Now I sit up here the critic
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you're getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails

Feeling crucified on the cross of her creativity by a music business that just cares about the bottom line, Joni retreated to her log cabin in British Columbia, with her dog, as referenced later, in the lyrics of 'Electricity':

Well I'm learning
It's peaceful
With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown
Of this century

And so she ends for 'For The Roses' alone in nature:

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

Brilliant! The connections she makes through her poetry, from one image and concept to another, are really stunning. The more I listen to the music, and the more I write about, and really concentrate on the words, the meanings, and artistry it took to put all this together, the more I am in awe of Joni Mitchell's talents. And at this stage of her career she seemed to just be exuding pure music. But she obviously wasn't entirely happy, as For The Roses preceded a year long hiatus, and a brief (thankfully) self-imposed withdrawal from making and recording music (at least publicly).

'Electricity' finds Joni in band mode, with Wilton Felder (of The Crusaders) on bass and Bobbye Hall (a female percussionist with an enormous and impressive CV) adding congas and tambourine. And it's a magnificent folk-jazz masterpiece, simultaneously of the moment, and a sign of where she might be going next. The lyrics are phenomenal, using electricity, wiring, servicing and so on, as metaphors for feelings, including, of course, love. Fabulous! The feel remains band-like for 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio', but with more of a folk-rock feel, Graham Nash supplying a Dylanesque harmonica solo, and Bobbye Hall again adding congas. This number was apparently something of a riposte to a request for something 'more commercial' from 'the suits', and, perhaps ironically, it paid off, becoming Mitchell's biggest charting hit to date.

'Blonde In The Bleachers' starts out sounding like another typical Joni piano ballad, but by the end of the song it's morphed into her newly-evolving mix of folk-rock-jazz. Again she's lamenting her chequered past in the rock'n'roll business:

Feeling it hot and cold
You're in rock 'n' roll
It's the nature of the race

...

She tapes her regrets
To the microphone stand
She says "You can't hold the hand
Of a rock 'n' roll man
Very long

There's another mention of a child left behind (as in 'Little Green', a nod to her own daughter), and there's the bittersweet self-awareness of the contradictions between the freewheeling freedom-loving rock 'n' roll dream - "it seems like you've gotta give up / Such a piece of your soul / When you give up the chase" - and what's lost - "the unknown child / So sweet and wild / It's youth / It's too good to waste" - and the impossibility that the ephemeral way of life can have a lasting solidity. And that brings us back to the last verse of 'Let The Wind Carry Me':

Sometimes I get that feeling
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me


'Woman Of Heart And Mind', live.

This all brings us to the next of my favourite tracks from the album, 'Woman Of Heart And Mind', the guitar part of which is utterly sublime (also featuring the talents of Felder and Hall on bass and congas, and what chords, especially the final one!) in which she more or less explores and depicts herself:

You think I'm like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl

Before dissecting her lover's stance:

All this talk about holiness now
It must be the start of the latest style
Is it all books and words
Or do you really feel it?
Do you really laugh?
Do you really care?
Do you really smile
When you smile?

You criticize and you flatter
You imitate the best
And the rest you memorize
You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don't try
When you don't even try

But what really comes over is the blues of her own sense of loss and disappointment:

I'm looking for affection and respect
A little passion
And you want stimulation-nothing more
That's what I think
But you know I'll try to be there for you
When your spirits start to sink

If you listen carefully to this album, I think you can hear a woman who's almost having to live like a man, in a male dominated world - the music business as it was then - and is feeling the loss of certain aspects of her femininity as a result. Lady readers, your comments would be welcomed here: as a guy I might have it all wrong! For evidence I submit two more lyrical extracts. First this, from the end of 'Blonde In The Bleachers':

N.B. it's in quote marks here because this is what 'she says' when she's up there, regrets taped to the microphone stand.

