Week Sixteen: Astral Weeks

For years, I couldn’t understand why anyone would actually deliberately choose to listen to a Van Morrison record. I have a dim memory of one or other of my parents having one of his 80s or 90s albums and playing it a lot in the car, although my best efforts to work out which one it was using Spotify have turned up nothing, and I’m starting to wonder if I’d confused it in my mind with someone or something else entirely. But any which way, I knew who he was and I couldn’t stand his voice. I didn’t get the appeal of his take on rhythm and blues. I certainly didn’t understand why he was considered to be a musical great.

And then one evening, three or four years ago, I was doing the music round of the pub quiz at the Auld Hoose and something caught my ear. I didn’t recognise what it was, but there was nothing unusual about that – while there was once a time when I was quite a useful member of a music quiz team, my ignorance of popular music after around about 1999 is quite a handicap). It was only when the answers were read out that I learned it was Sweet Thing by Van Morrison. Which got me to wondering if I had been wrong to write off his work so casually in my teens.
One of the great things about on-demand streaming is that it no longer costs anything to satisfy one’s curiosity. No more that awkward feeling of having spent fifteen quid on a record that you realise you are only ever going to listen to once. So rather than completely forget about the fact that the first 20 seconds of Sweet Thing had caught my ear, I went home from the pub and stuck Astral Weeks on and was forced to concede that I’d been wrong about Van Morrison for all these years. Or maybe it is just that I needed to hear this record at the right time. I suspect that my fifteen year old self would always have struggled to ‘get’ this album, would have thought it sounded old-fashioned and dull. But my fifteen year old self was wrong about many things…

I’ve heard it described elsewhere as a folk/jazz album, but what I think it really is is the merging of folk and soul music. The instrumentation is very much in the tradition of folk music – though specifically Irish rather than British or American folk – you would never get so many flutes on a British folk record. But Morrison’s vocal delivery puts me in mind of 60s Detroit soul records. Not his singing voice, he’s no threat to Marvin Gaye on that score.  I once remember someone saying of Bob Dylan “people say he’s a terrible singer. He’s not, he’s a great singer, but he’s got a terrible voice.” and the same is all the more true of Van Morrison. I love his phrasing on tracks like The Way Young Lovers Do and Cypress Avenue but if nasal, strained vocals bother you, then you’re not going to get on with this record. That said, I can’t quite decide if I like the record in spite of Morrison’s vocals or whether it is in fact a part of the charm. If Van Morrison had been a more conventional folk singer, would it be a better album, or would it just sound a bit dull and flat?

Another inappropriate musical parallel: Just as last week I listened to Childish Gambino and heard echoes of Radiohead, now I find myself wondering if this is a kind of pre-cursor of electronic trance music. Not musically; I’m not going to pretend to be a connoisseur of trance music, but I don’t think you hear much in the way of double bass, flute or acoustic guitar. But rather in the way that the record uses repetition – of lyrics, of particular musical phrases, to achieve a kind of trance-like effect. Maybe the people who were listening to Armin Van Buuren in the late 1990s were the children of the people who bought Astral Weeks in the late 60s.

In terms of the songs themselves, it’s an album which, like Week 9’s Kind of Blue, is best listened to as a whole. The tracks do kind of blend into each other. Although the nine minute centre-piece Madame George (in which he’s clearly singing ‘Madame Joy’ – I wonder if the song’s title is a little in-joke: Van Morrison’s first name being George) does stand out. And I do still like Sweet Thing. I don’t know if it is just because I know the story of how the album was recorded – the fact that the session musicians brought in had little idea of what they were meant to be playing and it was all done in a couple of weeks, but it does sound like the result of an unexpectedly successful improv jamming session. A chance moment of inspiration that, to judge by the other stuff I’ve listened to, he never quite managed to pull off again.

Highlights: Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing, Madame George

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Week Fifteen: Awaken, My Love!

