Friday, February 27, 2009

Ian Carr 1933 - 2009: A Personal Tribute

It’s a sad and rare day when I get to write here about a significant figure in British music with a direct and personal influence on my life. For this reason, I’m not going to write too much about Ian Carr’s career and body of work. There are already some excellent obituaries online (to which I shall link at the end of the piece) that cover all this in much more detail than I can manage. It will suffice to say that those not familiar with Ian’s music and his considerable role in the jazz-rock movement should at least check out ‘Out of the Long Dark’ or the first two Nucleus albums (‘Elastic Rock’ and ‘We’ll Talk About It Later’). His playing is also well showcased on Neil Ardley’s adventurous ‘Greek Variations’ and ‘Kaleidoscope of Rainbows’ amongst many other notable sessions. His major contribution had finally been recognised in 2006 with the BBC Services to Jazz award, but by this time he was sadly already afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. In this piece, I want to write more about Ian as an educator, the domain in which I came into contact with him and where I benefited from his considerable musicianship, experience and wisdom.

I was fortunate to attend a prestigious fee paying school with impressive facilities – computers with sequencing software for every student, numerous instruments, concert halls and a recording studio- but there were many ways in which the school’s music department was sorely lacking. One of these was its attitude to jazz. Everyone involved in teaching and performing jazz in the school was well meaning and polite – but they were not specialists and viewed improvisation as a skill far from the reach of teenage minds. Solos for the school jazz band tended to be written out, and there was an unappetising focus on the hoariest of standards, always played exactly ‘as written’ in a staid and organised ‘music for schools’ fashion. Spontaneity and interaction were not exactly encouraged.

Thank goodness, then, for Ian’s workshops at Weekend Arts College, then located in a dilapidated but vibrant shack next to Kentish Town West train station (now located in the classier environment of Hampstead Town Hall). I first attended Ian Carr’s workshops in September 1995, when I was just 14 years old. I had already developed a taste for jazz at least in part from my Dad’s record collection but also from Gerry Hunt’s wonderful classes for younger children at the college on Saturdays. Here I earned myself a bit of a reputation for being prepared to try out almost any instrument, from steel pan to bass guitar, but more focus and higher standards were demanded from Ian's classes. I duly opted to concentrate on drums. At £1.50 for three hours, these classes cost a small fraction of my school music lessons but contributed so much more to my knowledge and experience. In Ian’s classes, improvisation was an essential ingredient of music, and a liberating force.

Crucially, making mistakes was an inherent part of the learning process. Ian was always full of pithy, wise phrases, but the one I remember most clearly is ‘jazz is the art of recovery’. It was in Ian’s classes where I learned the value of getting things wrong. The important mark of a good musician was in how they took risks and recovered when things didn’t quite work: ‘If you fail, fail again but fail more successfully’. Improvised music was a necessarily imperfect art form where learning never stops, no matter what standard you might attain.

Ian was therefore as passionate about the learning process as he was about teaching us – ‘I’m still learning every day - if you have stopped learning, you should stop altogether’, he often used to say. Although he could certainly be a tough taskmaster with some very strong, ingrained opinions, he also enjoyed working with his students as much as working for them. As a result, he was never patronising. When we eventually got to perform our repertoire for the term, he would often play with us, and would be tremendously guilty about taking a long solo for himself when his passion and enthusiasm simply wouldn’t allow him to sit out. He once told a guitarist in our group: ‘Tom, I’m so sorry, I think I took your solo – but it was so damn groovy I just had to play!’ In these situations, he couldn’t be stopped and, as a rhythm section, we got the undoubted benefit of supporting him.

Ian could be particularly tough on the rhythm section, and as a somewhat unconfident teenager, this could sometimes present a challenge. It would sometimes feel as if he might be singling out particular individuals for censure over apparently trivial issues. Only when our analysis of the structure and function of a piece of music progressed did it become clear how sensitive and attuned his attention to detail was. As a trumpeter and keyboardist, he didn’t teach me so much about playing the drums but he taught me a great deal about music and the wider role of the drums within it. He would often put drummers on the spot with questions about harmony or possible scales, making it clear that drummers could not get away with just hitting things and knowing next to nothing about the form or harmonic structure of the music. He was particularly intolerant of virtuosity for its own sake – bass players had to master a solid and dependable walking feel before they varied their placements and he would be far more enthusiastic about a drummer with comfortable time feel than one with dexterous chops and poor judgment over which ideas to play. I remember him castigating poor Alex Gould (a technically excellent drummer) for not placing the cross-rim on beat four of the bar during ‘Milestones’. ‘That rimshot on beat four is the absolute crux of the piece!’ he would enthuse – ‘it cannot be put just where you want it!’ I learnt quickly to focus on my ride cymbal feel and get to grips with the structure of the piece, before attempting to impose my individual contribution.