"You can't hold the hand of a rock 'n' roll man very long
Or count on your plans with a rock 'n' roll man very long
Compete with the fans for your rock 'n' roll man for very long
The girls and the bands and the rock 'n' roll man"

Here she sounds, despite being a star every bit as big in her own right as many of her male associates, like another groupie, squeezed out in the scrum as they try and get a piece of some 'heroic' male superstar! One thinks this all must've been affected by her relationships with such men as Graham Nash and James Taylor, both of which, one might hazard the guess, provided her with great material for songs, but wounds and 'lessons in survival' to boot.

My second piece of evidence is Joni as the archetypical feminine flower child, and I don't really mean by that Joni as hippy chick, but rather as 'woman' - soft, gentle, receptive, etc. - from the lyrics of 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio'. Tongue in cheek they may well be, but many a true word is spoken in jest:

Oh honey you turn me on
I'm a radio
I'm a country station
I'm a little bit corny
I'm a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

Now, before writing what I'm about to say, I've listened very carefully to these lyrics on the recording, several times, and I'd wager good money that what she actually sings is "I'm a wild open flower", not 'wildwood', as the jonimitchell.com website has it. Admittedly she sings this crucial bit very indistinctly - and in my opinion that very fact lends weight to my contention that she's saying the more saucy of the possible versions - so it could perhaps not be 'open' after all. And there's also the fudged double entendre of whether he or she is the 'broadcasting tower. But, whichever it really is, the meaning of the lines rhyming 'flower' and 'tower' couldn't be any more explicit to the savvy listener.

Having engaged in a good deal of soul-searching, Joni rounds off this superb album with a meditation on love and music, in 'Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune)'. The Ludwig is of course Beethoven, and the song's about love, music, love of music, the music of love, and so on. To what degree it's really about Beethoven in any specific or historically accurate way I couldn't say. Certainly she seems to be trying to imagine a kind of empathetic connection between Beethoven and herself. One might think this presumptuous and arrogant, but given Joni's tortured artistic personality and musical genius, I think it's an entirely natural and justified link for her to make.

Joni had said from quite early on that she wasn't a singer, but a composer, and here she gets to indulge her first most overtly orchestrated section of music, the middle of the piece sporting numerous arranged parts, from multi-layered vocals, woodwinds, keyboards, and strings. She's already travelled down this road bit by bit, adding various instruments, extra layers of harmony, and even the highly wrought arrangement for 'Barangrill', mentioned earlier. But here the self-consciously classical influence is stronger, and more portentous. Although her music got ever denser with her more electric albums, she wouldn't go do anything else quite so self-consciously 'classical' until the album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and 'Paprika Plains' in particular. And of course much later, in 2002, she put out travelogue, which features two discs worth of material, old and new, set against lush orchestrations.

This is one of the best albums from a superlative talent, and it's hard to measure the real height of such artistic achievement. So I'll let Joni have the last word. As a description of her view of Beethoven, of herself, or just the artistic endeavour, these words are, I hope you'll agree, pretty powerful:

You've got to shake your fists at lightning now
You've got to roar like forest fire
You've got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They're going to aim the hoses on you
Show 'em you won't expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You've got to try
If you're feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you're tired of the silent night
Jesus well then you yell it
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories conceal


Credits: (sourced from allmusic.com, wikipedia and the original album liner notes)

Joni Mitchell - vocals, guitar, piano
Wilton Felder - bass
Russ Kunkel - drums
Graham Nash - harmonica
Bobbye Hall - percussion
Tom Scott - woodwind, reeds
James Burton (credited as "Jim Burton") - electric guitar on "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire"
Stephen Stills - rock'n'roll performer on "Blonde in the Bleachers"
Bobby Notkoff - strings

Friday, 16 September 2011

Betjeman's Best British Churches

Another book review? Oh well... I do love books, and this is my only blog, so here goes...

