Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) and a message from the blogger.

Some years ago I was at a one night only show in London: “A Night Of Political Song”. The assembled performers managed to deliver a 2 hour plus show of political and protest song with nothing by Dylan, nothing by Ochs and only one song, the very last, from Ewan MaColl. One of those performers was Tom Robinson who these days has a show on BBC radio. He talked about enquiries he got from listeners bemoaning the contemporary shortage of protest songs. The problem, he said, was that people his age (our age!) listen to the wrong music.

I will give you a description of what followed. It doesn’t sound like much. A sixty something white bisexual man performed a hip hop song with a unique arrangement that included a clarinet solo.

It was terrific.

Largely because of the song, “Language of Violence”, originally recorded by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It was a tough, uncompromising, very smart and very well crafted song. A stand out in an evening of fine songs.

It reminded me that hip hop is about more than icing pigs whilst some bitch blows your whistle uh huh, Nigga.

This album includes the word “nigga” a lot. And lots of profanity. But then David Bowies marvellous Blackstar album had one song that included the work “fuck” at least nine times and another that mentions “my cock”.

I bought it because it seemed about time I put some money where my mouth is and bought some hip hop instead of just rubbing AC/DC’s fans faces in various distasteful extracts from their lyrics. And because I remembered Tom Robinson performing “Language of Violence”. A genre that could produce such a potent pro-gay, anti-rape, anti-xenophobia (all in one song) protest song might have more going for it than I’d given it credit for.

As it turns out it was like listening to something from another country. A country where they spoke English but the experience of the people that lived there was completely alien to me. Being a white male South African of a certain age in a month when our universities were burning may have heightened this impression.

I didn’t feel excluded or unwelcome. It wasn’t like there was a “blacks only” sign between me and the music. But a young black man from Compton has lived a very different life from me, having to deal with a very different set of attitudes, assumptions and aspirations and having to look outside of the conventional structures for leadership.

Indeed in terms of sound and production I found it very seductive. And welcoming. The constant clever sound effects, the backwards references to beat generation jazz and to soul hits (most obviously a guitar part lifted and effectively licensed from the Isley Brothers) coupled with a potent contemporary beat and Lamar’s lyrical density makes for an intoxicating mix. I didn’t have to work very hard to like this record.

The profanity might play to firmly held stereotypes, but there’s little of the sexual bravado that hip hop allegedly is rich with. Tellingly in “The Blacker The Berry” he first laments the death of Trayvon Martin and then turns the tables on those of his homies who protest violence from outside their community whilst themselves behaving like thugs.

Lamar is a practicing Christian, and in the midst of the profanity he gives us “How Much a Dollar Cost” which channels Christ’s parables, and discusses his faith during “i”. A character named “Lucy” (a proxy for Satan/temptation) crops up repeatedly, and he references his own internal conflicts and his depression.

There’s a whole lot going on with the ingenious arrangements and Lamar’s determination to pack his lyrics with cleverness and meaning.

There’s real craft here, real intelligence and this record has a whole lot going for it. And I feel like a patronising white shit for talking about a vital, inventive genre in those terms.

I started this blog when I got laid off mid-2014. I figured I’d have more time than I knew what to do with (or wanted to have) and so getting to grips with an album each week and recording that experience seemed like a way to fill time and a corner of my mind, and maybe would be of some interest and assistance to other people looking for a broader experience of music.

But things didn’t go to plan and I promptly found re-employment, at first on a contract but then the contract was converted to a permanent position. This is not a bad problem to have.

The job was in Centurion which meant a commute. And I decided to do a proper commute and use public transport, because my sums showed that it might be a little cheaper and because the traffic is much easier to handle when you’re not driving.

