Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Cross Pollination

To have been even a peripheral cog in that late ’60s/early ’70s Laurel Canyon songwriting wheel would have been quite something, I’d imagine. In houses tucked deep into the lush Californian flora and fauna, bands shared players and partners – of both the writin’ and romantic kind – and created a stoned immaculate co-operative of epoch-defining music.

The beautiful and not so (hi, David Crosby) plucked all manner of floaty harmonies straight out of the west coast ether and entangled them in gently strummed 12 strings and carefully picked alternatively-tuned Martin guitars and, with the help of a passing drummer or two – Buffalo Springfield’s Dewey Martin perhaps, or maybe crack sessioner Eddie Hoh, or, if he was looking for a quick gig in-between sessions, Hal Blaine (the drummers’ drummer) – commited to vinyl tracks that still ring and resonate half a century and more later.

Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name album – check it out! – reads like a Wikipedia who’s who of the era’s Californian singer/songwriter scene. Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and assorted Grateful Deads and Jefferson Airplanes show up to add their lightly toasted harmonies and frazzled, sloppy guitar playing to the record. The result is something of a one-off, recorded spontaneously (mostly) and sent to the pressing plant before anyone had the bright idea of tinkering with it. As rough ‘n ready albums go, it’s hard to beat.

I’m a sucker for the meandering and hippy Laughing, a track written in memory of the time Crosby met George Harrison at the height of Beatlemania and they bonded over Eastern philosophy and Ravi Shankar. It’s a tapestry of highly strung guitars, weeping pedal steel and overlapping, multi-stacked harmonies and it just might soothe your troubled post-millenial soul.

David CrosbyLaughing

Recorded while Crosby was in the heavy depths of grief following his girlfriend’s death in a car crash, those in attendance would often find the singer curled up on the studio floor, overcome to the point of uselessness. Yet, when he made it to the mic, you’d never have known.

With a voice coated thick in heavy drugs and alcohol, he sang his melody-rich songs; some entirely wordless, their meaning conveyed by multi-stacked Eastern-tinged vocal-less harmonies, others thinly disguised accounts of life as a free lovin’, easy ridin’ Laurel Canyon troubadour.

Cowboy Movie, for example, is the sprawling musical story of the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with Young himself riffing on a loose ‘n funky guitar duel with Jerry Garcia. It’s Down By The River by way of Cowgirl In The Sand, while Crosby outlines (via lyrical aliases) how Rita Coolidge came between he and Graham Nash, to the detriment of their band. You should seek it out.

Just out of the eye of the storm, and slightly more peripheral to the machinations of the scene were The Monkees. Desperate to be seen as credible and serious, they employed the best writers, the best sessioneers and called in the best favours to ensure their records sparkled and soared like the best of ’em. Dig beneath the hits – and there are plenty – and you’ll discover a catalogue rich in introspective melancholy and sef-deprecating balladeering.

The Stone Roses, yesterday.

Written by Carole King and sung by Micky Dolenz, As We Go Along first appeared in the film Head and then crept out on the b-side of the movie’s lead single, the trippy and non-hit Porpoise Song – a track that probably requires a blog all of its own at some point.

The MonkeesAs We Go Along

As We Go Along is so un-Monkees. There’s no obvious poppy hook. It’s downbeat, languid and loosely strummed, a raggle-taggle Rod and The Faces soundalike played on gently scrubbed acoustic guitars and thunking, woody bass. Carole King’s embeded melody eventually finds its way to the fore between the skirling acoustic strings and flutes, electric guitars riffing off into the Laurel Canyon sunset. You’ll want to play it again and again. It’s a beauty.

Alternative Version, Gone but not forgotten

Quiff Richard

The old iPod shuffled up this wonderfully anonymous curio tonight. So enamoured with it, I was forced to break into something of a treadmill sprint so that my arms could get close enough to my trusty wee portable friend resting on the machine’s control panel and replay it. This I managed without breaking stride, which is something of a record. As indeed is this (something of a record).

I couldn’t place it. It swings like Ella ‘n Louis, but there’s no high parping trumpet or any of Armstrong’s sandpaper vocals, so it ain’t Ella Fitzgerald. It’s too cultured to be Big Mama Thornton but not stately enough to be Nina Simone. Bessie Smith? Do I even own any Bessie Smith? The darkest corners of my iPod are crammed with music from those heady days when the combined joys of wireless broadband and a decent file sharing site allowed you to download the entirety of The Beatles’ back catalogue faster than you could shout, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” – all very silly and unnecessary, as we all know nowadays – but back then I was a fiend for the stuff I thought I should have but didn’t, so Bessie Smith was a good guess. By the second play though, I’d convinced myself it wasn’t bluesy enough to be her either.