Betjeman's original book covered twice as many churches (approximately 5000). This new shiny hardback coffee table version is lavishly illustrated, and as a result cuts the number of churches covered in half, at roughly 2,500... still plenty! First I'd like to point out before going any further that I'm not Christian. I am, using A. C. Grayling's pithy phrase, a naturalist and free-thinker. Nonetheless, I, like this country and our culture, am steeped in the ever-evolving Christian tradition (I was brought up Christian, and went to several churches, none of which were deemed beautiful enough for inclusion here!). And the legacy on our landscape, and in our lives, from our language to the sights and sounds we deem typically English, are all bound up with the history of Christianity. And, regardless of all this, some churches are just very beautiful. I've often liked stopping at a random church and wondering around inside, connecting in my own quiet, personal and meditative way, with all that life and history. So this book was a must.


I confess I know little about Betjeman outside this book, except that he was a poet, and indeed poet Laureate for a while. When reading his introductory essay, it struck me that Betjeman chooses to spell the word 'show' using the rather archaic British variant 'shew', which is fittingly antiquarian, but irritates me mildly, as I feel, and indeed my brain is wired, through learning commonplace English, to think that it should be pronounced to rhyme with shrew, stew, brew or few, of for that matter pew: that's how it looks! In light of this I was not initially sure I go with the TLS quote on the cover which effusively describes Betjeman's introductory essay as 'pure gold'. In fact at first I found it more crabbily and fustily conservative (rather like some of the church wardens you may bump into when visiting churches using this book), if very erudite and occasionally quite funny, as for example: "If the path leading... wealthy unbelievers ... key from there." (p23) Well, that's certainly priceless, but not necessarily because it's 'pure gold'!


He also, as well as making some very prescient remarks, says a few things, which, to my mind at least, are a little odd, such as "It must be admitted that spirituality and aesthetics rarely go together." I guess this depends on you how you define spirituality, a nebulous term at the best of times. But many admirers of culture, including eminent scholars of religion, for example Diarmid MCulloch, stress the great contribution religion makes to our aesthetic culture. Quite apart from own mainly Christian heritage ( which has plenty in it that's clearly pagan), one need only think of the incredible non-figurative arts of Islam, the rich iconography of Buddhist mandalas, or the great traditions of religious music, to wonder if perhaps Betjeman has made a mistake with this particular pronouncement. In the context where he makes it, it is more plausible - he's lamenting the restorations and addition to a church that are, by and large "practical and unattractive", and begs that we remember "however much we deplore it ... [these ugly things] have been saved up for by some devout and penurious communicant.' Whilst this sonorous phrasing has an appeal, its rendering of the 'spiritual' is open to debate. And the quote that follows is dour Puritanism, and despite England's break with Rome, I don't think that Christianity, or humanity, for that matter, was suddenly and totally bereft of aesthetic awareness. Indeed, that's more than half the attraction of this book: these churches are frequently very interesting, and often, in part or in whole, quite beautiful. It I'd true, there are some horribly oppressive Christian buildings across these islands, and even some of the churches we've visited using this book belong in that category, but fortunately they're in a minority. however, when he follows his line of thought to the conclusion that "Conservatism is innate in ecclesiastical arrangement" I can't disagree. But perhaps this pinpoints the difference between religion and spirituality?


"Who has heard a muffled peal and remained unmoved?" Well, ironically part of the appeal of hearing church bells to folk like me, nowadays, is the comparative rarity with which you hear the sound. In the times where I've lived close by a regular ringers church what has annoyed me is not that "they are reminders of Eternity" (in the whole I get along well with Eternity and any reminded I get of her), buy that I'm being reminded of a belief which I don't share, and a belief whose omnipresence, and even perhaps omnipotence, is, thankfully, receding.


One little criticism is that the photos which illustrate points being made in the introductory text give only the village/town name, and then the church name, but not the county. This could very easily been included, and would have been very useful in determining if the church shown is within easy reach. So, for example 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS', which happens to be on the page I was on when this shortcoming struck me, could so very easily have been 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS (Berkshire)'.

A Tolkien Tapestry - Cor Blok

Eh? A non-musical post?

