Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Habit That's Hard To Give Up

Arthur Russell - Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika/Rough Trade, 2008)

It’s natural to feel a little suspicious of the burgeoning estates of dead musicians. There’s the endless ‘discovery’ of previously unheard raps from Tupac or Notorious BIG, the patching together of Miles Davis outtakes, or even worse, the grafting on to new music of poorly recorded vocal demos. All seem to suggest that a record label or family member is interested in making a quick and easy buck. Let’s not forget that the reissue industry is such huge business because it offers the largest possible profit margins. Reissuing old albums costs little and when they sell, reaps huge rewards for all involved.

The case of Charles Arthur Russell Jr. seems slightly different however. Matt Wolf’s excellent documentary ‘Wild Combination’ neatly encapsulated the wide-reaching extent of Russell’s creative imagination. It also left a lingering sadness that so little of Russell’s meticulously crafted music was appreciated during his own lifetime. The devotion of Russell’s partner Tom Lee seemed transparent and sincere, and one can hardly resent him now delving through Russell’s voluminous collection of recorded tapes to produce another compilation for the Audika label, a business currently existing, it would appear, solely to communicate Russell’s artistic legacy. The discovery of these tapes also seemed to be a voyage of discovery for Russell’s parents, who maintained a caring but somewhat distant relationship with their son.

We already know that Russell had little or no respect for boundaries. He composed minimalist music influenced by the avant-garde, endured a failed stage collaboration with Robert Wilson (both artists no doubt a bit too individualistic and stubborn to work well together), produced energising disco tracks and, most intriguingly of all, wrote peculiar, unpredictable songs in which he experimented with the soft sound of his voice and an electronically treated ‘Cello. What many people may not have realised until now is that Russell also invested a lot of time in writing relatively conventional pop songs, many of which are presented here for the first time.

Some of the songs are rooted in the American folk tradition and hint back at his rural upbringing. These songs help emphasise one of the surprising and insightful themes of Wolf’s documentary – the conflict between the pull of the reckless, liberated cities and the peace and space of rural America. Where once Russell had made a clear and deliberate rejection of the latter, his relationship with the world in which he grew up had clearly became more complex as he grew older.

There’s another dichotomy bared here too. Whilst Russell was an original, intelligent writer drawn to experimentation, he also loved straightforward populism too. Frequently, ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ emphasises Russell’s commitment to bubblegum over his commitment to art. The genuinely remarkable thing about this set is that this by no means diminishes the quality of the material – it seems that Russell could confidently inhabit any world to which he turned his mercurial gaze.

The greater emphasis on Russell’s voice, mostly untreated and undisguised here, acts as a timely reminder of one of my most deeply held convictions about the performance of songs. This is that no amount of false emoting or bellowing force can compensate for a real and natural vocal character. The X-Factor school of vocalising does nothing for me whatsoever. By most conventional musical criteria, Russell probably wasn’t a great singer. His voice is delicate and vulnerable, and frequently wavers away from the intended notes, but there’s something beautiful, intimate and human within it – something that manages to elevate his sometimes intentionally mundane lyrics towards the realms of profundity. Russell frequently wrote about everyday themes – the repetitive, less intense elements of love that he clearly found as significant as wild attraction, his dog, an unopened letter. The songs resonate with curiosity, honesty and feeling.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is in this music that produces this overwhelming poignancy. ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, with its reverb-soaked backing and twangy guitar perhaps most resembles The Cure in their pure pop glory, but there’s something about the intertwining of Russell’s voice with that of backing vocalist Joyce Bowden that makes it induce tears in this listener. Similarly, the title track, not so distant in style from some of the material that appeared on ‘Calling Out Of Context’ is about as harmonically commonplace as music can be, but has an unabashed directness that amplifies its impact one hundredfold.

Even in full knowledge of Russell’s open-mindedness, it’s still oddly shocking to hear him sing an acoustic folk song in the manner of ‘Close My Eyes’ (recorded by John Hammond), playing it as straight as possible and sounding not unlike James Taylor. Elsewhere, there’s material that reveals the influence of his connection with Jonathan Richman – ‘Time Away’ is a reductive, snarly gem. ‘What It’s Like’, sadly the only song from Russell’s band The Flying Hearts included here, is somehow both conventional and bizarre, a gospel-tinged ballad featuring a funereal horn section and a Russell voiceover about a preacher forsaking his lover for God.