It was really through Ian’s classes that I learned how to listen. It’s this quality he recognised in my playing at the time – an ability to listen to the contributions of other members of an ensemble and to play supportively. He also directed my listening in the broader sense, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz history and artists’ discographies. He would be offer very specific recommendations – Oliver Nelson’s ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’ was one of ‘the key albums of the 1960s’, whilst ‘Tales of Another’ by Gary Peacock, Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette was another of his all time favourites. I doubt I would have even heard of George Russell, a major but underestimated presence in jazz history, were it not for Ian’s praise of him and subsequent radio broadcast.

It was often hard to elicit praise from Ian but when it came, he would deliver it in spectacular fashion. We worked on an aggressive, driving rendition of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Elegant People’ (still among my favourites of his compositions) to which Ian remarked: ‘Daniel that was so deep down in the swamp I thought you’d changed colour!’ Lack of political correctness aside, I could only take that as a very sincere compliment.

Then there were his wonderful, lengthy stories – of encounters with Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, of his experiences performing (those infamous ‘double diminisheds!’) and, latterly, writing. He had certainly experienced a lot in his lengthy and illustrious career, not all of it positive, but all of it somehow valuable and informative.

Perhaps Ian’s most transparent flaw was his innate suspicion of free improvisation. More recently, having enjoyed the music of Evan Parker, Tim Berne, David Torne and many others, I’m not sure that I share Ian’s views here. He certainly saw few limits to improvising within a compositional structure – indeed, his teaching often emphasised just how wide the choice of scales and ideas could be. Yet whenever we requested to improvise completely freely, he was well out of his teaching comfort zone. Fairly understandably, our attempts at free improvisation were often tentative, sometimes even plain embarrassing. Perhaps Ian merely felt we needed to get to grips with a tradition and a language first. I remain unsure as to what his true opinions were here but I think it stemmed from his emphasis on the importance of time to all music. He felt that ‘time’ could never be entirely abandoned (‘play two notes, or even the same note twice, and you are playing time’) and maybe therefore that the free improvisers’ quest to escape these strictures was rather futile. Indeed, the possibilities of playing time were so vast that it needn’t be seen as a stricture at all.

It could sometimes feel as if Ian was condemning you with faint praise. His final report on me said something like ‘Daniel is starting to become a very good drummer’. It was perhaps the phrase that followed that that was more significant though, and I’m only now starting to understand what he meant. ‘Where he goes now is up to him’. This seemed quite an ambiguous and mysterious statement to my 18 year old self but it now seems very simple. A clear conception of your direction and what you want to achieve is vital to your progress as a musician. I certainly don’t regret studying history instead of music. At the time, I was quite hot-headed and fervently believed that studying music or literature might risk destroying my personal passions for the art I loved. I now believe this opinion to be ignorant and naive and am finally, ten years on, taking the steps I think Ian was encouraging me to take then. I’m doing it later than most, but there is still time and I will long be grateful to Ian for setting me off on a very long road.

I was lucky to catch Ian at the end of his teaching career. His playing had started to deteriorate and he would often be visibly frustrated by this in classes, although he had lost none of his enthusiasm for the music or for communicating. He retired from WAC a year after I left to study history at University. Subsequently, Tim Whitehead, Jonny Phillips and Ricky Mian have all ably stepped into his shoes, inheriting and developing a great tradition of jazz education at the college.

It’s deeply sad that Ian’s career was cruelly cut short by health problems at precisely the time he was gaining both a new audience and the wider recognition he’d long deserved. He’d often been unfairly portrayed as being in the shadow of his hero, Miles Davis, when his contribution to jazz-rock was actually contemporaneous with that of Miles. Some extraordinary musicians passed through Ian’s workshops at WAC - Julian Joseph, Courtney Pine, Jason Rebello, Mark and Michael Mondesir and many of the pack of musicians now revitalising British music – Zoe Rahman, Naadia Sheriff, Tom Herbert, Tom Skinner, Dave Okumu, Jesse Hackett of Elmore Judd and many others. This is testament to his manifest qualities as a teacher and his legacy will live on through these musicians for many years to come. Personally, I respect him for managing to combine pretty much all of my personal interests in one career. He composed music that crossed the often unnecessary boundaries between classical, jazz and rock (accompanied by an open-minded appreciation for a variety of musical forms), he wrote passionately and authoritatively about jazz, and even became an excellent broadcaster too.

Some links to more informative and objective obituaries covering Ian’s life and music:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wordless Thoughts

Mountains - Choral (Thrill Jockey, 2009)
Lars Horntveth - Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound, 2009)
Joshua Redman - Compass (Nonesuch, 2009)
Enrico Rava - New York Days (ECM, 2009)

Maybe it's a result of being slightly frustrated by some of the song-based music released so far this year but I find myself absorbed by a fine selection of instrumental music at the moment. With new albums from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Alasdair Roberts and Bill Callahan imminent, this may not however last very long, so I'll revel in it while I can.

If you should never judge a book by its cover, then you certainly shouldn’t judge the contents of an album from its title. ‘Choral’ is the third album from electronic duo Mountains but, aside from the odd buried whisper or moan, it contains no human voices whatsoever. Instead, it’s one of those deceptively minimal, thoroughly engrossing tapestries of sound akin to those constructed by Christian Fennesz.

