Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bird of Prey

Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City, 2009)

From Smog to his own name via a set of confounding parentheses, the moniker may have changed, but Bill Callahan’s musical and lyrical oeuvre has remained resolute. Perhaps ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’ presented Callahan at his least mordant and most breezy, but his light, conversational vocal style handles either mood with a similar dispassionate gaze. Even when he’s at his warmest, there’s a chilly hint of irony waiting to break through. He puts it rather starkly himself on ‘Jim Cain’, the opening song here when he sings ‘I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again’.

‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ makes listening (and by extension judging) a little easier by virtue of placing Callahan’s voice in some surprisingly novel contexts. The main reason for this lies in the orchestrations of Brian Beattie, which somehow manage to incorporate strings and horns without sounding at all extravagant or excessive. It makes for a lusher, more involving sound but one that somehow manages to retain the confrontational minimalism of Callahan’s boldest writing. Every instrument, even the drum kit, seems to be played with a refreshing lightness of touch. Callahan himself has mentioned Jimmy Webb, and a less schmaltzy Burt Bacharach might also be a valid reference point. There’s something in Callahan’s light, slippery vocal style that in this context reminds me most clearly of the wonderful first Bill Fay album.

Grammatical quandary of its title notwithstanding, this might be one of Callahan’s most direct and appealing records to date. Often caricatured as a miserabilist or a misanthrope, Callahan often seems to be a little more complex and enigmatic than such stereotyping implies. This new album is for the most part calm, peaceful and contemplative, sometimes disarmingly so. It presents an intriguing side-step after the occasional forthright joviality of ‘..Whaleheart’. If there’s a bridging song between the two album, it might be the lovely ‘Sycamore’, where Callahan’s deep vocal sounded ponderous and calm, floating above a serene musical backdrop.
Its closest relation here is ‘The Wind and The Dove’, a beautiful melody which Callahan characteristically leaves understated.

The album is full of subtleties that expand Callahan’s musical vocabulary quite considerably. One of the best songs is ‘Eid Ma Clackshaw’ (no doubt there’s an explanation for the title somewhere), which pits slightly swung vocal phrasing from Callahan against an insistent crotchet rhythm. It sounds peculiarly rigid, in an interesting way. ‘Too Many Birds’ is both simpler and prettier – one of the most beautiful moments on a lush, affecting album – but it also draws a lot of its impact from Callahan’s attempt to protract certain lines whilst squeezing in others. Those that admire the more austere Callahan should be satiated with the defiantly skeletal ‘Rococo Zephyr’ although even this seems less agitated and more assured than past efforts.

Callahan continues his bestial preoccupations here, with plenty of reference to both birds and beasts. On ‘Eid Ma Clackshaw’ love is the beast with a hunger that cannot be tamed. Even his song titles further this line of thought, with ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ teetering on the brink of self parody. Musically, it’s excellent, with its early eerie calm gradually giving way to intensifying menace. For all the lushness in the arrangements, there’s still a lingering nastiness throughout the album, with motorik rhythms contrasting with Callahan’s delivery.

This unusual hybrid of calm and storm, peace and violence is every bit as complicated and confusing as life experience can so often be. In its apparent paradoxes, it emerges as one of Callahan’s most confident and assured albums. Here, he’s both as graceful and as predatory as the eagle he desires to be.

A Mild Case of the Blues

Bob Dylan - Together Through Life (Columbia, 2009)

Unusually, I find myself almost agreeing with Petridish in The Guardian. His observation last week that the hype surrounding every new Bob Dylan release makes them impossible to judge seemed entirely reasonable. A handful of the reviews of ‘Together Through Life’ I’ve read so far have been quite measured, but many have been very generous. Allan Jones’ review in Uncut magazine, yet again proffering the five star treatment, seems absurdly uncritical. How do we judge an album arriving in the twilight years of a singular, remarkable career that has lasted over forty years?

If we’re unfair enough to insist that a new Dylan work is judged within the context of his complete output, then ‘Together Through Life’ can only be seen as his least ambitious and least interesting work since ‘Under The Red Sky’. The collections of acoustic reinterpretations ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘World Gone Wrong’ both had more to offer and can now be seen as transitional albums, directing Dylan back to his core concerns within the American folk tradition. These concerns reappeared on ‘Time Out of Mind’ and dominated ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Modern Times’. There’s nothing on ‘Together Through Life’ as powerful as ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’, ‘Not Dark Yet’, ‘Mississippi’ or ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ and certainly nothing as sustained as ‘Highlands’ or as funny as many of the blues numbers on ‘Love and Theft’.

