Matthew E White – Big Inner (2013)

When you’re writing about rock music talking about what happened thirty years ago is cool or at least retrospective, talking about what happened two years ago just makes you look hopelessly late for the party.

But here I go anyway.

There is some quite interesting background to this record which was released on the Spacebomb label.

Spacebomb is an interesting attempt to create a situation such as used to exist at Stax or Motown or Muscle Shoals – a studio with it’s own producers, engineers and backing band. A one stop recording shop if you will. White is the head honcho (producer, proprietor, guitarist in the house band) at Spacebomb and this is the label’s first release. That one stop stop shop model started breaking down in the 70s as bands started exercising more control over the creative process and star producers started to emerge, but it had already generated a significant number of hits, and also schooled songwriters and players who would etch their name in to the history of rock ‘n roll.

The retro doesn’t stop there. White’s first solo album is thoroughly steeped in sixties traditions. Spacebomb is based in the old South (Virginia), and the recent musical history of the Southern USA is not just country and bluegrass but also soul and the early mix of gospel, country and blues that became Rock ‘ Roll. Stax – as significant a soul label as any – was in Tennessee. When Dusty Springfield decided to fully embrace Soul music she went to Nashville. The Queen Aretha Franklin recorded some of her early cross over (from spiritual to secular) hits at Muscle Shoals. Ray Charles had come out of the South as had Al Green, Wilson Pickett and many other soul stars with their own roots in gospel music. White taps straight into that tradition.

He has roots and influences too (just like nearly everybody did in the sixties). You can hear suggestions of Randy Newman, Jimmy Cliff (who White quotes verbatim – and with a co-write credit – on “Will You Love Me”), James Taylor and Joe South amongst the aforementioned sixties soul grooves.

Finally there’s the way the whole thing SOUNDS. White (to whom all credit and all blame are due) goes for a deliberately lo-fi sound that mimics the way strings especially sounded on those old 60s records made on four and eight track equipment that always necessitated overdubs and jamming several parts on instruments onto one tape track.

White is not the first producer in recent years to work in this way, and I’m not necessarily a fan of this MO, figuring that most of those great sixties records were great despite not because of their sonic limitations. But I suppose it might be seen as a reaction to the sometimes excessive and shallow gloss of modern recordings, and White pulls it off in a less contrived sounding way than is often the case.

White released this album in the USA in 2012 and it was well received. It was only when it crossed the ocean the next year and hit shops and magazines in Britain that it started to achieve critical mass – another interesting echo of the past (though it must be unintentional) in which white kids in Britain were much more familiar with and fond of the full spectrum of American music than their counterparts across the Atlantic.

So in many ways it’s a post-modern record.

The soul stylings are endless without being imitative or a pastiche. I picked up a couple of very familiar sounding passages early on, notably the lines from Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” and the recycling of the old Gospel song “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today”. Maybe only us old farts would recognise this stuff. White is knowing and deliberate about it and gives proper credit.

Once I got past that I was struck by the restrained nature of the record. White lands his blows by going easy. The vocals are passionate but gentle, the tempos often laid back, and for the most part the overdubs are there, but just. I must mention the bass player, Cameron Ralston, who lays down the solid grooves that good soul requires and also provides more than his fair share of the hooks. He lays down a marvellous, pulsing bottom line on “Big Love” and that track serves as a good example of the understated aesthetic of the album – with the strings and the gospel vocals in place but not overpowering. White fashions a quite seductive aural space with the instruments and parts dotted around the place and in their own space (which means he doesn’t have to turn them up to emphasise them). You don’t need to turn it up either – it works well at low volumes and would make a marvellous late night, low volume listen when you’ve … got yourself into a relaxed and receptive state of mind.

Not that I think that White is into any of that (despite including a track titled “Hot Toddies”). His parents were missionaries, working in South and Central America, and the gospel references are more than just musical, culminating with the long chant at the end of “Brazos”. Religion and popular music can make an uncomfortable combination (don’t have to, but the potential is certainly there) but White mostly stays just this side of zealousness and pulpit bashing and so it doesn’t get tedious. Indeed he stretches that long chant out most cleverly with subtle variations that keep the ear interested.