There’s something spidery in Russell’s melodies that makes them compelling even when they are undeniably basic. Some of the pop music here is simply sublime – the melancholy Byrdsian twang of ‘Oh Fernanda Why’, the infectious, bouncy ‘Hey! How Does Everybody Know?’ or the lush romanticism of ‘Habit Of You’ all linger satisfyingly in the mind. Some of the more quirky, idiosyncratic selections demand repeated listens, gradually drawing us into Russell’s unique world.

Whilst there’s no doubt that ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ offers myriad surprises, it also provides further evidence of the consistent threads running throughout Russell’s work. His devout perfectionism (perhaps he was as overtaken by music as by love), his commitment to popular appeal blighted by his inability to complete his work or ever be satisfied with his results, his boundary-crossing inventiveness. Perhaps the piece here that most accurately sums up his concerns is ‘Goodbye Old Paint’, a take on an old cowboy standard that begins like one of his instrumental sketches before expanding into a weird combination of Indian-influenced composition and American history. The joy here is that Russell’s versatility was so effortless and unselfconscious. His archive still seems to be a wealth of surprises and I very much doubt we have even yet come close to viewing the complete picture.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

27 Recordings in Full Stereo

I’m struggling to keep up with commenting on my listening at the moment, so I thought I’d do a list of everything floating my boat at the moment, with some brief thoughts. I will hopefully get round to writing more considered thoughts about many of these records soon:

Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna (Warp)
Apparently their pop album, this is really just a more ambitious and accurate statement of their primal, ritualistic preoccupations. If they’ve assimilated elements drawn from grime or other forms of dance music, the most obvious reference point is still Can.

Max Richter – 24 Postcards In Full Colour (FatCat)
Some people may see an irony in this, but these bite-size sketches, designed to be downloaded as ringtones, may constitute Richter’s most evocative and affecting work to date. He has deliberately surrendered his control over the order in which the tracks play out – and it’s amusing just how much of a novelty it is to find a composer inviting the use of the CD player’s shuffle function. This is challenging music for the attention-deficit age.

AC/DC – Black Ice (Columbia)
This one does not require an essay. Maybe with the exception of ‘Rock N’ Roll Dream’ (which represents a tentative step into self-questioning balladry), this sounds exactly like everything else AC/DC have recorded. Ergo it is unquestionably awesome. For fans who recognise nuances – if ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ was a return to the blues and boogie of their earliest albums, producer Brendan O’Brien has brought to ‘Black Ice’ a similar muscle to that provided by Mutt Lange on ‘Back in Black’.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Is It The Sea? (Domino/BBC)
Put Will Oldham with a bunch of Scottish folksters in a band called Harem Scarem and you get another unpredictable live reworking of many of his greatest songs. The addition of harmonised female backing vocals continues to soften some of Oldham’s sharper edges. Perhaps this endless string of releases is a little unhelpful in any attempt to define Oldham – but definition is precisely what the great contrarian is trying to evade.

Dave Holland Sextet – Pass It On (Universal Classics)
A new group – featuring Alex Spiagin on Trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on Piano and the incomparable Eric Harland on drums, this is an intricate and engrossing set, refreshing some of the highlights of Holland’s career as a composer. Has Holland ever made a disappointing record?

Bobo Stenson Trio – Cantando (ECM)‘Cantando’, which translates as ‘singing’, is one of the most subtle, nuanced and beautiful recordings of the whole year. It’s a set of lyrical, melodic compositions performed with empathy and meticulous control. All three musicians explore the range of sounds from their instruments, combining to craft a meditative calm that transports us far away from this hurried, unbalanced daily existence.

Late Of The Pier – Fantasy Black Channel (Parlophone)
Whilst I appreciated the recent Guardian blog piece deriding their ludicrous moniker, Late of the Pier still seem like a breath of fresh air in the mostly redundant world of British indie rock. They are a band completely unafraid of both ambition and ridicule – as a result, their music is genuinely exciting. They sometimes betray their context by slipping into that oom-ska oom-ska groove that has plagued this music post-Franz Ferdinand, but they at least do it with a very real exuberance. Elsewhere, they are riotously unpredictable and maniacally subversive.

Benoit Pioulard – Temper (Kranky)
A step-up from ‘Precis’, itself one of my personal favourites of the past few years, this is an immersing and rewarding record – a strange combination of naivety and confidence that is supremely appealing. It sounds pleasurably disconnected from reality.

Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue (Rough Trade)
This has been getting short shrift in some sections of the music press, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Like ‘Under The Blacklight’, it seems to be to be another apposite context for Lewis’ silky, charming voice. She encounters problems when she strives too hard for authenticity – hence I wasn’t quite as enamoured with the detour into Appalachian folk on ‘Rabit Fur Coat’, nor Rilo Kiley’s more self-consciously shmindie moments pre-‘More Adventurous’. Whilst much of ‘Acid Tongue’ might seem like an indulgent studio love-in with famous friends, these moments sound spirited and full blooded, whilst the album’s moments of refined balladry are alluring.

Wild Beasts – Limbo, Panto (Domino)
It’s taken me a while to brave this one, in full knowledge that Hayden Thorpe’s extravagant, highly camp falsetto would be something of an acquired taste. I’m growing to appreciate it though – the songs are excellent, and the playing is far more adventurous than most of the mundane indie currently coming from British shores.

Beck – Modern Guilt (XL)
‘Modern Guilt’ is comfortably Beck’s best album since ‘Odelay’ and possibly the most impressive of the ubiquitous Dangermouse’s recent productions. Are we now taking Beck for granted? ‘Modern Guilt’ hasn’t received all that much in the way of column inches, but it’s a lot warmer and less arch than much of his back catalogue. It’s also musically challenging without lurching into self parody, as some of Beck’s material has in the past. It’s also mercilessly concise, which works in its favour.

Marnie Stern – This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It is It and That is That (Kill Rock Stars)
This is comfortably the most convoluted title of the year and one that potentially risks obfuscating the impact of this visceral, thrilling music. Contrary to many of her peers, Stern relishes in virtuosic displays of technique, as does her extraordinary drumming accompanist Zach Hill. The resulting music is so intense and fearless as to be utterly irresistible. It’s a wild combination of untamed aggression and elaborate intricacy.

TV On The Radio – Dear Science (4AD)
This one looks set for album of the year status from some quarters. It’s certainly the acclaimed group’s most consistent and accessible record to date – I’m just not so sure that its lunge for Prince-inspired minimalist pop represents anything staggeringly original. It is, however, involving and compelling. I also rather liked ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’, which now seems to have been casually re-assessed as the disappointment of their catalogue.

EST – Leucocyte (ACT)
I’ve been avoiding writing about this for fear of speaking ill of the dead. I must confess, however, that I’ve become unusually aggravated by the marketing campaign describing it as ‘Esbjorn Svensson - his legacy’. That, surely, is the entire EST back catalogue, which I suspect will come to be seen as one of the richest and most rewarding in contemporary jazz. ‘Leucocyte’, had Svensson lived, might have pointed in new directions for the group. It certainly represents a departure but I’m not yet convinced it’s a fruitful one. Much of it sounds loose and unstructured, with a greater emphasis on group improvisation that doesn’t play to Svensson’s strengths for simple, haunting themes. But I must give it more time!

Roots Manuva – Slime and Reason (Big Dada)
I haven’t investigated much hip hop this year, but Rodney Smith remains dependable. One of the few rappers to speak honestly about the reality of his life, rather than construct an elaborate macho fantasy around it, he’s also blessed with another rarity in this music – a sense of humour. ‘Slime and Reason’ is both insightful and fun and the productions remain uniquely inventive in British hip hop – the collaborations with Metronomy are surprisingly fruitful.

Finn Peters – Butterflies (Accidental)
Now signed to Matthew Herbert’s label, Finn Peters follows up the excellent ‘Su-Ling’ with a record of disarming calmness and simplicity, in which his flute playing is the central feature. The volume rarely rises above a careful whisper. It’s a good deal less immediate than ‘Su-Ling’, and requires a little patience, but its tranquil mood is surprising and refreshing amidst the furious blasting of most contemporary British jazz.

Jeremy Warmsley – How We Became (Transgressive)
I had been expecting the campaign for Jeremy to step up a notch with this second album, but it seems to have slipped out with only minimal fanfare. This is something of a shame given that it contains frequently impressive songwriting. At his best, there’s a disarming ambition in his writing and arranging. ‘Dancing with the Enemy’ and the title track are particular highlights. The greater emphasis on studio production occasionally threatens to swamp Jeremy’s more endearing idiosyncrasies (he is better served by the stranger arrangements than the four square indie rock template), but the balance is mostly just right.