All good, but it takes time out of day. And in the last 15 months the amount of traffic on the roads seems to have grown, people seem to be heading for the office earlier in the morning and for sure the busses and trains have got a lot busier and so even more time is taken out of my day. Now, admittedly, all I can do during the travel time is listen to music., read and catch up with social media. But all my shopping and fixing and mending now has to happen on a weekend. And I am trying to get some of my guitar chops (such as they were) back and before much longer I’m going to have to embark upon a course of study to update my skills and keep myself employable.

These are not bad problems to have compared to an unemployed man from Kendrick Lamar’s neck of the woods or a refugee in Alexander or Cosmo City. I have a regular job, money invested for my retirement, a house that’s paid for and etc.

But still, time turns out to be very important and precious now. I can’t get any more of it, but I can re-prioritise how I spend it. And this blog has to be one of the victims. I don’t want to close it down, but I also can’t keep on updating it with new content each week (and occasionally resenting having to do that). So it’s now an irregular blog.

Thanks for your attention. I hope I will get around to updates, just not so regularly, and that you will pop in from time to time.


Darrell Scott – A Crooked Road (2010)

Scott in the studio for a change (for me) after all the live stuff. And it’s quite different from the other discs I have that involve him.

Lessee… I first encountered Scott on Series 3 of the excellent Transatlantic Sessions. I knew nothing about him, had never heard of him, but there he was and some of what he did was quite interesting, especially his performance of Stuart Adamson’s “Shattered Cross“. Then I got those live albums I’ve reviewed already and then he popped up (in my world view) in Robert Plant’s excellent Band Of Joy project.

But all of those were Scott as sideman or working collaboratively. So the thing to do was to grab some of his solo, studio work in order to get a feel for pure Scott.

A little biographical backtrack: It turns out he’s a late starter as a solo act and songwriter. He’d been playing for years before relocating to Nashville where initially he worked as a studio player before other artists started showing an interest in his songs. He was in his late 30s when he released his first album under his own name. Even then he maintained his day job as a session player. The multi-faceted approach means that he has several revenue streams and thus could earn a good living from music without necessarily becoming a household name (which, given the variety of gigs he’s had, may mean more fun).

Most of his successful songs seem to have been in what we might call “adult country”, the thoughtful, well crafted aspect of contemporary country music. And that’s mostly the sort of songs and treatment that we get here. These are songs that could easily convert to a contemporary radio-friendly sound, make Scott some good money and have a little more intelligence and finesse than a lot of modern pop music. Billy Ray Cyrus he is not.

This album then, is far less roots or rock than anything I’ve heard from him before.

Everything is well crafted. Lyrically he has a tendency to accen-tu-ate the positive, e-lim-inate the negative. Which some might see as distinctly American as opposed to – so the theory goes, anyway – the more ironic, gritty approach of the British. He does touch on darker, more interesting subject matter, but he certainly doesn’t feel that his manlihood is compromised by wearing his heart on his sleeve and expressing his love for his family and family life.

We get affirmative, uplifting songs such as “Love’s Not Through With Me Yet”, the frank, almost artless expression of love for an absent lover in “Tonight I’m Missing You” (I hold this love up to the light /  I wish may I wish I might / I wish my arms could hold you tight) and many tender references to his children in “A Father’s Song”.

But if a title like “The Day Before Thanksgiving” has you anticipating a portion of Mom, Apple Pie, Old Glory and Jesus then you may be in for a surprise to find him deconstructing and disowning some of his country’s most potent traditions and folklore: “I don’t believe the pilgrims sat with Indians for a feast / A self-proclaimed holy sailor doesn’t break bread with his beast / But then again he had a musket and the Indian had a knife … I don’t believe this country’s manifestering destiny / Someone just cooked it up and it is fed to you and me“.

There’s range, then, to his song writing. Personally I liked his songs better when he goes into a more straightforward lyrical mode. The likes of “Snow Queen and Drama Llama” felt heavy handed next to, for example, the McCartneyesque title track with it’s  heart on sleeve lyric.

Everything is immaculately executed, and he does play EVERYTHING on this album. The versatility and multi-instrumental skills that marked his contribution to the Plant project are even more on display.

