Plaisong – Reinventing Richard (2015)


Richard Farina ran with the East Coast folk brat pack in the 60s. He was pally with Bob Dylan, hung with Eric von Schmidt and Joan Baez and was married to first Carolyn Hester, the one likely challenger to Baez’s status as Queen of that scene, and then to Joan’s sister Mimi. Dylan, reportedly, was a little bit jealous of Farina who had real literary chops, a burgeoning reputation as a writer and was starting to make song writing waves. Farina’s dark good looks didn’t hurt his prospects either.

Then it all ended suddenly and unexpectedly with a fatal motor cycle accident.

And so he joins a list of artists who made an impact at a specific time and whose possibilities we may forever ponder. Would Farina have developed artistically and commercially or would he have run out of things to say? We know what happened with Dylan, and, sadly, we know what happened with Phil Ochs, another contemporary of Dylan’s and Farina’s. But Farina’s career never ran to any conclusion. The three records he made with Mimi have somehow stayed in print all these years, yet he’s not as well remembered as Ochs, let alone Dylan.

When I started seriously listening to music in the 70s, a couple of my friends were given to playing albums by Iain Matthews. Everything about them was so tasteful, so high quality. A mostly interpretative singer and only occasional songwriter, he always seemed to find great songs to cover. The albums were always beautifully recorded and presented and full of great playing (One album included Andy Roberts, Tim Renwick and Richard Thompson on guitars. Matthews knew great players as well as great songs. His quality control was always good).

I think the key to Matthews is his very beginning. As I filled in blanks over the years I learned that he’d he’d been a member of the early Fairport Convention. Fairport are revered as the inventors of English folk-rock, but before they turned their hand to a reinvention of the British folk canon they were, for a couple of years, a West Coast folk-rock band (before anybody thought in terms of “folk-rock” or “West Coast”) and a very good one at that. And after Matthews left that band he continued on the musical path that Fairport soon stepped off of.

At that time Fairport wrote a few of their own songs, but they did lots of interpretations of songs by the likes of Dylan, the then not well known Joni Mitchell, Tim Hardin … and Richard Farina.

So after all these years all these threads have come together with Matthews’ occasional band Plainsong reconvening to record a collection of Richard Farina’s songs.

The idea, as the title hints, is to present Farina songs as if they were written and recorded now. Obviously there is the thought too that they might find a new audience for Farina and his songs.

There’s a problem with this: You can take the songs out of the sixties, but you can’t take the sixties out of the songs. Several numbers here positively reek of the sixties – and despite the reverence accorded that magical time, nobody these days wants to get too specifically sixties. Consider Matthews’ one time stable mates the Incredible String Band. Back then they were successful and hip and happening, but now they’re at best a quaint artifact and at worst an embarrassing distillation of sixties clichés.

It’s hard to relocate some of these songs – the language and construction are so tied to a specific time.

On the other hand we get “Sell-out Agitation Waltz” with its stereotypically sixties title and lyric, but which also sounds like a blueprint for Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” (which means it’s not actually a waltz). So it’s not all a sixties flashback.

Certainly Matthews and Co succeed on the sonic front. The arrangements are fully contemporary (as far as the songs will allow), with tasteful use of modern techniques (a vocal loop on “One Way Ticket”, clever sound effects on “Mainline Prosperity Blues”) that Farina would not have had access to.

And boy! This album sounds fantastic! I note that John Wood gets engineering and mixing credits. He’s another link back to Matthews’ beginnings, being the first call engineer for the Witchseason label that Fairport (and Nick Drake, and the ISB) recorded for, and he laid down some of the very best sixties recording. Reinventing Richard has all the qualities that Wood was renowned for – depth, clarity and a beautiful balance that allows every part to stand out without shouting down what surrounds out (read Fairport manager and producer Joe Boyd’s book White Bicycles for more on this subject). And it seems free of the modern curse of over zealous compression – which means that the album “breathes” and that your ears don’t get tired.

Because of Wood’s fine recording you hear every detail. And the details are good with plenty of fine playing, beautifully clean, ringing guitar playing and strong vocals, presented with minimal reverb.

