My Morning Jacket – Z (2005)

This blog, despite my occasional scholarly/nerdy detailing, is mostly about my impressions of music that I listen to. I’m not a professional critic and so I can’t always bring the context that they can. In this case I have exactly one album by My Morning Jacket and have never heard another – so I can’t liken it to their other albums, can’t say where it fits in their developmental timeline.

I might also be thankful that I’m not a professional critic. When I started this blog I had a backlog of music that I found at least interesting but hadn’t really got around to listening to and my bank had a scheme where by clients could use their loyalty points to purchase from iTunes at a discounted rate. And I was out of a job so whiling away my time forming conclusions about an album a week seemed like a good idea. And I enjoy it – though employment has reduced my listening time (this is what you call the lesser of evils) – but I found it harder than I expected, and especially having to do it once a week. I suspect the really good guys (Robert Christgau, say, or Richard Haslop or George Graham) have the ability and the confidence to decide very quickly on the merits of some album or another and the knowledge to put it into some kind of context. I can’t see how they can do it otherwise (and Haslop is a partner in a law firm, so he has things other than listening to music that demand his time).

But enough about them and me.

A lot of people I know seem to think that good guitar based music (and they often conflate “good” and “guitar based”) died out sometime in the 80s. Well, it is the case that at some point what got played on radio and on TV changed – apparently because as market research got more scientific and more accurate the record companies found out that more people than they’d thought were listening to country and hip-hop and so marketing strategies and radio play lists changed.

But all that means is that you have to look in other places to find music operating in an aesthetic space that you might feel more comfortable in (or buy Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull box sets).

This album certainly nods it’s head a little to more contemporary sounds (though how recent and non-rock the synth bass opening to the first track is is I think quite arguable), drum playing fashions have changed quite noticeably since Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, and there’s some sound effect loops (the Beatles used those, it’s not the end of the world) but at it’s heart there are riffing guitars and power chords and the energy and the power that these can convey. It’s recognisably a rock record (and it’s not alone, there’s plenty of music being made that is fairly obviously categorised as rock and in which the guitar plays a key role, but I also like to listen to and write about world music and stuff with mandolins and banjos to the fore and so. However I have already covered a recent-ish guitar rock album).

I like this record best when the band stretches out on the longer tracks and jams a little. There’s been some theorising about Don McLean’s “American Pie” (apparently it recently enjoyed an anniversary) and the attention span of the modern listener, but several songs here go past the mythical 3 minutes 30 seconds mark, and a couple go deep into extra time. They make the most of these with extended passages, usually erring on the side of not saying too much and going for what is dynamically effective. If you like the sound of a well placed power chord rather than auto-tuned voices then you should check this one out.

I found the lyrics quite obscure. Some critics have suggested that the poppy “What A Wonderful Man” is about Jesus Christ, and I can kind of see how you could force them into that interpretation – but it would have to be a force. The lyrics don’t spell it out. The lines “From the driver’s seat in the dark / He popped a tape in the dash of his car” are either metaphorical or just about something (or somebody) else. But lyrically it’s not banal album (we can’t all be proper poets like Leonard Cohen) and the point, it seems to me, is the simple joys of a tight rock band with, it must be said, a pretty good guitar sound going on.

Classic rock for today? The next generation’s classic rock? Or just a reminder that the modern music scene isn’t just Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and crass thump-a-thump disposable pop music (a couple of years ago My Morning Jacket were involved in a package tour that was headlined by Bob Dylan and also featured Wilco and the Richard Thompson Band – so there’s more rock guitaring than you might think going on and finding audiences). Well there’s always sorts of ways to react – and people a lot younger than me might not even understand that there’s this sort of pondering to do because the reality is that although what hits the charts has changed, there’s still plenty of original, high quality, guitar-driven rock music being produced and finding audiences and this is a fine example.

More music for pleasure

Sometimes listening to something over and over to try to form a fully formed opinion feels like a chore. Professional critics either have are better able to combine duty and pleasure, or they are surer of their judgements and reach their conclusions a lot quicker.