For the most part, it’s a good deal less abrasive and disturbing than much of this music can be. Its embracing, hazy fuzz distances Mountains from the more terrifying work of artists such as Xela or Elegi. Instead, it comes with a warmth and open-heartedness that might broaden its appeal, without compromising the ethos or power of the music. By mostly rejecting confrontation and noise for its own sake, Mountains nimbly escape cliché, and make their comparably rare burst of more aggressive sound at the album’s conclusion more brutally effective.

‘Choral’ is more in keeping with other contemporary electronic music by rejecting demands for conventional harmonic movement, rhythmic impetus or melodic hooks. Two tracks stretch over the twelve minute mark mostly built on layering drones upon each other. The emphasis is therefore more on sound, timbre, mood and atmosphere. The frequent interjection of acoustic guitars or modest percussion instruments imbues the somnambulant textures with benevolent, human presence. The gently rolling ‘Map Table’ is particularly impressive in this regard.

‘Choral’ is a haunting and distinctive individual contribution to a still-burgeoning genre. Its music slowly and gently unravels in a beatific and engaging way. There is a strong sense that, with ‘Choral’, Mountains have crafted a form of avant-garde folk music where tradition allies comfortably with innovation.

Jaga Jazzist multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth describes ‘Kaleidoscopic’, a single 37-minute composition, as an attempt to reflect what he enjoys listening to, without consciously striving to copy anything specific. Eleni Karandiru, Gil Evans, Bernard Hermann, Jean-Claude Vannier, Robert Wyatt, Jim O'Rourke, John Fahey, Astor Piazzolla, Colin Blunstone, Dr. John, Steve Reich, Van Dyke Parks, David Lynch and Yma Zumac all appear on his list of admired artists. Even limited to just these artists, Horntveth has clearly absorbed an inspired cross section of contemporary music. Unsurprisingly as a result of all this digestion, ‘Kaleidoscopic’ is an absorbing listen.

It’s arguable that perhaps it dives too swiftly across the musical map. Textures and sounds are rarely given enough time to settle, and fairly conventional melodic themes disappear as quickly as they’ve emerged. The music is most effective when Horntveth focuses on simple ideas – an insistent ostinato, for example – and threads other motifs around it. It’s this combination of minimalism and adventure that would appear to provide the most fertile ground for his musical imagination.

Horntveth’s writing is also confident and assured in its catering for quirky ensembles of instruments within the wider orchestra. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ effortlessly merges electronic and acoustic textures, incorporating harp, guitar, vibraphone and saxophone. None of this sounds in any way awkward or self-conscious, although the overall mood of the piece is peaceful and serene, rather than dissonant or aggressive.

I have no qualms whatsoever, even at this very early stage, in hailing ‘Compass’, the latest album from saxophone virtuoso Joshua Redman, as one of the albums of the year. Redman has openly acknowledged the influence of Sonny Rollins’ classic trio date ‘Way Out West’ (going as far as to call his previous album ‘Back East’ in tribute) but his use, on five tracks here, of a quintet with two bassists (Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers) and two drummers (Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson) also perhaps owes a debt to Ornette Coleman. Whilst Redman has always had the chops and language to stand beside such lofty influences, his music has at times perhaps been too taut and controlled. ‘Compass’ sounds loose and liberated, in the best possible way.

Redman had deployed this unconventional quintet in a musically satisfying way, avoiding the temptation simply to gain more momentum and power from the extra rhythmic impetus. Instead, the musicians engage in intelligent conversation with each other, and the ideas germinate as much from leaving space as from making statements. Helpfully, when two drummers are used, considered stereo panning helps us distinguish the individual contributions. As a result, ‘Compass’ is particularly well suited to listening on headphones.

When the full quintet is not being used, Redman assembles a variety of trio configurations, all exploring that fascinating world where harmony is implied rather than stated. What is perhaps most impressive about the music on ‘Compass’ is its strong sense of harmonic progression, in spite of the absence of a chordal instrument. This is immediately apparent on the beautiful opening ballad ‘Uncharted’, brief at just two minutes, but speaking volumes in that time.

Redman’s themes on ‘Compass’ are mostly conventional and striking in their simplicity. It may well be precisely this that has created the sense of freedom and space in the rest of the music and which has resulted in such thrilling interaction within the various ensembles. Often, as on ‘Insomnomaniac’ and ‘Un Peu Feu’, the themes are driven by rhythmic syncopation, but Redman also proves himself capable of real emotion too, as on ‘Moonlight’, which places Beethoven in an entirely different context, where the feeling seems to come from a restraint rather than from an outward expression. It’s remarkable in its austere sadness.

Redman’s playing is consistently superb – with its clear, crisp tone and confident extemporising. Nevertheless, ‘Compass’ could hardly work as well as it does without the sheer artistry of the ensemble players. Blade and Hutchinson particularly are magical, coming as close as possible to making the drums sing. ‘Compass’ is a rare gem – a cerebral jazz album with spontaneous chemistry that also has an immediate emotional impact.