What I could picture as it played was, annoyingly, Jools Holland’s Big Band easing into a 12 bar blues at his Hootenanny, seasoned old pros shuffling to that wonderfully infectious backing, with perhaps Alison Moyet or Beverley Knight getting ready to let rip at the mic. Then, when the vocals began, I could imagine that headless, broom-wielding cleaner who chased Jerry around the kitchen in endless Tom & Jerry cartoons. I know she could scream, but I bet she could sing too; a big, housekeepin’ mama with a voice as deep as the south but as clear as the air in the cotton fields.

It’s an old blues singer I haven’t paid attention to before now,’ I rationalised, majorly annoyed by now that I couldn’t place her voice. ‘I’ll find out who she was when I stop.’ And on I ran for eight, maybe nine more steps and stopped. And checked the iPod.

Stone me if it wasn’t Little Richard!

Of course it is! I mean, it’s not one of his better-known tunes (you can name them all, so I don’t need to be doing that). There’s none of the high camp screaming that’s as outrageous as the oil slick-thick conk that’s plonked atop his head. And there’s none of the mad eyed hootin’ or a-hollerin’ that so lit a spark in the teenage McCartney, but The Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart) is a beauty. Here’s another take…

Little RichardThe Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart)

Richard’s voice is both feminine and tinged with the same burnt umber of the saxophone that provides the descending backing. The high barroom piano shifts from major to minor in the bridge – of course – and then, well! – there’s Richard right there. A little rasp at the back of the epiglottis, an unseen shake of the quiff, an imagined James Brownish drop to the knees. It’s Little Richard all right.

And then he’s back to being the vampish torch singer, his band playing out their chops with regal grace and understated beauty.

Without Little Richard there’d be no ______ (fill in the blanks) or ________ , or even ______ , or perhaps even, bizarrely, Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Another thing that had been bugging me as I clattered the flat-footed kilometres on the treadmill to nowhere was, ‘where have I heard those opening lines before?‘ Now I know. And you do too. Check them out!

 

Get This!

Mullet Over

It was very easy to dislike Damon Albarn back in the day. The gurning, mock-cockernee affectations and bow-legged, Fila-sporting lad about town look of the ’90s were more than enough to ensure he’d be pinned to the bullseye of many a pub dartboard the length and breadth of northern Britain for many a month. And yet, and yet… He was the creator of some of his era’s most wistful and melancholic moments; the creeping paranoia of The Universal, the shoegaze blues of No Distance Left To Run, the stadium swoon of This Is A Low (have you ever stood in a field and experienced that in the moment?) the double-hitting lo-fi sighs of Sad Song and Sweet Song… strip back the bravado and bluster of Blur and at the heart you’ll find a wee bit of soul, with Albarn the master of his band’s mass-market melancholia.

In the days since, he’s released about 32 gazillion albums. Some, like Everyday Robots, are solo affairs. Others – The Good, The Bad And The Queen – are magpie-gathering collaborative efforts featuring the cream of musicians across the genres. Others still – his Gorillaz project – brought him to a whole new audience for whom Blur meant absolutely nothing. Then there are the Chinese State operas, the Michael Nyman soundtracks, the Africa Express foundation… By the time you’ve read this paragraph he’s probably laid down a brand new track stuffed full of phat beats and analogue synths and sent it off to Idles or Loyle Carner or maybe even Taylor Swift to add a vocal line that he can twist and manipulate into a Novello-garnering hit. Say what you like about his music, but unlike the punchable cheese-making fop that played bass in his old band, Albarn has a work ethic that’s second to none.

His most recent album, The Nearer The Mountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, may sound like it took its title from a badly translated haiku, but it was recorded in his now-native Iceland, with Albarn using the view from his Reykjavik studio window (above) as insipiration.

Originally planned as a grand orchestral album, the 2020 lockdown instead forced Albarn’s hand, and the album came out last year in a much more stripped back, lo-fi form. Elements of jazz raise their nodding heads, with autumnal clarinets or maybe oboes – I’m no woodwind expert – meandering for as long as that questionable mullet of his between tinkling Fender Rhodes and wheezy melodica on many tracks. It’s a good late night/early morning album, the close-miked vocals and processed beats of Royal Morning Blue fighting for earspace with its wooden thunk of bass and woozy synth, the Bowie-esque Polaris leaving you momentarily disorientated before unravelling in a flood of Blackstar-ish sax and counter melodies. Worth investigating.

