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.