Week Five: Solid Air

There is usually a degree of collective agreement as regards an artist’s best works. When someone had a career spanning decades and consisting of tens of albums, there will typically be one or two which are regarded as their ‘must have’ albums. Maybe three if the artist in question was either especially prolific or just very, very good.

For the most part, that received wisdom tends not to be a bad guide. I would rather listen to Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks than Slow Train Coming or Empire Burlesque. And for years I’d been put off Neil Young because my introduction to him was via my Mum’s copy of Harvest Moon. Which was rubbish.  The place to start really should have been Harvest or After the Goldrush (although I would argue that Zuma is actually his best). There are bands about which I’m something of a fan-boy where I might pick one of their more obscure records .I reckon REM’s Murmur is as good as, if not better than, Automatic for the People. And there are others where perhaps my favourite record is one that is not typical of their work because I’m not that interested in their usual sound – so for me U2’s Bowie-influenced Zooropa is a far more interesting record than their multi-million selling Joshua Tree.

But sometimes this received wisdom can send you off in the wrong direction. It’s not that I don’t like Solid Air but it’s not my go-to John Martyn album. If I had to save one from the fire, it would have to be 1977’s One World. Though this should perhaps come with the warning that I’m much more taken by his proggy echoplex and his running of his acoustic guitar through various FX pedals than I am in his more conventionally folk blues output.

It was, however, the John Martyn album I went to first. I can’t remember quite when I bought it – I’m guessing it must have been cheap in Fopp and I’d seen Solid Air appear on enough different lists of people’s favourite records that I thought it was something I really ought to own myself (this being the time before Youtube made it easy to find out what something sounded like and I was much more reliant on the recommendations of magazines like Uncut.  Hope-taping didn’t kill music, but home-streaming might have done for the music press.  It’s possible, too, given that I was working my way through the Rebus novels at the time, that Ian Rankin might have played a part. Certainly, Inspector Rebus, a man of a certain age who liked a drink or ten, strikes me as someone who would have connected with John Martyn’s music.

It begins with the title track, a mellow melancholy track that sets the mood for the album as a whole. Fiona observed that Martyn has something of a Marmite singing voice, and I wouldn’t dispute that, but I like it, albeit with certain reservations. He sings in a sort of slurred tenor suggestive of someone under the influence of strong sedatives. Or perhaps just a lot of booze. Martyn, by all accounts, was a drinker. And I think I preferred what could be described as his mellow-drunk singing voice rather more than the barking angry drunk who appears on Rather be the Devil.

I can imagine that this record might have been enormously popular in its day with the kind of person who had a very extensive vinyl collection and had spent good money on the kind of hi-fi system that gets the best out of it. It’s the sort of mix of jazz, blues and folk-rock that I can imagine appealing to audio-nerds, so perhaps what I really should have done to get fully immersed in this record would have been to hook it up to the venerable Sansui amplifier that sits in my living room, which my Dad bought when he first moved out of home in the early 1970s and which I’m sure brought out all the production tricks in the likes of Mike Oldfield.

Listening to it now, I think I might be hearing a kind of proto-trip-hop. That might sound ridiculous, but while this is a very ‘organic’ record, with not a synthesizer or a sample to be found, the mood it evokes is really not a million miles away from Tricky, Massive Attack or Portishead. It’s 3am come-down music. Actually, as it happens, John Martyn later covered Glory Box and did rather a good job of it. Later, in the 80s, he would experiment extensively with keyboards, drum machines and synthesizers, with, um, mixed results. (It was only much later that I realised that Solid Air was not the first John Martyn record I heard – that was 1985’s Piece by Piece, which was part of the background soundtrack of my pre-teen years, a regular choice in the car’s cassette player for a while.  Have a listen to Nightline if the idea of an electronic John Martyn intrigues, but be warned that if his voice is Marmite, then this is Bovril…

It might be me, or it might be what I think what best plays to Martyn’s vocal strengths, but the more breezy, upbeat songs on the record don’t work quite as well for me. Easy Blues and Over the Hill are perfectly pleasant, but they feel a bit slight. Mere musical interludes. The highlights for me are the songs that are in a conventional folk-rock idiom: May You Never does sound like a busker or pub band’s favourite, but it’s no worse for that. And Man in the Station is a worthy addition to the vast cornucopia of songs about trains and railways.