Damon AlbarnDarkness To Light

I’m a sucker for a street-corner lament though, and the waltzing, lilting doo-wop of Darkness To Light is the track I like to hit repeat on the most. Recorded, I’m only speculating, quietly and during one of Iceland’s never-ending daylight, darkness-free nights, it’s the whole album in miniature; vintage synth, brooding instrumentation and free-flowing, tumbling melodies where Albarn manages to sound both sad and relieved within the same 3 minutes.

If y’like the Trashcan Sinatras’ quieter moments, or Andrew Wasylyk’s way with an analogue synth, or indeed David Bowie’s more introspective moments, Darkness To Light might just be for you. Add it to a playlist including half of the latest record plus some of those Blur tracks mentioned above and you’ve got yourself Now That’s What I Call Melancholy Vol. 1.

 

Gone but not forgotten, New! Now!

World Touré

Ali Farka Touré was the guitarists’ guitarist, his bony-fingered multi-flowing rhythms sending chattering and cascading African blues out into the dusty ether. His speciality was in finding the sweet spot in which to riff, his band of tribal-robed desert bluesmen laying down and locking in to the steady groove to allow him the freedom of expression on top. His playing was nothing short of breath-taking; dextrous and elastic, primal yet boundary-pushing, a Saharan sand-coated John Lee Hooker, flash but without the player himself being flashy. When Ali took off, you took off with him.

Out this week is something of a tribute record to his songs and legacy. Ali’s son Vieux has teamed up with everyone’s favourite Texan guitar artists Khruangbin and, in what’s becoming something of a habit with the trio, created an interesting and highly musical collaboration.

Named simply Ali, the album is a real beauty, with Vieux taking the essence of his father’s music and passing it over to Khruangbin to add their respectful and reverential twist.

Midway through you’ll find the effortless Tongo Barra, five and a half minutes of clean and chiming, freeflowing high line guitar, an ever-moving, shape-shifting enigma with more melody per mile than the entirety of your record collection combined.

It’s a magnificent example of what happens when two worlds collide. Vieux, with his chanting, expressive Malian vocals and peerless guitar playing surfing atop a glorious gumbo of Khruangbin magic. Drums and bass are locked tight but loose, verging almost towards Fools Gold territory in places; solid and repetitive, driving forward but with space to breathe, to stand aside and admire.

Touré’s guitar is non-stop and continual, intertwined with Mark Speer, his Winkleman-fringed six string foil in Khruangbin, gushing like a burst and overflowing NYC fire hydrant in the sun. Hammer ons, pull offs, double and triple stops, spidering up the frets and slinking back down again, a funky one chord head nodding groove, powered, if these old ears don’t deceive me, by a cranked-up Roland Jazz Chorus and played with nary a hint of effort.

Right now, Tongo Barra hangs above all other music like an omnipresent and fluid dust cloud. I can’t get enough of it.

Get This!

FLip Out

Cosmic acid-fried avant gardeists Flaming Lips will always be known for the glitter cannoned, unicorn-topped ode to joy that is Do You Realize?? I don’t know anyone who isn’t continually affected by its crashing, sweeping uplifticisms and a happy/sad lyric delivered somewhere between ’73 Neil Young and a sandpaper-scoured frog. It’s long-been an accepted classic and quite rightly too.

Flaming LipsDo You Realize??

It hasn’t yet happened in twenty years of teaching, but I have this continued idea that, in my role as a primary teacher, I’ll be asked one time – just one time – to prepare the school choir for an event where the parents are present and eager to be entertained. This could be an in-house school event or maybe even a slightly grander multi-school ‘n local councillors affair, perhaps in a public building that most pupils pass by without ever knowing what’s inside its sandstone and stained glass exterior, but either way, we’ll be doing Do You Realize?? and by the end of the song We. Will. Own. It.

