Tuesday, September 06, 2005

From The Sublime To The Ridiculous

The sublime being ‘Year Of Meteors’, the fourth album from Seattle singer-songwriter Laura Veirs, an album which, quite unfairly in my view, appears to have divided the critics. An obvious comparison can be made here with the rather lukewarm reaction to Erin McKeown’s ‘We Will Become Like Birds’, demonstrating a clear tendency in the corporate media to castigate female songwriters for attempting to enrich their sound and broaden their appeal. The consensus appears to be that Veirs and McKeown, by embracing what may or may not be a ‘more mainstream’ approach, have diluted their artistry. This may well have been the case with artists such as Liz Phair or Tori Amos in the recent past, but is palpable nonsense with McKeown and now Veirs.

A case can certainly be made that ‘Year Of Meteors’ is a more accessible record than last year’s highly acclaimed ‘Carbon Glacier’ but this is not of itself a criminal offence. ‘Carbon Glacier’ made much of ethereal atmospherics and Veirs’ customary ice and water metaphors, but it also placed greater emphasis on the more abrasive elements of Veirs’ unusual delivery. Here, she sounds softer and more controlled, a style that seems well matched with the delicate pluckings beneath her.

If the songs themselves might be more conventional (and certainly less elusive), this could hardly be said of the arrangements. The wonderful opener ‘Fire Snakes’ crackles and spits delicately like a burgeoning campfire, its subtle interweaving of electronics and acoustics remarkably effective. This track, ‘Black Gold Blues’ and the evocative ‘Parisian Dream’ work particularly well due to the presence of Eyvind King on Viola, who crafts layers of shimmering melody.

Even when Veirs appears to draw reserve from inherited traditions, such as on the Neil Young-esque single ‘Galaxies’, the instrumentation serves to distance her from obvious reference points. ‘Galaxies’ comes alive because of its multitude of keyboard sounds rather than its chugging guitars. On ‘Secret Someones’, a relatively straightforward pop song is imbued with depth by virtue of its offbeat jazzy chords and loose-limbed rhythmic backdrop.

Lyrically, her combination of images of the natural world with memories of love past and present, concealed and lost remains enticing in its directness. For the most part, she avoids pretension, although she is certainly at her best when she avoids overtly ‘poetic’ language. On ‘Year Of Meteors’, her melding of words and music is effortlessly fluid.

Somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous was the strangely low-key, under-attended live appearance from Ian Carr’s Nucleus at Cargo in Shoreditch. A former teacher of mine, and a massive influence on my knowledge of the jazz tradition as well as my musical ability, Carr is finally receiving some of his dues as a legend of British jazz, a gifted writer and composer and something of an innovator. Ian has played a major role in the promotion of British Jazz through his broadcasting and writing (his books on Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett remain definitive, although the latter is still sadly out of print) as well as through his own composition and performance. I therefore couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see his long-promised return to live performance.

Sadly this was not to be. Now 72, and following an operation earlier in the year, Ian Carr has been left unable to perform. Visibly struggling as he announced the band at the beginning of the show, Carr now seems a much frailer figure than the person who was still teaching jazz workshops just six years ago. He introduced Chris Batchelor, the guest trumpet player who would be ‘playing his parts’ (although presumably improvising his own solos). Well, if you can use surrogate mothers, why not a surrogate trumpeter? Ian’s decision not to attempt to perform may have been a wise one – I remember the deeply unpleasant experience of watching a horribly diminished Freddie Hubbard at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years ago. Still, whilst 72 is a pretty ripe age to still be playing music, it’s sad that some avatars such as Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter are still pushing the envelope at a similar age, whilst others such as Carr, who no doubt wish to be doing the same, are unable to do so.

What initially felt a very strange and uncomfortable experience, as Ian watched the band play from the side of the stage, occasionally smiling and providing directions for effective bandleader and saxophonist Phil Todd, quickly eased into something celebratory and massively entertaining. Featuring longstanding Nucleus regulars such as Mark Wood, keyboardist Geoff Castle (who played with poise throughout) and the aforementioned Todd, the band (re)captured the energy and spirit of Ian’s compositions with considerable gusto.

Never particularly enamoured with entirely free improvisation, Ian Carr tended to prefer groovy, rock-influenced fusions with a keenly felt connection with the blues. Perhaps his intention to refashion the jazz tradition through the spectrum of rock and modern electronics could best be exemplified by the ‘Theme For Jelly Roll’, a tune written as a tribute to Jelly Roll, but written in 7/4 time because, as Ian himself put it at the microphone, ‘Jelly Roll would never have written it like that’. Like many of Ian’s tunes, it’s a driving, playful number with plenty of scope for swashbuckling rhythm playing.

Many of these tunes were staples of the London Fusion Orchestra when I was involved on drums, so it was fascinating to at last hear these tunes played live by the masters. The opening ‘Lady Bountiful’ was a great deal more lush and reflective than we ever played it, although I was pleased to hear the band still rocking out a bit towards the end. The band handled the deceptively simple interruptions of the funky ‘Easy Does It Now’ as if they’d last performed it yesterday, whilst the long ‘Roots’ and ‘Out Of The Long Dark’ had a flowing, almost aquatic vibe. Todd and Batchelor soloed expressively throughout, although the melodies were sometimes obscured by some slightly dubious tuning, probably a direct result of the venue’s excessive heat. The real lynchpin of the group was arguably Geoff Castle, who managed to combine lyrical soloing with punchy rhythmic accompaniments with real aplomb.