The best songs here, whilst clearly of a time and type, are very good. Perhaps best of all is “Michael, Andrew and James” which references the infamous slaying of three civil rights workers in Mississippi (the same murders that were referred to in the film Mississippi Burning). Farina deals deftly in Old Testament language. The song moves effectively between a minor key verse and a major key chorus.

“Pack Up Your Sorrows” is tender if naive.

And maybe that’s the problem with the sixties. Maybe we’ve had all the optimism and innocence knocked out of us by now. Or maybe we resent the life that Farina portrays – flitting around between countries, causes and beds with not a whole lot of care.

Maybe. Because “The Falcon” (based on the traditional “The Cuckoo Bird”) sounds an awful lot like a warning that the apathetic and the self-absorbed may end up on the dark side anyway. Maybe you can’t actually tune in, turn on and drop out. Maybe Farina had seen that things couldn’t last.

Maybe the way to see this album is as a lovingly retouched snap shot of a golden era when all the problems in the world seemed knowable, when the answers were just around the corner and – for just a short while – there was new wealth but not yet the treadmill.

Or maybe you don’t have to analyse the heck out of it and instead just enjoy it in the now for the skilful performances and the Kerouac-esque language.

And the sound of it.

There’s quite a bit to enjoy here, and you should.

Algiers – Algiers (2015)

Did I mention the amount of intriguing new music that is still being produced?

The proposition here is a passionate, exciting blend of Southern gospel, electronica and post-punk noisy guitars.

This is their first album, though they’ve been working togther for half a dozen or so years. The members all hail from the American south, and there’s a distinct Southern gothic atmosphere to this album. I kept on thinking it would make a fine soundtrack to True Blood. But it wouldn’t – that’s just some association my mind drew between a TV show and a band that have a similar dark, swampy passion. The songs here are too insistent, too impassioned to sit in the background. OK… maybe as a title track …. shut up!

The unlikely sounding fusion works very well. The vocals are rapturous, shouted, soulful, urgent and mesh well with the insistent, noisy instrumentation They really crank up the intensity-meter. The gospel elements are not polite. This is the gospel music of people who fear the devil because he’s real, who are looking for salvation and transcendence and rapture. If you could find and visit this church it would be heaving with energy. There would be glossolalia and folks rolling in the aisles. Zombies would not be welcome. The music would be passionate and visceral.

This primitive gospel music was an ingredient of early rock ‘n roll. And if Johnny Rotten or Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix were going to go to Church they’d be at some crowded, sweaty little building in the Louisiana backwoods handling snakes, not a nice, polite, middle class Methodist chapel.

And there’s the meeting place with the punk energy and deadly seriousness. These guys aren’t fooling around.

I’m writing about this album in visceral, impressionistic terms, and that’s the way to approach it and the way it comes on to you. Interviews with the band show them to be thoughtful and intellectual, and they have clear political points to make.

You put your hand out to shake
Then they export you in chains
You fought
For centuries for change
And they gave you
More of the same
They swapped the dogs
And the cross
For sublimated forestalling
They changed the names
Of the boss
Until you forgot who it was

It’s all there, and they’re serious about it. I frequently get the feeling that they’re waiting for some revolution – preferably divinely inspired, but not necessarily – to sweep the old order away. But the overriding impression is an almost scary, rapturous intensity. There’s an appeal to your brain, but a greater appeal to your innards. The rottenness of the world is overridden by the transcendence of it.

You can probably hire a shaman these days, but this is a whole lot cheaper and can be repeated on your terms.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp! (1978)


Every time I play this I love it all over again. It’s one of those records that keeps on giving, even though I’ve heard it so often that I know it almost by heart. So there’s no surprises left now, other than the confirmation that, yes, it really is that good.

This is Jackson’s debut album, and nothing I’ve heard from him since matches this for sustained, attention holding excellence. He’s carved out a long, restless career, always shifting, seldom less than interesting, but unusually he was firing on all cylinders right at the start of his career – it would be like John Hiatt emerging from nowhere with Bring The Family and then never quite touching that first high.