It’ll start with the kids lined up in three slightly curved tiers; tallest to the back, the most ragamuffin and coos-licked at the front. Taking two steps beyond middle front will be the sweetest wee girl, lopsided bunches in her hair, pulling perhaps at her pinafore in awkward acknowledgement of her main starring role in the proceedings. I’ll count in – ‘1, 2, 3, 4‘ – and a couple of hipster kids on guitars will begin to strum. I’ll be keeping them in time from the side on my own 6 strings, but the eleven year-olds will get all the plaudits. The assembled choir will begin to sway gently and self-consciously, and maybe even in unison, as our ragged guitar music washes across the room. A handful of kneeling pitched percussion players in the front row will join in after a couple of bars and tinkle the song’s root notes and descending scales on a collection of glockenspiels and xylophones.

There might be a switched on parent or two in the audience who thinks they recognise the frayed beginnings of the song but they’ll catch themselves with a ‘no! surely not!‘ and then break out in a grin of giddy realisation when their initial thoughts are confirmed. Do You Realize?? indeed. Before a word is even sung, we will have the audience in our collective hand.

Then the singing starts.

Do you realize?? goes everyone, loud and confident, parochial and pitchless. The wee girl at the front takes the second line alone, high and sweet and wavering in and out of tune. That you have the most beautiful face.

Hearts melt. Parents sigh. Signs are raised.

The signs. I never mentioned those. D’you know the Gabba Gabba Hey one that Joey Ramone held aloft at Ramones gigs? Or the Hang The DJ one that Morrissey battered around during those riotous Smiths shows in 1986? That. Only our signs have pictures rather than words.

On the ‘most beautiful face‘ line, half the back row  – every second person – holds up a sign which features a self-portrait painted by that child. The image remains aloft until the end of the next line.

Do you realize?? the massed choir sings again. The wee girl comes back in, stronger this time, beginning to find her feet. We’re floating in space.

The self portraits are spun 180 degrees on their makeshift handles to reveal some generic planets on the other side – Saturn’s rings etc –  shooting stars, the occasional spaceship, all that sort of cosmic stuff. The audible ‘ooh‘ that rises from the audience is just perceptible above the clanging racket of percussion and those barely held-down chords on the nylon-strung guitars.

Do you realize?? they repeat for a third time, almost enjoying it now, as Freckles comes in for her solo once again. That happiness makes you cry.

The other half of the back row holds up a new sign – an acid house smiley that appears on the ‘happiness‘ word and then turns on the appropriate lyric to reveal the same smiley, but with a single teardrop trickling from the left eye, solid black on effervescent yellow.

Do you realize?? they bellow for the last time, far louder now, and much more confident. The soloist psyches herself up for the final line. Bar only the single most competent tinkler, all of the percussion drops out. The kids’ guitars momentarily drop out too, although I keep playing softly to keep the rhythm and pace of it all.

That everyone…you know…someday…will die.

It’s pin-drop quiet. The middle row  – too short for the tall stuff at the back, too ham-fisted to be trusted with the percussion instruments – now has their moment. They hold proudly a picture of a loved one no longer with them and then hold it to their heart as the killer line is delivered. Bad choice of word, killer, given the context, but you know what I mean.

At this, there’s another audible ‘ooh‘ from the audience, more of a gasp, perhaps even a slightly shocked one, but it all resonates; the strangled guitars, the tumbling and out of time pitched percussion, the visual cues on the signs, wee freckle face out front, no longer holding on to the hem of her pinafore, but focused on the clock at back of the room, awaiting her cue for her next line. It’s an explosive twenty or so seconds and the room is ours.

Then we get to the refrain? Chorus? I don’t know what it is but that’s merely academic.

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun don’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

On the last line, the kids in the middle row pick up a hand-painted circular Planet Earth – or an actual globe, if resources allow – and rotate it speedily clockwise. Every child is singing as one by this point. Freckles steps back from the front and merges into the choir. They’re belting it out, this west coast primary school gospel, baked in local accent, stirring and uplifting, surging every parent’s proud-o-meter well into the red. The kids, those not playing instruments or illustrating the world spinning round, clap every other word – realise, life, hard, good, realise, don’t – until the last line when there are none. There’s a tricky F minor for the guitarists to negotiate, but any dull strings and bum notes are quickly drowned out by the stratospheric choir as they up the volume, up the ante and go for it.

Do you realize?? – ah-ah-ah!!!

The kids are swinging, swaying, singing. No one’s noticed the guitar players have stopped due to the key change and trickier chords. E flat?! G# minor?! Just sing louder, Jayden, no-one will notice you’re not playing. The percussionists have downed their beaters too, lost in a heady bridge of adlibs and joyful, unselfconscious singing.

