Monday, February 26, 2007

Cowboy Junkies

Norwegian not noisy boys Kings Of Convenience may have called their debut album Quiet Is The New Loud but Canada’s Cowboy Junkies late 80’s recordings had already beaten them to it. They rocked…but very very quietly.

Formed in Toronto in 1985 after songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins moved back home after living in England and playing in an experimental band called Germinal who made the type of music that “Even we didn’t want to listen to”.

He teamed up with his drummer brother Peter and social worker sister Margo and they did what all bands should do… headed straight for the garage with one microphone (Oh yes, Joe Strummer was right about that one) where they recorded the blues influenced album Whites Off Earth.

It was initially released on their own Latent label in 1986 and includes songs by Lightning Hopkins and State Trooper by Bruce Springsteen.

The follow up The Trinity Session was recorded in Toronto’s Church Of The Holy Trinity over a 14 hour session in November 1987. Like the previous album they’d used a single Calrec Ambisonic microphone, which captures sound as 4 separate signals, namely 360 degrees and then as left/right, front/back and up/down. It’s kind of quadraphonic, but without the troubling Mike Oldfield connotations.

The sound of the recordings though is very special. What you hear is a band playing stripped to the bone arrangements with nothing out of place and just letting the songs breathe. You can hear the restraint…. and Margo Timmins voice.

The thing is that even though she doesn’t have a wide range, power or even a particularly expressive voice you just get sucked in by the arrangements, the fragility of her voice and the fact that it just sounds so right. The major feeling that comes through is resignation. And that resignation can sound bleak and scary.

The uniqueness of the sound is down to how it was recorded and conceived, with the band playing quietly and using the softness of Margo’s voice as a strength. Dusty Springfield’s unbeatable album Dusty In Memphis was recorded with the amps turned down low but everything closely miked.

By using the Ambisonic Microphone, the Cowboy Junkies would have been forced into really having to think about how the equipment was positioned and volume…just like at Chips Mormans American studios in Memphis in 1968

The Hank Williams song I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Patsy Cline’s Walking After Midnight are played as desolate Blues. Sweet Jane is played as the Velvet’s 1969 live version rather than Loaded’s. Misguided Angel is the bands own song; it’s played as a warm country folk song, with harmonica and accordion. Achingly beautiful.

The Caution Horses was conventionally recorded and released in 1990, after the band had signed to RCA. It includes a cover of Neil Young’s Powderfinger where the discordant guitar is replaced by mandolins. The tale of the Deliverance/Southern Comfort style shoot out between the Authorities gunboat and the baffled boy from the Backwoods gains the resignation in Margo’s voice but loses Young’s scowl. It still all ends in tears though.

Sun Comes Up (It’s Tuesday Morning) is a really good song about losing the familiar and comfortable routines after the end of a relationship, but gaining the benefits of having a bit more room in the bed. I really like the line “Telephone's ringing, but I don't answer it 'cause everybody knows that good news always sleeps till noon”

I saw them at Birmingham Town Hall on that tour, a really good venue acoustically where the band’s subtleties came through really well. If any pins were dropped they sounded perfect.

1992’s Black Eyed Man puts a bit more Country Rock into the Country feel and while it doesn’t have the distinctive and unusual sound of the earlier records, it does still have some dark, clever songs like Murder In The Trailer Park Tonight.

They left RCA for Geffen and are now releasing material on their own Latent label again. Subsequent albums and tours have included 15 minute swamp rock guitar wig outs. The forthcoming acoustic tour though could well capture the magical feel of The Trinity Session.

The new album, At The End Of Paths Taken is due out in April and new material has been posted on their My Space page.

Brand New World moves from a swirling cinematic feel into a Marquee Moon style build up…with strings. For old times sake though I’d look at Sun Comes Up (It’s Tuesday Morning)

It’s a terrific song but the video absolutely T’Paus. Slow motion bedrolling and all. I do have a friend though who is a connoisseur of Margo Timmins and has spent the last 18 years practising his Ranch skills in a Guildford semi ready for the inevitable day when they will be together on the Canadian Prairie.

She’s hoping to postpone the inevitable though…so it’s up to the rest of us to buy the album, t shirt and tickets for the gig.

Manic Street Preachers

Manic Street Preachers are just such an odd band and their mix in terms of visuals, influences, attitudes, myths and a fanatical fanbase is often more interesting than their music.

