Monday, February 25, 2013

"Gold On The Ceiling"

Another day, another mash-up. Or in this case, a mishmash of styles that combines just about the best of everything it references. A just-this-side-of-lazy groove, fuzzed guitars and keyboards that sound like a fully-digitized Jack White decided to update the buzz of glam rock, all rounded off with an intro that wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a Black Crowes album.

In fact, there's more than a little Southern rock in there as well. It's an effortless accumulation of the best of everything that can only come from the minds of someone who's sat down and listened to a whole lot of records. Signs of a youth profitably spent, right?

And I like, like, love that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney look like music nerds. Finally, a band that pushes the music to the front, and has the chops, the appreciation for their antecedents, to let it do the talking. Who cares if the drummer looks like he writes code for a living? He knows from his drums.

I mean, listen to this song! Count off the influences: T Rex, the Sweet, southern rock, even some raga in there, Norman Greenbaum, White Stripes, you name it. And it's all good. All good.

I like the fact that the Black Keys are, at heart, a duo. They're the latest in a long and noble tradition of two friends that just *work* together, without the need for an entourage of expensive sidemen or all the grief of building a four- or five-piece that would implode after two albums. Lean, efficient, and staying true to the vision. If you wanted to convey the merits of this in business terms, you might say they were running a low-cost, high-margin operation selling a unique product that we never knew we needed until we heard it.

The one thing I can't nail down is Dan Auerbach's voice. It reminds me so strongly of another singer from another time. It's been on the tip of my tongue for months and it infuriates me that I, a certified Rock Snob who likes to think he knows a thing or two, can't effortlessly drop in the reference. It's an American MOR voice, I think.

In any case, this just blows me away. I defy you to not shake a hip or two.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Lilac Wine"

This is a post about two versions of the same song. Both are truly special in their different ways, but only one slays.

Back in the late 1970s, I was introduced to this song when Elkie Brooks' version made the charts. I loved, and still do, the measured, restrained buildup that ends in Elkie letting that gorgeous voice loose for the final line. You can barely trace her origins in jazz and blues, but you can certainly hear some rock, deep down, held firmly in check. When you learn that she was an early booster of the Small Faces, it seems a natural fit, and yet a crime that they never recorded together.

So. Brooks' version I love, and this video sadly doesn't go halfway to doing her recorded performance justice, and the arrangement is truly awful, but I'll stick it up here as a taster for what's coming.

Fifteen years later, the same song cropped up on a small record that's gone on to become one of those influential modern classics. I can't lay claim to having bought it on day one, or even in year one, but once I heard Jeff Buckley's version of the same song, I was hooked.

Now I don't completely understand why everyone goes apeshit for his version of "Hallelujah" at the expense of this song. I understand the wonder of "Hallelujah", yes, and I love his almost conversational tone, the casual brilliance of his voice. But still..... to me it doesn't speak as loudly or as clearly as this song does.

Lilac Wine is about drinking to forget. It's tipsy, regretful, wise after the event and yet, in some indefinable way, helpless. You know you shouldn't dwell, but you

Jeff Buckley "gets" it. He gets the song, he gets the whole back story, he probably lived it. His gentle, wavering, looping voice, bridging to falsetto and back with nary a break, is tired, hungover and full of pain in a way that only more wine will cure. It's a miracle of a performance. And what's better, it doesn't build towards any crescendo as Brooks' version does, it just meanders beautifully, tipsily, to a tired and even ecstatic close.

I have written about cover versions before, and depending on the material at hand, I've veered between the "how-dare-you" school purists that says only the songwriter is truly able to give a song what it deserves, and the more lasser-faire notion that interpretation is as valid a form as creation. And in this case, the latter is gloriously, transcendently proved.

Monday, February 11, 2013


I've decided growing old as gracefully as possible isn't as hard as all that, as long as you don't fight it. The trouble starts when you deny it, try to hold it back or plain just ignore it. You'd have thought ignoring the creep of time would be the easiest way to remain young, but looking past it, pretending it's not there, is just recipe for almighty fallout later on.

When bending down to tie your shoelaces isn't as easy as it once was, when getting out of a car produces a groan, when running for the bus suddenly becomes something you don't automatically *do*, there's no point trying to reprogram your mind. Yes, you can jog or cycle daily, go to the gym every lunchtime, cut down on the late night drinking sessions, but you're Still. Getting. Old. Your body will be healthier but you'll still be older.

The same thing goes for music. I know more than a few contemporaries who immerse themselves religiously in bang-up-to-date music, who check out new bands as a matter of course and who wouldn't dream of listening to any radio station that played anything more than three years old. Wonderful. But they still groan when they get out of a comfy chair and they still complain about "kids" and reminisce about how things were different when they were young.

So I'm embracing age. I'm embracing my limitations, my evolving attitudes towards pretty much everything, and in particular music. I don't go out and actively pursue new stuff, mostly because I just don't have the time, but I'm open to it when I come across it.

