Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Art Of Songwriting

I'm becoming very bored with the current focus on singer-songwriters, and the rather lazy clustering of musicians with completely different styles, intentions and of wildly varying quality. Can there really be any benefit in comparing King Creosote with Paolo Nutini? Frankly, James Blunt, the aforementioned Nutini, KT Tunstall, James Morrison and the rest can all piss off. Still, I'm going to do something a bit similar myself, because when auteurs do produce something interesting that goes somewhat against the grain, it's worth taking note.

Whatever your position on Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, it's not difficult to accept Will Oldham as one of modern music's true originals. It's not so much that his music breaks radical new boundaries - in fact, these days, he seems quite comfortable to operate in increasingly traditional idioms. It's more that his whole landscape, particularly his use of language, is completely singular. Any Will Oldham song immediately has his own unique stamp on it - however old and familiar the chords may be, nobody else could have written it. Nobody else would have written those dark but hypnotic words, or phrased the lines quite so adventurously. This is why the likes of 'Riding' and 'I See A Darkness' strike me as some of the major songs of our time, and however few records Oldham sells during his lifetime - he has created timeless music, the influence of which will likely be felt for many years to come.

Not content with having released one excellent album already this year (the underrated covers collaboration with Tortoise), Oldham is back with the latest instalment in his BPB guise. If it seems underwhelming on first listen, it's because it's his most consistent album so far - at least in tone and mood. The prevailing atmosphere is languid, mournful and lyrical. It's not an easy album - its songs demand complete and total attention throughout its longer-than-usual duration. Given patience though, it reveals an enveloping and carefully constructed mood.

'The Letting Go' is most impressive in the way it presents some subtle developments in Oldham's approach. It's perhaps easier for songwriters to fall into a stale rut than it is for bands - there's less creative input in terms of numbers, and once a writer has developed a style it's tempting to stick with it. If anything, Oldham has suffered from the reverse problem in recent years - making a series of rather stubborn and contrary records that presented him as a somewhat obtuse and confusing character. Both the stark 'Master and Everyone' and the chintzy Nashville reinterpretations of his earlier work on 'Greatest Palace Music' yielded some fascinating moments - but neither satisfied across the length of an entire disc. 'The Letting Go' changes all that. It achieves this by merging the delicate acoustic plucking of 'Master and Everyone' with his lushest arrangements to date. From the opening bars of 'Love Comes To Me', with its string flourishes and graceful electric guitar runs, it's clear we're in new territory. The sound in sensuous and romantic in the broadest senses of both words, but without losing the grimly morose and blackly humorous weltanschaung that has long been Oldham's trademark. Decamping to Iceland to record with a string group seems to have invigorated Oldham, just as collaborating with Matt Sweeney inspired him anew on last year's 'Superwolf'.

The dynamics are carefully regulated throughout and, as a result, the ensemble (this somehow seems a more appropriate word than 'band' to describe this operation) can reap magic from very subtle moments. The opening tracks are kept rolling gently by minimal, heartbeat percussion, and the gradual, swelling crescendo on 'Strange Form Of Life' works marvellously. Other unexpected elements include the use of drum programming on the superb 'Lay and Love' , soem military style drumming on 'No Bad News' and a close connection with the blues on the outstanding single 'Cursed Sleep' and on the brooding, apocalyptic 'Seedling'. 'Cold and Wet' even achieves something akin to the swing-era stylings Dylan resurrected on 'Love and Theft' (and reportedly returns to on a couple of songs on 'Modern Times').

For all the intricate arranging, the real star of the show here is actually singer Dawn McCarthy, whose presence is striking throughout the whole album. Oldham is by no means the easiest singer to harmonise with, as his vulnerable and slippery voice often drifts away from defined melodies. Still, McCarthy has achieved something close to the Emmylou's grace against Dylan's grit on 'Desire'. The combination is sublime and adds yet another new string to Oldham's bow.

Oldham has achieved a more direct simplicity with many of his lyrics here, although his poetic language still owes more to John Donne or Walt Whitman than any contemporary songwriter. His unpicks the erotic life with unflinching relish. On 'Cursed Sleep' he sings of 'trembling electric' in his lover's arms, and being 'so enslaved by her sweet wonder'. On 'Lay and Love', there's a magnificent verse capturing the dangerous contradictory impulses of attraction: 'From what I know, you're terrified/You have mistrust running through you/Your smile is hiding something hurtful/It makes me lay here and love you'. There's a perfectly encapsulated longing on 'Strange Form Of Life' with 'the softest lips ever/25 years of waiting to kiss them'. Most of these songs look back to a traditional folk structure, mostly bereft of choruses, and with repeated lyrical devices at the end of each verse. It's refreshing to hear such brilliantly sustained lyrical ideas running through each song.

It's particularly impressive that Oldham is still looking to forge new songwriting paths well into a long and established career. Whilst there is nothing here that goes against the grain of what we might reasonably expect a Bonnie 'Prince' Billy record to sound like, the way in which that sound has been refined and improved here is striking. The well of inspiration has certainly not yet run dry and 'The Letting Go' is a quiet, stately masterpiece.