My guitar brings it all back to earth. Heavy strums and accented bass notes give way to lighter flourishes, signifying the song must get back to the message. All the kids sing all the lines – verses, refrain, chorus, the lot. Some of the parents have joined in too, recognising the simplicity in the lyrics, the universal message of hope over fear, that love conquers all. The room vibrates as one.

As the song fizzes to a clanging, banging, wonky and ragged end, the head teacher is overcome with emotion. “Wow!” she’s saying before she’s even reached the stage. “Just wow!” The parents are on their feet, clapping wildly. There’s a two-fingered wolf whistle from somewhere at the back, piercing through applause that sounds like a tropical rainfall. My colleagues – the ones who think nothing of sticking on a backing track and ‘teaching’ the kids to sing to it – think I’m a pretentious wanker. I am brought back to earth wondering where my unicorn has gone. One day this will happen.

 

Cover Versions, Get This!

You’re Not Looking Forward And You Are Not Looking Back

Girls At Our Best!  – that exclamation mark is important – were the product of a fertile Yorkshire post-punk scene. The Leeds band bore all the hallmarks of the era; individuality, style, self-administered haircuts, socialist tendencies, scratchy guitars and articulate lyrics that when sung teetered on the edge of being in tune. In an ‘anything goes’ era, GAOB! grabbed it and ran, half a pace behind front runners Slits, but easily keeping up with the likes of Au Pairs and Delta 5.

Fiercely independent, their self-financed debut single is arguably their best known. 1980’s Getting Nowhere Fast is a riot of fizzing guitars, shouty refrains and sudden endings. 

Girls At Our Best!  – Getting Nowhere Fast

Metronome tight, the guitar shoots angry sparks, the bass bounces up and down the octaves – that repeating, descending and divebombing run is a beauty – and the drums punctuate the end of every verse with a window rattling rat-a-tat military precision. I bet this sounded absolutely brilliant in a wee room with a low ceiling and a couple of pints swilling about inside the stomach. Being 10 going on 11 at the time of its release, I can only imagine.

I first discovered Getting Nowhere Fast via fellow Leeds band The Wedding Present. Their Anyone Can Mistake A Mistake single had a version on the b-side and although I’d worked out it was a cover, in a pre-internet era it would be a long time before I would track down the original. By default, The Wedding Present’s version – slightly throwaway but honest – was long-considered the definitive one, even if I’ve come to really like GAOB!’s more disciplined approach.  

The Wedding PresentGetting Nowhere Fast

Eschewing the original’s solid and steady mid-paced chug for something altogether more immediate and frantic, Wedding Present attack the track with everything they have  “Quick lads!” shouts the tape op. “We’ve got two minutes of tape left…see what you can do.” And off they fly, shaving a full 20 seconds off the original’s already brief running time.

All Wedding Present markers are in place; rattling, chattering electric guitars that by the middle eight are being played by knackered wrists and bleeding, raw knuckles, a bassline as solid and gnarly as an old tree, drums that sound like they might be falling down three flights of tenement stairs, the meat ‘n potatoes delivery…If you didn’t know it was a cover you’d swear it was one of David Gedge’s very best, although he really missed a trick by not renaming this version Getting Nowhere Faster

 

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, demo, Hard-to-find

Double Dekker

It miek‘ is Jamaican patois for ‘told you so‘ or ‘serves you right‘. You get caught doing something you’ve been told not to do? It miek, man. It miek.

Desmond Dekker took the phrase and used it as both title and hook for his summer of ’69 smash hit. A proper slice of lilting rudeboy reggae, It Miek is aural sunshine for the start of September. Summer over? Not round here, mate.

Desmond Dekker & The AcesIt Miek

I’ve always wondered about the wee vocal precursor that opens the track. Stone me if it ain’t a sweet ‘n soulful, adlibbing vocal warm-up of Ave Maria, nudged gently aside when the skanking beat comes in, driven by rootsy bass and rocksteady drums. By the time Desmond has started his vocal proper, the guitars are doing the chicken scratch on the off-beat, a clanging bar-room piano is bashing out the chords and, most thrilling of all, honeyed horns from heaven burst their way in and herald the vocal refrain.

If y’listen carefully, you might notice the bit where it’s almost impossible to tell where the trombone slide ends and the vocal slide begins. If y’listen really carefully, you might hear a young Kevin Rowland scribbling notes and plotting his future. As I type, a little bit of bare wood floor has been worn away and polished as my feet do a soft shoe shuffle in time to the infectious rhythm. If y’don’t like this, y’don’t like anything.