It’s a double album (would be two CDs worth if purchased in a physical format) and it has the sprawl (or range) that comes with that format. I can think of several double albums that would be more tightly focussed if they were reduced to a single (EG The Clash’s London Calling) but the flip side of the looser focus is the range of idea and expression, and that’s very much the case here.

And range… boy! Does he have it. He has a great feel for rootsier material, he can convincingly front a high-class power trio, he sprinkled sonic fairy dust all over the Band of Joy and now all these takes on a mature, thoughtful but adult-oriented rock. Is this the “pure Scott” that I was curious about? It’s hard to say, because Scott certainly does not walk the straight and narrow, and the world is a little more colourful for that.

It’s not my favourite though. I like it, I’m impressed by it, but it doesn’t have the live spark that I found earlier.  For the defence I’ll make the point that when you have to build everything an instrument at a time you’re unlikely to get the spark when fine musicians play together in real time. How could you? So there’s a trade off: Richer arrangements for “spark”.

But still, an impressive album with a lot of good playing and some fine songs.

Next Stop… Soweto – Township Sounds From The Golden Age Of Mbaqanga (compilation released 2010).

Ye gods! There’s so many angles to approach this from. Like how come it takes a BRITISH label to produce this sort of compilation of South African music? There’s all sorts of historical angles to cover as well. Some reviews make the point that the time spanned here is from 1963 to 1976. 1963 saw the introduction of the Separate Amenities Act, which forced venues to be White or Black and the audiences to follow suit. 1976 saw the Soweto uprising, after which things got considerably darker.

This was probably the best-selling music in South Africa over that time span. The “official” hit parades were on government radio stations. First Springbok Radio, then the new Radio 5 (now 5 FM). But under the then government those stations would have been aimed at and catered for white audiences. So the official charts were usually going to reflect a minority taste.

Mbaqanga was the sound of rural vocal styles and tunes juxtaposed with a contemporary beat and arrangements. The music developed as more and more people migrated from rural areas to the townships that served the big white cities. It was a wildly popular style, but because of time frame that’s already been mentioned it largely stayed in the townships and on black radio stations.

I know only a couple of phrases in isiZulu, so I have very little idea of what these songs are about, That these songs were played on the radio probably means that they aren’t overtly political.

I finished school in Durban in 1975. A my best school friend was dating an Afrikaans girl, Surita du Plessis. Surita’s dad spoke good Zulu and was employed by the SABC in Durban. His job was to sit in a room and monitor what was being broadcast. There was a cutoff switch, and if anybody started saying or playing anything with political overtones then Mr du Plessis would hit that switch. No rocking of the Apartheid boat was permitted.

(By the late 70s most South African record labels had their own in-house censors to avoid a money-losing situation where they would put a band in a studio, pay for the recording, print the records and then the record would fall foul of the state censors. But the system wasn’t foolproof. In 1987 Cape Town band Bright Blue went to the top of the charts with their song “Weeping” which rather obviously referenced the 1985 declaration of a state of emergency and also included a few bars of the banned ANC anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.)

This music, then, was made during a time of increasing oppression of the majority of South Africans, and was conceived and performed in the townships that served as dormitory towns for disenfranchised black labourers.

So what was the deal then? And what’s the deal now?

I am of the Bruce Springsteen school of thinking. Springsteen has said that rock ‘n roll doesn’t change a lot of things in the real world, but it can provide moments of transcendence that lift you out of the mundane for a while. Music seems to thrive under the most extreme conditions and regimes, even where there is considerable state censorship and amongst people living in unhappy conditions. I believe it is for that very reason – music is a balm on the sores of life, an escape from the mundane. An equaliser too – kings and commoners get the same kick out of music.

And this is brilliant pop music. Great rhythms, hooks, charming performances.

Which is still the deal now. Fashions come and go, but these musical attributes stand up to time a bit better.