Equally impressive is the first proper full length from Cortney Tidwell, who made a huge impression with her debut mini album late last year. 'Don't Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up' is deliciously expansive, with its rich, reverb-laden sound, at turns serene and spectacular. In her chameleonic vocal performances, Tidwell seems to have amalgamated the influence of a broad spectrum of female legends (Kate Bush, Liz Fraser and Bjork are her most obvious reference points). A harsh critic might suggest that, in a similar fashion to Beth Gibbons on her otherwise outstanding collaboration with Paul Webb aka Rustin Man, Tidwell occasionally comes too close to simply emulating particular vocal styles without necessarily finding her own voice. This is however particularly picky when everything about this album - vocal delivery, arrangements and particularly the sound, has been so carefully considered. Lambchop's William Tyler offers spacious, unconventional guitar and Kurt Wagner also provides guest vocals on the supremely relaxed, but compellingly strange 'Society'.

Tidwell always veers towards the unexpected. Opener 'Eyes Are At The Billions' opens in a sea of tranquility, but suddenly swells into something tremendously grand. Her vocal delivery is articulate and peculiarly theatrical, stretching and extending phrases beyond their natural rhythms. There are hints of country music conventions, such as the lush pedal steel guitar on 'Pictures On The Sidewalk', but the style of delivery rarely fits comfortably with such notions. The songs veer from sweetly melodic sections into passages of mysterious and enigmatic calm.

Her vocals are most impressive when layered over each other, such as on the languidly paced but nevertheless slightly discomforting 'I Do Not Notice', where numerous Tidwell's are pitted against each other in a delicately combative round. On the elegant, angelic 'La La', Tidwell provides an entire choir of harmony vocals to soften the corners of her lead delivery. The effect is simply sublime. The music is always hauntingly evocative, although it defies categorisation.

Closer to home, my former University and musical colleague Jeremy Warmsley releases his debut album 'The Art Of Fiction' through the much feted Transgressive label in October. Many of the tracks here have been released before (although often in different versions), but the whole album has been sequenced with meticulous care. Though it veers through an impressive array of styles, it has a smooth and almost uninterrupted flow that allows it to work as a complete whole, despite its musical schizophrenia. Jeremy clearly can't decide whether to be a bedroom auteur with some beats and a laptop, or to opt for the most ostentatious of live instrumentation, with strings, horns, acoustic piano and group vocal arrangements. Mercifully, it's a decision he doesn't have to make, as he's equally comfortable in both worlds, and has a good ear for manipulating sound. Given the genre conventions increasingly imposed by pigeonholing lifestyle-based publications, radio stations etc, it's refreshing to hear a songwriter with little respect for artificial boundaries. Jeremy has no qualms about merging the compositional rigour of Steve Reich with, say, the quirky pop genius of an Andy Partridge or Green Gartside. So, the opening 'Dirty Blue Jeans', with its relentlessly driving rhythm and with strings playing the parts normally expected from a guitar, contrasts neatly with the more electronic leanings of '5 Verses' or 'The Young Man Sees The City As A Chess Board', but all are clearly the product of the same questing spirit.

Strangely, Jeremy may be at his best when at his most whimsical. '5 Verses' is familiar now to anyone who has followed his work over the last couple of years, but its sweetly observed lyric capturing the complete arc of a relationship is clever, and it comes with the real benefit of an infectious melody, despite its rejection of the conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop structure. Similarly, the wartime tragedy of 'I Promise', the point rammed home with military drumming, shows Jeremy's penchant for the kitchen sink epic (and there's nothing wrong with that).

There's real ambition on display here, both in the album's excellent first half and also in its slightly less coherent second section. Early single 'I Believe In The Way You Move' has been dramatically improved here, now sounding at once tender and grand, with its ornate arrangement. Even more striking is 'Jonathan and The Oak Tree', which lurches through a number of radically different sections, rather like a potted pop symphony. It's both confounding and compelling and one of the album's standout tracks. I'm not quite sure what the central point of 'Modern Children' is, but it's full of quirky sounds and carries one of the album's most infectious choruses. This is coupled with a verse where the vocal line emphasises rhythm over melody, possibly betraying the influence of a Bloc Party or a Gang Of Four. The juxtaposition is effective.

Elsewhere, there's an occasional tendency towards abstraction that doesn't always quite work ('A Matter Of Principle' and 'If I Had Only' are perhaps slightly meandering), and a slightly narcissistic bent to the lyrics that might limit the appeal of some of the songs, from the young man trying to make his way in the big old city (the only university graduate without debt too! How fortunate!) in 'Dirty Blue Jeans' to the character looking to be 'the face of a generation' in 'The Young Man Sees...'. There's a lot of relationship dissection, self-aware pronouncements and candid admissions of lust, but sometimes this seems more insular than it is universal. For all this, it's difficult to see whether the conclusion of the eerily beautiful 'I Knew Her Face Was A Lie' (one of a handful of tracks to benefit significantly from the virtuosic piano playing of improv master Tom Rogerson), whereby Jeremy proclaims he's happy to be 'in a single bed on my own', is genuine, mockingly ironic, or just plain unlikely. Perhaps '5 Verses' remains a standout for its deployment of the wryly detached third person vantage point. There is however a clear counter-argument to all this - it's refreshing that this is not yet another sentimental/sensitive troubadour.

Still, this is no major obstacle when there are such rich musical pickings here, and it's important not to overlook the fact that Jeremy is already achieving the results to match his vaunting ambitions. Given that this was originally a loose collection of songs for EPs and singles, it's impressive that it's all been drawn together so coherently, and it's testament to the strength of his songwriting vision and dab hand at production. It's also continually inspiring that music of this quality can now be made easily in the home.

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