It was pleasant enough to go back to this record, but after a few days, I rather felt I’d exhausted my reacquaintance with it. That I wasn’t going to get much more out of it than I had first time around, when it was a part of the soundtrack to my immediate post-university days and the feeling of limbo and waiting for something to start that I associate with that time. At the risk of saying something that would get me in Pseud’s Corner if Pseud’s Corner accepted entries from obscure blogs that nobody reads, I think that very often a record is something that you can mine only until you have exhausted it, and when you’re done, there is nothing more to be found from further listening. In the end, everything ends up being mere background easy listening.

Incidentally, his final studio album, Out on the Cobbles, made when he was clearly in failing health and knew that he was not long for this world (the album cover features the sun setting over what appears to be a cemetery), was a return of sorts to the sound of Solid Air. And the strange thing is, while on an objective level, I don’t think the songwriting is anything like as good as it is on Solid Air, it’s nonetheless a record that I find myself going back to rather more often. And maybe it’s because Solid Air just feels like a demonstration of technical prowess, while Out on the Cobbles, with songs like  is actually about something. The sound of a man looking back on a life in which he left a great trail of wreckage in his wake, but finding a sort of peace at the end.

Highlights: Solid Air, Don’t Want to Know, May You Never, Man in the Station

Week Four: Channel Orange

It is perhaps a sign that I am now at least in the foothills of middle age (I turn 40 next year) that, while his biggest single might have had more than a hundred and fifty million plays on Spotify, and Channel Orange was the Guardian’s album of the year in 2012, I’m not entirely sure I’d ever heard of Frank Ocean before. I only have mental space for a certain number of musical Franks, and he is neither Sinatra nor Sidebottom. When I saw the name at the top of the Mookbarks article, I had confused him for a moment with public school indie songsmith, Frank Turner whom I’d vaguely remembered had written some not-terribly-inspiring song called Tapedeck Heart.

Now R&B and hip-hop are two of what I suspect this exercise will come to reveal are the many blind-spots in my musical knowledge. I think this goes back to a combination of the awful ersatz-R&B that was the staple of Radio 1 in the late 1990s when I spent several summers working on factory production lines or in bars and restaurants where this was piped through the PA (think Backstreet Boys or n-Sync, Craig David, R Kelly and many others whose names have long since escaped my mind) and the fact that some years before that, my brother and I would go round to the neighbours because they had a hi-spec PC and we would play long games of Civilisation while listening to records. And seemingly in unison, the other three became obsessed by the ‘gangsta rap’ of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Warren G. And I just didn’t get it… To steal a line from popular song, it said nothing to me about my life

My younger self would probably have prefaced this piece with a grumble about how the term ‘R&B’ had been misappropriated and that Chuck Berry et al would be rolling in their graves. But there’s enough snark on the internet already, and really, what’s the problem if the same word is used to describe two quite different musical genres? It is at least sort of possible to trace a very crooked line from 50s rhythm and blues, through funk, disco and soul music, to modern R&B. Whereas as far as I can tell, nothing links the garage rock of The Stooges or MC5 with garage house music. Anyway, to the album itself….

It doesn’t begin promisingly. Thinking ‘Bout You has the vocal delivery and synth drum sound that brings back memories of exactly the kind of music I mentioned above. It’s not fair. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either falsetto vocals or mid-tempo electronic drum patterns. But I just don’t like it. There follow a series of tracks about the lives of idle rich kids in sunny California. There’s a bit of musical variety coming in, as Sweet Life and Rich Kids have more than a hint of Stevie Wonder about them – a touch of old school soul. And lyrically, it’s refreshing to hear R&B music that comments on, rather than just bragging about, enormous wealth.

All the same, I’m not really finding anything to draw me in. It’s polite, pleasant background music, but nothing more, and if I weren’t doing this as a project, I expect might have abandoned the album at about this point.