Antony and the Johnsons – Another World EP (Rough Trade)
This one is a little taster to whet the appetite for the long awaited new album ‘The Crying Light’, which isn’t due until next year. The title track merely repeats the familiar Antony cabaret schtik and worryingly suggests that the new record might be a case of diminishing returns. Elsewhere across the EP though, there are new paths we can only hope are explored further on the new full length. ‘Hope Mountain’ introduces some affecting wind arrangements, whilst ‘Shake That Devil’ betrays the influence of both Nick Cave and John Coltrane. No bad thing in either case.

Blink – Blink (Loop)
Here is one of the finest British jazz albums of the year. Regular readers will already know of my enthusiasm for the Loop Collective, whose co-operative spirit and intelligent programming has been refreshing the London jazz scene for the past few years. This collaboration between two of its younger members (pianist Alcyona Mick and saxophonist Robin Fincker) and the established drummer Paul Clarvis (a regular percussionist for Harrison Birtwistle as well as an experienced jazz player) has made for its most empathetic and communicative release so far. Clarvis’ diverse playing experience proves liberating, and, somewhat appropriately, the group can veer between fiery and reflective in the blink of an eye.

Patricia Barber – The Cole Porter Mix (Blue Note)
If anyone could make me want to hear another collection of hoary Cole Porter standards, it’s Barber, who has some of the most relaxed and charming vocal phrasing in modern jazz. This is not quite as exotic and enchanting as her last collection of mythology inspired originals, but it’s a fine album nonetheless, and a good example of her quality as an interpreter.

Metronomy – Nights Out (Because)
This appears to be the hipster electro album of 2008 – something to rival LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound Of Silver’ or Hot Chip’s ‘The Warning’. For my money, it’s not quite on that level. It works well at its poppiest, as the rather marvellous ‘Heartbreaker’ single demonstrates, but sometimes it seems like the group are trying too hard to create strange, discomforting sounds. There’s also far too much reliance on disco-inflected octave parts on the guitar and bass.

Kasai All Stars – In The 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into A Swimming Fish and Ate The Heads of His Enemy By Magic (Congotronics)
The Congotronics series continues to produce some of the most exciting music emerging from Africa – this Kasai All Stars record is no exception. The distorted thumb pianos remain a characteristic feature, but there’s a softer, more lilting groove and celebratory vocals that make this a more joyful than visceral experience.

Tom Richards Orchestra – Smoke and Mirrors (Proper)
Tom Richards has, until now, earned his living as a sideman for Jamie Cullum and, er, abysmal Staines indie-rockers Hard Fi. If this doesn’t seem to augur much for his own work, think again, as this is a very extravagant, well-arranged big band record. I’m not convinced that the vocal tracks work as well as the instrumentals, but it mostly avoids blandness. I’m a bit irritated that he’s stolen the intended title of my work-in-progress album, although in fairness I got it from a Magnetic Fields song anyway.

Plush – Fed (Broken Horse)
I’ve lived with the demos for Liam Hayes’ magnum opus for some time, but the fully fledged album itself, complete with its bankrupting arrangements, had assumed the status of a ‘Starsailor’ or a ‘Time Fades Away’ – an unattainable cult classic. Previously only available on a rare Japanese import, small label Broken Horse has at last made it available in Europe.

This might seem controversial given the album’s reputation, but I simply don’t agree that ‘Fed’ is some kind of visionary or maverick statement. Next to the spacious, mysterious and uncompromising arrangements of Mark Hollis it sounds positively conventional, however much its recording costs may have spiralled. What it is, however, is lavish pop music of the highest quality, made all the more appealing by the fact that it has been left a little ragged around the edges and because Hayes’ voice is itself honest and a little shaky.

Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (4AD)
This is the kind of rapturous, ravishing record with which I can all too easily become infatuated. Dept of Eagles are a spin-off from Grizzly Bear, but are more immediate and less abstract than their parent group. ‘In Ear Park’ is a collection of remarkably well constructed songs – a bit like Fleet Foxes meeting Stephen Sondheim in a dense forest somewhere. This and the Benoit Pioulard record seem to be in similar territory – both remind me most of Califone, an under-publicised band over here who must themselves have a new offering on the table soon.