Like Primal Scream, they know their music history and Pop culture inside out and have really thought about the kind of band they want to be, and what they need to do to make it work.

They’re also living proof that great music can come from small towns; where music and schemes are hatched in teenage bedrooms as a reaction to the small town mentality around them.

The Manics story is bound to small town Wales just as tightly as their music influences were to the iconic cities and Pop moments like The Clash’s London 77, Public Enemy’s New York and Guns ‘n’ Roses LA.

They formed in 86 while James Dean Bradfield, his cousin Sean Moore and Nicky Wire were still at school in Blackwood. Richey Edwards designed the cover of their first single Suicide Alley and would provide lyrics, do the driving and when he eventually joined the band he would mime his guitar parts.

New Art Riot (it even sounds like a Malcolm McClaren/Situationalist quote) was released on Damaged Goods in 1990 and in 1991 Motown Junk was released on Heavenly. Seven inches of sacred cow kicking, from it’s title to the line “I laughed when Lennon was shot”.

The Manics early interviews were shotgun blasts against the world. The band were fiercely and proudly literate. Books, films, history and philosophy were mixed in with Clash style posturing and trousers.

Gigs were 20 minute affairs of confrontation and audience baiting. All other contemporary British bands were fair game for a Manics slagging. The only bands that mattered were Guns ‘n’ Roses and Public Enemy and the Manics line was they were going to make an album as good as Appetite For Destruction, sell out Wembley and then implode.

Even the album sleeve was originally going to be made of both destroy the record inside it and those around it.

They had great ideas, (or at least an exciting rehash of other people’s) great quotes and great song titles like You Love Us, NatwestBarclaysMidlandLloyds. They looked the part too, with their white jeans and spray painted slogans.

Stocky shouter and guitar hammerer Bradfield, Nicky Wire tall and gangly, bass slung low and dangly. Drummer Sean Moore always looked like he would rather be wearing an anorak and anorexic Richey Edwards dressed up as Marilyn Munroe for a video and carved “4 Real” on his arm during an interview forcing the cancellation of a gig at the Barrel Organ. Seventeen stitches worth of sincerity. It’s not a good look.

This was a band careering ahead, in all senses of the word. They weren’t cosying up to the established Indie Press values but they were generating headlines and controversy.

They were shouting about how many records they wanted to sell, but even as they wrote for Kylie and got Porn star Traci Lords to sing on Little Baby Nothing they were still dream material for the music press (after all here’s a band who can actually string a sentence together) and also for any teenage sensitive types who felt different, alienated or indeed as if they might have read a book.

The band from the Welsh bedroom with an eye on the stadium had got all bases covered, bedroom Metal heads and bedroom poets.

The first album was released in 1992. Generation Terrorists was sprawling, chaotic Punky Metal with some surprisingly MOR touches. That’s the thing with the band, despite their Stormtrooper interviews there have always been those blander moments.

On Motorcycle Emptiness for example there’s the full Gun ‘n’ Roses guitar wig out but underneath it there is the stuttering drum pattern that all the Indie Dance Acts of the time were using and a piano cascade that sounds like the Baywatch theme tune.

1993’s Gold Against The Soul has got From Despair To Where. Released as a single it hits the G ‘n’R target straight on. It’s got ambition, a great title, soaring riff, terrific vocal (helped by the fact that it’s not Axl Rose) and a massive orchestra. The other single La Tristesse Durera is based on a Van Gogh quote and has a really tight focused sound under a powerful vocal.

The Holy Bible came out in 94 as Richey’s health and personal problems developed into full blown Unhappy Bunny Syndrome and he was admitted to The Priory for treatment for anorexia and alcoholism. (When he took a razorblade to his arm was he actually trying to write “4 Real Ale”?)

He supplied the majority of the albums lyrics and titles such as 4st 7lbs, She is Suffering, The Intense Humming Of Evil, Of Walking Abortion, Mausoleum and Archives Of Pain have been cropping up as radio requests for swoony lovers ever since.

The band appeared on Top Of The Pops to promote Faster. The unlikeliness of the opening line as Bradfield barks “I am an architect” made more surreal given the fact that he was wearing a paramilitary style balaclava.

Richey Edwards disappeared on February 1st 1995 leaving his car near the Severn Bridge and has not been seen since. On a Pop History level, the whole Richey saga, his personality, disappearance and resonance with the more damaged elements of their fanbase, just adds to the uniqueness of The Manic Street Preachers as a Pop proposition

The band came back in 1996 with the Everything Must Go album, containing 4 of Edwards’s lyrics and the anthemic A Design For Life. You’ve got to love a song with the opening line “Libraries gave us power.”