This is also the music that inspired Paul Simon and would eventually inform his famous Graceland album. Not the exact same compilation of recordings, but the same music that entranced him and which he pursued all the way to Johannesburg.

Although it’s a local music, in an another place and time it may have broken out of it’s own territory and influenced other styles and artists, much as musics conceived in New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit did. But with South Africa even more segregated than the USA, and with the segregation more rigorously enforced that hardly happened. The aforementioned Bright Blue walked their own variation of the path walked by so many white musicians on both sides of the Atlantic in the 60s who soaked up the guitar licks and the mannerisms of American negro artists (even Pink Floyd started off as a blues band, and took their name from two obscure rural blues singers – Pink Anderson and Floyd Council). Bright Blue steeped themselves in the sounds of Mbaqanga, South African white boys idolising South African rather than American black men. Listen to this compilation and you can hear guitar licks that Bright Blue guitarist Tom Fox later re-purposed. I thought I also heard a horn line that Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse used in his 80s hit “Jive Soweto”. Certainly you will notice the roots of Graceland.

But it’s not just clues to some musical crossword puzzle, not just a museum artifact. The enthusiasm and infectiousness of this music is still intact, still available to us today. Best of all are four tracks featuring (some times by another name) the greatest and best-selling of them all: The Mahotella Queens. You’ll wonder at all these names that you’ve never heard before, and you’ll wonder what the heck they’re singing about (and maybe how they even found anything to sing about), but you’ll also have a whole bunch of fun. Transcendence? I wouldn’t rule it out.

The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle (1968)

The Zombies had a short career book-ended by two hit singles, the second of which was released after they split up. Other than those two singles they made little impact in real time, though they left behind this album – now acclaimed as one of the gems of 60’s pop.

After a string of singles that failed to follow up on the success of “She’s Not There”, the Zombies recorded an album on a small budget. They rehearsed assiduously before recording started so that they wouldn’t waste costly studio time. There were no extra songs recorded and so there are no left overs from the sessions. They couldn’t afford to hire in session players, so the album has a stripped down feel to it.

It was mid 1967. Pink Floyd had just finished laying down their debut album. The Beatles had laid down their first album and the Beatles had released the landmark Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Incredible String Band (the most sixties of all sixties bands) had made waves with The 5000 Spirits, and even the Stones were wearing flowers and ringing bells.

The Zombies eschewed effects, exotic sounds and endless overdubbing and even went light on the solos. They focused relentlessly on tunefulness and expertly arranged vocals (three of the band were trained choir singers and the band were far better musically educated than most of their contemporaries). The lyrics were direct and literal. The dominant sounds are the piano and the vocals. The album they recorded was pretty far from psychedelia.

It’s been put to us by some writers that this approach actually presages simpler, more direct sounds that other bands started embracing a year or so later. I’m not sure I buy that because the Beatles (always one step ahead), more specifically Paul McCartney, had already gone for the stripped down, piano based sound on the stunning “For No One”. A whole album of this approach may have been a novelty in real time though. The album is very cohesive stylistically.

Be that as it may, or as we chose to not care about or even to just ignore, the approach works here and works still because by eschewing fashion they didn’t fix the album in the sixties and added nothing to distract from the album’s core strengths – the consistent quality of the songs, the clever arrangements, the interesting harmonic movements and especially the brilliant vocals. The complex vocal arrangements are beautifully executed. Colin Blunstone’s effortless tenor is the lead voice, but they all sing and the band packs a big vocal punch.

There are small glitches – odd transitions where (I presume) tapes from different takes were spliced together. These would have been unnoticeable on the original mono mix, and are a small fly in the ointment here (only really bothersome if you listen on headphones, and only a little). What you get, what you STILL get, is pleasingly melodic pop music with stand out vocals that are as good as anybody (and I mean anybody) came up with in that time or for a while afterwards. And no distractions from that – people talk about serving the song, but it’s not often that the songs are so emphasised and everything done to serve them across a whole album.