Matthew Herbert Big Band – There’s Me And There’s You (Accidental)

There seems to be a chronic distribution problem afflicting Matthew Herbert’s new big band album – it should have been in shops two weeks ago but is still conspicuous by its absence from chain stores. Luckily, much of it is streaming from its dedicated website. Herbert remains one of the few artists committed to making ‘protest’ music and his found sounds continue to reflect his uncompromising political beliefs. As we attempt to revive a broken capitalism with taxpayer’s money, we probably need his principles more than ever. Herbert has also been working on forthcoming records from Micachu and The Shapes and The Invisible (a band featuring guitarist Dave Okumu and Tom Herbert, bass player for Polar Bear), both of which I am very excited about!

Fieldwork - Door (Pi Recordings)
Steve Lehman's album 'On Meaning' would comfortably have made my top 10 of 2007 had I heard it in time. I'm going to make no such omissions with this trio album featuring Lehman, his regular drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Vijay Iyer - it's a magisterial example of unconventional and audacious group improvisation.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Deerhunter - Microcastle (Kranky, 2008)

A good friend has been raving about Deerhunter at me for some time. Their 2007 album ‘Cryptograms’ struck me as interesting but a little cold and self-absorbed. With ‘Microcastle’, an album much-hyped following a pre-release internet leak and swift appearance on iTunes, I think I suddenly get it. Maybe it’s that I’ve been enchanted by Deerhunter mainman Bradford Cox’s romantic sheets-of-noise side project Atlas Sound and that the demarcation between the two projects seems increasingly permeable. Or perhaps it’s simply that there’s a greater spectrum of ideas and influences at work on ‘Microcastle’ – right down to the incorporation of a stronger sense of melody and harmony, much of it assimilated from 50s and 60s pop.

The impact of Deerhunter’s music has in the past been mainly visceral. On ‘Microcastle’, Cox has tempered that brutal force with something more emotional.
The mostly fuzzy guitars hint at The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and a wealth of British shoegazers, but it’s both more musical and more engaged than such comparisons suggest. There are moments of deceptive prettiness such as ‘Agoraphobia’ that mask the desperation or frustration that sometimes haunt Cox’s monosyllabic lyrics. Also, Cox frequently lends his melodies an unexpected twist of melancholy that transports his music far away from anything twee.

Similarly, there’s no sense of redundant or empty celebration here, and it’s clear that whilst music is a labour of love for Cox, it’s also a form of catharsis. The combination of healing and infectious enthusiasm is what imbues ‘Microcastle’ with a distinctive musical personality and a crossover appeal. The gradual swells of ‘Little Kids’ and ‘Neverstops’ transform songs of brief duration into expansive epics, whilst the sheer momentum and energy of ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ renders it irresistible. There’s every sense that this music could reach the Arcade Fire contingent – it’s the sort of combination of vulnerability, anger and impressionism that inspires devotion. Plus the gangly, ungainly Cox hardly looks any weirder than Win Butler and his not-so-merry band.

Sometimes the power of the music is based largely on pitting repeated phrases against increasing layers of sound. This technique works brilliantly on the near-euphoric coda to ‘Little Kids’, and the effect is made even more potent by its juxtaposition with the stark, almost naked sounding introduction to the title track. Cox manages to make a virtue of the inherent limitations of his voice – it’s weak, but he frequently makes it sound awestruck and overpowered by its environment rather than useless. The effect is then repeated in reverse when ‘Microcastle’ bursts into a joyous heat-haze. The sequencing may well be as significant as the production and writing on this album – it’s certainly difficult to hear it without the grandiose ‘Twilight at Carbon Lake’ rounding things off.

There’s a surreal, magical and romantic mood to the three brief pieces that make up the centre of the album. ‘Calvary Scars’ and ‘Green Jacket’ are melancholy and touching, whilst ‘Activa’ is deeply odd, the overall effect of the three combined being somewhat discomforting. With the latter, it’s a result of what is held back as much as what is stated – unusual sounds are left lingering and there’s a wealth of space in the music. Much of the success of ‘Microcastle’ stems from Cox’s admirable concision – no idea ever outstays its welcome here.