And so continues an exercise which does suggest that when it comes to popular music of the last decade or so, I am rather out of touch. Childish Gambino, or Donald Glover, may be a well known television star, and may have singles with tens of millions of plays on Spotify, but insofar as I’d ever heard of him before it was only a sort of dim peripheral awareness of his name. If you’d asked me who Childish Gambino was last week, I might have correctly identified him as a musician, but it’s equally possible I’d have hazarded a guess that he was a cartoon character.  Or a mafia boss. The name, apparently, comes from a Wu Tang Clan Name Generator (irrelevant aside no. 1 for today – If you want to see someone really gamely try to make sense of music that they’re never going to get, have a look at David Aaronovitch’s review of Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers)).  He got lucky. I got ‘Prince Dragon’ which is not going to stand out on the album racks…

The album begins with Me and Your Mama and the first couple of minutes of instrumental noodling had me wondering if I was in for nearly an hour of ambient background music. And then at around the two minute mark, the song very abruptly shifts gear, before doing so again a couple of minutes later. The highly tenuous comparison that came to my mind was “What if Paranoid Android had been written by someone who was basically content with his lot?” No? Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that both are playing with the ghost of Pink Floyd, albeit to achieve very different musical ends.

Thereafter, the record is a bit of a mixed bag, at least to my ears. I’m not sure Mr Gambino really quite has the voice to pull off the next track, Have Some Love no matter how many times they track the vocal. On the other hand, he’s on home turf with Boogie Man which sounds like a great lost 70s funk record, a James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone single that had  escaped my notice up to now. It would have stood up well against pretty much anything on the Prince record that I reviewed a few weeks back.

Zombies – is good too. I’m prepared to overlook a vocal performance I don’t much care for, because it’s just funny. How can you not like a song with lines like “We’re all so glad we met you/ We’re eating you for profit/ There is no way to stop it.” I think it has replaced Jamie T’s Like a Zombie as my favourite song about zombies (although it’s not an especially crowded field. The only other example I can think of is the Cranberries awful caterwauling Zombie, which appears to have been the result of her hearing a grunge record, thinking ‘I can do that’ and proving beyond reasonable doubt that she can’t).

Redbone was the second single, I think, and it just presses the wrong buttons. There are hints of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic sound that that, unfortunately, for me is so tangled up with the Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre and Warren G records of the early 90s that exhaustively mined it for samples that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to appreciate anything that plays with that particular sound.  Although, actually, going over to Youtube for research purposes, it’s amazing how much better it sounds when it’s played at the correct speed.

What would once have been the second side of the record doesn’t feel as strong to me as the first. Terrified is alright, but I just don’t like the high pitched squeals, oohs and that seem to be a calling-card of so much R&B and hip hop. I do on the other quite appreciate the 70s prog guitar parts. The guitar part that comes in from around 2 mins into The Night Me and Your Mama Met is another highlight for me, and perhaps just an indication that the funk that I like is really just up-tempo rock music.

Baby Boy pretty much runs the gamut of effects pedals (or maybe some of what I think is heavily synthesized guitar is actually keyboard) and sounds ok, but when its over, I struggle to remember what it actually sounds like.

Stand Tall brings things to a close, sounding, ironically, just a little too horizontal for its own good. The robotic autotuned vocals may or may not be covering up his limitations as a singer, but here sound like its being done for ill-advised effect. It’s also one of two or three songs on this record that sound like they are mining the sounds of 1980s videogame arcades. Or maybe it just sounds that way to people, like me, who spent much of our childhood playing 8 bit computer games (Donald Glover is about my age, give or take a few years, so I expect it’s not entirely coincidence.)

I doubt I’ll be going back to this record in its entirety very much, but I can’t deny that there are a few really damned good pop songs here. At the risk of repeating myself, just as with last week’s Beth Orton record, he’s at his best when he makes sure that a song doesn’t outstay its welcome. There was, after all, a time when the six minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody was considered to be extraordinarily long for a pop song, and yet here there are three tracks that come in over the six minute mark and only one of those which really makes use of its length.

Highlights: Zombie, Boogie Man, Me and Your Mama

Week Fourteen: Central Reservation

If last week’s album, Nevermind, transported me back to my fourteen year old self’s bedroom, Central Reservation moves me on eight years, and five bedrooms later, to a large, cold, draughty room I was sharing with my girlfriend of the time while in the final year of my degree. Her copies of Central Reservation and Daybreaker among the records that we were both happy to have on in the background (Shania Twain and Throwing Muses, on the other hand, were, um, bones of contention.  Which of us preferred each of these is left as an exercise for the reader) and hearing Central Reservation again for the first time in a long time was a slightly disconcerting experience.