Years ago I read a James Michener novel (I think Space but I can’t swear to it), in which one of the characters was an engineer who talked about “elegant” solutions. He defined elegant solutions as those that are entirely sufficient but have nothing extraneous. What Jackson delivered straight out of the starting blocks was an elegant album.

There’s not a false step here, nor a wasted note. It’s economical and stripped down, like much of what emerged in the aftermath of punk, but that’s not because of limitations on the part of Jackson or his band. Indeed they’re all good players. Bass player Graham Maby, up front in the mix, is a bit better than “good”. Some punk bands struggled to do the best with limited musical resources, but Jackson (a university trained pianist who would go on to write his own classical pieces and release some coolly sophisticated singles) and band strike delicate balance by giving the songs what they need but never over playing. Superficially this album sounds like the punk ideal of simple songs that any kid can play – but it’s not really. The craftsmanship here is high standard without being indulgent.

They’re no wimps though. They can rock hard indeed – even though they don’t often indulge themselves in solos – and the rhythm section of Dave Houghton and the impressive, always ear catching Maby are wonderfully sharp and can attack the up-tempo numbers to great effect. (Guitarist Gary Sanford often lays back and plays the straight man to Maby) But they convince on the slower numbers too. The marvellous “Fools In Love” is almost Police like, one of the most obviously reggae-informed numbers here, with a cool delivery. There’s a long build up to the first chorus – which they manage whilst maintaining a hold on your attention. Jackson takes a clever piano solo (though there’s no piano on the verses or chorus) with Maby playing counter point lines.

It’s deft, it’s smart, it’s assured. Not just that song, the whole damn thing. It’s a brilliant first album. Jackson (who claims the arranging credits) has his act totally worked out. The production doesn’t impose itself or bow to fashion and so it doesn’t sound dated today. And the reality is that Jackson didn’t face the fabled “third album syndrome” he had “first album syndrome”, so convincing and satisfying was his debut album. The next few albums had their high points to be sure, but don’t achieve the consistent high of  Look Sharp! Maybe he spent all the good songs he had banked. Even the minor songs (eg “Pretty Girls”) get strong performances and fit well into the overall arc of the album.

Jackson emerged at the tail end of a sudden post-punk explosion of acts who had the energy of the British punk rockers, but greater intelligence and breadth of vision. So he fits into a broad category as the Police and Elvis Costello. And on this album he is as strong as any of the best acts that were, for a while, labelled “New Wave”. You might think of him as a more laconic Costello, but that only goes so far as Jackson doesn’t have Costello’s inclination to country music.

I listened to it again whilst I was typing this up. It’s still as good as my imagination told me it is.

If you want to know why Jackson is so well regarded then start here.

PS: If you have an interest in rock bass guitar then you really want to listen to this. Maby, too, is that good.

There’s LOTS of fine new music (also a quick mention of David Corley’s excellent “Available Light”)

I’ve been listening to the debut album by David Corley. There’s a great back story here. Corley released his debut at age 53. As far as I can tell he’s been working and playing in weekend bands for years and years now. The songs and the production sound like they were layed down 30 odd years ago and in what would have then been a mildly retro style – an early 70s sound with nods to Van Morrison and Neil Young and… well you’ll spot them. All whilst being his own man with a distinctive, weathered vocal performance. Its a pretty good album. You might argue that it’s of a type, but it’s still good of that type. And it’s not of a new type.

This left me musing over whether Available Light might be classic rock for the now. Stylistically it ticks so many retro boxes, but it was released this year. (And I was onto it late. Don’t confuse me with somebody who does this for a living. By the time I got around to this album, after being tipped off by Richard Haslop, Corley had been discovered by the young and the hip, had sold well and had toured Europe).

I suppose if my blog has a point beyond chronicling my own adventures, it’s that, despite what folks my age often say, there is loads of fine new music being released all the time. There’s a case to be made that the sixties were a golden era because of the explosion of creativity and the way that things moved so quickly, but other than that I’d assert that the golden age is right now.