He also neatly manages to stay “in character” (so to speak) whilst taking some unexpected twists and turns in the music (“Gone Away”, “Brazos”) and adding some spice to the arrangements – mostly in the horns, which he arranges himself or even with some clever sound effects on “Big Love” (I think he’s reprising some of the taple loop effects that the Beatles used on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but it’s not an emphatic reference and may not be a reference at all and I’m not going to argue it) and the unexpected, untelegraphed passage he tacks onto the end of “Hot Toddies”. Often he and the band go for the effective rather than the virtuosic.

So it’s … organic. Everything working nicely together. And despite the obvious influences it doesn’t sound imitative but like something new and possibly the start of something significant (if not outright big).

By the time this gets published I’ll be on holiday (I set this post up in advance then cued it for publication). I hope to get my mind around the next big thing from Spacebomb and get some thoughts down on paper for a delayed next post.


Bombino – Nomad (2013)

Bombino’s previous album Agadez was something of a success and brought him to much wider attention, and he got an invitation from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys to make a record in Nashville. This is that record. Auerbach produces and inevitably brings a more western perspective (not to mention a bigger budget) to proceedings.

Kitty Empire’s review in the Guardian eloquently itemises the potential pitfalls of these first world/third world encounters.

Cross-pollination is hampered by gaps in language, by preconceptions (on both sides), by label demands for a marketable product, by the suspicion that someone might be using someone, or that the wider audience being sought might be put off by music too far off their wavelengths. The opposite fear is true too: that the cognoscenti will be alienated by watered-down fusions.

I think I agree with her that in this case the union has avoided most of these pitfalls. I’m also wary of the tendency on the part of audiences of not wanting these third world artists to change too much because maybe they just want to update their sound, and surely that’s their prerogative?

Certainly the changes between this album and it’s predecessor are marked. Most obviously Auerbach fattens and dirties the sound and expands the instrumental palate with keyboards, vibes and pedal steel guitar (played in a distinctly country mode). And he brings in a drum kit (!) which overrides the usual desert blues rhythm section on several tracks and imparts a lot more thump to the music and steers it away from the more subtle rhythmic games of Agadez.

“Thump”? Sometimes, as on the opening “Amidinine”, there’s an interesting lurching feel to the rhythms. Drummer Max Weissenfeldt represents a shrewd choice by Auerbach and cleverly steers clear of rock clichés that might have ruined the compositions. The pedal steel players are agile and sympathetic to the music even whilst playing in a recognisably country style. The fusions often work well here and without overpowering Bombino’s essence,

In particular Auerbach seems to have paid a lot of attention to Bombino’s guitar sound. It’s often, but not always, fatter and dirtier and often doubled or trebled. He also doesn’t stick with one sound throughout, sometimes sticking close to the the essentially clean sound that was used on the previous album, sometimes going for a much bigger, more overdriven sound.

The production strikes a good balance between innovation and respectfulness. I was less keen on the keyboard additions, but they’re no hanging offence. Auerbach’s approach was to get a live base track down and then embellish that, and so the record isn’t too glossy nor too too rigid. He uses the stereo spectrum well, often accentuating an instrument or part by careful placing in the aural arc rather than by simply turning it up.

But for me there are two problems with all of this. The first is Bombino’s voice. There’s another instrument that is getting double tracking and treating with effects. In this wider, richer, bigger sonic landscape the vocals are the one thing that do get overwhelmed. His voice is too slight.

The other is that the tracks are just too short. Hardly anything here goes past the four minute mark. Is this just the way things organically panned out, or is Auerbach keeping things shorter for radio stations and pop audiences? Either way it seems to me that this plays away from one of Bombino’s long suits. He seems to be the most overt guitar hero operating in the “desert blues” genre, and as on Agadez or on the Songs For Desert Refugees compilation he’s at his best when he’s got time to build up a head of steam. He can really build and sustain interest over a long solo. He’s a bit predictable in the song writing department, the real thrill is in the guitar playing. This album seeks to emphasise that, but somehow draws the sting a little by not giving him his head.