I’m not sure I’ve listened to it at all in the intervening fifteen or more years, but the opening track, Stolen Car, sounds like an old friend whom I’ve inexplicably forgotten to keep in touch with. It’s the best song on the album, with a very distinctive cello-like lead guitar from Ben Harper, though listening to it again in the light of my current day job, it sounds considerably darker, from a lyrical perspective, than I remember it being. At the time, I had just thought of it as a song about a former partner showing up out of the blue and discombobulating the narrator by his presence, but listening again “one drink too many/a joke gone too far/ I see your face drive like a stolen car” he sounds like a rather nastier piece of work than I had realised at the time.

It’s followed by Sweetest Decline which provides a rather neat illustration of a point made by one of the guests on the Slate Audio Book Club a couple of months back, considering Bob Dylan’s song lyrics in the light of his Nobel Prize, about how song lyrics are not poetry, but something slightly different. Because a singer has tools that a poet does not: they get to control the delivery of each line. Think of all the different ways you could say “How does it feel? To be on your own/ With no direction home/ Just like a rolling stone”. What might appear like a tired cliché, or worse, as meaningless doggerel on the page, can be made to work in a song. In this case: “What’s the use in regrets/ They’re just things we haven’t done yet.” It’s nonsense. , the kind of thing that might appear on one of those awful motivational posters, but which doesn’t ascend to the heights of cliche as it’s not even true.  But because of the way Beth Orton delivers the line, it doesn’t matter. Because she does have a very distinctive, affecting voice. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is – I could try throwing adjectives at the metaphorical wall, but suffice to say that I think she is a jazz singer singing folk songs.

On the subject of song lyrics, the title track, Central Reservation has a great opening line “Running down a central reservation in last night’s red dress, / And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath” It’s one of the album’s stronger moments, though I’m not entirely convinced it’s so good as to merit the inclusion of two different versions: a fairly stripped back acoustic version and a more electronica-influenced version that I remember sounding quite cutting-edge at the time, but which now, unfortunately, sounds an awful lot like Dido…

Listening to this album as a whole again for the first time in a long time, though, it does feel a bit one-note in terms of its mood: It’s all low-key melancholia. And the songs themselves are a mixed bag. All easy on the ear, but I struggle to tell some of the later songs apart. Which one was Love Like Laughter? I think I might have got it confused with Pass in Time. I know that if I was to describe the record as coffee shop background music, it can’t help but sound negative, but I don’t mean it to be – it is very good background music, but that is what it is. The opening track aside, there is little that really grabbed my attention, but I liked the sound of her voice.

By the bye, Blood Red River brought back memories of one of my personal favourite mondegreens “Walrus people want what they can’t have…” On the subject of which, the ex-girlfriend with the Beth Orton CD also had a copy of Macy Gray’s On How Life Is and thought I was mad to think that she was singing about putting on goggles when her beloved wasn’t around.)

Highlights:  Stolen Car, Central Reservation, Stars All Seem to Weep

Week Thirteen: Nevermind

At school there were the kids who skipped classes, who would disappear off down the vennel for a smoke and who were invariably held back in detention. They usually wore Guns n’ Roses, Iron Maiden or Megadeth t-shirts underneath the rather dull blue uniform we had to wear. Then, at some point in my third year, I noticed that they started wearing t-shirts with a big yellow smiley face and the name of a band I hadn’t then heard of, called Nirvana. I’d assumed that this band were not for me, but some months later, a friend whom I find hard to picture wearing a Megadeth t-shirt, and who was not among the crowd who gathered in the vennel at lunchtime, gave me a C90 with Automatic for the People on one side and Nevermind on the other. Well if you could like both… It was as if I had been given a signal that it was ok to like Nirvana. That they were not just another dumb metal band – in 1992, I suspect the term ‘grunge’ hadn’t yet pierced my consciousness. Loud music with lots of distorted guitars and shouty vocals was all heavy metal, And so began the grunge soundtrack to my teenage years.