Yes, there’s loads of stuff that seems banal doing the rounds. I have two things to say about this

  1. You’re in danger of becoming your parents
  2. You’re looking in the wrong places.

A friend of mine, Alan Millar, recently made an interesting point on Facebook that has some relevance here.

Pet hates: The idea of ‘progress’ in music. By that logic, music from 200 years ago would be unlistenable rubbish, and practically everything produced today should send us into ecstasies. Music doesn’t ‘progress’ like healthcare or communications. It just changes, like fashion.

This is true. It also has an implication. Musicians operating now have an ever increasing palette of styles – musical, technological – to work with. Which includes revisiting the past, or artists who made their name years ago dipping their oar into more contemporary waters (take a bow, Robert Plant).

Anyhoo… the message for this week is that there is indeed a lot of music happening all the time, even if you exclude whatever it is you hear on the radio that cheeses you off. I’ll concede that listening in the places where we discovered music when we were young might now be a stairway to banality, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot else going on.

I’ve already mentioned Richard Haslop. I miss his column in the Business Day, not just because of the information it provided but because Haslop has (present tense) an ability to convey the wonder and excitement of it all.

To reinforce the point I am trying to make, Haslop’s annual top 50 column used to reach to 150 or so albums all released in the year. He’d cheat on the top 50 by combining two or three albums that had something in common into a single slot (I remember him bundling Chris Thile and Andy Statman into one slot a couple of years ago. That led me to exploring Statman, which turned out to be a wonderful musical experience. So thank you, Richard Haslop). Then he’d list another 50 or so albums that hadn’t made the actual top “fifty” for whatever reason but which he still considered you would not waste your money by buying. THEN he’d list the noteworthy compilations and reissues that had been released during the year.

So Haslop’s top “fifty”, would inform you off over a hundred albums of new material released during the year. That’s two a week. That’s a lot. (and no, I don’t know how he managed to keep up).

Or consider the web site (low tech, but information rich) of producer/engineer/radio show host George Graham. Especially his album review section: http://www.georgegraham.net/reviews.html. Graham critiques a recently released album every week. And because I have no life I can tell you that there is some overlap between Graham’s column and Haslop’s top “fifty”, but only some. So now we have even more new music each year. And neither of those guys review pop singles – they both devote their writings to albums – a CD’s worth of new material. They also tend to steer clear of the various metal genres and whilst Haslop occasionally mentions hip-hop Graham doesn’t. So they’re broad, but not infinitely so.

The wonderful NPR station in the USA has a music section to it’s web site: http://www.npr.org/music/ They too deal mostly in new material rather than classics from years ago. They mostly steer clear of the mainstream, and that includes non-mainstream hip-hop.

Two British newspapers (there will be more, these are just the two that I habitually check out), the Telegraph and the Guardian, have top notch culture sections with reviews of the latest music.

All these are sources for discovering a wide variety of music that is new now. And I’m only scratching the surface here.

So, if you’re despondent about the state and style and class of contemporary music, then don’t be. There is more being released than you can keep up with, in all sorts of styles and by artists who have been around for donkeys years but are still producing strong new work, artists who have been around for years but you’ve never actually listened to if you have heard of them, and newer artists with much to say.

It doesn’t even matter that your local record shop doesn’t stock this stuff, there’s iTunes,  BandCamp and now Google Play available here in South Africa (Mix Radio no longer sells album downloads, more’s the pity). You can sometimes buy MP3s from Amazon, but regional distribution rights come into play. I’m not going to get into sites that give away other people’s works because I believe we should pay the people who create stuff we like so that they can afford to continue to create. Besides (and in SA terms), 80 bucks isn’t much to pay for a whole album that would cost you over 200 in a shop, if they stocked it, and probably over 300 if they had to order it in for you (and that’s an iTunes price. a lot of content on Google costs significantly less).

Music is not dead. It doesn’t even smell funny. There is so much around, even if you like things that came out in the 70s and 80s, that anybody who is interested in music rather than fashion (now’s fashion or then’s fashion) can find plenty to fill a whole year of inquiring, discovering listening.