Sometimes there’s a sense that Cox might merely be luxuriating in his record collection – for example, the motorik ending of ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ that echoes Neu! or Joy Division or the Spector-ish pop influences with which he liberally peppers the rest of the album. Yet ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ is so much more satisfying a refashioning of Krautrock than anything Primal Scream have recently served up, and the influences always seem to be serviced towards a broader, overarching vision. Cox may describe ‘Twilight at Carbon Lake’ as ‘doo-wop’ – but it’s a particularly warped, outsider’s take on the form.

Live at The Dome in Tufnell Park a month or so ago, the group not only seemed on excellent form (they are one of those bands who seem to create a massive, unstoppable sound from a straightforward onstage set-up) but also appeared rather amiable. Cox, gangly and distressingly thin, is an unusual and dominant presence on stage, and whilst he is clearly very serious about his music, he also seems very serious about pleasing those who take the time and effort to hear him. It’s this kind of relationship between band and audience that makes some groups stand out from the crowd – it is, after all, what transported Arcade Fire into arenas.

Friday, October 10, 2008

You Don't Miss Your Water Until Your Well Runs Dry

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs (Columbia, 2008)
Various Artists – Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story (Kent, 2008)

For those of us who have been waiting patiently for The Bootleg Series to catch up with the contemporary Dylan, ‘Tell Tale Signs’ ought to be an essential purchase. Sadly, Columbia’s ludicrous multi-format strategy has perversely made it unaffordable – with an unnecessarily lavish 3CD set on sale for prices varying between £80 and £110. Not even the most obsessive of Dylan devotees would consider spending quite that much money on one product, especially when the box is so large that it won’t even fit on your average shelf. Thanks but no thanks Columbia.

The standard £15 2CD edition is, if we exercise critical acumen rather than slavish icon worship, a bit of a mixed bag. Its highlights are superb, and demonstrate that Dylan’s now ravaged voice has a caustic power all of its own, communicating wisdom and experience more than the defiant rage of the young Dylan. Perhaps the best example of this is the solo piano and vocal version of ‘Dignity’, one of those half-finished Dylan recordings that suggest he shouldn’t have bothered experimenting with more full blooded arrangements. His vocal is attacking and aggressive, but also full of compassion. The band version that eventually appeared on ‘Greatest Hits Vol. 3’ is nowhere near as assertive or compelling. The two additional versions of ‘Mississippi’ included here also give a clear impression of how Dylan never sees songs as malleable objects. The bare version which opens the first CD is remarkable – a lightly shuffled blues that seems more hopeful than resigned - much more striking than the slightly MOR plod of the ‘Love and Theft’ version.

There are, however, a number of superfluous alternate takes that were clearly consigned to the cutting room floor for good reason. There’s a radically different version of ‘Someday Baby’, a reverb-drenched U2-esque trudge that sounds like a totally different song from the slight but appealing barroom boogie of the ‘Modern Times’ version. Dylan sounds bored – and one can hardly blame him given the uninspired musical context. Only the delicate brush drums seem to complement the lyric. The punchier version of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ included here somehow sounds darker but less mysterious. The alternate versions of ‘Series of Dreams’ and ‘Everything is Broken’ are only superficially different from the previously released versions and don’t add quite so much to our understanding of Dylan’s songwriting process.

The collection continues to give credence to the argument that Dylan can frequently be a poor editor of his own work. There’s plenty of evidence here to suggest that both ‘Oh Mercy’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ could have been even better albums. Not only this, but the versions of ‘God Knows’ and ‘Born In Time’ included here from the ‘Oh Mercy’ sessions are significantly superior to the less imaginative takes that eventually made it on to ‘Under The Red Sky’. Similarly, it’s hard to believe that the epic, rambling and haunting narrative of ‘Red River Shore’ was left off ‘Time Out of Mind’ in favour of some of the more lightweight blues numbers that peppered that album. Laced with accordion, the song is a meandering, languid delight.

There’s actually a relative paucity of completely unheard material here, although the small number of selections are certainly intriguing. ‘Can’t Escape From You’ seems inspired by vocal group music – perhaps The Platters or the early Drifters material. It sounds, pleasingly, like it could easily feature on one of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour programmes. ‘Dreamin’ Of You’ is perhaps a little too characteristic of Daniel Lanois’ murky swamp and perhaps therefore suffers from over-familiarity. It’s an effective enough lyric, but not as melodic or as stirring as the best songs included on ‘Time Out of Mind’ and it covers similar thematic ground to some of the best tracks on that album. There’s a surprisingly mellifluous duet with Ralph Stanley on ‘The Lonesome River’, and Stanley deserves great credit for coping with the unenviable task of harmonising with Dylan.