Desmond Dekker was a clear influence on that late ’60s mod scene. The close crop, the three button mohair suits, the attention to detail in both sound and vision, he’s an embodiment of Mod’s ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ mantra.

Over in mid ’80s Manchester, another gang of music obsessed clothes horses with an eye for the minutiae were doing their best to steal without anyone noticing. Shaun Ryder, magpie-eyed thief-in-chief of Happy Mondays liberally went about strangulating some of the melody from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – itself a skanking reggae tune, as you know, where McCartney namechecks ‘Desmond’ – and, with the help of that clattering industrial funk that HM do so well, turned it into a new Happy Mondays’ tune called, unashamedly, Desmond.

Happy MondaysDesmond

I mean, it’s not really Ob-La-Di… is it? Maybe if Shaun had sung the first couple of lines in tune it’d have been more apparent, but that lolloping, elastic band bassline and incessant, chirping guitar steers it far from the mouth of the Mersey and deeper towards a whole new sound that was brewing at the time.

Nonetheless, Michael Jackson, who at the time owned the rights to The Beatles’ catalogue, sent his lawyers straight round and quicker than you could yelp ‘Beat It!‘ the Mondays were forced to withdraw their debut album from sale, delete the offending Desmond and replace it with another tune. It miek, Shaun. It miek.

That other tune though would be Twenty Four Hour Party People and would propel Happy Mondays onto the more discerning turntables around the country, with fame and infamy not much further away than the width of a Joe Bloggs hem. A lucky break.

*Bonus Track!

Here’s a fantastic light and sparkling, piano-free run through of The Beatles doing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from one of those Anthology albums from yesteryear. Jigsawed together from a couple of takes, this joyful and carefree outfake gives the offically released version a decent run for its money, sprightly scrubbed acoustic guitars and lightly toasted ‘la-la-la-la-la-la‘ backing vocals vying for earspace between the skronking sax and occasional ‘chick-a-boom‘ interludes. McCartney’s woody, thunking bassline is a beauty too. Get on it!

The BeatlesOb-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Anthology version)

Hard-to-find

Definitive Article

Every few years I immerse myself in Soul Mining, the debut album by The The. It’s been with me in various forms over the years – taped from the record borrowed from Irvine library, bought on cassette (since lost) for £1.25 from the back of Boots in Irvine Mall, upgraded to CD in the early ’90s and, more recently on vinyl, dug out from between the Kenneth McKellar and Marty Robbins albums in a Kilmarnock charity shop for a couple of pounds, the gold-stamped ‘Property Of CBS. Demonstration Only. Not For Sale.’ message on the back the icing on this particularly jammy cake. Re-sult, as they say.

It’s sobering to think that next year it’ll be 40 years young, its themes of existential crisis, mental state of mind and anti-government stance very much relevant to the times we currently live in. ‘I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country,’ Matt Johnson states on side one’s The Sinking Feeling.

It’s a record that comes wrapped in claustrophobia, paranoia and fear, compounded by relentless, crashing drum machines, snaking, electrified guitars and inventive technology that dates the record, maybe almost as much as the slap/synth bass that thwacks its way in and out of the grooves, but there’s not a band currently working who is as inventive and focused and visionary as Matt Johnson/The The was at this moment in time.

Much like his better-known contemporaries, Matt Johnson is neither as productive as Kate Bush nor as revered perhaps as Mark Hollis, but is every bit as much the auteur, driven by the sonic vision in his busy head. This is a man for whom music is a slow, deliberate process, sculpture rather than slap-dashed expressionism, and we’re all the richer for it.

This Is The Day might have been the obvious first choice of single from the record – gorgeous, lilting French café music with a Biblical metaphor running through it – but Uncertain Smile is the one that I return to time and time again.

The TheUncertain Smile

It’s a song in two halves. In the first, Johnson delivers a crooned, close-miked vocal, all deep breaths and slightly wobbly intonation. In an era of chart-bound bands fronted by preening and pouting poseurs for whom the actual vocals were secondary to, y’know, what mascara went with the pantaloons or whatever, Johnson’s approach can be seen as both unique and brave.