Anyway, I spent a week listening to an album (or two) a day – and never for more than a day. Here’s what I got through in a week…

Thursday: Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior (2007)

Fans (I’m one) are getting antsy about Thompson’s output over the last decade or so. The feeling is that he might be past the sell-by date. I think he’s in pretty good shape, and I’ll add that there’s few folks who made their first record in the 60s who have maintained good form as long as RT has. What must surely be beyond dispute is the continued excellence of his guitar playing – and there’s plenty of evidence for the defence on this album. This album shows one of the best examples of what I think Thompson aims for on the climactic “Guns Are The Tongues”. It’s a dark song about the recruitment of a marginalised youth into a terrorist cell, and of a plot that goes wrong. The thing is that everything works together with the guitar solos – and especially the second – serving the song and building the tension. The effect is devastating and it’s one of the best (and best integrated) things he’s ever done. The album is well paced and flows beautifully, building to the aforementioned climax before concluding with the deliciously mysterious “Sunset Song”. Along the way there are rockers, rock ‘n rollers and more introspective numbers that all bear the Thompson stamp.

Friday:Kaleidoscope – Pulsating Dreams (2010).

This is a double CD compilation released in 2010. Kaleidoscope came and went and made few commercial waves in the 60s, though they were admired by their peers and guitarist/banjoist/everything-with-strings-ist David Lindley went onto greater things as a sideman of choice with many 70s West Coast acts, most notably Jackson Browne (Lindley’s steel guitar is all over his big selling “Running On Empty”). They’re a 60s San Francisco band with a considerable twist – massive doses of middle eastern sounds and a healthy dollop of bluegrass. Blend in some 60s psychedelia and it’s a heady mix. You can liken them to the Incredible String Band, but they are an electric where the ISB were acoustic, and whilst they also have the zany edge that the Incredibles had it’s more American and less esoteric. They’re a lot of fun. I actually only listened to the middle disc. I have listened to it all before, but I left myself some more rediscovery.

Saturday: The Genuines – Goema (1987)

In the late 1980s I would take myself down to Jameson’s bar in Commissioner Street in Johannesburg. Because of some loop hole in the law and an ancient pre-union Liquor License which had somehow never been allowed to lapse Jameson’s could admit and serve liquor to anybody irrespective of anything bar their age. It attracted a cosmopolitan and colourful audience that you might not believe could gather in one place in Apartheid South Africa. It also was the home for some of the best live bands, and especially to those signed to the Shifty label. One of these bands was the Genuines. They hailed from the East cape, had jazz chops, a punk attitude, a broad musical vision and were resoundingly South African. James Phillips had sung like a white, middle class South African boy from suburban Springs. Mac McKenzie sung like a coloured boy from the Cape.And the band frequently laced their compositions with the rhythms of the Goema music of the coloured townships. Several songs hint at change and a gentle form of black power. A couple take a more direct route. The “single” from the album (it never got anywhere near radio airplay, and the band and their record company knew that it wouldn’t) was titled “Struggle” and had Afrikaans lyrics, peppered with township slang, painting a picture of the South African police breaking up a riot. The recording is not great but their range is enjoyable and their drive irrepressible. They save the best for last: “Do It Right” is an irresistible and optimistic pop tune built on a Coon Carnival beat, and a prophecy of better things to come.

Sunday (whilst cooking): The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969).

What struck me about this was how modern it sounds. The actual recording sounds unlike anything else the Beatles had recorded (Geoff Emerick, who should know, says it’s the then new eight track desk at Abbey Road that is responsible), but is that all there is to it, or were the Beatles setting trends again? It’s all immaculately crafted (even John’s deliberately off-beat abrupt ending to “She’s So Heavy”). The guitars sound completely up to date during the famous live triple guitar solos on “The End”. There’s filler too, but the least consequential song here Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” is still enjoyable nonsense. George, the late bloomer in the band, finally stands shoulder to shoulder with John and Paul as a songwriter and performer. Even when they were falling apart as a band they were still concious of being THE BEATLES and somehow they didn’t phone it in.