There are a handful of soundtrack selections and live recordings padding out the set. Given the sheer volume of Dylan live recordings in recent years (what a shame the regular offerings streamed on the official website stopped with no warning), ‘Tell Tale Signs’ doesn’t seem to delve deep enough into this area. There’s a sterling, dramatic, tempestuous reading of ‘High Water’ but the version of ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ is a little perfunctory, Dylan hastily barking out the lyrics and obscuring his enunciation, as he does all too often in concert these days. Given the quality of his fresh readings of songs like ‘Hattie Carroll’, ‘John Brown’ and ‘Shelter From The Storm’ in recent London shows, I wonder whether some recent live performances of older songs might have been more valuable in this context, particularly in emphasising the changeable nature of Dylan’s songs, however sacred their original versions might seem.

For all the riches on ‘Tell Tale Signs’, I still suspect that a complete Dylan live album covering 2000 onwards would be a more rewarding addition to the catalogue, albeit with the reservation that the selections would need to be judicious. Some of ‘Tell Tale Signs’ feels a little too much like the scraping of a very deep barrel.

Putting the excessive asking price for the Dylan box set into very clear perspective is ‘Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story’, another new soul compilation from Kent Records. Frankly, the market is saturated with soul compilations, from the Motown Chartbusters series through to Dave Godin’s peerless Deep Soul collections. With this package though, Kent have taken the art of compiling to a whole new level. Lavishly packaged with a hard book filled with photographs and informative liner notes, the compilation is unique in spanning several labels and veering from predictable essentials to more obscure collectors’ gems. Priced at a very reasonable £28, it exposes Columbia’s greed and idiocy all too starkly.

If this is your first introduction to the heady, fervent world of southern soul music, it’s an ideal primer. It includes, amongst others, Al Green’s gospel-informed track that gives the set its title, two solid gold classics from William Bell (‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’), Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, James Carr’s awesome ‘Dark End of the Street’ and Otis Redding’s staggering ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, possibly the best directive ever addressed to men in song form. These selections, familiar to anyone already immersed in this glorious music, are just the tip of the iceberg here though.

I can’t add much to David Hepworth’s perceptive and authoritative review in The Word magazine, other than to reiterate his point about the radicalism and sheer provocation of this music. Nothing that has come since – be it punk, acid house, hip hop or grime, has been quite as revolutionary as this remarkable combination of the sacred and profane. Clearly emerging from a gospel tradition, but shot through with desperation, lust and immoral urges, southern soul is as intense and passionate as popular music gets, dominated by compelling narratives and assertive personalities.

These statements of love, desire and heartbreak veer from the highly principled to the baldly insensitive. Arthur Alexander’s ‘Go Home Girl’ finds its protagonist weighing up the value of his love for a friend and his desire for said friend’s girlfriend and opting to sustain the friendship. By way of contrast, there’s Denise LaSalle’s promise to break up your home. Believe me, it’s no idle threat. In between, there’s plenty of good old fashioned adultery and musings on the bittersweet pain of unrequited love. All the emotions and longings fundamental to great pop music are here in droves.

It’s also great to hear some less predictable selections from great singers. We all know Eddie Floyd for ‘Knock on Wood’ but his ‘Got to Make a Comeback’ (actually the flipside to that stellar hit) is a languid hymn to steely determination that demonstrates his versatility and deserves a wider hearing. Similarly, Wilson Pickett is familiar for ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘In the Midnight Hour’, but ‘Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)’ is an equally stirring piece of dirty blues still based on that unflappable backbeat.

I normally reject arguments that dismiss all modern R&B in relation to its earlier counterparts, not least because some of that contemporary music is so rhythmically exciting. Yet, listening to this wonderful compilation, one has to wonder if any of today’s divas or young males full of tedious bravado have had the kind of life experience that informs the great stories being told here. If there’s a comparable determination in the modern variations of soul music, it often seems to focus on money and material wealth. And whilst the music is still so often preoccupied with sex, very rarely does it now seem sensual or intimate. Many modern singers could do with listening to some of these confessions - be it Barbara and the Browns’ exquisite ‘If I Can’t Run To You I’ll Crawl’ or Doris Duke’s wonderfully uninhibited ‘To The Other Woman (I’m The Other Woman)’.