When Siamese Dream turned up on 52A/52W last month, I said it was a very teenage record. Which is true to the factor of eleventy-stupid of Nevermind. Over a quarter of a century later, I’m struck by the fact that I still often see teenage kids wearing Nirvana t-shirts. And, I wonder, do they actually listen to the records? Or are Nirvana, like the Ramones, a t-shirt band these days? More to the point, it’s perhaps twenty years since I last listened to it all the way through, from beginning to end. What on earth am I going to make of it after all this time?

It’s certainly not twenty years since I last heard the opening riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit but I’m still struck by its power. A perfect distillation of the loud/quiet/loud trick that the Pixies had used to such great effect. I’m sure Kurt Cobain would hate the comparison, but I think those first opening chords are playing a very similar trick to that which Mark Knopfler pulls off with Money for Nothing – although at the time, as I recall, the way to irk the purists was to point out that it was ripping off More Than a Feeling.

On to track two. On reacquaintance with In Bloom it feels very much of its time. It might have been the soundtrack to my early teenage years, but I don’t think I’d want to go back there. I can’t help but hear something of the dumb football chant in it. Come as You Are, on the other hand, is just a brilliant, simple pop song. Everything about it, from the simple but effective opening riff to the watery guitar sound, just works. It’s one of relatively few tracks that actually use the detuned guitars that I associate with grunge (though actually, I think it was probably quite specific to Mudhoney and Soundgarden) Lithium works with the drums serving to remind us all that Dave Grohl, while I don’t think he had any song-writing credits, was always a key part of the band’s sound. Breed, on the other hand, really only has Grohl’s drumming, and the slightly surreal line “We could plant a house, we could build a tree” to recommend it.

I’m less taken by the band’s nods towards thrash punk. Territorial Pissings is a triumph of screaming over song-writing and Drain You feels like it goes on a bit, even though it’s actually only 3 and a half minutes long. On the other hand, the album does have some strong moments on what I still rather anachronistically think of as its second side: On a Plain and Lounge Act are just great three minute pop songs. Musically this is all very simple: not for nothing did an awful lot of people of my age learn to play guitar by picking up the tablature books for Nevermind, but he does have an ear for a melody. Anyone can come up with a melody over the top of a few power chords. But the ability to devise onet that sticks in your head, that you want to hear again, is a harder trick to pull off.

It ends with the simplest track of the lot, Something in the Way where a tale of teenage homelessness is recited in an uncharacteristically muted voice over an acoustic guitar strumming E minor and C while a cellist adds a bit of background colour. The cello is a very grunge string instrument, isn’t it?

The C90 copy I had of this album didn’t have the final track, Endless, Nameless (Endless, Tuneless?) so this week’s album does, as it turns out, have something new to offer me. Suffice to say that I hadn’t missed out. Whatever Nirvana’s strengths as a band were, this kind of improvised sonic collage with a side order of vocal barking is not it (side question: are there any good hidden album tracks? Anywhere? Answers in the comments section…)

So this is generally regarded as the touchstone ‘grunge’ album. Musical labels and categories tend to descend into meaninglessness if you think about them too hard. To some extent, ‘grunge’ became a label to describe ‘music that sounds like Nirvana’. And nobody sounded more like Nirvana than Nirvana. All the same, while I liked this album, even on re-listening, rather more than Fiona or Alex Massie over at RAM Album Club, I’m going to engage in a bit of half-hearted contrarianism: It’s alright; there’s some good song-writing, but it doesn’t belong near the top of all those ‘greatest album‘ lists. It’s a patchy record. It has its moments, but it’s not consistently strong. There is, whisper it, a fair amount of filler on it. Listening to it now, I wonder what Cobain might have gone on to do, had he lived. I rather suspect that Nirvana would not have lasted – that Dave Grohl would almost certainly have gone off to do his own thing whatever had happened. Butthe follow-up record, In Utero showed signs that he was developing as a musician (I like the fact that he begins the opening track with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.”) even if, to my ears, it was ruined by Steve Albini’s production. I suspect that Nirvana would be less culturally significant were he still around today – that probably there would not be 14 year olds wearing their t-shirts, but I wonder if he might be ploughing a similar furrow to, for example, former Screaming Trees front-man, Mark Lanegan who these days does a rather fine line in gothic disco.