Monday: Imagined Village – Bending The Dark (2012) / Eliza Carthy – Anglicana (2002).

My bus home got stuck in a load shedding traffic jam, so I got more listening time than usual.

Imagined Village are more of a concept than a band. The concept being the re-imagining of English folk music as if it had emerged from a modern multi-cultural society (of as if England had been multi-cultural centuries ago). So there’s electronica and Indian instruments and percussion. And a modern brass section informed by the sound of silver bands. It’s very seductive to the ear, especially because (on this record) the two principle vocalists are Jackie Oates and Eliza Carthy. The material is mostly original but informed by the English folk canon. They even pinch a few lines from “the Raggle Taggle Gypsies” (a song strongly associated with Eliza Carthy’s parents). It sprawls and lacks cohesion, but the good bits are really good and the electronica passages are often packed with fascinating detail. I’m not sure I was convinced, but I was intrigued.

I suppose Eliza Carthy’s own record also looks to set traditional pieces in a more modern context – especially on the opening track. She has the advantages of not being confined to original pieces and of being the principle singer throughout. Folk songs are often great songs because they have survived for so long, being kicked into shape with the re-telling and the passing of time. Or they survive because they are great songs. And Eliza is not just a fab singer of folks songs, she is a fab singer full stop with her voice straddling the spiritual and the earthy. Her own playing is very good, and there’s some great players amongst the backing players, notably her father Martin Carthy as well as John Spiers and Jon Boden. Her performances of “Limbo” and “Just As The Tide Was Turning” are well and truly memorable. The offspring of famous musicians often disappoint, but Eliza Carthy (her mother is Norma Waterson, one of the greatest singers of the British folk revival, and thus niece to the two other Watersons of the famous singing family) does not. She lives up to her parents’ reputation whilst putting forward her own musical personality This time I was completely convinced.

Tuesday: Ry Cooder – Bop Till You Drop.(1979)

This is mostly an ensemble album, despite the name on the cover. There’s a second guitarist, David Lindley, on nearly every track. The rhythm section are top session players Tim Drummond and the wonderful Jim Keltner. Chaka Khan guests on a couple of tracks, but even then she shares the vocal and whilst there’s so many great contributions here nobody bogarts the joint, so to speak. It’s one of the first digital recordings and certainly the first on a major pop label. Nearly all covers – and most of them obscurish early 60s songs redressed in Cooder’s then trademark sound – a blend of American pre-rock styles. So it opens with a minor Elvis single (“Little Sister”) with slide guitar and doowop vocals. It’s great fun, and several tracks do make you want to bop.

Wednesday: King Sunny Ade – Seven Degrees North (2009)

Most of the lyrics are in Yoruba so I have little idea what King Sunny is singing about, but I’m pretty sure it’s all very positive. It sure sounds and feels that way. It’s a more direct, less atmospheric affair than the other King Sunny album I own. It’s still that polyrhythmic Nigerian groove, but fully up to date and more up tempo. The band is very tight and with multiple guitarists, percussionists and vocalists there’s always a lot going on. But nobody ever steps on anybody else’s toes – which always makes for great ensemble playing. Once again the pedal steel (different player) is prominent and gets a lot of solos. The band locks into one tight groove after another, and they’re at their best on the longer tracks when King Sunny and the pedal steel player can stretch out a bit. The solos are as full of hooks SA everything else is. There’s not much to not like.

Normal nerdy service will resume next week.

Music For Pleasure (long and rambling)

Wasn’t that the name of a record label or some series of records back in the eighties? Still. It’s a good reason for listening to music. And I don’t mean just pop music. There was a time when I was listening to the soundtrack of the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved with some regularity, and that’s not just an intellectual exercise You can look at that music through a technical lens. Well… maybe you can, but I’m not equipped to do that. I’m not a classical music buff (the only other classical CD I own is Mozart For Dummies) and I don’t know enough about the make up of classical music to wax academic about it, nor have I listened to enough to be able to dig through a large accumulated volume and mine the nuggets as I fancy I can do with some other genres.