Which would have been a shame, because about half way through, it suddenly starts to get a lot more interesting. Pilot Jones and Crack Rock have the memorable melodies that are, to my ears at least, missing from the opening songs, but it is with the 9 minute Pyramids, a surreal re-imagining of Cleopatra as a dancer in some sleazy nightspot of that name, that I start to get it. It’s a real musical melting pot of a song, and at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous musical Jilly Goulden, I detect strong traces of Prince, a touch of Giorgio Moroder, echoes of Kraftwerk, and just a sniff of 70s prog rock. It was a New Year’s resolution of mine (of sorts) to re-string the guitars which take up space in my flat and start playing them again and I found myself practising scales using Pyramids (and Bad Religion) as a backing track. Suffice to say I didn’t come up with anything close to the guitar solo that kicks in at 8 minutes 50.

Its followed by Lost. Another highlight (at least if one doesn’t listen too closely to the lyrics in the verses, I mean, “Double D/ Big full breast on my baby (yo we goin’ to Florida)/ Triple weight/ Couldn’t weigh the love I’ve got for the girl” really?) and a still more overt nod in the direction of Prince and for the first time, I find myself appreciating the drum sound on this record. If I were an A&R man, then this, rather than Thinking ‘Bout You would have been the first single.

Bad Religion takes what is an old pop soul staple, the conflict between lust and god, and does something a bit different with it – comparing unrequited love to “a cult of one” while Pink Matter is just another good tune, and I have to say I find Andre 3000’s rapping more to my taste than Earl Sweatshirt’s rather didactic efforts on Super Rich Kids.

Only at the end, with the rather woeful Forrest Gump does he drop the ball again. A song that the skip-button was invented for (and an illustration of why the other Frank is just wrong to be nostalgic about cassettes). I doubt this is going to be a record I’m going to keep going back to – for all that others have talked about how this is an intensely emotional, moving record, I found that I could appreciate it only on a fairly technical level – I admired it more than I loved it.

Highlights: Pyramids, Lost, Bad Religion, Pink Matter

Week Three: Hadestown

For the first time, I’m listening to an album I’ve never heard before, by an artist entirely unfamiliar to me. The Mookbarks piece remarks that there are “people who say that they like concept albums but can’t stand musicals, and some who love musicals but look askance at concept albums” and I’m firmly in the former category. I have not been, and probably will not go, to see La La Land. Actually, I’m not sure my problem is with the concept of musicals – at least as an auditory experience so much as the fact that many of them sound to me like the musical equivalent of painting only in bright primary colours, as coming from the world of the variety show. Musical films are another matter. I was amused to hear on Wittertainment last week that the film critic James King, like me, has always struggled to get past the question of why the characters keep bursting into song. Which is why almost the only musical I’ve ever been able to watch was the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling, even if it does suffer a little from the fact that most of the cast couldn’t sing…

And the other term used to describe it was “folk opera”, specifically, a folk-opera version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and my relationship with folk is, um, mixed. On the one hand, I rather like quite a lot of what could be described as folk-rock, but on the other, I can’t help finding folk music, especially of the local variety, rather staid and worthy. Was this going to be the kind of folk music that makes up a significant proportion of the anachronism that is my record collection, or am I going to have the sort of Scottish folk music that I’ve heard too much of and cannot get remotely excited by. Middle class, twenty first century types singing about the fantasy of being crofters or fishermen.

So I hit play and…it was more or less instantly apparent that I was in safe hands. The album’s sound is an intriguing melding of much of what has been interesting about American acoustic music of the last ten or fifteen years. A sort of Joanna Newsom meets Sufjan Stevens with a strong dose of The Low Anthem thrown in… And Justin Vernon (not using his ‘stage name’, Bon Iver, here) singing the part of Orpheus.

There’s a well chosen mix of vocalists to ‘play’ the different parts: Singer Greg Brown does a very good impersonation of Tom Waits as Hades; Anais Mitchell herself is Eurydice and sounds like a melding of Joanna Newsom and Dolly Parton; her record-label boss Ani Di Franco turns up as Persephone, playing her as a jazz diva, while Ben Knox Miller from the aforementioned Low Anthem is Hermes and the Haden Triplets are wonderful as the fates.