Despite my reservations I came to enjoy this album, and if you’re into the “desert blues” aesthetic or looking for an interesting twist on electric guitar playing in a rockish vein (in a fun reversal of what went on in the 60s, the “desert blues”  artists spent a lot of formative time copping licks from white players) then this is an enjoyable and interesting album. But if the house were hypothetically burning down and I could only grab one Bombino album, it wouldn’t be this one. (This is very hypothetical, since all the Bombino albums I have were bought from iTunes and so all I have to do is grab a memory stick.)

King Sunny Adé – Juju Music (1982).

King Sunny Adé was already a major star in Nigeria when Island Records came knocking in the early 80s. With Bob Marley dead Island were looking for another third world musician they could turn into an international star.

Reputedly born into a noble Nigerian family, King Sunny had been recording under his own name since the mid 60s and had a substantial body of work. He ran his own label, owned his own studios and was famous for the quality of his live performances with the bands that he assembled. He was respectful to the traditions of Yoruba music but also was a moderniser of the local Juju music, a guitar based hybrid of local folk music and western pop. In particular he introduced the pedal steel guitar into the music. He was also prolific, releasing multiple albums each year.

As I understand it the tracks on Juju Music are mostly not new, but were re-recorded and so the album is a sort of King Sunny Sampler with some attempts to sweeten the sound for Western ears.

I remarked in earlier reviews about the use of polyrhythms in the so-called “Desert Blues” music that has emerged from Mali and Libya, but King Sunny takes things a whole lot further with complex rhythm arrangements that make his music undulate more than have a beat – this is not music for banging heads to, it’s more about shimmying and shimmering.

The individual tracks are often long and the compositions may take unexpected twists and turns, or multiple songs may run into each other. And the longer tracks are when King Sunny and his band (known in the 80s as the African Beats) are at their best with the rhythm section building up a groove and King Sunny and the pedal steel soloing over the top.

The first track is the seven minutes plus “Ja Funmi” and it sets the scene for what is to come with languid rhythms and multiple intertwined guitar and percussion parts (the liner notes list four guitar players – including King Sunny but excluding the steel guitar – and eight percussionists). At about the five minute mark the pedal steel player, Demola Adepoju, takes a first slippery solo.

Despite his own reputation as a guitarist King Sunny gives the steel guitar most of the solo spotlight on this disc, but he gets in some licks of his own on the second track which also runs past the seven minute mark and insinuates itself with beguiling rhythms and vocal harmonies.

The album climaxes with a medley of the naïve love song “365 Is My Number” and the instrumental “The Message”. We get nearly two minutes of the first and just over six of the latter. Adepoju starts turning up the wick with a substantial pedal steel solo over the undulating talking drums, before King Sunny steps into the spotlight with a solo that mixes fluid runs with stabbing chords. Togther they build up the tension before steering the track to a sweeter conclusion.

The guitar sound is clean and bright throughout. Probably this to help the guitars cut through the complex, dense percussion arrangements. Mostly the solos use different modes than those that dominate in western pop music. Often there’s a conversational feel to the guitar parts, especially when King Sunny is trading solos with the steel guitarist.

But the main attractions are all sensual: The way the steel guitar – a key component of the sound and one of King Sunny’s innovations – insinuates itself into your head. The seductive, exotic rhythms. The sense of joy in the music and the performance – not for nothing is King Sunny referred to as “the minister of enjoyment”.

Island and King Sunny parted ways after three years, with King Sunny reportedly unhappy about musical concessions that Island wanted him to take but having gained a foothold in the live music circuits of Europe and the USA. And it was hardly the end of the road for King Sunny who continued his touring and prodigious recorded output.

King Sunny certainly had admirers and caught some influential ears. Paul Simon used some of the African Beats on Graceland, and there are tracks on his next album, Rhythm Of The Saints, that feature similar dense and deceptive percussion arrangements. David Byrne and Brian Eno also paid attention and worked aspects of Nigerian pop into their own projects as well as into Talking Heads sound. King Sunny was also hugely influential on subsequent generations of West African musicians and the prominence he gave the pedal steel guitar allowed Adepoju to become influential in his own right and effectively found a Nigerian school of pedal steel playing (which allowed King Sunny to fill the pedal steel chair in his band after Adepoju decided to pursue other opportunities).