In fact, one of the strongest features of this collection is the volume of authoritative, artful performances from women. There’s the low down groove of Laura Lee’s ‘Dirty Man’, and gleefully accusatory performances from June Edwards (‘You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man’) and Candi Staton (‘Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man’). Add to this two of the essential masterpieces of the form with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ (one of Dan Penn’s best compositions) and Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’.

Perhaps what makes soul music one of the most accessible and enduring of all contemporary musical forms is its ability to absorb the best elements from a variety of traditions. Present within every song here is the sheer force and conviction of gospel music, the melancholy and pain of the blues and the unashamed vulnerability of country music. It is some of the greatest music ever recorded, plus the continual unearthing of more rare treasures suggests that soul music’s deep well may turn out to be bottomless.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Tag Team

Fyfe Dangerfield/Tom Rogerson – The Vortex, London 7th October 2008

It’s quite rare to see a shared improvised piano gig, particularly one which ends with three pianists playing together, gleefully sending up the entire process. In that sense, this Vortex gig could be described as self-aware and unpretentious, even if some of the playing could easily have given the opposite impression.

Tom Rogerson is one of this country’s most complete musicians, and it’s criminal that his profile has not yet risen further. Until recently, he has divided his time working with songwriters Jeremy Warmsley and Emmy the Great, neither of whom have really provided an adequate space for his expressive, assured piano playing. I’ve already waxed lyrical here about his group Three Trapped Tigers, who marry the propulsive, angular groove of Battles with the intangible mystery of Supersilent or Food. They are a superb, viscerally exciting group – both technically assured and physically thrilling.

Rogerson’s improvised work occupies a different space entirely though. He rarely, if ever, repeats himself, tonight’s performances demonstrating his debt to classical training as much to a tradition of free improvisation. There’s nothing self-conscious or decidedly avant-garde about his two performances – instead, he aims simply and squarely for playing meaningful music with real feeling. His stance is doubled up and awkward, but the intensity is sincere and palpable. He frequently looks in danger of knocking himself out against the piano as he rocks back and forth, lost in his own substantive reverie.

This sort of insular, self-absorbed world is easily in danger of leaving audiences baffled or bored, but Rogerson finds his own way of communicating. Midway through his second improvisation, there’s a passage of such languid beauty and harmonic simplicity that it could have come from a pop ballad, although the delicacy and nuance with which it is performed elevates it to something haunting and profound. Similarly, when he loses himself in moments of Jarrett-esque minimalism, the violence with which he plays seems honest and convincing rather than a forced piece of showmanship.

It’s hard to feel so confident about Fyfe Dangerfield, more known for his leadership role in Guillemots than he is for solo piano work. His first set seems a little shallow – mostly consisting of long, murky and uninvolving passages holding down the sustain pedal with a dogged and unhelpful resolve. He’s constantly searching for interesting and unconventional sounds from the instrument, but his banging and punching of the keys feels like a gimmick used in place of identifiable musical phrasing. It’s definitely more artifice than art.

If Dangerfield’s first set is a little boring, the second is intolerable. It’s admittedly unclear whether or not it’s supposed to be taken seriously, but it comes across as a piss take of barrelhouse boogie. Clearly, there’s no obligation to perform this music anymore, but irreverence towards it needs to be based on very firm foundations. It also needs to have a clear purpose. Dangerfield’s rhythmic language is tentative and repetitive and his occasional barked interjections (a little like Tom Waits perhaps) seem ill-judged, even if they are intentionally comic. Physically, he seems tetchy, moving his seat snappily when playing at the far extremes of the keyboard. It seems as if he makes too many conscious decisions whilst improvising (demarcating the geography of the keyboard too starkly, moving too rapidly between aggression and reflection, using gimmicky sounds by muting the strings), and all these choices end up doing is restricting his expression.

This gig certainly suggests that Rogerson is a creative and articulate talent making music at the most challenging level that also speaks directly and clearly to its audience. Whilst his work is defiantly unpredictable, the consistent thread is a clear and mostly successful desire to capture feeling and mood through improvisation and composition. Three Trapped Tigers are operating in a musical landscape that can often seem clinical and cold – and they have injected that terrain with a refreshing burst of physicality and sensation. Rogerson’s solo work sounds not just liberated, but also emotionally engaging. So why are more people not yet writing about him?