I can’t help thinking that the limitations of my brain’s ability to parse the spoken word meant I was probably missing much of the story-telling aspect of the record (I do wonder if the fact that I typically mishear every second or third word might lie behind my preference for abstract song lyrics over traditional story telling) but I can just about make out that it is a re-telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in an approximation of depression-era America, with Hades the boss of a kind of underworld workhouse that seems as if it could have come out of a Dickens novel (or maybe it’s just that I was reading Hard Times while listening). I’m assuming that Anais Mitchell et al were not invited to play Donald Trump’s inauguration, but ‘Why We Build The Wall‘ does sound suddenly rather prescient and topical. Come to that, given that this record was written before the financial crash, the setting of a modern day depression-era USA also feels very of the moment. So I suppose, in a way, for all that I couldn’t quite follow the narrative of the story, I did get an impression of what was happening, and let’s face it, it’s Orpheus and Eurydice, you don’t have to hear every word to know that it doesn’t end well. Justin Vernon has a voice well suited to the channelling of despair.

For all that I struggle to hear song lyrics properly, I did particularly appreciate If Its True, which might just have supplanted Re:Stacks in that rather niche category of: my favourite Bon Iver song using gambling as a metaphor for life. Or in this case, for the notion of a system stacked against the little man:

The ones who tell the lies
Are the solemnest to swear
And the ones who load the dice
Always say the toss is fair
And the ones who deal the cards
Are the ones who take the tricks
With their hands over their hearts
While we play the game they fix

I only heard this record for the first time four days ago, so as yet, I really can’t say whether it will in time become one of my all-time favourite albums, or whether instead it will simply be one of the much greater number of records that I played incessantly for a short period of time before moving on to something new, but if a part of the point of all this is to hear music that I wouldn’t otherwise ever have been aware of. Final in passing comment:  Make sure you search out the Anais Mitchell album, and not the soundtrack for the later musical which to my ears at least, loses much of the subtlety and musical dexterity of the original.

Highlights: Wait for Me, Why We Build The Wall, If It’s True.

Week Two: Blackstar

So, week two and David Bowie’s swansong, Black Star. It would be more or less exactly a year ago that I read Alexis Petridis’ review in the Guardian and been intrigued enough to give it a listen on Spotify. And then two days later, he died, the first of what seemed like a torrent of celebrity deaths last year (I remember being sat in a bar a few weeks later listening to a friend singing The Laughing Gnome in the voice of Alan Rickman. You had to be there. Or perhaps it’s better you weren’t…) and the album came to be seen in a very different light. In that two day window in which I was listening to it unaware that Bowie was a dying man as he wrote it, it didn’t sound to me like a record about death. If anything, that was a vibe I had got more from the single from his previous album, Where are We Now?, although I suppose that seemed concerned with mortality only in the sense that anyone well into their seventh decade must have, rather than Lazarus which, with the benefit of the hindsight does sound like a man saying goodbye to the world.

I’m not someone who was a huge Bowie fan. I have a compilation album somewhere, and I have dug around a bit in his back catalogue using Spotify, but I was born too late for him to be one of my childhood heroes. And being boringly male and heterosexual, his androgynous 1970s personas were not something that spoke to me personally. As a teenager, I wanted to melt into the background, rather than wear elaborate face paint, still less a dress, and when I was fifteen, he was a dinosaur from an earlier time and I was familiar with him mostly as the man whose The Man Who Sold The World Nirvana covered in their MTV unplugged slot. Looking back now, though his influence was all over the musical world of the 1990s. Suede’s debut album surely couldn’t have existed without Bowie. And U2’s surprisingly interesting 1990s records were in a sense, their own Berlin period. Less obviously, perhaps, I can’t help hearing Bowie in the art-punk experimentalism of the Pixies. So perhaps in part I didn’t get Bowie when I was young because I was born into a musical world that he had already changed.

The odd thing is, while I never really went back and listened to the records which made his reputation – Station to Station, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, or Hunky Dory (the exception, as with the writer of the Mookbarks piece is Low which I uploaded to an MP3 player about eight years ago and found myself listening to a lot for a while) – I did listen to his later albums. As I remember it, I had been lurking in Fopp on Rose St one wet Sunday when Fall Dog Bombs the Moon came on and I thought I’ve got to have that record. And thanks to a piece on the Guardian Weekly Music podcast (sadly no more) I did check out The Next Day when was released out of the blue four years ago.