The PR story surrounding this album suggested that it took even Columbia records by surprise, with Dylan continuing to write and record after being commissioned to produce a song for Olivier Dahan’s new film. The reality seems a little less clear, with the late emergence of the news that all but one of the lyrics were co-written with former Grateful Dead poet Robert Hunter. This set alarm bells ringing in the minds of even the most slavish Dylan devotees. Dylan and Hunter collaborated once before, at the absolute nadir of Dylan’s career on ‘Down In The Groove’. The two songs that resulted were far from inspired. ‘Silvio’ might have been one of the best tracks on that album, but that simply wasn’t good enough from an artist of Dylan’s proven calibre. The less said about ‘Ugliest Girl in the World’ the better. Not even irony or childish humour could defend it.

There’s nothing here quite that bad mercifully, but the lyrics are notably simpler, sometimes more banal. I’m not one of those people that unreasonably expects Dylan to always write in florid surrealist allusions. Sometimes his best lyrics have been his most direct. However, even those direct, personal lyrics have been sustained and bold (I’m thinking particularly of ‘Up To Me’, a song rarely recognised as one of his very best). For all the literary criticism and analysis of his borrowings, Dylan’s ultimate achievement has been the complete integration of words and music within the form of longer, ambitious pop songs. He has also played the most significant role in the development of expressive vocal phrasing in the post-war era. But ‘Together Through Life’ seems like one of those occasional Dylan albums where he’s desperate to escape that burdensome legacy. These more straightforward words, whilst occasionally intriguing, offer too little for Dylan to sink his teeth into in terms of his delivery. Where he usually sounds ferocious or brutal, he frequently sounds lazy or non-committal here, on songs that at least pretend to be about love.

This works well on two songs. ‘Life is Hard’ is a delicate croon in the model of ‘Spirit on the Water’ or ‘Beyond The Horizon’, better than the latter but nowhere near as striking as the former. It is languid, laconic and hazy in a manner we’re still not entirely used to from Dylan. Where ‘Bye and Bye’ was light and breezy, this is exaggerated and mannered. It contrasts starkly with his tendency to rush and force his phrasing in live performance. On ‘This Dream Of You’ he sounds so hushed he’s almost in the background, and the song’s border feel lends it a hypnotic quality appropriate for its theme. This is territory that Dylan has visited before (‘Dreamin’ Of You’, an outtake from ‘Time Out Of Mind’ that surfaced last year on ‘Tell Tale Signs’) but this is a worthwhile addition to such world-weary concerns. Its melancholy tone and modified Latin rhythm remind me of Roy Orbison, although he would have course have delivered it with that incomparable combination of grandeur and quivering vulnerability.

The album is liberally peppered with the accordion of David Hidalgo, which seems to occupy the role Dylan’s unconventional keyboard playing assumes in concert – responding and serving as a counterpoint to his vocal delivery. It’s a neat idea, but I’m not quite convinced that the band have got enough mileage from it. As with most of Dylan’s output, there’s little to no dynamic or textural variation on these songs. This is unproblematic whenever Dylan’s delivery is urgent and when he has plenty to say but the generic blues tracks here are often uncharacteristically lacking in bite. For my money, Allan Jones’ comparison of this supposedly ‘rambunctious’ record with The Basement Tapes is massively wide of the mark. Even ‘My Wife’s Home Town’ and ‘Jolene’, on which Dylan’s growl is more savage and commanding, seem a little tame and polite musically. Drummer George Recile, one of the more exciting musicians in Dylan’s touring band, is kept on something of a tight leash here, where a greater contribution would have created more tension and drama. When the music here is at its most atmospheric, such as on ‘Forgetful Heart’, it’s inevitably accompanied by an inconsequential lyric.

There are songs here I really want to like more than I do. ‘Shake Shake Mama’ is a lightweight but endearing blues shuffle groove, but definitely the lesser cousin of something like ‘Summer Days’ or ‘Someday Baby’. It’s enjoyable chiefly for its sly humour. Many will latch on to the closer ‘It’s All Good’ with its litany of intensifying problems, all shrugged off with the title’s recurring platitude (‘buildings are crumbling in the neighbourhood but there’s nothing to worry about, ‘cos it’s all good!’). Dylan allows himself a little laugh mid-way through the song which encapsulates its mischievous spirit. I’m not sure it actually does all that much to expand his lexicon though, and there is an increasing problem with his reliance on non-sequiturs – ‘big politicians tellin’ lies/Restaurant kitchen all full of flies’ is, I’m afraid, not a good couplet at all. Like much of the music on this album, it makes me tap my foot reservedly, but doesn’t quite make me feel like dancing.