Larry Grenadier, as in demand as ever, makes another appearance on ‘New York Days’, the latest set from Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, a record very different in tone and spirit from Redman’s. In keeping with the grand tradition of the ECM label, this is a record more preoccupied with lyricism and atmosphere. Having said that, the kind of sublime subtle musical conversations evident on albums such as Bobo Stenson’s outstanding ‘Cantando’ is also evident here, particularly on the two meditative free improvisations.

These largely gentle, contemplative performances do not necessarily leap from the page and are slow to unravel. Instead, they require (and reward) close attention. The most transparent quality here lies in Rava’s trumpet melding effortlessly with the contributions of saxophonist Mark Turner – they seem to both contemplate and embolden each other’s playing. Much of the supporting playing is characteristic of the individual preoccupations of the musicians involved. Stefano Bollani remains an impressionistic and ruminative pianist, sometimes even opaque, although the peculiar intricacies of his accompaniments are often highly original. Paul Motian’s superlative drumming remains unique in its deployment of texture and colour. It is never purely about rhythm, but as much about phrasing, both directing the other musicians and responding to them.

If this music might on the surface seem bereft of the creation and release of tension that characterises the most exciting jazz, closer listening reveals hidden fruits. The two improvisations work as the group gradually convenes, bringing order from an initial wash of calm thoughts. Even with curiously introspective titles such as ‘Outside’ or ‘Interiors’, much of the music still has a warm and romantic quality which rescues it from seeming aloof and detached, a pitfall that ECM’s less successful releases sometimes fall into. As ever, Manfred Eicher’s production has an audiophile’s sensitivity, and every sound and stroke is precisely rendered.

For those that recognise some kind of dichotomy between European and American schools of jazz, Rava might just be the connecting point between the two, having spent much of his career playing and studying in the US. Miles Davis is an obvious influence on his playing, and he also cites Duke Ellington as a major influence here. Yet the music does not swing in the exaggerated, American style – it has the fluidity and languid grace of European music.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hold Your Horses...

M Ward - Hold Time (4AD, 2009)

Reviewing records is a difficult business sometimes, and as this blog is very much a labour of love, I don’t even get the satisfaction of financial remuneration. Partially for that reason I prefer my writing here not to focus too much on carping and negativity. But I also want to write about this new M Ward album and all the reservations I have with it, in much the same way as I wanted to write about My Morning Jacket’s ‘Evil Urges’ or Spiritualized’s ‘Songs in A & E’.

I’ve so far liked pretty much everything Matt Ward has produced, from his John Fahey-inspired works for guitars to his brilliant conceptual pop albums ‘Transfiguration of Vincent’ and ‘Transistor Radio’, the latter a particular favourite. His more recent albums have seen him move arguably in a more conventional direction. This has been unproblematic though given his complete mastery of the pop song form. Last year’s collaboration with actress and singer Zooey Deschanel was as straightforward and reverential a record as he has yet produced, but the songs were suitably infectious and charming. So why am I struggling so much with ‘Hold Time’, a record that in many ways feels like a natural progression from ‘Post War’ and the She & Him album and which some writers are proclaiming as his best work to date?

Everything about ‘Hold Time’, from its syrupy sound to its handsome packaging, seems like an attempt by Ward to broaden his audience. In principle, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this of course. Who could resent a musician of such quality filling larger concert halls or actually selling some records? Nevertheless, it ought to be possible for this to happen without Ward sacrificing too many of his idiosyncratic qualities. Almost every track on ‘Hold Time’ seems to present a reduced, watered-down version of Ward’s characteristic timeless songcraft. Where once his writing sounded effortless, it now begins to sound more like pastiche. Sometimes these weaker facsimiles of his signature style are bolstered with saccharine strings, as it to hide the rather transparent weaknesses in the songs. The bizarre addition of echo-laden glam rock drums on a handful of tracks also feels like a conspicuous error of judgement.

Some of these songs are undeniably pretty (‘One Hundred Million Years’, the nimble shuffle of ‘Fisher of Men’, the jaunty single ‘Never Had Nobody Like You’) but none appear to be all that memorable or affecting. Somewhat unexpectedly, if there’s a connecting theme to this record it appears to be one of born again Christianity. Again, I don’t have a particular problem with this – but it would be good if the delivery of the songs could match the gospel fervour of some of the song’s themes. Instead, Ward mostly sounds comfortable, laconic, sometimes even detached. This is particularly noticeable on the light, bland strum of the opener ‘For Beginners’.

I’ve not taken issue with his voice before, even though he’s never been a technically gifted singer. Yet the use of the same old-timey microphone effect on every song here has possibly now become a repetitive and lazy trope. So much of ‘Hold Time’ sounds insincere or ironic but Ward’s obvious love of classic pop suggests this isn’t intentional at all.