Hence this song. As with so many other new (to me) artists, I first came across Lianne La Havas when she appeared on Jools Holland's show, and immediately fell in love with her voice. It's a million miles away from pretty much anyone else I've heard lately. You can tell me Adele has a better voice, but I don't believe it would stand up to the close-up examination that this song provides. Just a guitar, fingerpicking, and her crystal voice. For all her talent, and I'm a fan, I can't see Adele mastering this.

Listen to the production: it's so close-up that the mike might as well be halfway down her throat. It's so clear that it mercilessly picks up every every little foible, every tiny sibilant 's'. Listen to the second verse: when Lianne sings "I'm at a loss", the word "loss" dies away into nothingness until it's revived by the tiny, bell-like 's'. Such joy in that one little sound.

But woah, you're saying. Stand back. Where's the rock, man? Where's the killer drums?

And here I shrug the age issue aside. Those of us of a certain age will admit to having appreciated Carole King's "Tapestry", or Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark", or Kate Bush, or whoever. It's not an age thing, it's a TASTE thing.

Instead, let's just enjoy a wondrous voice, and a terrific song.

Friday, February 08, 2013


Those of us who came of age in the 1980s will get this song.

Remember the clothes? Remember the hair? Most of all, remember the raw, untrammelled consumerism? Everyone had a shiny new stereo that played those new-fangled Compact Discs, proudly displayed on a chrome and glass table at one end of the room. At parties, we'd stand exactly half-way between the speakers and listen to the awesome sound quality. No hisses, no crackles, no hums or loss of tone. Just pure sound. It was like a living breathing advertisement for Maxell cassette tapes, except that the technology had moved on and cassettes were, like, ancient.

The 1980s were all about technology and economies of scale, about the triumph of science and design over the natural chaos of life and bringing it within the reach of the majority of the population. Not only did the boffins start churning out pieces of kit that made life easier, cleaner, more convenient and portable, but we all suddenly had enough money to buy the stuff.

The Blue Nile were the perfect 80s group. Obsessively clean sound, perfectly separated instruments, a triumph of the mechanistic New Age over the organic messiness of the analogue era. They could be "consumed" without getting dirty, and they could be admired in an objective, scientific kind of way. It's no accident that they got their start when a hi-fi manufacturer was looking for a sound that would show off their high-end stereo systems.

But it wasn't as if we hadn't had this kind of music before. After all, Kraftwerk had been calling to us from across the digital divide for some years already, but maybe we didn't trust something that was quite so devoid of emotion. Pink Floyd and the Beatles had already toyed with various proto-gizmos that produced beeps and burbles. The Blue Nile's success was to marry real feelings to their transistors and their sampling. Paul Buchanan's voice manages to convey pain, suffering and hope, all in a slightly fey, whimsical croon that calls to mind Belle & Sebastian and the Dream Academy. (Side-note: why is it that the British do fey and whimsy better than anyone else? And, more to the point, does anyone else actually *do* fey and whimsy?)

What I enjoy almost as much as the song, and especially the voice, is the cringe-worthy video which really epitomises 1980s ambition and aspiration. The baggy trousers and shirts, the clean-cut look... all that's missing is a VW Golf Mark I and an early mobile phone.

For all that, it's a wonderful song. Can you imagine how good it would sound, played on real instruments?

"5:06 a.m. (Every Stranger's Eyes)"

To paraphrase "The Sound of Music," how do you solve a problem like Roger Waters?

I realise that there are all sorts of witty, facile responses that may very well come rushing to mind. Bear with me, though, because this comes from someone who has nothing but respect for his work -- all of it -- but who sometimes struggles to make sense of the man.

For a start, you might say, he's staggeringly self-indulgent. Look at "The Wall" or "The Final Cut", you might say. These are more or less autobiographical "statements", you might say. They're just the result of one man's overweening ego and his conviction that he has Something Important to Say, you might scoff.

Or, if you don't hold particularly strong opinions on the man, you might listen to them and say that they are just chamber pieces manqué, lengthy song cycles or even bombastic noodling. They're often lifted above the ordinary by the quality of the musicians he works with. When you think of "Comfortably Numb", do you remember the lyric, or is the first thing that comes to mind that wonderful guitar solo by David Gilmour? When you hear "The Great Gig in the Sky", are you noting that this was a Richard Wright song, not a Roger Waters composition?

I can't argue that he's a great musician, and there are moments when I'm not convinced he's as great a songwriter as many say he is. I have found myself form time to time listening to Pink Floyd (The Roger Waters Years) or even a solo album and rolling my eyes at the sheer pretentiousness or ponderousness of it all.

And yet. And yet.