Undeniably keeping a keen ear on proceedings was a pre-debut album Lloyd Cole, who would adopt the same approach when he came to record his vocals on Rattlesnakes. It’s not even up for debate. Contrast and compare Lloyd’s grinning, gulping vocal on his album’s title track with Johnson’s delivery on Uncertain Smile and see/hear for yourself.

But enough of the finger-pointing.

Uncertain Smile is a beauty. An ear-friendly acoustic guitar strums a chord pattern, swells of synth colour the melody and Johnson plunders the Big Book of Existential Angst to deliver a well-considered lyric.

And then it all takes off. A moonlighting Jools Holland, turning up at the studio on his motorbike and still in his leathers, hears the demo once, jumps on the studio piano and lays down a masterful solo.

Holland (unjustly if y’ask me) gets lots of flack for his supposed adding of The Boogie Woogie to everything he touches, but on Uncertain Smile he freeforms over the top of it like Mike Garson riffing on Aladdin Sane; jarring notes that veer on the edge of Les Dawson but pull back just in time, clanging chords that rattle the bones, trilling high notes that cascade down to bluesy bass notes and then back again, dextrous and masterful, Holland’s knowledge of jazz being put to good use. His playing transforms the track from an interesting slice of angst to a proper work of art that’s Bowie-level great.

Holland was surprised to find his contribution used as the big statement in the outro. He’d assumed that Johnson would drop his part into the middle of the track to create a piano interlude. Instead, Holland’s playing stretches the track all the way to the end of a breath-taking side one. Sometimes I never make it to side two, preferring instead to drop the needle on Uncertain Smile for just one more time…

*Bonus Track!

Here‘s the near 10 minute New York Extended Mix. Jools-free and pitched percussion crazy.

Get This!

The State That I Am In

Tonight’s The Night is Neil Young‘s 6th studio album. Counting the live Time Fades Away album it’s the 7th in his discography, recorded in 1973 but shelved until 1975, by which time he’d recorded and released a whole other album in the form of On The Beach. Who says stoners ain’t productive?

The period around this time in Young’s career is well-documented: His fourth album Harvest becomes an international smash, its down-home, pastoral acoustic sketches, good time bar band boogie and occasional orchestral flourishes striking a chord with millions of people, and whiny ol’ Neil suddenly finds himself the custodian of a hit album. A record company with at least one eye on the balance sheet is understandably keen for more, but Young, in an act of bold self-sabotage steers his musical output from the mainstream to the margins, from the middle of the road to the ditch.

So began his Ditch Trilogy, a series of three albums – Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night – that displayed a single bloody-mindedness to do as he pleased at whatever cost. Time Fades Away, for example, is a live document of a tour where he played wholly new material to sold out theatres and arenas keen to hear the whole of Harvest in the live setting. ‘Here’s one you’ve heard before,’ he’d announce to a jeering then cheering audience in the encores…and he’d play ‘Don’t Be Denied‘ for the second time that night.

If y’want the true essence of the artist in microcosm, look no further than these three albums. Every facet of his personality; the peacemaker, the confrontationalist, the political commentator, the grief-stricken musician, and every facet of his musical output; the acoustic troubadour with the asthmatic Marine Band harmonica, the wind blown one note soloist, the country pickin’, banjo bashin’ hippy and ham-fisted piano botherer is amongst those grooves. You knew all that already though.

I’ve spent a few nights recently in the company of Tonight’s The Night, to the point where it’s beginning to surpass On The Beach as my favourite Neil album. It’s very much a night time album, sleepwalking from the speakers in a fug of narcotic narcolepsy, vocals whispered and cracking, the band inhaling deeply before easing their way into the chords.

Right from the off you know you’re in for the long run. The title track (reprised, not for the first time in Young’s ouvre, at the end of side 2) is a slow blues, its pulsing bass and off-kilter (and mainly off-key) backing vocals dragging it to its conclusion.

Nils Lofgren’s bluesy, spidery guitar lines tip-toe and creep their way through the heavy air, non-flash yet essential to the record’s feel, providing the ambient atmospherics that slow the whole thing down.

The theme of the record; death from heroin, mainly, is reflected in the slow-moving, treacle-thick tracks and woozy, woolly, atmospherics. Side 2’s Albuquerque is the best of Neil Young in one song.

Neil YoungAlbuquerque

It begins with that idiosyncratic slow chugging Neil Young groove, lazy pulls-offs and hammer ons played in Young’s unique clawhammer style, valve amps cranked up to the max but the volume low on the guitar. You can feel the power in those six strings. A subtle turn of the volume knob on Neil’s Les Paul could unleash howling fury at any point, yet he keeps it restrained and under control.