As a life-long lover of Tolkien's vast Middle Earth mythos, I'm always intrigued by artistic developments related to it. For several years I'd been aware of, and very intrigued by, the few and seldom-seen LOTR-themed images by the mysterious and exotically named Cor Blok. Some (e.g. The Game Of Riddles, or The Cow Jumped Over The Moon) I really didn't like, but others (Frodo's Vision On Amon Hen, or The Battle Of The Hornburg II) were tantalisingly compelling.

Every now and again I'd trawl the web in search of more Cor, and every once in a while I'd be able to add another poor quality 72dpi jpeg to my scant collection. I longed to discover a book of Blok's LOTR art. But such a thing didn't seem to exist. Now it does, and now I've got it. My excitement at the prospect was such that I pre-ordered it as soon as I learned of it's existence, before it had even hit the shelves. A slight delay in it's arrival only heightened anticipation.

Well, now that I have it, I must confess I'm a little disappointed. I'd hoped, as had Tolkien before me (Tolkien and Blok corresponded, even meeting once, and Tolkien thought highly enough of Blok's art to buy several pictures, including his own favourite - and one of mine also - The Battle Of The Hornburg II, even considering Blok as a potential candidate for an illustrated edition of LOTR), for more in the vein of the second of his Battle Of The Hornburg artworks. It's no surprise that this piece also adorns the cover; it's probably amongst the best in the book, and certainly amongst those with the broadest appeal. Feedback on the recent Tolkien calendars of 2010 and 2011, both featuring Blok's art (and of both of which I'd been blissfully unaware of!), show that his take on things Tolkienian is not favoured by all. That didn't ever bother me. But, truth be told, even seen in a favourable setting, as here, in a well printed and well put together book, some of these pictures do seem rather poor (Bill Ferny Hit By An Apple is the picture I like least!).

Blok's an interesting, intelligent guy, and his intro to the book is a good, informative read. Some of his ideas and artworks succeed. But some don't. There are several reasons: the method employed for most (but not all) these pictures doesn't always translate brilliantly into print (and these are very good quality reproductions), with the silk-paper layering and underpainting effect not as tangible as might be the case when seen 'in the flesh'. This method also meant Blok's art is all on the smaller side, a constraint which may have fed into another choice he made, regarding his stylistic approach - in essence he leaves out a lot of detail, both in terms of figures and settings, but this is especially noticeable in terms of contextual detail - which I feel is a ploy that's frequently responsible for any weakness these pictures may have, and is at odds with the approach Tolkien took, in which details of character and setting are so important.

Nevertheless, as well as a sizeable chunk of work that I feel is less successful, there are a lot of pretty solid pieces to enjoy here, and some really great artworks. Ironically, given Blok's avowed policy of leaving out 'unnecessary' detail, the aim being to give the viewer more imaginitive elbow room, the pictures I think work best are those depicting events or scenes on a grander scale, in which the figures are smaller. This befits the grand narrative sweep of Tolkien's world. And in fact Blok himself, quite rightly, observes, in a note on the picture titled Weathertop, one of his successes to my mind, that "landscape with Tolkien serves not merely as a backdrop to the action: it contributes greatly to the atmosphere".

Occasionally he departs from Tolkien's narrative 'facts', as in Slaying Of The Nazgul (of which scene there are three versions: interesting in that they illustrate how his ideas evolve), where he has Eowyn slay the Lord of the Nazgul with a spear rather than a sword. That seems like justifiable artistic licence, as it really adds compositional drama. But when, in his second version of The Hobbits Sacking Bilbo's House, he has stairs to a second floor... No, that's just wrong! Remember the description of Bilbo's home in The Hobbit: "no going upstairs for the hobbit"! Nevertheless, the second version of this picture remains the better of the two, with the medieval influence on the composition being an effective idea.