Perhaps slightly mis-promoted as a return to live performance from Carr, the small audience mercifully remained highly supportive and appreciative throughout, cheering his infrequent ventures to the microphone to introduce his compositions. The music remains an inspiration to myself and countless other musicians to have passed through his workshops, and it’s greatly satisfying to see DJs such as Gilles Petersen and promoters such as 3Headz bring his work to wider attention and to a younger audience. A line can be traced directly from the exploratory work of new British bands such as Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland back to the jazz-rock fusions developed by Nucleus in the 1970s. 3Headz, who completed a three-year mission in organising this concert, are apparently working on a DVD documentary on Carr’s work, which should see the light of day early next year. Those with any interest in the development of British Jazz should seek it out when it emerges, along with the BGO reissue programme of the Nucleus back catalogue, as well as more recent CD packages of the classic Ian Carr-Don Rendell quintet albums and Neil Ardley’s ‘Greek Variations’ and ‘Kaleidoscope of Rainbows’ (major works on which Carr performs).

The ridiculous is ‘A Bigger Bang’, the first collection of new studio material since 1997 from The Rolling Stones, and surely the guiltiest musical pleasure of the year. Critics appear to be falling over themselves to hail ‘A Bigger Bang’ as a return to the ramshackle and exuberant form of ‘Exile On Main Street’. Now, let’s not get too carried away, it’s by no means a five star classic or anything like that. It is, however, the first Stones album in, well, over twenty years if we’re honest, to really capture the sound of a band enjoying themselves rather than simply turning up to work to complete some kind of laboured obligation. The bombastic sound values that have made their live shows dogged and dependable rather than inspired remain in place (Charlie Watts’ drums are massively loud throughout). It’s also frequently crude and impolite, but the Stones have never really pretended to be anything else.

A number of the tracks are characterised by the familiar Stones blustering barroom boogie of ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Honkey Tonk Women’, some more successfully than others. Opener ‘Rough Justice’ is raucous and thrilling, with Mick Jagger steadfastly refusing to grow old gracefully. Its first verse is gleefully hilarious, with Jagger spitting out self-referential lyrics with sheer relish (‘once upon a time I was your little rooster – now I’m just one of your cocksssss!’). Maybe it’s all a little embarrassing, but Jagger at last sounds engaged and spirited again. They repeat the trick elsewhere with the fantastic ‘Driving Rain’, which comes with an explosive Keith Richards guitar solo, and the relentless ‘Oh No Not You Again’.

Sadly, a small handful of the remaining tracks built on the backbeat blueprint are somewhat less successful. Keith’s vocal on ‘Infamy’ is refreshingly gutsy, but the song itself is somewhat undistinguished, whilst ‘It Won’t Take Long’ harbours unwelcome memories of the Steel Wheels era generic rockers, with the Stones once again content to play a second-rate model of AC/DC. ‘Let Me Down Real Slow’ is perhaps a touch pedestrian, but at least has a lingering, mildly infectious chorus.

Unsurprisingly, it’s where they veer away from this overworked template that The Stones achieve their greatest surprises and biggest successes. ‘Streets Of Love’ is at once reflective ballad and stadium singalong. It bears a passing resemblance to ‘Sonnet’ by The Verve, but Jagger’s genuinely affecting vocal elevates it. ‘Back Of My Hand’ is a fearful, apocalyptic blues to rival even some of the best moments on ‘Let It Bleed’. Elsewhere, the band seem to have found a love for the simple groove, with the slinky funk of ‘Rain Fall Down’ (which is enjoyable as long as you don’t find the image of Jagger ‘may-yay-yayking sweet lurrrrve’ a little distasteful) and the exuberant ‘She Saw Me Coming’. The latter sees Jagger once more delight in the opportunity to deliver yet another woman-you-done-me-wrong song. Best of all is the gospel-tinged ‘Laugh I Nearly Died’ where the band at last recaptures some kind of subtlety and nuance.

Luckily, there’s also adequate balance to offset the fist-in-the-air stadium rockers. The rueful, uncharacteristically self-deprecating ‘Biggest Mistake’ is a brilliant country-tinged pop song that may have just rendered the entirety of the last Ryan Adams album redundant. Equally touching is the soulful, emotive ‘This Place Is Empty’, with Keith again handling lead vocals.

There is a great collaborative spirit at work on ‘A Bigger Bang’ that seems to have been sorely lacking on the 80s and 90s Stones albums. Keith and Ronnie’s guitars duel with familiar zest, but Mick Jagger also plays a great deal of guitar, enriching the sound in the process. The songs also seem more considered and less rushed, another sure sign that Jagger and Richards have started working in harmony once more. Unbelievably, there’s life in these old dogs yet.
There’s plenty of catching up to do before I jet off to Canada at the weekend, so expect another post before the end of the week (I still haven’t reviewed Sufjan Stevens for heaven’s sake!). At the very least, I won’t be able to resist making some sort of irreverent comment on the Mercury Music Prize (the winner is announced tomorrow night). Now that the London bombings have made MIA’s ‘freedom-fighter-chic’ a little more unpalatable, I’m not sure who is going to win this one. I can’t see the Kaiser Chiefs following Franz Ferdinand for another spiky pop victory. It’s an outsider, but I’m going to plump for the wildly overrated Go Team album as a likely winner at this late stage. I still hope it will be Polar Bear though – one of those token entries is going to have to win it at some stage!

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