But there’s incredible emotion in Beethoven’s music, and at times a deceptive aspect that seems fairly simple but might not be (probably it’s just not obviously ornate). “The Moonlight Sonata” as performed on that CD – just a piano, no strings – is a masterpiece of what I understand as elegance: entirely sufficient, yet nothing extraneous. But more than that there is a massive, transporting emotional payload to the piece. “The Emperor” is very, very nearly as good.

The recording might sound quiet to listeners who are used to rock records, but that’s because of the way it’s recorded (which is probably not unusual for a classical record) with a very wide dynamic range so that when the orchestra steps on it you get the swell in volume and the impact that confers. When Murray Perhia is playing the “Moonlight Sonata” then he can similarly deploy the range that gave the Piano Forte it’s name.

These things are all part of the pleasure, though the melodies (Beethoven has fabulous melodies) and the emotion are the real joys that the instruments and the recording and the conductor’s presentation serve to maximise those.

There was a time when I didn’t have many records, nor the availability of listening opportunities that I now have. Music was bought on vinyl discs. Long players (albums) were 12 inches in diameter (singles were 7 inches) and the equipment you needed to listen was bigger than that. I couldn’t imagine the situation I now have – over a hundred old long players on a device that I can fit into a shirt pocket. Listening to music required the time and the place and the equipment.

Back then music seemed more precious. There! I have confessed. I don’t think this was so much a function of the technology as a function of my limited means and library. When I got to listen to Joan Armatrading’s eponymous third album or Neil Young’s Decade I did so with intent, with intensity. And I did so often because let alone a device that would hold a hundred long players I didn’t own anywhere near that number. Those were the days when I learned to love music. Quickly I learned that not all of it was magical. Some records, some musicians just didn’t pack the same punch. The more I listened, the fussier I got and the more the scope for disappointment grew.

And the more I started treasuring the real satisfaction that the good stuff could bring. And although I could try to justify my choices out loud somehow the real magic was …. magical. You couldn’t really prove it or explain it in words (well… I couldn’t) but I knew it when I heard it. And I didn’t think too much about it or analyse it.

For a while I listened to prog rock acts such as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I felt that should have been somehow superior, but it became apparent that technique by itself was not enough. Then, on my own personal timeline (anachronistic to say the least) I “discovered” the blues and then just as I started figuring that out punk happened. The blues informed me about feel, Punk drove home the need for energy and passion.

Then I started working in the music business, writing for the only proper music newspaper in South Africa and working with the remarkable Bob Anderson who in a time when the local white music scene was reducing in scope and packed with show bands (some of them very good, but still show bands) playing disco covers ran a club in Hillbrow, the Boogie Barn, that provided a stage for rock bands that played their own material rather than covers. That club was an oasis, but soon it wasn’t the only one (thank goodness) as imitators opened up and the dark tea time of live music didn’t last too long. But I started getting academic about music: I had column inches to fill and gigs to market.

Bob’s club alarmed the management at the Chelsea Hotel. He rented their basement space, and the club was busy and the bar did well for the owners (we took the door, and only the door). But the mix of hippies and punks alarmed them and they wanted us gone. They wanted cabaret instead, proper music for sophisticated people. In particular they wanted Taubie Kushlick putting on shows of Jacques Brel’s music. But there was a lease and as long as Bob played the rent on time (and he was fastidious about payments) they couldn’t just get rid of him. But they could make life inconvenient and the club got turned over to Taubie Kushlick during the days for rehearsals, and we’d come to open up and find everything rearranged and a piano in the middle of the dance floor.

Bob and I went there early one day to ask La Kushlick if she could put everything away before leaving. It seemed only proper. She said that well she did, I said that I was forever manhandling the piano out of the way and that suggested that, in fact, she wasn’t taking care of these courtesies. She turned to her piano player and said “Philip! Punch that boy in the nose!” Philip walked up to me, looked me in the eye and said “I’m going to punch you in the nose.” I asked him to put the piano away first. They spluttered and scowled and grumbled, but the piano was put away and they started leaving the place in better order. And Philip never punched me in the nose.