This is a thoroughly satisfying, end-to-end enjoyable album. The best songs are hook-laden pop masterpieces, and the lesser songs are still good enough that the album never sags. You may not have been THERE or you may have been there but missed them (as many did), but you can catch up now.

They broke up almost as soon as the album was finished. An American label eventually picked up an option on Odessy and Oracle (the spelling was forced by errors in the artwork and a lack of money for a rework) after some nagging from Al Kooper. The planned single, “Time Of The Season” was released and took a while to get a hold on the charts before climbing to number two and giving the defunct band a pay day. A little bit of a happy ending.

David Bowie – Blackstar (2015)

Well what can one say about this album now? The events that followed its release will ensure that it is endlessly scrutinized and analysed, but nobody’s going to critique or criticise it now.

Bowie would, I think, be pleased with the way things turned out. The album hit number one before news of his death was released. That would be a gratifying sequence of events. Blackstar was a hit on its own terms.

Since I also did things in the right order, I’ll share some impressions I formed before news of his death changed the way this album would be viewed and talked about.

The band on this record is terrific. This is not unusual. Bowie always had a nose for  interesting and talented players and a knack for getting them to play with him. There’s a long list of guitarists that includes Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar and Stevie Ray Vaughan (who got his big break on the Let’s Dance album), but there was also the inventive and skilled pianist Mike Garson, and Rick Wakeman before him.

For his unexpected come back in 2013 Bowie had relied on long time associates such as Garson, Earl Slick and Gail Anne Dorsey, but for what it’s now clear he knew would be his swansong he opted for a smaller group of players from the skronking world of improvised free jazz.

Another constant is the change. Bowie always seemed restless and repeatedly reinvented himself. But not in the calculated, mercenary way of a Madonna. With Bowie it always felt like he was opening a new box of toys and was having new kinds of fun.

So it is here, with the band playing within the structures of the songs, and Bowie’s compositions and arrangements taking advantage of the considerable fire power at his disposal.

Catching most of the limelight is sax player Donny McCaslin who fills the role that you’d expect a lead guitarist to take. He’s good. Very good. His solos are inventive, his skill is considerable, but he also has the intelligence and the confidence to not bludgeon us to death with chops.

This band, and let me again say that they’re good, allow Bowie to deliver a very contemporary sound that incorporates elements of hip hop and electronica, but over a muscular, restless rhythm section and with Bowie’s familiar vocals and gift for distinctive melody keeping it recognisably him.

The lyrics are elliptical. There didn’t seem to be any unifying concept for the songs, though of course common threads and coded messages are being found now.

So it’s a typical Bowie album (which doesn’t, in Bowie’s case, mean “formulaic”) whilst sounding not quite like anything he’s done before. He went out with the creative juices still flowing.

Much has been said and written about Bowie in the last few days. In particular I enjoyed a piece by a writer who doesn’t usually write about music, the veteran and respected motor racing journalist Joe Saward. He does a good job of explaining Bowie’s cultural rather than musical significance, and you can read his tribute here.

Another interesting piece that I read gave Bowie credit for sowing seeds that would eventually blossom into equal marriage rights for non-heterosexual couples – an embiggening change to our society. His bi-sexuality was probably more invention than fact, but he still became the gay that it was OK to like and wasn’t going to hide.

I was never a huge fan, but I was always interested in Bowie. His repeated changes of tack were always attractive, and you could never accuse him of milking a formula to death. He was simultaneously a chameleon and an innovator. He took chances, and often they worked. And because he made sure he broke away from his defining early image he was able to stay inventive and relevant in a way that most players who started in the 60s did not. Because Bowie was always slaying his image he never got trapped by it.

For a while his eclecticism and the need to cover such a wide range on tour became a problem for him. Until, after a long silence, he released The Next Day in 2013 and announced at the same time that he was no longer going to tour, nor explain himself in interviews. At that point he achieved an artistic freedom that only the Beatles amongst pop musicians had previously enjoyed. He was flying in the face of current received wisdom about the music industry and yet he gained both sales and critical acclaim.