When the mood takes me to indulge in a bit of grunge nostalgia, it’s not the album I put on. Instead, I would probably go first to Copper Blue. Or Beaster if I want something more primal, less restrained. Hell, if want something in the folk-influenced vein of Nirvana Live and Unplugged in New York, I’d reach for Workbook (technical proficiency may not be everything in this game, but I somehow rather doubt that Cobain could play, much less write, something like Sunspots). And I can’t help thinking that the fact that Nirvana are regarded as one of the classic rock bands, while most won’t even have heard of Sugar, goes to show how the music is only really a small part of what decides whether a band becomes not merely successful, but iconic. If, in 1991, when he put out Nevermind, Kurt Cobain had been a balding, overweight thirty-something gay man, was there any chance that the kids going for a smoke in the vennel would have worn his band’s t-shirts? There. I’ve said it. Bob Mould was a better song-writer and a better guitarist than Kurt Cobain.

Highlights: Come As You Are, Lithium, Lounge Act, On A Pla

Week 12: The Love Symbol Album

If there was a pop music equivalent of David Lodge’s Humiliation then I could kick it off with the admission that I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Prince album all the way through before. Of course, I’m familiar with his hit singles, and indeed it strikes me that it’s a crying shame that his record labels haven’t been able to band together to produce a definitive ‘best of’ album because, even without being familiar with the album tracks, it would be quite some collection. In the early 1990s though, growing up reading a music press that referred to him as ‘the purple pervert from Minneapolis’ or ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Good,’ he was a bit of a joke. An impression perhaps reinforced by the fact that, around the time he released this album, his biggest cheerleader at school was the kid who sat a couple of desks down from me in science classes who thought that the summit of comedy was scrawling penises on other peoples’ textbooks.

The first Prince song I remember was Sign o’ the Times, which was on a recording I had made of the top 40 with the ‘ghetto-blaster’ (remember when that was the term of art for, um, a tape recorder) I had been given for my ninth birthday. And as a small child growing up in a world very different from the urban America that produced Prince – I could see sheep and cows from my bedroom window – it seemed to describe a world both faintly threatening and intriguing. I can’t remember now if I understood at that age what the ‘big disease with a little name’ was, though I think it is safe to say that the line “In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing horse. It’s June” would have meant nothing to me. Although isn’t that part of the fascination of pop music, or at least pop lyrics, to a small child: these coded glimpses it offers into the mysterious adult world.

But anyway, back to the record itself. This album kicks off with My Name is Prince, in which he repeatedly declares “My name is Prince. And I am funky”. Which, to be fair, is to the point. Because this is nothing if not a funk record. If he’d sung ‘My name is Prince: And I am jazz-influenced death metal‘ then he could be accused of misleading the listener. Later, he adds that “on the first day, God made the sea. And on the seventh, he made me. Proof, if nothing else that he was not a man who could be accused of humblebragging. It does sound a little of-its-time now. Something about the sound of scratched vinyl and the synth effects can’t help but remind me of the sort of stuff that filled the charts in my early teenage years.

From there, it’s on to Sexy MF which I don’t think I’ve ever heard in its unbowdlerised form before. When it was on endless rotation on Atlantic 252 at the time of its release, The F of the song’s title was left unvoiced. As with the album’s opener, it is proof that he (or his record label) knew how to pick singles. It is nothing if not an earworm, even if, on reflection, it does sound like a slightly inferior re-working of his 1986 hit, Kiss.

Prince was nothing if not musically eclectic, on this album as much as anywhere, and as well as the very James Brown-influenced funk of, especially, the opening track, there’s the pop-rock of Morning Papers, an experiment in electronic-tinged reggae with Blue Light which works an awful lot better than many pop artists who decide to dabble in reggae mid-career (Snoop Dogg, I’m looking at you) and Three Chains O’Gold reminded me more than a little of Queen – all the more impressive for the fact that Prince is able to channel both the guitar pyrotechnics of Brian May and the sheer showmanship of Freddie Mercury.