Overall I'm not too keen on how he handles figures. The idea of 'less is more' is great, but I just don't like how he's done it. Learning how this style evolved out of his own invented 'Barbarusian' mythos is fascinating, but it doesn't necessarily cause one to like it any better. This said, there are occasions where the approach he's adopted does work remarkably well, such as 'Gandalf Relates His Adventures'. Undoubtedly though, one of Blok's strengths is how he stands out from the crowds of more conventional 'sword and sorcery' type illustrators. In fact I like him better sometimes the more abstract his figures are: his final LOTR piece, 1962s The King Of The Nazgul, for example, which is almost like a hyper minimalist de Kooning painting (from the latter's brief B&W period, with approx 95% of the detail stripped out) is, to my mind, far better and more sinister than the earlier painting, The Sorcerer King, made circa 1958/9, which looks banal in it's naivety, and ridiculous rather than ominous.

Despite these criticisms, and despite a degree of disappointment, Blok's work remains unique in it's relation to Tolkien, and it has an otherworldliness to it that chimes well with the monumental act of creation Tolkien achieved in building his whole mythos. And on a positive note, there are many delightfully atmospheric pieces here, my favourites, like Amon Hen and Hornburg, but also the previuosly unspublished Weathertop, The Last Bridge, Country Of The Trolls and The Petrified Trolls, depict larger scenes, and include more landscape and context, but even some of the figure based or minimalist paintings work very well to, for example The Firework Dragon II, Gandalf Persuades Bilbo, and the very evocative and highly stylised The Crebain, or the darkly moody Legolas Shoots The Nazgul Down.

As a body of work, Blok's Tolkien Tapestry, gathered together here for the first time, in its most complete (thanks to the arduous sleuthing of editor Pieter Collier, who tracked down several pieces that had gone off the radar) and well printed manifestation ever, is intriguing, perplexing, sometimes dissatisfying, and occasionally brilliant, and I'm really glad Harper Collins put this book out, allowing me to really get to grips with this until now elusive Scandinavian interpreter of Tolkien's bestselling masterpiece.

Can I recommend it? Well, not without circumspection, and a few provisos. But, if you're a Tolkien nut, and open-minded and eclectic in relation to art, then yes, I would recommend it.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)

A Himalayan range of dizzying cloud capped peaks. Music so potent you have to mind how much you dose yourself up on it.

I recently had a couple of separate conversations with two friends in which we discussed different aspects of artistic talent. There was some overlap in things we hit upon. Whilst Tim felt that you could usually quite easily identify an artist's peak achievement, and he used the term in the singular, and that this achievement would kind of sum up all that's best about that artist, Patrick had an even more blunt way of putting it: all the crap that any artist produces is worth it, for the occasional diamonds!

Well, I think there's an element of insight in both these observations. But for me, certain artists - Woody Allen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell - have a pretty big corpus of fairly consistent excellence. If the average artist can only hope for one Monadnock, standing like an erupted shark's tooth in a plain of otherwise flat less-than-brilliant achievement, there are nonetheless those few who have Himalayan ranges filled with peaks that are so high they seem to threaten to pop our thin atmosphere. And indeed, there is an element of danger in their works, as they cut so close the skin and the bone.

Blue is most certainly such an album. Continuing to enrich her palette with a broader range of sounds, the balance between guitar-based (well, actually several are played on dulcimer) and piano-based songs is, for the first time, about even. Russ Kunkel, the fantastic drummer and percussionist with the famed 'mellow mafia' rhythm section known simply as 'The Section', makes his second appearance on a Joni recording, adding more to this recording than he did to Ladies Of The Canyon, and, Joni herself makes dulcimer a new core voice in her repertoire, with its distinctive jangly sound. There's also a new departure visually, in that the cover is not adorned by a Joni original, but instead features a very stark blue-hued montone full-frontal close-cropped facial portrait. The photograph, taken (acc. to Wikipedia) by one Tim Considine, is perfect, reflecting the melancholy intensity of the music within.

Listening to the album again for the first time in several years, I realised that it wasn't as piano-heavy as I'd recalled, and in fact the Appalachian dulcimer is as strong a musical voice on the album as the piano, eclipsing even the guitar, with 'All I want', 'Carey', 'California', and 'Case Of You' all played on this unusual instrument.