Dylan comes closest to capturing the border magic he’s clearly striving for on ‘If You Ever Go To Houston’, but it’s again slightly too measured and controlled. It has one of the album’s best lyrics, revitalising some of the caricatures and stereotypes of American narrative songwriting. Here, there are bar-rooms and gun-belts galore. It somehow feels both historic and ageless all at the same time. I suspect this and the entertaining ‘Jolene’ will be the growers of this set.

He almost escapes the shackles of the blues form on the portentously titled ‘I Feel A Change Comin’ On’, instead revisiting the dusty, soulful feel of ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ or ‘Workingman’s Blues’. I’m not too concerned abut some of the lyrics seem rather self-consciously imposing. It’s likely that this line: ‘I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me, I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice’ will be the most often quoted from this album. But do those influences lead directly to the gravitas of what follows? I’m actually more taken with the bizarre opening couplet (‘I’ve been walking the world over, looking far off to the east/Well I see my baby comin’, she’s-a-walking with the village Priest’). Dylan risks descending into cliché with such ‘rambling man’ language, but his lifestyle as a constantly touring performer imbues it with real world poignancy. His band’s playing is at its most relaxed and musical on this song, and it’s comfortably the most amiable song here, lingering favourably in the mind.

I have no real objection to Dylan, contrary to the film’s title, actually looking back and reviving older pre-rock n’roll musical styles. At the age of 68, it’s probably unreasonable to expect anything as revolutionary as ‘that wild mercury sound’ again. As I’ve remarked before, the blues context particularly suits his ravaged voice and therefore seems as much driven by practical as by artistic concerns. He genuinely sounds like a voice of experience now, which is why it seems slightly disappointing that much of ‘Together Through Life’ sees him lost in a romantic reverie rather than offering much in the way of real psychological insight. Conservative though they were in the main, ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Modern Times’ both worked because of the sheer exuberance and zest of Dylan’s wordplay and wit. These are only fleetingly in evidence on ‘Together Through Life’.

As an enjoyable listen, ‘Together Through Life’ is by no means disastrous. But we are doing both Dylan and his devoted followers a disservice if we try and claim that it is ‘yet another masterpiece’. It’s one of his more feathery and vague records. It’s not without charm but there are certainly times when it feels like it should be a little more muscular. It’s also hard to approach it without remembering that Dylan said much more about relationships on ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and ‘Desire’. For those simply happy to hear more from a man who is clearly incapable of stopping, it will be good enough. For his harshest critics or some of his more demanding devotees, it will come as something of a letdown.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Another Playlist

I'll write something again soon, I promise, but in the absence of any new critical thinking, here's another one of those lists to remind me what's around:

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
Fever Ray - Fever Ray
Pet Shop Boys - Yes
The Decemberists - Hazards of Love (still trying to formulate an opinion on this!)
Hildur Gudnadottir - Without Sinking
Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (one of his best as far as I'm concerned)
Doves - Kingdom of Rust
Branford Marsalis - Metamorphosen
Tom Cawley and Kit Downes - Homely
Flower-Corsano Duo - The Four Aims
Chris Batchelor, Steve Buckley, Myra Melford - Big Air
Staff Benda Bilili - Tres Tres Fort
Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
Broken Family Band - Please and Thank You
Depeche Mode - Sounds of the Universe
The Handsome Family - Honey Moon
Wildbirds and Peacedrums - The Snake (finally gets a UK release this week)

Some forthcoming albums I'm excited about:
Alasdair Roberts - Spoils
Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care
Jarvis Cocker - Further Complications
Bob Dylan - Together Through Life
Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
The Field - Yesterday and Today
Dinosaur Jr. - Farm
Sonic Youth - The Eternal
James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

An Old Hand and A New Maverick

Marianne Faithful - Easy Come, Easy Go (Anti, 2009)
Micachu - Jewellery (Rough Trade, 2009)

Blimey. If it wasn’t shocking enough hearing Morrissey sing ‘there are explosive kegs between my legs’, it’s positively freakish hearing Marianne Faithfull utter the same words. This she does some way into ‘Easy Come Easy Go’, a dense and, I suppose, rather indulgent double album made in collaboration with Hal Willner. One has to have some degree of bravery simply to get this far.

I’ve never been too great an admirer of Faithfull’s work – it’s always struck me that she’s more famous for a certain incident with a Mars Bar for good reason. Perhaps this judgment has been prejudicial and unfair though – late into her career she has begun to prove herself an interpreter of sound judgment and considerable skill. I enjoyed her ‘Before the Poison’ album, and I was intrigued enough by the cast list and song selection here to at least dip more than a big toe in. Willner seems to provoke intense reactions – some people see him as a false pretender. I’ve admired his recent work, particularly the collection of pirate songs that, even if tied to the tiresome Pirates of the Caribbean movies, served as a fascinating curate’s egg.