Chord changes take an age to come, Young slowing the band to a pedestrian pace. When he hits the titular phrase in the chorus, its usual four syllables is stretched and eee-long-gated to an impressive ten. ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-al-bu-quer-que‘.

A chrome-coated weeping pedal steel, the ghost of the Flying Burrito Brothers vamps its way across the verses as Neil sings of Santa Fe and fried eggs and country ham and getting away from it all. Fame, fame, fatal fame, as someone else would sing a decade later. Neil wants away from it so much that he allows the pedal steel to take the lead at the appropriate point in the song, its eerie sliding glissandos emerging from between wheezing harmonica squeals to flood the tune with harmonious countryfied colour and life until the end. It’s a beauty.

Non-Compulsory Follow-Up Homework

Go and listen to REM‘s Country Feedback; the mood, the feel, the slow-burning gothic country blues of it all, and compare it to Albuquerque. Uh-huh.

 

Get This!, New! Now!

Shaken, Stirred.

If you’re a regular tuner-inner to night-time BBC 6 Music, you’ll be no stranger to the music of Los Bitchos. Their largely instrumental pot pourri of surf guitar, fuzz bass and Columbian cumbia rhythms is pretty unique and well worth further investigation if the likes of Khruangbin or Cats Eyes or the Allah-Las are on your radar.

If you’re a garage rock aficionado whose tastes extend far beyond the mother lodes of Nuggets and Pebbles, you may well be familiar with Danny Lee Blackwell, authentic mid-’60s sound seeker and prime mover in a scene of wonderfully-named bands; his The Old Explosives and White Light Fever sound exactly as you’d expect. I’ve yet to dive into the back catalogues of Night Beats and Medicine God Box, but I can imagine what awaits.

You can, then, make a good guess at what might happens when an ex-Los Bitchos – Carolina Faruolo – collaborates with Danny Lee Blackwell under the name Abraxas.

Great, isn’t it!

A minor key reggae ‘n garage-fried head nodder, it has shades of Jonathan Richman’s Egyptian Reggae and Byron Lee’s Rocksteady, a vapour-trailed late summer groover that would sound perfect played out in a melting heat haze or wherever your sun may set. It’s the perfect sound of offset Fenders, hip swinging and hair.

That Los Bitchos cumbia beat is still there, shuffling along on a bed of Os Mutantes tropicalia and the sort of lazily shaken maraca shimmy that might well stir Lee Mavers’ inner yet dormant Bo Diddleyisms. The surf guitars are still there too, aimed skywards, set to maximum whacked-out reverb and twang and happily chattering away like a couple of auld clucking biddies at the Beachcomber Bingo.

It’s the vocal though that elevates it all; Blackwell channelling Lee Perry, half-singing the effect-heavy verses, elongating the words and phrases for extra frazzled effect, echoes of key words morse-coding their way into the ether before hitting the high notes with the double tracked ear-wormy refrain. Dry my tears, ah-ye-aye. It’s a beauty!

Midway through, the guitar breaks out in a rash of heavily-delayed psychedelia, some nicely pitched wah-wah going toe to toe with a delay pedal, but it’s short lived. Before you know it, we’re back to that hip swaying desert blues shuffle, Tinariwen by way of Texas (the state, not the band), as Faruolo freeforms her way up the higher reaches of the frets and Blackwell mutters his way to a lightly toasted conclusion.

What’s amazing – but not surprising these days – is that the track was recorded not in some suitably lo-fi, low rent studio, but across the internet between Blackwell in Dallas and Faruolo in Manchester. That such great music can be created when its principal players are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and a couple of time zones is pretty impressive.

A word too about the band name. Abraxas, as you well-know already, is the title of the second album by jazz rock Latin guitar strangler Santana. It’s no coincidence that this new collaboration has named itself after an album that is packed full of interesting rhythms, experimental percussion and endless, inventive, meandering guitar playing.

Planet Abraxas is a world filled with jungles, mist-covered rivers, panthers lurking in the night, desolate shopping malls, Neolithic citadels and sand-worn walls,’ they say. Well, of course it is. You know that just by listening to the track above. It bodes well for the album – Monte Carlo –  released at the end of October on Suicide Squeeze.

You can find Abraxas at Bandcamp and in all the usual corners of the internet. I’ll see you there.