The trio of albums he cut for Island in the 80s introduced him to wider audiences whilst not fulfilling Island’s ambitions of creating another third world star for rock audiences. But the modest breakthrough has been sustained with repeated tours to the USA and to Europe and with regular international releases skewed a little towards WASPish ears. At home his output remains considerable, but not all of these releases are easily available outside of west Africa, and licensing agreements (King Sunny is a shrewd businessman, and so you can bet that he pays careful attention to business arrangements) mean that not many of his albums are available on on line services and the choice for South African iTunes users is even smaller.

But these are annoyances, not excuses. The joyousness and the sophistication of King Sunny Adé is sufficiently available that we may have a good time and hear some familiar instruments being taken into exciting new (well… to some folks in some parts of the world) territories.

In particular if you are interested in world music and/or steel guitar and have not made acquaintance with the music of King Sunny Adé then you really should do so.

Robert Wyatt – Different Every Time (2014)

Yes… another one. An artist that I’d heard about but never heard. In this case the story is quite a striking one – easy to remember. Wyatt was the drummer of early prog-rock band Soft Machine. He left Soft Machine (or they fired him) and set up his own outfit Matching Mole (those of you who speak good French may spot a little joke there) which allowed him more scope for song writing and for singing. Then in the early 70s he fell off a balcony at  party, broke his back and found himself consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and having to reshape his career. He’s long enjoyed reputations as an engaging singer, as a politically motivated artist and as an eccentric.

When this compilation – apparently signalling his intended retirement – was announced I got interested and took the plunge (one of the good things about iTunes and the like is that they make taking the plunge less of a gamble because you’re playing with significantly less money).

Wyatt was with Soft Machine in the late 60s and recorded his first solo album in 1970. Condensing such a long career into a 2 CD retrospective is always going to be difficult – especially if you haven’t had hits (Wyatt got to the lower reaches of the BBC charts with his cover of the Monkees “I’m A Believer”, but other than that…). Not that I’m familiar with his work anyway – this is the first Robert Wyatt album I’ve ever listened to. Which is fun – you don’t have any preconceptions about what should and shouldn’t be there. Wyatt curated this compilation himself, and other, more experienced writers have commented on the seeming wilful eccentricity of the selection – he doesn’t include a single track from the album that is widely considered to be his best – but I can’t comment on that (though I don’t doubt those critics).

Wyatt kicks of proceedings with a nearly 20 minute Soft Machine track. This sounds to me quite a lot like other music from the “Canterbury scene” that seems to have been the primordial soup for British prog rock – though SM do seem a bit more proficient than, say, Genesis on their early albums. Wyatt proves himself to have not the worst drumming chops in the world and a high-pitched, engaging and very English singing voice. I don’t mean “English” as in “Eton and Oxford”, but in as much as his voice and singing MO are completely bereft of the American affections that colour most pop and rock music. I suppose there are some similarities to Peter Gabriel, but Gabriel (especially after he went solo) always had a lot of soul colouring to his public school vocals.

And this is the thing with Wyatt – he’s very much his own man. Even when you think there’s something familiar going on he makes his own mark. His cover of “Yesterday Man” is a fine example (because it’s probably the best known song here). You’ll recognise the words and the melody, but he introduces more movement and suspense into the chords that underpin the melody and his vocal is more tentative, less confident than on the original (given the story the sing tells, Wyatt’s may be the more appropriate treatment).

The eccentricity, the englishness pop up repeatedly. After getting stuck into the Almighty for two verses of “God Song”, early in the third he pleads

“You know that I’m only joking, aren’t I?
Pardon me I’m very drunk!”

Before concluding with

“So throw down a stone, or something!
Give us a sign, for Christ’s sake!”

Even better (from a certain perspective) is “Signed Curtain”, a song about the structure of songs:

This is the first verse…
And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it’s a bridge…
This is the second verse
Or it may the last verse…
And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it’s a bridge
Or just another key change

Which sounds twee, but he pulls it off with wit and charm.