Even in areas where he was once supremely assured, Ward can now be found floundering. His interpretations of the songs of others often imbued them with mystery or strangeness, particularly that fine version of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. The ghastly, protracted and painful-for-all-the-wrong-reasons duet with Lucinda Williams on Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ may be the worst thing he’s recorded. Lucinda’s usually convincing grittiness somehow sounds forced and affected in this context, and the string arrangement is horrendous. He makes a more conscious attempt to reinvent his source material with the take on Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’ but it’s something of a failure nonetheless. By lobotomising the song’s energy and impetus, it ends up occupying a fairly meaningless limbo. It’s too lightly swinging to be melancholy, but not vibrant enough to be celebratory. It’s the sort of thing which would work marvellously in Susanna Wallumrod’s hands – she would have transformed it into something unbearably sad. Ward just renders it emotionless.

The point of comparison that keeps creeping into my mind is Lambchop’s ‘Aw C’Mon/No, You Come On’ double set, where some decent songs were smothered in arrangements that too frequently had more schmaltz than soul. In Ward’s case, things pick up considerably towards the end of the album when he abandons the lavishness and opts for something more fundamental – ‘Epistemology’ has a driving rhythm, whilst ‘Shangri-La’ is appealing in its dustiness. It’s arguably too little too late though.

For the all the effort to spruce up the sound, ‘Hold Time’ ends up sounding like a musical shrug. There’s a dispassionate distance and aloofness to many of these songs. Where critical reservations have been expressed about this album, they have focussed on the transparent lack of Ward’s dexterous, quirky guitar playing. I don’t think this is the main problem, as that had already started to be pushed into the background on ‘Post War’. There’s something else missing – something less tangible but much more significant - an allure, a sense of mystery or palpable emotion. It’s somehow very dry and unmoving.

Are there any other M Ward admirers feeling the same way about ‘Hold Time’? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the Comments field below!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Joining The Dots

Various Artists - Dark Was The Night (Red Hot Organisation/4AD, 2009)

As the very endearing character JJ from Skins might put it – ‘oh my giddy, giddy aunt!’ ‘Dark Was The Night’ is a charity compilation curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National for the Red Hot AIDS awareness organisation. As someone who has contributed music to a charity album myself, I strongly support Red Hot’s contention that music can be a positive force for social change. Quite how much awareness a group of North American artists can raise in the areas where it’s most needed is probably a moot point but the project is undoubtedly a worthy one. It’s a rare charity undertaking where quality is in the ascendancy rather than vanity. Having quite this much excellent music spread across two discs is in itself really rather wonderful.

It features a whole host of inspired artists demonstrating that North American music is currently in remarkably vibrant health. The Dessners are clearly very well connected – but attempts to assert this as some kind of scene seem a little far-fetched. You could make the case for the thriving Brooklyn groups and there’s the predictable host of Canadian artists too. Inevitably, composer and string arranger du jour Nico Muhly also makes a contribution. Quite where Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, Buck 65 and the Kronos Quartet fit into this spectrum is anyone’s guess but the set coheres surprisingly well.

The compilation has no concept as such, beyond showcasing independent artists refashioning traditional themes in a contemporary way. Mercifully, this rubric doesn’t preclude original compositions, although almost everything here borrows something from the great American folk tradition. The first disc is presented as the darker of the two discs, inspired by Blind Willie Johnson’s piece that gives the project its title and which the Kronos Quartet present in a decidedly avuncular manner. Some of the contributions to this disc are indeed quite theatrical and morose. The second disc is supposedly lighter and brighter, although it certainly has its fair share of quietly affecting moments.

The set opens with some dream collaborations. First of all, David Byrne teams up with the marvellous Dirty Projectors. ‘Knotty Pine’ actually turns out to be a good deal more conventional than might be expected, but its syncopated rhythms are in keeping with Dave Longstreth’s lurching, confusing style of composition. Its chorus could almost be described as infectious – one wonders if this is the influence of Byrne’s melodic maturity, or whether it hints at a poppier direction for Longstreth’s forthcoming albums. The Books work with Jose Gonzalez on an electronic version of Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ that sounds exactly as you’d hear it in your dreams. Perhaps the best of these meeting of minds is Feist duetting with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on a lovely version of Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Train Song’, which is thoroughly Americanised with a surprising infusion of the blues.

Other specially commissioned collaborations later in the disc include Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) which somehow manages to combine the bourbon-soaked wistfulness of The National with Vernon’s appetising introspection. Those clamouring for Antony Hegarty to find a new context for his over-exposed voice need look no further than his beguiling version of Dylan’s ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’, accompanied by the feathery pluckings of Bryce Dessner. Perhaps its overkill to have Feist crop up again, but the exquisite and mysterious backdrop provided for her by Grizzly Bear (whose new album I am eagerly anticipating) on ‘Service Bell’ works perfectly.

There are original compositions from Bon Iver (‘Brackett, WI’ is a dirtier, more rhythmically driven take on his majestic choral wonders) and Yeasayer. The latter are on solid form, with ‘Tightrope’ as percussive, intricate and fascinating as anything on ‘All Hour Cymbals’. It is, however, perhaps the hardest track to reconcile with the folk tradition that informs the collection as a whole. As with most of the group’s music, it draws on a diverse and unpredictable array of unfashionable influences.