At least in theory, Willner’s approach plays to Faithfull’s strengths. ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ is made up of a set of mostly strong songs (albeit drawn from very different parts of the musical map) and a group of musicians, Willner included, who favour an avant-garde reversion of cabaret song for which her husky voice is ideally suited. One of the arrangers is Steve Bernstein, whose Millennial Territory Orchestra I very much enjoyed at the Jazz on 3 gig at last year’s London Jazz Festival. His combination of knowledge of tradition and outlandish free spirit is perfect for this project too. Indeed, the arrangements, simultaneously smoky and extravagant, are sumptuous throughout.

One has to question the wisdom of making this a double set though. Recorded mostly live and, it seems, with some degree of haste, it could have benefited from some stricter editing, or at least some development of some of its simpler ideas. There are times when Willner is on cruise control, doing little more than regurgitating the original songs. Faithfull’s range remains limited, and sometimes it seems as if the songs have been selected more for their credibility than for her ability to claim them for herself. It’s great to see someone else spreading the word about the astonishing and tragic Judee Sill, but I’d sooner listen to her original of ‘The Phoenix’. As for the mauling of ‘Somewhere’ with Jarvis Cocker, all it achieves is to prove that most pop singers are simply not suited for musical theatre.

The first disc is considerably stronger. It’s not as if the grief of Dolly Parton’s ‘Down From Dover’ needs additional gravitas, but Faithfull’s performance certainly provides it. It sizzles and smoulders quite brilliantly. Neko Case’s ‘Hold On Hold On’ becomes rather demonic and sinister, and The Decemberists’ ‘The Crane Wife 3’ crackles with foreboding, with Faithfull accompanied by a relatively restrained Nick Cave. Also uncharacteristically held back is Rufus Wainwright on a version of Espers’ ‘Children of Stone’ that sounds mysterious and enchanting. Perhaps best of all is Smokey Robinson’s ‘Ooh Baby Baby’, on which the ubiquitous Antony Hegarty guests, overflowing with sexual urgency rather than mournful reflection.

The first disc makes a surprisingly strong case for linking fashionable contemporary selections with the Great American Songbook. Perhaps, along with the ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation, it also inadvertently bolsters the argument that American music is currently in very good health indeed. It’s a neat, open-minded trick to pull off and with a more selective, less rushed execution, this could have been a real gem.

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Rough Trade, managed as something akin to a utopian collective, haemorrhaged its most successful artists to bigger, more powerful labels. Now reincarnated, they seem to be doing the cherry picking themselves. The much touted Micachu’s debut album was delayed for a month or so whilst she defected over from Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label.

In this case, the hype is worth believing. Whilst Mica has been compared (very unfairly) to Kate Nash for her estuary vowels, there is undoubtedly a singular and compelling talent at work here. Trained in composition at London’s Guildhall School of Music, Mica combines rawness and energy with imaginative writing and real rhythmic flair. At last we are reaching a stage where the musical interests of our performers matches the diversity of music on offer – a situation where marketing grime mix tapes and writing for major orchestras needn’t be mutually exclusive activities.

‘Jewellery’ is in many senses a bit of a ragbag collection, with some tracks recorded as a solo artist and others developed with her band The Shapes. All the songs are mercilessly concise, with only one track breaking the three minute mark. That track ends with a jubilant voice declaring ‘it’s a keeper!’ The music seems joyful as much for its rough edges as for its underlying sophistication. It’s gleefully fragmented, but individual tracks are curiously logical and carefully arranged. Perhaps this kind of non-conceptual sequencing makes for an album better equipped for the digital age.

In every song, Mica’s distinctive character, both musical and personal, cuts through clearly and with real intelligence. From the infectious ‘Golden Phone’ to the vengeful aggression of ‘Curly Teeth’, this is a set full of insight and humour. She may not be a gifted singer by conventional criteria, but her phrasing is crisp and imaginative and always adds a sense of forward motion to the songs. The contrast between the insistent strum of her unusual mini-guitar and the intricate syncopation of the drums and keyboard lines is particularly striking, and a consistent stylistic feature throughout.

Mica’s cerebral but personal songs, equal parts anxiety and confidence, are convincingly real and human. The music, skittering but somehow controlled and organised, seems to reflect this. This is not a record for people who see things in black and white, or want their music to be neatly compartmentalised. But it is a brilliantly idiosyncratic pop record for anyone looking for something audacious and fresh.