Emily at Mookbarks had suggested that this was an album very much influenced by Prince’s Christianity. It might be that I have a tin ear for these things, but I have to admit that I didn’t really pick up on that at all. In fact, having just finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones, I could equally easily have been persuaded that Seven was actually a song about that world’s fictional religion with its septons and seven aspects of god. If this was a concept album, then the concept itself rather passed me by.

And in the end, I wasn’t really won over by this record. Perhaps it wasn’t the place to start.  The Guardian’s ranking of all 37?! of his albums suggests that it was not one of his best. Maybe my introduction to Prince should have been through Purple Rain, Controversy or Sign o’ the Times. I could admire the musicianship, and the groove on tracks like The Max, but for me it seems a bit of a triumph of musicianship and production over actual song-writing. The singles aside, the songs just didn’t grab me. It’s not as if Prince couldn’t write pop songs – but there’s nothing on this album to sit alongside Raspberry Beret, Kiss, Purple Rain, or even, whisper it, Manic Monday. And much of it melted into a kind of sameyness to the point where I can’t quite distinguish Melt with Me from The Continental from The Sacrifice of Victor.

The other week, I was listening to Michael Hann, or perhaps it was Pete Paphides, on Big Mouth, reviewing the new Anonhi album, and he remarked that, in his time as editor of the Guardian music pages, he had heard hundreds of records that were sonically interesting, had good song-writing and highly accomplished musicianship but, which he’d never listen to again once he’d finished writing the inevitable four-star review. And, for me, this was one of those records.

Highlights: Seven, Sexy MF, Morning Papers.

 

Week Eleven: Alas I Cannot Swim

Nu folk’ happened while I wasn’t looking. Long after I had stopped reading the weekly music press, and before the appearance of Spotify and Youtube made it possible to find out without cost about any passing musical phenomenon. I might have read about it in the Guardian Weekend section, but if I did, it went in one ear and right out of the other. Even the seemingly inescapable Mumford and Sons passed me by for a fair while, it was only when a friend who had emigrated to the US remarked in an e-mail that local radio was awful, and not only that, but the worst band, the one that he really never wanted to hear again in his life, had followed him across the water from the UK and they were called Mumford and Sons that I think I became aware who they were.

When Laura Marling’s second album, I Speak Because I Can, was released, an old friend got in touch and was rather insistent that I should give it a listen. Which seemed odd, both because my dim notion of who Laura Marling was amounted to ‘some Kate Nash/Lily Allen copy but with acoustic guitars’ and because said friend was usually into abstruse electronica. Though she did introduce me to Half Man Half Biscuit.

So I paid attention. And she was absolutely right about that Laura Marling album. It had a slightly gothic, eldritch quality and I am just a sucker for the droning sound of guitars in open tunings. I also remember being struck at the time that it was possibly the first album I had really liked by a child of the 1990s. And so of course I was keen to hear what else she had done and looked up her debut on Spotify. And I listened to it once, and never again. It’s not that I thought it terrible, it just seemed rather dull. It all sounds like it’s in standard EADGBE tuning, and it’s a bit happy-clappy, the kind of thing I could imagine a group of kids at a Christian summer camp coming up with (though, to be fair, only if said kids had an unusually acute ear for a good melody).

 

So coming back to it, did it win me over? Not exactly. But to be fair, listening to it a few times over the last week, I can hear clues that she had it in her to become a much more interesting artist. She was, after all, only eighteen when this record was released, and so probably younger still when much of it was written. How many really great records have been made by teenagers, after all? (Oh, yeah, um, one of my all time favourite records was. And if I thought about it harder, there are probably lots).
The opener, Ghosts is a very good three minute pop song. It’s even got a decent middle-eight. It is pretty much her signature tune, and when I saw her at the Usher Hall shortly after she had released Once I was an Eagle it was one of just two tracks she played from her first record. I’m sure she’s sick of it now, but there are plenty of songwriters who go their whole career without ever writing a single infectious earworm of a tune.