Perhaps the most striking contrast on the album is established by the juxtaposition of The Decemberists’ ‘Sleepless’, one of their more extravagant ballads, with ‘Die’, a contribution from Iron and Wine so brief it would be easy to skip past it altogether. Sam Beam’s voice sounds bolder and more forthright than usual here and the song is so stark and simple as to lack his usual lyrical flights of fancy. It’s an interesting diversion for a talented writer.

My Brightest Diamond’s interpretation of ‘Feeling Good’ (originally from ‘Roar of the Greasepaint’ but arguably most closely associated with Nina Simone) is mercifully a good deal more subtle than Muse’s ghastly demolition of it. In fact, it’s a rather haunting and memorable deconstruction of a song usually delivered much more emphatically.

The track most likely to catch people’s attention (and divide opinion) is Sufjan Stevens’ uncharacteristically overcooked ten minute rendering of The Castanets’ ‘You Are The Blood’. It’s particularly interesting for reintroducing Stevens’ electronic preoccupations, something not heard since his bizarre ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ album. This acts as the album’s grand centrepiece, reappearing as it does in radically reimagined form in the second disc by hip hop artist Buck 65. Stevens has clearly gone to more effort than most here – there’s seemingly nothing he hasn’t thrown into this precocious melting pot. It has an elaborate brass section, immediately followed by a classical piano cadenza (is this played by Stevens himself?). You can’t fault him for ambition but, to my mind, it’s a strangely self-conscious addition to his impressive output.

The second disc is never quite as wilfully unpredictable, but it has many pleasures. Arcade Fire contribute ‘Lenin’, a reduced budget version of their orchestrated chugging which has the benefit of sounding as if it would be more at home on ‘Funeral’ than on ‘Neon Bible’. Similarly, Zach Condon delivers an accordion and brass band offcut that could have sat quite comfortably on ‘The Flying Club Cup’. There’s nothing in any way revelatory about either, and they feel more at home as part of their artists’ already established catalogues than on this compilation, but both are dependably enjoyable.

The second disc contains two solid gold gems. My Morning Jacket’s ‘El Caporal’, recorded back in 2007 before the unfortunate ‘Evil Urges’, proves where their more fertile and comfortable ground lies. This is a swaying country-tinged saloon-bar ballad, with some strange lyrics (‘I just hope, love, that my kisses will linger/On your sweet, confused captain’s face’) and a swooning, lovely vocal from Jim James. It teeters on the brink of schmaltz but stays the right side throughout. It’s perhaps most closely related to James’ sterling version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Goin’ To Acapulco’ from the ‘I’m Not There’ soundtrack.

The second gem sees violinist and troubadour Andrew Bird taking on one of my favourite songs of all time, The Handsome Family’s ‘The Giant of Illinois’. It can’t be coincidence that my favourite Bird tracks are both Handsome Family covers, and this is every bit as flavoursome as his magisterial version of ‘Don’t Be Scared’. His skill is to reshape the melody completely, without losing the power and melancholy of the original. It remains a sweet fable in his capable hands and his music is much more palatable when divorced from his self-conscious, ultimately rather meaningless lyrics. Rennie Sparks is mercifully a much more direct, generous and insightful storyteller, and her words fit perfectly on this project.

Of the rest, New Pornographers offer up ‘Hey, Snow White’, a Dan Bejar song that is oddly more in keeping with Carl Newman’s ornate pop songcraft than with his usual verbose streams of consciousness. Stuart Murdoch reworks ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ into a contemporary folk song of his own, whilst Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ faithful but groovy rendering of Shuggie Otis’ superb ‘Inspiration Information’ sticks out here like a sore thumb, albeit in a good way. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings team up with Coner Oberst for a version of the latter’s ‘Lua’. Oddly, I find myself preferring the original in spite of all my reservations about Oberst and his histrionics. It seemed more brutally honest and intimate than this more straightforward and restrained version, although if this is a sign that Welch and Rawlings are finally springing back into action that would be most welcome indeed. Is it inappropriate or all-too-appropriate that an AIDS awareness project should end with Kevin Drew’s surprisingly wistful ‘Love vs. Porn’?

‘Dark Was The Night’ is an intelligently compiled selection of riches, from a wide variety of excellent artists. Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s sterling work here may well direct me to see The National in a different light, as they clearly have a thorough understanding of American musical tradition as well as being well connected with its contemporary flourishing. Comparisons will inevitably be made with ‘No Alternative’ that other great Red Hot compilation that featured the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Many of those bands had already become iconic. With the exception of Arcade Fire, there’s nobody here with that kind of devoted following and subsequent influence. Yet what ‘Dark Was The Night’ amply demonstrates is that the various pockets of brilliance in modern American music can combine to create something noble and meaningful. Could Britain have produced something this impressive? Who might have organised it?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Refusing to Budge

Morrissey - Years Of Refusal (Polydor, 2009)