To cut an out of control story short, last weekend I got tired of listening to things that were new to me with a view to understanding and then explaining them. I decided to just relax a bit and listen for pleasure. Maureen was going to be out at a farewell party for a friend, so I could be self-indulgent about things.

First up was Martin Simpson’s Prodigal Son. This was my introduction to Simpson, and I remember being struck actually by facets of his technique – which is formidable. The clarity of his playing, and the sustain he could get even when playing acoustic guitar. The way that every note would ring clear, with no blurs or buzzes in his hammering on and pulling off. And all of THAT allowed him to put a lot of detail into his arrangements and the listener to hear it all. The effect is quite remarkable, and although he mostly stays away from superficial flash it seems to me that few players are in his league. And above all of that is the story telling in his music. He writes his own pieces, but he plays a lot of covers too – always well chosen and with a good story. Simpson sells you the story in the song and decorates it with his guitar playing.

On this album he saves the best for last. “Andrew Lammie” marries a gorgeous melody to a shocking story of an honour killing. Simpson’s delivery is measured – never histrionic but always conveying the emotion in the tale. Masterful. Great technique, but not for it’s own sake.

On the Thursday night I’d heard Jonathan Taylor (better known as a TV actor) perform a set of Paul Simon songs at TJ’s club. He opened with “The Boy In The Bubble” and did it well, but without the lop-sided drive of the original or the calculatedly awkward, stumbling rhythm that Simon gives those awkward lyrics and especially in the last verse.

I hadn’t listened to Graceland for some years, but Taylor’s performance had left me with a hunger for it. Simon has a lot of great songs, but the two-disc “best of” set that I have suggests that he may not have a lot of great albums. Amongst all those great, well crafted, clever hits there is a fair bit of filler – even on a compilation. So you get “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Love” and “Loves Me Like A Rock” but also lesser pieces like “St Judy’s Comet” and “Duncan” (both of which recycle hooks and gimmicks he’d used on better songs). But Graceland has quality in spades with several of his best songs and no real clunkers. It’s unlike anything that he’d produced before, and despite the political furore around the making of the record (Simon recorded most of the base tracks in Johannesburg, and then flew South African players to London and New York to play on other tracks) it was a massive hit and revived his career after a flop album (Hearts and Bones, which deserved better) and opened up new avenues for him.

The album owes as much to technology as its township jive roots, with Simon and his engineer of choice Roy Halee slicing up and reassembling the original tracks to work them into songs that probably didn’t sound like that much like what was originally recorded. But the building blocks are loaded with energy and unusual grooves (well… for Simon and western pop audiences) and the results retain the original drive.

Johnny Clegg’s manager Hilton Rosenthal invited many of the players (Simon not being well acquainted with the South African township music scene) and his choices are inspired, particularly Bakhiti Khumalo on bass who gives several tracks a sense of movement as well as a solid underpinning (the aforementioned odd groove on the opening track, the throbbing drone of the title track and elements of both on the hit single “You Can Call Me Al”).

It’s an intriguing album, somehow with the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The juxtaposition of raw but not unsophisticated township sounds with synthesizers and processed drums is easily apparent, but Simon’s instincts are unerring and he makes it work repeatedly. I have no idea what he’s singing about much of the time, and apparently neither does he. He abandoned his usual song writing methods for this album (he’d hit a dry patch so they weren’t working for him anyway) and descriptions he gave in subsequent interviews reveal an unquestioning stream of conciousness approach that sounds like some kind of channelling. Maybe it’s this mix of calculation and “let’s see what happens” that provides the magic, but magic there is. Again sound is important – Halee and Simon craft a beguiling sonic setting for the songs that serves to draw the listener in.

Last up was World Party’s resolutely retro Goodbye Jumbo that sounds like every sixties and seventies record you can think of mixed together, yet has a heart all of it’s own.