 

There’s not really anything else on the record which comes close to hitting that mark. I did rather like the minute and a half interlude of Crawled Out of the Sea and was torn between wishing it were a little longer and being thankful that she, or her producer, had the self-awareness to know that this kind of acoustic folk-pop rarely benefits from being dragged out, and every song comes in under the four minute mark. The longest of these, My Manic and I, is the most structurally interesting song on the record and a hint of things to come: that she would, in a few years, be quite comfortable opening her fourth album with an eighteen minute raga influenced song in four movements.  The strings on Night Terrors remind me a little of the sonic atmospherics she’s able to conjure in her later records.
But there’s an awful lot here though that’s really rather unremarkable. Your Only Doll, Dora is a rather cliched kitchen-sink drama about domestic abuse. Old Stone sounds a touch overwrought to my ears and the traces of estuary English in her voice on Failure do rather leave me wondering why others seem so upset at her adoption of an American accent in later records. She sounds far better impersonating Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell than pretending to be cockney.

 

I think my problem with this record is that, where her later albums sound like a rather wonderful amalgam of what I suspect might be her parents’ record collection – I can hear hints of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, even PJ Harvey in her accessible Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea phase – this just sounds like another nu-folk record.

Highlight: Ghosts, It Crawled out of the Sea, Night Terrors. But really, go dig out Once I was an Eagle instead. Or perhaps I Speak Because I Can.

Week Ten: Liege & Lief

There were, I think, three distinct ‘phases’ to my trawling through my parents’ record collections. The first came at the age of 12, when I found a huge stack of slowly decaying C90 cassettes, each carefully indexed and numbered, in a drawer, that my dad had collected through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Through that, I discovered Queen, Talking Heads and the Eurythmics (there was a bias, I think, towards the later, early 1980s stuff, because the cassettes tended not to have become quite so warped and stretched). A second phase came about three years later, when my parents were divorcing and I went through the huge stacks of vinyl in the living room, taping anything I found that was of interest as the soundtrack for GCSE revision. It was then that I stumbled upon, rather incongruously,  The Doors, Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums, Jean Michel Jarre and Joni Mitchell.

The third phase came years later when my dad was transferring his vinyl collection over onto MP3 in order to free up space and I went through the hard drive on his PC looking for things of interest. It was then than I discovered Liege & Lief . I can’t now quite remember what had piqued my interest, though I think I might have been going through a Richard Thompson phase at the time and been curious to hear what the band that he started out with sounded like. Any which way, it was one of my better discoveries.

I suppose it’s the fate of all innovators to find that the passage of time renders their work much less radical sounding than it was when it was made. The idea of taking the motifs of folk music and adding electric guitar might seem very old hat now, but while it would probably be an exaggeration to say that Fairport Convention invented folk-rock, after all, Liege & Lief came some years after Dylan went electric, I think it is at least arguable that they were the first to produce a distinctly British take on it. One can hardly blame them for Mumford & Sons and the ‘nu folk’ movement, which for what it’s worth is to folk as nu metal was to metal a decade earlier, though your mileage may vary.

Where their previous album had been made up, to a significant part, of Dylan covers, Liege and Lief mixes original compositions with arrangements of traditional English folk songs and ballads. The best of them, to my mind at least, is their eight minute version of Matty Groves, an old folk song about an affair between a Lord’s wife and the song’s title character, [who works on the Lord’s estate]. Class warfare as a theme in popular music did not begin with Paul Weller singing about the Eton Rifles.

I do wonder if I might like this record more if it had a few more Richard Thompson compositions on it. Certainly, listening to this record again for the first time in quite a while, I think Crazy Man Michael is a rather stronger track than anything else on the record, even if there’s nothing quite as outright brilliant as Meet on the Ledge or Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

If Thompson’s songwriting is a strength, then so is Denny’s singing. Even tracks that don’t particularly grab me on their own merits, like the rather twee Come All Ye, have this going for them. My flatmate and I have had a long-running dispute regarding who was the better late 60s folk-rock singer: Sandy Denny or Maddy Pryor. I’m firmly in the Denny camp, though I concede that he’s taken singing lessons, probably has a much better idea what he’s talking about and it might simply be that I’d much rather listen to someone singing Fairport Convention songs than Steeleye Span songs. Any which way, there’s no getting away from the fact that Denny’s voice was a very significant part of the appeal of the band: perhaps the best reason to pick up this record, rather than that of one of their many imitators.

Highlights: Matty Groves, Crazy Man Michael.