The two dominant aspects of the music seem to be a dreamy whimsicalness (whimiscality?) and jazzy progressiveness. Though Wyatt is clearly an enthusiastic collaborator. Indeed what would be the second disc if you bought the physical set is given up to collaborations and guest spots done for other folks. And the excellent “Ship Building” written for him by Elvis Costello as a rather indirect, ambivalent commentary on the Falklands war. When Wyatt collaborates he is still instantly recognisable, and when he waxes political he tends to do it in a roundabout way (at least on this compilation, he once recorded a song with the SWAPO singers and just doing that made a bit of a point even if they sang “Ring Around the Roses” – which they didn’t).

So I quite like this (and I went out – so to speak – and bought another Wyatt disc). It’s intelligent and skilful music, quite quirky at times, but Wyatt, unusually for a clever clogs prog rock type, usually seems aware of the virtues of melody and hooks. He’s one of those artists who has cut a very single-minded furrow through the music world and who enjoys the appreciation of his peers and not so much applause from the man in the street.  But on this blog we don’t let things like that bother us. He’s clearly an intriguing and original artist likely to reward repeat listens.

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones (1979) and Pirates (1981)

From Joni Mitchell to an artist often portrayed as a Joni imitator.

I remember her eponymous début album well. It made quite an impact at the time. It was a very assured first record. Clearly she’d already found her feet with a style that looked back to several familiar things – the american songbook, fifties movie soundtracks, blues and bohemian hipster jargon – but also seemed new and original.

She had the confidence from the start to record songs that didn’t adhere to simple pop formulas. Notably there are stops, tempo changes and restarts. And she even had a left field hit with “Chuck E’s in Love” with it’s retro feel and, yes, a complete stop and change of structure and tempo.

There’s a little moment of magic in that song, the kick back into the opening tempo and motifs, provided by a clever drum lick by Steve Gadd, and throughout the backing players – all LA studio royalty – serve her and the material well.

Already she has adopted a slurred cod-Bohemian vocal style, and the slur and the hipster jargon can draw attention away from her vocal skills, which are not inconsiderable, and the emotional punch she can deliver.

The emotional peak is “Last Chance Texaco” in which she delivers a long stream of automotive metaphors and double plays (“he tried to be standard, he tried to be mobile, he tried living in a world and in his shell… she threw all the rods that he gave her”) and deftly handles a slow build up and a difficult melody which stretches her range to deliver, at the very top of her range, the desperate emotional knock out blow in the last chorus. Again the assurance and the sure footedness is striking for an artist making her first album.

Another aspect of her vocal delivery is her use of timing for effect, the way she draws the ear in by keeping it hanging on. She uses this device to great effect on “Young Blood” (not that song) with the studio players matching her perfectly. The slur and the timing games are deployed to great effect on “Weasel and The White Boys Cool” with Gadd and Co in terrific form on a funky, off-beat, stop-start composition.

“Coolsville” is a dark and intriguing song about sexual coming of age – and disillusionment, and again she pitches the delivery well with clever use of both ends of her range.

Even the minor songs are enjoyable and well performed – and often have that retro sound, with the lyrics populated with 50s street-wise teenagers who are naughty in a more innocent age.

The critical and commercial success of the début predictably created pressure and expectations for the follow up.

She maintained the courageous approach with adventurous, sophisticated song structures and it’s a similar formula with many of the same studio players and the same production team. The material is more consistent which means, in this case, that whilst there are less lesser songs we also don’t get the highs of “Coolsville” and “Last Chance Texaco”. Matters of contrast – not being better or worse, but significant differences – are the less direct lyrics, a majority of songs being piano rather than guitar based which seems to effect the rhythmic aspect, and a darker mood.

The critics loved this album and mostly still do.

I get that the craftsmanship is more consistent here, and the arrangements and the sound of the record a sumptuous and seductive to the ear, but for me it comes down to the big emotional highs on the first album. As good as the second is it never scales those heights (or I just like my emotion to be very apparent).

After a strong start her career seemed to falter and her quality became more variable. Word is that in the last decade or so she’s come back on strong and all along, it seems, she was taking chances – but maybe never had the sort of core audience that somebody like David Bowie has and which expects and accepts something different rather than sticking close to a formula.

Whatever, those first two albums still stand up well and provide satisfying listening today – though you can be surprised at how short a “record” was back then.