For many people the subsequent albums This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (1998), Know Your Enemy (2001) and Lifeblood (2004) have been less impressive.

However the Spanish Civil War single If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next reached number 1 in the Pop Charts in 1998. Just say that sentence again...that’s why the Manics are a good thing...they’ve got lyrical ambition and are not being constrained by a Pop formula or subject matter. In 2000 the limited edition instantly deleted single Masses Against The Classes also reached number one. Both Bradfield and Wire released solo albums last year.

Manics fans are exceptional in their obsessiveness, loyalty and Manics related trivia hoovering, but they do get out of chatrooms to go to the gigs and buy the records. Doubtless they’ll do the same for the forthcoming tour and album Send Away The Tigers. Super salesman Slick Nick Wire has guaranteed “Springsteenesque long sets, working class rage, make up and dumb Punk fun.” I believe him too.

Al Green

Al Green's voice has got everything you could want from a male soul singer. The classic soul sound is built on songs about loneliness, temptation, love, lust and God.

Ideally the song has to actually sound like those subjects and if the singer appears to be living the life according to the soul script....then it just sounds better to my ears.

Al Green certainly does. On his breakthrough single So Tired Of Being Alone there’s the sound of desperation, but also the sound of a Man With Plans for exactly how it’s going to be when he’s not alone anymore

You can hear it in the way that his voice slides up to a falsetto for the “Oh Baby” and then slides back to the half spoken “I’m tired of being alone here by myself”.

But his voice sounds so tense it’s as if he can barely talk. If you listen very carefully, under the peerless superglued together bass, drum and guitar chug; under the swell of the Memphis Horns you can just about hear the swish of falling underwear.

The ten or so albums released during his early 70s secular peak, before he went Gospel, triggered a knicker elastic crisis under the Bible Belt. And like his life, the albums reflected that mix of sexuality and spirituality, a lot of covers and a very distinctive sound.

Al Greene was born in Arkansas, the son of a share cropper. He was kicked out of the family gospel group, which he’d been performing with since the age of 9 after his deeply religious dad caught him listening to Jackie Wilson.

His first group Al Greene and the Soul Mates had an R & B hit in 1967 with Back Up Train, which was how he first came to the attention of producer Willie Mitchell. There is a school of thought that puts the first Al Green (he’d lost the “e” by now) album, Green Is Blue released in 1969, as essentially him finding his feet. I disagree.

The opening track One Woman is as great a piece of cheatin’ soul as you’ll hear. It’s the tale of meeting his lover as “One woman’s making me happy while the other woman’s making my home.”

It’s got guilt, resignation and helplessness at his situation. It’s got the vocal that moves between the sung to the semi spoken. The album also establishes the pattern of using a lot of covers (the first lp includes My Girl and The Letter) although, over the years the lp’s would contain some stinky floaters amongst the polished soul jewels. Take special care to avoid Light My could sink ships!

1971’s Al Green Gets Next To You was the album with So Tired Of Being Alone.

There is a fantastic clip of him performing it on Soul Train.

You first see the furry pimp hat... the camera manages to ease a path through the dancers, and yes Al Green is wearing a vest (actually more of a pink camisole really) and thick gold chain.

Another set of flailing dancer’s limbs appear, it’s tricky to focus, but yes Al Green is definitely wearing knee length floppy topped suede boots....and black vinyl hot pants.....Oh and a purple shoulder bag. There’s some great hammy and literal choreography going on as he really does fold his arms to sing the line “Sometimes I fold my arms I say mmmah”

The sound of those Willie Mitchell produced 70’s lps is fantastic and utterly distinctive. The drums sound like they’re tuned flat and the hi hat sits high up in the mix. The bass is treacly, Teenie Hodges guitar is woody and the little horn stabs and organ drips all just knit together into one groove. There’s no superfluous playing...ever.

The hit singles like Lets Stay Together (and just how many ex lovers claim that as Our Tune?) and Lets Get Married (“I’m tired of messing around”) Call Me, Here I Am (Come and take me) and L.O.V.E are just timeless records that people can believe in, both in the singer and in their own circumstances. Which is what Pop Music is for. Right Kids?