I expect that had Bowie lived another ten years or more, Black Star would be considered a minor footnote to his career, and have attracted little attention. Which would have been a shame because it’s actually a rather good record. It’s only 7 tracks and 40 minutes long, and at the risk of upsetting the true believers, I think it might actually have been better if it had been released as an EP (if that isn’t an entirely redundant term in an era in which the length of a ‘record’ really need have nothing to do with the amount of information it is possible to encode into a lump of vinyl), scratching Sue (Or in a season of crime) and ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore from the track list.

It starts with the nearly 10 minute long title track which shows that in contrast with many of his contemporaries, Bowie’s music continued to move with the times and suggested a man who was still listening to new music. To my ears at least, the drum patterns in particular sound very much of our time; it’s hard to imagine this record sounding quite as it does if it were released in 1995, let alone 1975. It reminded me a little of late-period Radiohead, albeit a less downbeat Radiohead. A kind of warm, after-dark jazz that put me in mind of sitting out late one evening at the end of a long hot day in the Turkish countryside. That might make it sound like easy-listening coffee shop music, which would be unfortunate because I think it’s more interesting than that.

Lazarus is the song that appears to be most obviously about his impending demise although the final track I Can’t Give Everything Away sounds in its own way like a final statement. The whole album sounds immaculately crafted, and that’s no surprise as I’m sure Bowie was able to call on the best session musicians in the business. And if there’s nothing on this record which is going to stand out as one of his iconic, memorable songs (something that became apparent listening to the Spotify retrospective of his career after he died is that he really did write an awful lot of very good pop singles – there can’t be many artists where a four hour compilation wouldn’t start to try the patience of all but the true believers – as an album it certainly hangs together better than almost anything I’ve heard from stars of the 60s and 70s who are still putting out new material today.  Really, that’s what marked him out as one-of-a-kind.  Where so many musicians still active in their fifties and sixties are  producing pale re-treads of their own previous work, Blackstar demonstrates a man whose creativity remained intact.  And in contrast with a certain Nobel Prize winner, his voice sounded great right to the end too.

Highlights: Black Star, Lazarus, I Can’t Give Everything Away

Week One: Born in the USA

So on New Year’s Day, an e-mail popped into my inbox about a new blog being run by the good people of MookBarks entitled ‘52 albums in 52 weeks.’ And as a long-time reader of Ruth & Martin’s Album Club I’ve toyed with blogging about music for a long time, but I’ve never gotten around to it and I thought: What if I stalk their blog with my own take on each of their 52 albums? For a start, it is surely better to have someone else make the choices rather than either selecting my 52 favourite records (who wants to hear me get fanboyish about 52 different albums over 52 weeks?) or ploughing through some predictable list of the 50 ‘best records’ of the past fifty years (and having to add a couple of extras, I suppose). And it preserves the element of surprise. I have no idea what I’m going to be writing about next week.

Now, first, a disclaimer. On some level I know that Frank Zappa is right. That writing about music is like dancing about architecture. That it can’t help but miss the point; words are not a terribly helpful tool for describing sound. The more so if, like me, your knowledge of music theory is, to say the least limited. I mean, I think that Dancing in the Dark is mostly G, D and A chords (actually, having re-strung my guitar earlier today – putting into practice a New Year’s resolution to either throw out or start using stuff that is taking up space in my flat – it’s more variations on G, E minor, D and C, with a capo on the second fret) but I can’t pretend to talk knowledgeably about how music is actually made. So mostly what this is going to consist of is stories of what the music reminds me of, what it does or does not have in common with other music, and what memories it brings back. Starting, as it happens, with a particularly gruesome one.

So first up… Born In the USA by Bruce Springsteen. I think I must have heard this a fair bit when I was very young. Certainly, my parents had the album on vinyl, I remember its distinctive cover art which means that it must, for a time, have been one of the records that they actually took out of the rack and put on the turntable, as it was only many years later that I would start obsessively trawling through their vinyl collection, looking to see what I could find of interest.