Describing a Morrissey album as a bit patchy is a bit like saying a packet of peanuts may contain nuts. With the exception of ‘Vauxhall and I’ and perhaps ‘Viva Hate’, all of his solo albums to date have featured the odd clunker or two. The least favourable reviews of ‘Years of Refusal’ have dubbed it his worst album since 1997’s ‘career nadir’ ‘Maladjusted’. Would it be too controversial to state that I don’t think ‘Maldajusted’ is all that bad? It contains two of his very best songs in ‘Trouble Loves Me’ and ‘Satan Rejected My Soul’ and one of his very worst in ‘Roy’s Keen’. I certainly prefer it to ‘Kill Uncle’ anyway. It’s also worth noting that I also prefer it to the much lauded ‘Ringleader of the Tormentors’. Yes, that album had three great tracks in ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’, ‘Life is a Pigsty’ and ‘At Last I Am Born’, but the rest of it was largely generic midtempo rock.

Most commentators are portraying ‘Years of Refusal’ as a regressive step after the candour and grandness of ‘Ringleader’. Production is from the late Jerry Finn, who also helmed the triumphant comeback ‘You are the Quarry’. Much of the musical backdrop is tough, unsentimental and unsubtle, dominated by the pounding, dirty rhythm section of Matt and Solomon Walker (how many drummers has Moz dispensed with now?). In a sense it’s appropriate given the defiance and ugly nature of many of the lyrics. We’ve been here before – but it’s rarely sounded this aggressive or clamorous.

In what is now typical of Morrissey’s attitude to contractual obligations (and, indirectly, toward his paying fans), two of the tracks have already been released as extra tracks on last year’s pointless ‘Greatest Hits’ set. Neither of them is altered in any way here, although their thunderous chugging perhaps makes more sense in context.

There’s nothing here that will cause controversy in the manner of ‘National Front Disco’ or ‘Bengali in Platforms’ but there are times amidst this dislikeable mix of self-aggrandisement, self-pity and self-parody that one yearns for something more outrageous. Yet again there’s a parade of uncharitable public figures (or at least, uncharitable towards Steven Patrick Morrissey) – the ‘uncivil servants’ and ‘a QC without humility’. Then there’s a lot of really rather churlish and tedious moaning. I still think there’s a good song to be written about the benefits of long term singledom but ‘I’m OK By Myself’ certainly isn’t it. Morrissey merely sounds like a moody teenager here. ‘That’s How People Grow Up’ seems to suggest that maturing means accepting that you are doomed to romantic failure. ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ sounds nice enough, but it’s another of those songs presenting its anti-hero as essentially incapable of reciprocal love. Last night I dreamt that Morrissey rewrote the same song again. Oh look, it was a premonition!

Moz used to be able to do this sort of thing with knowing humour but for most of ‘Years of Refusal’ he just sounds morose and unpleasant. ‘All You Need Is Me’ audaciously accuses the world of preferring to carp on about him than address its more significant problems. So why does he spend even more time and energy admonishing everyone for criticising him if the criticism itself is so trivial? If Morrissey is simply looking for people to admire him again, he needs to provide us with some evidence that he’s more than just a rather nasty and petty individual.

That being said, some of the nastiness on ‘Years of Refusal’ is characteristically delicious. There’s a run of superb songs in the second half of the set incorporating ‘One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell’, ‘It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore’ and ‘You Were Good In Your Time’. The latter two stand out for veering away from the brash, angry style of the rest of the album, instead sounding lush and extravagant in the best possible way. If one thing has progressed and improved during Moz’s solo career it’s his voice. Once an idiosyncratic but wavering and unmusical device, it has in recent years become an instrument of real depth and character. These songs provide the most supportive musical context for that expression. There’s also the splendid ‘When Last I Spoke To Carol’, a song as curt and devastating as ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, bolstered by a military rhythm and some Mariachi horns, not stylistic features that we’d usually associate with Moz.

Even when he’s stuck in the more generic rock mode, he can still sometimes throw out a gem. As he rattles off a gleeful list of anti-depressant medication, the excoriating opener ‘Something Is Squeezing My Skull’ at least demonstrates that Moz is still able to articulate the absurdity that accompanies the pain in modern living. This distinctive brand of black humour has always been a hallmark of his best work. We could probably have done with a bit more of it.

‘Years of Refusal’ is a crisp and brutally insistent record that finds Morrissey in particularly fine voice. The rare moments of adventure suggest that there are still possibilities for a late period masterpiece should he choose to focus more on the experiments and less on the reliable, overly familiar filler. Perhaps we wouldn’t have Morrissey be anything other than a stubborn, isolated icon now. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that it’s a weakness that whilst this album has plenty of bite, it doesn’t have much in the way of humour or real feeling.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Going Down In Musical History

Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years Of Popular Music, The Barbican, 3rd February 2009

I must admit to being something of a latecomer to the work of Richard Thompson. Whilst I’ve long been an admirer of that superb trilogy of Fairport Convention albums on which he played a major part (What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief), their appeal was always mainly for the contributions of Sandy Denny and the vigorous reworkings of folk material. His own catalogue, along with the excellent albums made with his former wife Linda, has always seemed dauntingly vast. Where exactly does one start? I’ve started to delve in quite recently, and now have most of his recent recordings (Sweet Warrior, Mock Tudor, Front Parlour Ballads, The Old Kit Bag) as well as the classic albums with Linda (I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Shoot Out The Lights), but there’s still so much to devour.