Albums are more than just a bunch of songs recorded more or less at the same time and more or less in the same aesthetic ball park. The best albums have a flow, build to a conclusion with care taken to the sequencing of the songs, and this album is a fine example. The concluding sequence is hugely satisfying: “Take Me To The Top” is all rhythm and groove with proto-rap vocals; “Love Street” is near psychedelia with a lyric that is pure sixties without falling intro pastiche or cliché. “Sweet Soul Dream” is rich with mystery and mysticism and longing for something transcendent and has a rich but simple melody. The arrangement builds to a great climax with fiddle and whistle restating the melody. Finally there is the loud, electric, “Thank You World” that summarises the ecological and pantheistic themes that run through the record and builds to a loud climax before dropping down to a single voice and guitar which closes the album perfectly.

And wouldn’t you know it: When you try to describe and explain the magic somehow it gets less magical, more mundane.

It’s fun writing and reading and talking about music, but sometimes you just need to shut up and listen to it and feel it. And just enjoy it without reason.

Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass (2015)

Hoo boy! I’m so close to being current that it’s embarrassing. If I could only be TRULY current… being a couple of months late just makes you look like you missed the bus.

Anyhoo, despite it’s early 2015 release date this album was recorded much earlier. The Spacebomb label sat it on for a while so that they could give Matthew E White’s record a maximum push. Prass kept herself busy playing in other peoples’ backing bands. On release her album got rave reviews all over the show.

It’s been hyped as a break up record. I kind of hope it isn’t because it’d be a lot of breaking up for one person to go through. Certainly it’s all about love gone wrong. With nine songs weighing at forty minutes it’s the length of an old “long player”. When you anticipate a significant percentage of sales being electronic then why fill up an entire CD? Say what there is to say and say no more.

Sonically it’s very similar to White’s album with the same producer, same house band, same arrangers and recorded in the same studio. It seems like there’s a Spacebomb sound and White’s vision of a sort of new Motown may well be coming true.

Not that it’s a copy. Prass’s songs and vocals are quite different despite getting a similar treatment. Her voice is almost little girlish at times – that’s what catches the ear early on. It’s recorded very dry (IE not a lot of reverb or other effects) and often very close and very intimately. The confessional effect is thus heightened on the first lines of the first song – like the listener is her therapist or best friend. It’s a great start to the record, luring the listener in.

The vocals are the weak point too. Whilst they are distinctive and give Prass a solid and distinct identity, the limitations are occasionally exposed as she pushes the top of her range too far – most obviously on the closing “It is You”. For the most part though the production emphasises her voice to good effect and on several tracks the emotion in the delivery is convincing (“My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Why Don’t You Believe Me”, “Christy” – which repeats Dolly Parton’s famous trick of directly addressing the other woman).

That album-ending track is all strings and horns, no rock band at all. With the complex string arrangement and harp fills it’s almost like something from a 50’s movie score (and when I say “harp” I mean an actual harp, not that thing that my Edinburgh-born wife calls a “moothie” and which lots of rockers refer to as a “harp”). It’s not the only song here that is orchestrated rather than having orchestral instruments on top of the song, but it is the most obvious and ornate example.

At other times the Spacebomb band delivers it’s signature southern soul groove with the help of excellent horn and string arrangements. And there’s never a solo in the sense that rock (or soul!) players would understand it. The spaces for a solo to fill are there, but instead of a guitar or a sax or a piano there’s a string section or horns or both playing as an ensemble. Given that the producer also plays all the guitar this is an interesting display of restraint. Clearly White’s interested in what the songs need rather than indulging himself. Good on him for that.

I enjoyed this record, though my own reactions didn’t match the rave reviews EG those in the Guardian (which reviewed it twice). Maybe I should have stayed away from the hype – and it is a problem these days. In the end the vocals wore me down a little on repeat listens, but overall it’s a fine record.

All been done before, of course, but more and more popular music is like that, and it’s the individual twists in the compositions and the delivery that make such a record work or not. And despite my reservations I have to say that overall this one works.

On a broader note, this record is more evidence that in this seemingly benighted age new artists can emerge, make albums that are not lowest common denominator pop, can make a more personal, deeper statement, can make the album they want to make; and that there are labels and producers interested in such music, critics who recognise it (I’m not talking about me) and an audience that finds it and buys it. Which is all a good thing.