Playing it again more than thirty years later, though, I’m struck by the fact that the singles are much more familiar to me than the other album tracks. Because the singles, Born in the USA, I’m on Fire and Dancing in the Dark, were everywhere. That last track is weirdly linked in my head with being sat up on the grandstand at Paddock Hill Bend, Brands Hatch, watching a man fall out of his historic racing car and get run over by a pursuing ambulance (actually, I’ve just fact-checked this. He was not run over by an ambulance, but by another competitor. He died.) In my memory, this was the song that was playing over the public address system when the accident happened, although this is almost certainly confabulation on my part as they tended to play music only between the races and have commentary over the PA while there was something happening. I’m guessing that whoever was in charge that day must have decided that music was preferable to having to give a blow-by-blow account of the medics’ fruitless attempts to save the man’s life. So for better or worse, this song is rather incongruously linked in my head to being seven years old and watching a man die in front of me, without quite being aware that this was what I was seeing.

But anyway, having played it through a few times, what do I make of it? Firstly, I realised that while the singles were firmly lodged in my mind, some of the other tracks had escaped my memory entirely: Darlington County and Working on the Highway rang no bells. Perhaps my parents didn’t actually play the album all that much after all. Or maybe it’s because they’re rather forgettable blues-rock workouts – the kind of thing that makes the idea of a three hour Springsteen concert in which he deep dives into the forgotten corners of his back-catalogue a rather unappealing prospect.

The record came out in 1984, a year before Live Aid, and very much at the height of the stadium rock boom. The other day I was watching the Beatles documentary, 8 days a week, and the band expressed frustration at how songs written to be heard in small clubs just didn’t work when played in huge sports arenas to crowds of thirty thousand or more. And certainly not with the technology of the time. Twenty years on, it’s much easier to imagine songs like Glory Days or No Surrender not only working in such a setting, but having been written with it specifically in mind – for fist-pumping lighter-waving, or, these days, smart-phone waving, sweaty crowds.

On the other hand, the album has a melancholy side that had largely passed my six year old self by. For all the talk in the last few weeks about how globalisation and the destruction of small town America has created the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump, it’s clear listening to this record that there is nothing new under the sun and that people thought the same thing was happening to small-town America in the early 1980s, where it was probably cited as the explanation for the election of Ronald Reagan… Downbound Train, My Home Town and Born in the USA all refer to troubles with finding and keeping work . And work is a recurring motif. I’m in two minds about the themes of the record: if you stop to think about it, about a multi-millionaire musician romanticising a life working a road repair man, but on the other hand, the idea that world famous pop stars are only allowed to write songs about the travails of being world famous pop stars just leaves us with Kanye West. And even the sonically upbeat songs can be lyrically dark. Born in the USA is famously a song about how poorly the US treated Vietnam vets which kept getting mistaken for a flag-waving nationalistic anthem by the very people it was attacking, while Going Down is, notwithstanding its perky sound, a song about a relationship hitting the rocks.

It is a very 1980s record – from the opening synth stab and gated snare sound of Born in the USA to the bits of saxophone in Dancing in the Dark. Growing up reading the music press in the early 1990s, I had imbibed the idea that there was something insincere, something fake and corporate, about this whole sound. That anyone who sold bucketloads of records during the previous decade was to be viewed with suspicion, at best. Which is bollocks really and leads only to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and the duller corners of the shoegaze scene.

Twenty years further on, it’s noticeable that he’s been quite an influence on many musicians of about my age, that 80s rock has been at least semi-rehabilitated. Listen to Ryan Adams’ take on Taylor Swift’s Shake it off and you can’t help but hear I’m on Fire: Minor Victories (see, notwithstanding what I said above, I actually quite like a lot of shoegaze) have more or less ripped off Dancing in the Dark with Scattered Ashes (and added a cat video because it’s 2016…) And 2014 critics’ favourite, War on Drugs Lost in the Dream, an album I played to death last year, is basically a melding of the 80s Springsteen sound with the motorik rhythms of 70s German bands like Neu! and Can.

So it’s been a pleasant reacquaintance. I can’t imagine it being a record that I’m going to keep going back to – those are few and far between – but its best moments are really rather good indeed.

Highlights: Dancing in the Dark, I’m on Fire, Downbound Train.