"A place to stay, enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what's more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control."
(The Gunner's Dream from "The Final Cut".)

or even:
"In truck stops and hamburger joints
In Cadillac limousines
In the company of has-beens
And bent backs
And sleeping forms on pavement steps
In libraries and railway stations
In books and banks
In the pages of history
In suicidal cavalry attacks
I recognize
Myself in every stranger's eyes."
("5:06 a.m. (Every Stranger's Eyes)" from "The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking")

These aren't lyrics, not in the classic "moon-and-June" sense. They're a series of word pictures, like a slideshow of black and white photographs by Sebastiao Salgado. They're carefully-crafted, these list songs. You're meant to see the images in sharp, high resolution relief, and to understand almost instinctively what he's trying to say, what images he wants you to bond with.

They're not comfortable images, either. For a popular songwriter that's probably a kiss of death. This isn't hum-along stuff, and the lyrics aren't something you'll yowl along to while you're on the highway doing 80. But can you think of any Pink Floyd song that you felt comfortable with? "Arnold Layne"? "Have a Cigar"? "Careful With That Axe, Eugene"? We're not talking anything that would ever be sung on X Factor, for sure.

That's both Waters' great gift, and his great loss. Strip away his painful evolution from six-form poet into grumpy-old-man, politely ignore his frothing anger at Thatcherism (he always seemed to me to be angrier at the Falklands war then he was at the industrial hollowing out that went on in Britain in the 1980s. I mean, the Final Cut was basically about the Falklands, but where was his double-album about the miners?) He knows how to conceive and write absorbing lyric-driven songs, about Serious Matters. They're not pop, for sure, but he never was pop. You need to pay a little attention.

And it helps that Waters knows his limitations well enough to ask really talented people to play with him. He does the singing because it's his party, though again, there are better vocalists too. On general though, Waters seems willing to sit back and orchestrate, conceive and produce the end-result. Or rather, he did once he'd quit Pink Floyd and didn't have to argue over creative direction.

Most of us have two or three transcendent moments of Pink Floydery in our collections. It's sad to admit that they're probably not moments when Roger Waters was to the fore, but some of his solo songs, like "The Gunner's Dream and this one are powerful enough to stand in the company of the others, if we're prepared to think and, well, to be lectured a little.

Monday, February 04, 2013

"Tick Tick Boom"

Once in a while I sit at my laptop (for I'm fully digitised, portable and mobile) and look through the several thousand songs at my disposal. Sometimes I'm in search of inspiration, sometimes it's merely a lazy trawl looking for something I may not have heard for a while, and sometimes I'm in one of those obsessive nerd moods where I need to make a list: my eight Desert Island Discs, for example, is a list that has undergone so many revisions that I can't for the life of me remember what I chose a year ago.
How do you sum up your life in music? What criteria are the best for selecting the eight pieces? Are you creating a list of waypoints, milestones that you commemorate with tunes? Or should the pieces represent important moments or phases of life? Either way, my list never stays the same for more than a week.
I'm fascinated by the processes guests on the programme have used to select their favourite songs. For many it seems the songs are little more than conversational props, a song that prompts a particularly good piece of interviewing. For others the music is clearly much more important or meaningful, and they wax lyrical about the piece: for a few, the memories are pin-sharp and even painful.
If ever there was a radio programme that testified to the power of music, this is the one.
And because the choice is limited to just eight songs, it's a nerd's nightmare. How can a music obsessive even hope to encompass a love of popular (and not so popular) music in such a small number? And if you're trying to stake out as much territory as possible, how are you going to cover all the genres you want to? Will one song from Led Zeppelin adequately convey a love of out-and-out rock, from the farthest reaches of metal to the power-pop of the 1970s and 1980s?
It's a minefield.
So maybe the thing to do is not to get all righteous, scientific and snobbish about it. Maybe as human beings we should focus on the moods and feelings that music can convey. Euphoria, despair, rage, lassitude, stress, love, irrepressible happiness, the whole nine yards.
The one small cavil that I have with Desert Island Discs is that it almost always features personalities who, how shall I put it, have led a full life. By which I mean long. As in, *older* people. Which means that their choices are often tempered by experience. The various knocks and bumps of life that smooth off the rough edges are reflected in songs that are often more thoughtful, sometimes sadder and wiser.
In short, there seems to be little room for the kind of innocent energy that dominates our world when we're younger. Not necessarily the politicised rage or the chemically-fuelled thrash that we can often get drawn into, but just the pure expression of youthful adrenalin. Something like Blur's "Song 2", if you like.
But I'm not doing "Song 2" here. I'm doing Swedish.
The Hives look and act like a live band really should. They have fun, they drag you into their fun, and they don't care if they look stupid along the way. It's completely, absolutely about the energy of the moment. They're not trying to *say* anything, and if you bother to look up the lyrics you'll see what I mean. It's not a message, it's a mood. It's about speed, noise, rhythm and mostly fun.
They're not handicapped by the fact that Howlin Pelle Almqvist is channeling equally Mick Jagger and David Johansen as he struts around, or by the fact that they are not a fashionable-looking collection of lads. They're giving their all, they're doing it low-fi, and they're doing it loud.
I can't wait to hear this on Desert Island Discs, but I suspect I may have to wait a long time.