Below is a clip of Joni playing an early version of 'All I Really Want' (commenting "here's another really new one that isn't quite finished"), after a quick lesson on the history of the dulcimer, and a story about the origin of her own instrument. Fab!


Joni plays 'Carey' live in the early 80s.


Performing California for the BBC in 1970.


'Little Green' and 'This Flight Tonight' are the only normal guitar numbers, and given Joni's penchant for unusual tunings, even they are far from ordinary. 'This Flight Tonight' is particularly notable for the very low open tuning Joni employs, and the sliding blues-influenced figure that keeps recurring. Over at jonimitchell.com they break it down as follows:

The tuning for this song is similar to a variation of open G ( DGDGBD )that has the bottom string tuned right down to a very low G. The actual key for this song is Ab though, one semitone above G, so the tuning you need is Ab Ab Eb Ab C Eb.

The resulting drone from the lowest strings gives the song a very distinctive sound and feel. It's a technique she employs elsewhere to great effect, for example on 'The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey' (Mingus), albeit that on that occasion she goes for a very different vibe. Here she is playing 'This Flight Tonight' in 1972:


Jason Ankeny at Allmusic starts his piece on the album thus "Sad, spare, and beautiful, Blue is the quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album." And he's bang on. It certainly is "forthright and poetic", and Joni's songs really can be described as "raw nerves". In fact the review of Blue is amongst the best review I've read on Allmusic, and I use that site all the time whilst researching my Drummer magazine articles...

One of the things that I've found about this album, as great as it undoubtedly is, is that, of all the Joni albums (talking now strictly about the golden-streak of records starting with her debut and running somewhere into the latter part of the seventies), it's amongst the hardest to take in one sitting. Why? Well, for me, it's the emotional intensity of it. 'Little Green', written for her daughter, given away when Joni herself was very young, simply destroys me every time I hear it.

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You're sad and you're sorry but you're not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending

I think you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by this song. And, in addition to the emotional punch it packs, it's musically wonderful, her guitar playing like plangent harp, and her vocal lines enigmatic in their mixture of unusual winding melodies, that are yet effortlessly delivered with a voice that seems capable of going anywhere it pleases, with a kind of liquid charm.


Here she is playing 'Little Green' in 1967, four years before it came out on Blue.

It's also some of the more intensely confessional piano ballads that, whilst individually magnificent, can, if taken together, become somewhat cloying. The tendency towards maudlin self-doubt and criticism that began to be apparent on 'For Free', is not just aired here more freely, but is in fact studied, dissected and concentrated, as in the intense closing number 'The Last Time I Saw Richard', in which she sings (from Richard's point of view in the song)

All romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café
You laugh he said you think you're immune
Go look at your eyes they're full of moon

before ending the song with

I'm gonna blow this damn candle out
I don't want nobody comin' over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes dark cafes

It's getting pretty bleak! And in the title track, an absolute gem of a song, she sings

Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs lots of laughs

before musing

Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go
Well I don't think so
But I'm gonna take a look around it though

In the parlance of the times, this is some pretty heavy stuff, man!

But, at the end of the day, as Jason Ankeny says, over at the allmusic.com preview for Blue, "Unrivaled in its intensity and insight, Blue remains a watershed." Amen to that!

Credits:
Gary Burden - Art Direction
Tim Considine - Cover Photography
'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow - Guitar & Pedal Steel Guitar
Russ Kunkel - Drums
Henry Lewy - Engineer
John Mayall - Composer*
Joni Mitchell - Audio Production, Composer, Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Vocals
Stephen Stills - Guitar & Bass
James Taylor - Guitar, Vocals
Steve Thompson - Composer*

* Mayall and Thompson share composer credits with Joni on one track, 'California' (credited as Mayall, Mitchell, Thompson), all other songs are solely Mitchell.