Luckily, this concert didn’t require too much prior knowledge of Thompson’s own writing. The project began as a witty but meaningful repost to the storm of list-making that accompanied the turn of the millennium. Pundits asked to compile their favourite music of the millennium inevitably tended to concentrate solely on the twentieth century. Thompson opted to examine the whole 1,000 years. In doing so, he drew ties between various strands of folk music, and successfully outlined the powerful connections between seemingly disparate musical forms.

Performing with the excellent singer Judith Owen, as well as vocalist and percussionist Debra Dobkin, the first half of the performance consistently fascinated, introducing me to a whole world of music about which I am relatively ignorant. We were treated to pastoral songs, ballads, sea shanties, mining songs and madrigals, all performed as much with fun as with reverence.

Thompson’s engaging warmth and humour was evident from the outset. Beginning on the Hurdy Gurdy, he refused to use it as a tokenistic gesture for just one song. ‘When I get something big strapped on, I like to keep it there for quite a while’ he jested, with surprising frankness. This style of banter continued throughout the show.

His introductions to the material, even the better known songs, proved as engaging and entertaining as the music itself. Before performing a beautiful reading of ‘Shenandoah’ he explained: ‘It’s kind of a call and response thing. I’ll call….and I’ll respond…just to avoid any confusion’. Performing songs in medieval Italian, French and Latin, he often gamely translated, at least giving a strong sense of the music’s themes and preoccupations.

One early highlight was an appropriately eerie version of ‘The False Knight on the Road’. The song is well known in the folk canon, having been performed in a much faster version by Steeleye Span amongst others. Thompson’s slower version has more mystery and power. This song, and many others, benefited from Thompson’s dexterous but always musical guitar playing.

There was plenty of wry and amusing flirtation between Thompson and his co-performers, particularly the entrancing Judith Owen, and he allowed both plenty of space for their own contributions. Owen’s delivery of ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’, an elegant and spare misremembering of what had already been a folk song anyway by the poet WB Yeats. Owen’s performance is achingly haunting, delivered in a pure, controlled voice that sadly gave way to irritating mannerisms in her contributions to the second half of the concert. In writing about Feist’s song ‘Intuition’, I remember observing that whilst there are plenty of songs about break-ups or unrequited love, there are relatively few about the regret that sometimes follows rejected love. Here was a prime example of such a song, a testament to the power of the theme in its endurance. I was struck by its elegant simplicity, both lyrically and musically. Sometimes what is most simple really is most profound.

As an enthusiast for contemporary music of all stripes, I never thought I’d argue this, but with all these riches in the first half of the performance, the second half’s focus on the twentieth century gave it undue prominence. Perhaps it’s just that the journey from the music halls to contemporary R&B traverses more familiar terrain, but I felt this section of the concert also suffered from some errors of judgement.

First and foremost, the movement from Cole Porter standards to Rock n’ Roll and Country seemed to ignore the most important contribution to contemporary popular music, that of the blues. Surely, at the very least, a song from one of the Delta Blues performers would have been essential? Whether intentional or not, what we were left with was a history of popular music that largely sidelined the contribution of black music. But the blues was and still is surely one of the purest forms of folk music.

Also, the restraint and clarity of the performances of the early music, so powerful and meaningful, was inexplicably abandoned in favour of some clattering deliveries lacking in nuance. Maybe this was purely to communicate the new music’s emphasis on relentless rhythm and energy, but Debra Dobkin’s trap set drumming, effective on a handful of songs, quickly became an intrusive nuisance, especially when the tempos drifted. Similarly, Judith Owen’s voice, characterised by real feeling and honesty in the first set, became more affected and abstruse, particularly on the jazzier material (which apparently is where her own interests lie). The beauty of the standard repertoire is that it can be taken on two levels – Owen emphasised the banality more than the insight. Neither Dobkin nor Thompson seemed entirely comfortable with swing.

Nevertheless, the second half of the show was hardly a complete failure. Thompson made some judicious and surprising selections. He acknowledged the influence of the Kinks (originally The Ravens) on his North London childhood by performing ‘See My Friends’, one of Ray Davies’ greatest achievements, also hinting at the contribution of Indian folk traditions to western pop in the 1960s. The closing clatter of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’, interspersed with a medieval section in Latin, was spirited and fun.

Whilst Thompson has suggested that his purpose in undertaking this project was to uncover some of the ideas and forms buried in ‘the dustbin of history’, I rather suspect its effect has been to do the complete opposite. Tonight’s concert suggested, to me at least, that there has been plenty of consistency in what has made music ‘popular’. Directness and simplicity, in the right hands, can indeed be artful, and often succeed in bringing people together with a sense of common purpose and spirit. There is a rich tradition in musical communication that survives today, in spite of music’s often more nakedly commercial impulse.