You just have to look in the right places, and you will find that, in fact, this is a great time for music listeners with so much fine new music being released all the time AND easy access to gems of yesteryear that you may have lost contract with or didn’t connect with in real time or were just born in the wrong time for.

Here endeth the lesson.

Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen – Bottle (2015)

This blog is not the work of an expert critic. Apart from anything else I’m not well enough connected; don’t know where to find the pulse, let alone get a finger on it. So I don’t know a whole lot about Tim Eriksen. I know rather more about Eliza Carthy – daughter of two of the greatest 20th century folk musicians and well up to the implied challenge, thank you very much.

I’ve seen both of Eliza’s parents perform. They are considerable performers, and what struck me about both of them is that they don’t deal in museum pieces: They present the oldest songs as living, vital things. Respecting a tradition doesn’t mean you have to pussy foot around it.

And there’s no pussy footing around here. The opening “Buffalo” sounds like Carthy jamming with Crazy Horse when they’re having an especially noisy day

Which is not that unlikely a proposition. Eliza Carthy has constantly challenged preconceptions about how a ”folk” artist should present themselves and their music, as well as writing her own material.

Eriksen, as I understand it, has a similar profile on the other side of the Atlantic. He is known for his command of folk instruments and American folk styles (notably the choral Christian music of the Sacred Harp tradition) but also has played in electric bands.

Many of those career threads are woven together here. Eriksen plays a distorted electric guitar on several tracks, though all the material is from various folk canons. This works well with Eriksen taking advantage of the extra power and sustain, but also playing parts that are apposite.

The second track, Logan’s Lament (referencing a small frontier war between settlers and an Iroquois clan) generates significant power from just the guitar and Eliza Carthy’s superb vocal. She’s long been a distinctive and convincing singer, not a carbon copy of her mother (the great Norma Waterson) but having similar gifts. This album has done nothing to reduce my growing enthusiasm for Eliza Carthy as a singer or as a player.

The punk-folk ethos is all over the album. Even the tracks where Eriksen doesn’t play electric guitar have an immediate, slightly rough feel to them. Some of the tracks are recorded live at duo shows, others in the studio but they sound just as live.

They get downright bawdy on the title track, which also features DIYish percussion that although small in scale generates a deceptive rhythm, Eriksen supplies harmony vocals and fine banjo playing.

The vocals interested me a lot. Several times when Carthy sings lead, Eriksen adds harmonies that range far and wide, that are complex, have him jumping around his range and sometimes don’t have a lot to obviously do with the melody. It’s an uninhibited sound and it reminded me of the approach that Robin Williamson used in the Incredible String Band and the contributions that Eliza’s uncle Mike made to the Watersons. Perhaps then, this approach derives from sole ancient folk singing tradition. The approach is most striking on the a capella “May Song”, which Eliza has recorded before on a Waterson:Carthy album. The two arrangements are markedly different to suit the different vocal setups. Here Eriksen’s harmony entwines itself around Carthy’s melody to marvellous effect.

Eriksen, who does not play second fiddle (ouch), takes the lead vocal on “The Traveller” and the roles (but not the effect) are reversed as Carthy adds an unhibited second vocal and noisy fiddle to accompany the electric guitar. It’s a spiritual, but nothing like the anodyne contemporary “Praise and Worship” sound. They present an ecstatic, perhaps more primitive take on WASP gospel music. Personally if knew of churches that had this good a musical time I might pop in for some of that old-fashioned, uninhibited happiness.

Folk songs are not museum pieces. They are lusty, living, vibrant and don’t need mollycoddling. It seems to me that what is going on here is just an extension of what Eliza Carthy’s parents have done. This album is, despite the production and instrumentation, affectionate and respectful to these old songs. Carthy and Eriksen are informed by tradition, and clearly respect it, but are not bound by it. So they present us with music that is vital and full of passion and great singing and playing.

Bottle is a thrilling and vital restating and updating – and an enrichment! –  of the folk canon from both sides of the Atlantic by two skilled and intriguing musicians from each side of that same ocean. And another feather in Eliza Carthy’s rich and varied musical cap.