Bowie was a smart operator.

He also was generous and his generosity was returned with loyalty from many that he worked with. Co-producer on Blackstar Tony Visconti first worked with him in 1969 (and was able to match Bowie’s ability to constantly modernise). He launched Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career, gave useful impetus to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople and, in the 90s, put Peter Frampton back on the big stage and helped relaunch his career. Now, with his last musical breath (unless there’s another album recorded – I wouldn’t be surprised) he gives publicity and a big pay day to MacCaslin and his band.

The Unthanks – Mount The Air (2015)

I recall a time when CD packaging included helpful instructions for bewildered shop staff and merchandisers. ‘File under “pop”’ or ‘file under “jazz”’.

I don’t know who came up with this stuff. I didn’t find it very helpful other than in that it confirmed something I’d already decided – musicians aren’t easily pigeonholed. Especially the really interesing ones.

Neil Young CDs, for example, were labelled ‘file under “folk”’. And that’s where those CDs were binned at my local Look And Listen branch: Folk.

The Unthanks would have been filed under “folk” as well. More accurately, I suppose. But acts like the Unthanks require us to give up pigeonholing, to regard “folk” as not so much a thing but as all that is not several other things (not rock, not classical, not reggae etc) or to ask questions about what the heck “folk” actually is.

This is the first Unthanks album I’ve listened to, and once again I’m probably starting in the wrong place (but at least I started). They’ve been going for a while, receiving a lot more critical praise than income, somehow keeping going and, so I read, developing quite a lot with every album. So Muggins goes and starts with their latest album and has to work backwards.

And I will. This won’t be the last Unthanks album I buy.

It had me wondering for a while why they should have been filed under “folk”. The album opens with a ten minute piece that marries the Unthank sisters dreamy vocals (that really is their name, by the way) with a sophisticated melody and arrangement which owes more to Miles Davis than it does to any British folk tradition. Though it turns out that some of the lyrics are based on a traditional song, and I suppose this tips off of to the real nature of the game: The Unthanks are tapping folk traditions but taking these old songs into new places, or writing their own songs that spring from those traditions.

What they don’t do is treat this old music like a museum piece. And the great folk artists (and I do mean great) that I’ve been lucky enough to see live – Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy and his daughter Eliza, and Eliza’s mum, the amazing Norma Waterson – all have that element to what they do. They present these songs as living, vibrant, relevant things, and they kick them around, cut bits out, add bits in, sing this song’s words to that song’s melody. Never carelessly, always with affection and respect.

Despite the name of the band, the Unthanks sisters vocals are not the only attraction or even the main attraction here. Adrian McNally (married to Rachel Unthank) produces, arranges and contributes to much of the writing. He provides the rich yet spare support for the voices.

It’s not an easy snack, this music, but there are rewards to be had once you’ve allowed the melodies, the gorgeous arrangements and solos (mostly, but not all trumpet) and those vocals (how many times have I mentioned them now) to seduce you. At first listen I thought it was a bit one-paced, but that didn’t bother me so much on repeat listenings. Take it as a whole, not just as a collection of songs (which is why albums are so good and such a true test of the musician – and the listener).

Tap into contemporary British folk music and you’ll find much more than old blokes in cable knit sweaters with a pint and a finger in their ear. But for some decades now the old traditions have been revisited, turned over and bought up to date without the essence being destroyed (this goes back at least as far as the Incredible String Band in the mid 60s). The canon, and the ways of reinventing it seems almost endless.

The trick that is worked here is to marry the spirit of these old songs with a coolly sophisticated delivery – nothing overstated, everything measured, and not what you’d imagine if you started thinking about what should be filed under “folk”. But just underneath the surface is the dark passion and drama of old songs that have survived down the centuries.