Saturday, 17 September 2011
Friday, 16 September 2011
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)'.
Monday, 12 September 2011
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!
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.
Joni's third album starts with the familiar duo of guitar and vocals, sounding, initially at any rate, very much like her first two records. 'Morning Morgantown', is an evocative, descriptive song, and finds Joni sounding elfin and youthful as she sings "The merchants roll their awnings down / The milk-trucks make their morning rounds". But then piano steals quickly into the mix, as do subtle percussive sounds, already heralding developments which, by the end of the album, make this a real departure from her previously super-minimalist soundscape.
Track two, 'For Free', is newer territory yet, being the first fully fledged piano-based song to appear in her recorded catalogue. It's also the first time we hear Joni sounding self-conscious, guilty even perhaps, about her status in the 'music biz', a theme whose implications she would explore ever more as her career developed. And it also anticipates the rather bleakly melancholy vibe, which, coupled with her distinctive touch on the piano, here taking form as a rolling triplet-based feel, which would be such a characteristic part first really big album sales-wise, the justly lauded and famous 'Blue' album.
'Conversation' adds subtle brushwork drumming to Joni's stealthily expanding palette, also adding recorder and flute ('For Free' already having brought in clarinet) to her own ebullient harmony vocals, and us the first time she sounds a bit catty: jealous of another ladies' man she writes scornfully of her rival "she speaks in sorry sentences, miraculous repentences, I don't believe her"!
Track four, the title track, sounds melodically and harmonically very like earlier songs, but the degree of maturity and sophistication she's attained by this stage is staggering. It's also wonderful for being a celebration of womankind. What a great subject for a song! Clearly showing that she's more than a narrator or purveyor of self-indulgent confessional emotional catharsis, she celebrates a gaggle of her female Laurel Canyon companions. How wonderfully unlike the self-aggrandisement of the seemingly never-ending tides of successive 'me-generation' style rappers and pop tarts this is: these ladies won't pop a cap I'm yo' ass, or diss you cuz you aint got enuf bling or rep or whatever, they'll perhaps bake you some brownies instead. And any song where the lyricist celebrates chubby kids and cats - "all are fat, and none are thin" - is alright with me. Go Joni!
'Willy' presages the piano-centric vibes of Blue, and it's beautiful, but like Blue, it's so shot through with, well, blue. The melancholy edge to much of Joni's music is the aspect I find simultaneously alluring, compelling, and disturbingly narcotic.
The intro to track six hints at things to come, from Hejira to Hissing Lawns and Paprika Lawns. Called the arrangement, the title is clever for not just describing the lyrical content, but also the side of Joni that is pure composer. It's not exactly 'classical' music, but it's certainly boy just pop either. The chord she ends with is sublime, as are the challenging lyrics: 'you could've been more' she admonishes, over a chord that is neither pop, classical, jazz or any other 'type', it's pure music, sound, chemistry, humanity... genius!
The back-to-back brilliance of Chelsea Morning and Woodstock illustrate Joni's effortless seeming excellence: one minute she's, pardon the phrase, tossing off an upbeat acoustic 'folksy' ditty, whose darker message - "pave paradise, put up a parking lot" - seeps through despite the ebullient harmonies and the slightly forced sounding laughter as she delivers the casually brilliant sign off, and the next she's looking to her electric future as she tinkles on (oops, sorry again) an electric piano. Again, whilst she celebrates the blissful innocent apotheosis of the flower power generation at Yasgur's Farm it's already elegaic, and despite the optimism of those times Joni still locates us firmly outside paradise - "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
And all this leads to the masterpiece that is 'The Circle Game'. Not amongst her most famous songs, it's nevertheless amongst her best (mind you, her catalogue is littered with jewels). Where STAC felt self-conscious, TCG feels totally natural and uncontrived, and yet STAC kind of paved the way, preparing the ground, if you like.
Joni's first two albums already marked her out as a new and brilliant voice in modern music, and with each new recording she just seemed to blossom and grow. If you don't already own this album, you really have to buy it. And yes, I know, Joni's rich enough to not need your dollar (and often sounds more than a little bitter these days, perhaps making her Starbucks deal strangely appropriate). But art this good deserves recognition and reward, all the way down the line.
Friday, 9 September 2011
Here's a clip of her playing 'Chelsea Morning'.
Everybody who knows Joni will know 'Cheslea Morning' and 'Both Sides, Now', and both these songs which are not just well-known hits, but small masterpieces. With 'Chelsea Morning' she pulls off an upbeat feel far more convincingly than she did with 'Night In The City' on her debut. 'Both Sides, Now' had been a hit for Judy Collins, before Joni's own career had got off the ground. Indeed, much of the material on her first two albums was already written before she'd released anything commercially in he own right. And until she got her solo career going, she may have appeared destined to be a writer/composer, rather than a performer. I mean no respect to Judy Collins, but compare her version of 'Both Sides Now' with Joni's and Joni's is on an altogether different level. Collins' version is still a good one - it's a great song after all - but it's done just like any other over-produced pop of the day. Mitchell's own rendering is so much more personal, and as a result, timeless.
Mitchell also turns in her first a capella performance, the anti-war song 'The Fiddle And The Drum', which, earnest and well-written as it is, isn't anywhere near as compelling - especially out of it's Viet Nam era US context (one hears the more topical and resonant power it had at the time more potently in some of her live bootleg performances from back in the day) - as the astonishing 'Songs To Ageing Children Come'. Personally I find 'The Pirate of Penance', on her debut, somewhat too self-consciously clever (I still love it, and by anyone else's standards it'd be a masterpiece, but in relation to Joni's own body of work it's less successfull). 'Songs To Ageing Children Come', on the other hand, is not only self-consciously clever, but entirely convincing. Playing in a sonorous and resonant open-tuning (there's a transcription of it here, which I've not tried yet) she harmonises her way through an unusual chord progression. It's certainly very mannered, and I've read many reviews of her albums where people dismiss it. But I think it belongs to her experimental thread, and as an artist this kind of exploration is essential. Sometimes it works, as it does here, and on 'The Circle Game', on Ladies Of The Canyon, or, even more experimentally, on Hejira's 'The Jungle Line', and sometimes, perhaps, it doesn't. But then again, these are perhaps quite subjective judgements. Certainly I think that a sing like 'Songs To Ageing Children Come' pave the way for later songs, like 'The Circle Game', so an experiment expands the palette, and can later be reabsorbed and seem, relatively, more mainstream or 'normal' And that's what great artists do, they expand our consciousness and our perception, they add new faculties to our way of perceiving the world, or rather, they uncover truths we already knew, but hadn't quite articulated so well ourselves.