After 10 albums (often 2 a year) the formula was starting to wear thin though. The Belle album released in 1977 wasn’t produced by Mitchell but the title track has got a key lyric to Al Greens state of mind. “It you that I want but it’s him that I need”.

What was happening in his personal life was pushing him towards the Church and Gospel. He’d been badly burned in 1974 when his girlfriend burst into the bathroom and poured hot grits over him before shooting herself. Soul Man attacked with Soul Food.

It’s a shocking and bizarre incident...and right up there with Soul Man shockers such as Teddy Pendergrass’s transvestite car crash and Marvin Gaye’s stint of living in a camper van in Belgium before being shot dead by his dad.

In 1976 Green had opened his church in Memphis The Full Gospel Tabernacle, where he still preaches as an ordained minister; and then in 1979 he injured himself falling off stage. He took that as a message from God to move fully into Gospel music. It was effectively a second and very successful career for him as he hit a gospel boom as The Rev Al Green.

There were some secular releases such as Put A Little Love In Your Heart with Annie Lennox in 1988 and The Message Is Love with Arthur Baker in 1989. In 1993 he released Love Is Beautiful Thing which is not only a great song in its own right but also has a spoken intro line “This is what I believe”. Now that is exactly the kind of phrase I want to hear from Al Green.

In 2004 he reunited with Willie Mitchell and many of the original Memphis musicians to record the return to form album I Can’t Stop on Blue Note.

There’s some really good You Tube footage of a performance from 2005

The band sound great, he can still sing but that big bunch of red roses he’s holding onto could show that he’s keeping his career options open....if the singing doesn’t work out son, there’s always flower selling.

I also remember him doing an utterly absorbing but harrowing version of How Do You Mend A Broken Heart on Jools Holland’s show 3 or 4 years ago. So the omens are good and the NIA show could be money well spent. And however it turns out....he’s still Al Green.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem have pulled off the trick that nobody thought they wanted to see again. I hoped the Indie dance crossover had been locked in the cupboard with The Soup Dragons but what LCD Soundsystem do is to use dance music trickery with an American Punk Rock work ethic and real attention to detail. And it works.

Mainman James Murphy is half, (with Mo Wax’s Tim Goldsworthy); of New York label owners and remixers DFA. Murphy’s first band, Pony, were on Homestead, the US label that was the original home of Big Black and Dinosaur Jr. Nasty noisy uncompromising music. He moved into dance music because it was wide open and “Seemed like a great place to do something.”

LCD soundsystem was originally conceived as the opening act for DFA backed band The Rapture (who he memorably and very positively described as “Like someone had a big bag of band and just dumped it all over the stage and they'd all get up and start playing”) and he was going to use LCD Soundsystem as an excuse to play the contrary card by turning up to do DJ sets as a band and then doing band nights as DJ sets. In the Parliament/Funkadelic world that we should all live in, that’s called Who Says A Rock Band Can’t Play Funk Who Says A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock.

He originally envisaged the band as being something that nobody would like. That didn’t go to plan though as the album LCD Soundsystem came out in 2005 to fairly universal critical acclaim.

Early single Losing My Edge is a great tense sounding record that sets out the method well. It’s propelled by a synth riff that uses the rhythm of Talking Heads life During Wartime set to the electronic sounds of Marvin Gays Sexual Healing lp.

Murphy’s delivery is a caustic Fall style rant that puts the narrator, Zelig style, at the heart of a string of musical groundbreaking moments. At Suicide’s first rehearsals in a New York Loft, the dj booth at the Paradise Garage, Captain Beefheart’s first band and naked on a beach in Ibiza.

But he also knows that that “I'm losing my edge to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks. I'm losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978”

The track ends with “I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know..... But have you seen my records?” He goes on to list a wide range of artists from Pere Ubu to Althea and Donna, The Bar-Kays to PIL, Todd Terry to The Slits. And Murphy is almost certainly a little man with a great big box of great records.

The video is just a headshot of Murphy being repeatedly slapped. Possibly by a disgruntled Soup Dragon.

Daft Punk is Playing At My House is an unbeatable title, and a funny, engaging clever record, it’s another relentless synth riff, and a jerky David Byrne vocal delivery. And the lyrics about his girlfriend working the door and the all the furniture in the garage remind me (again) of Talking Heads Life During Wartime and it’s line about “I’ve got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days”....on the face of it they are mundane lines about little details....but made to sound really important.

There’s some little echoing guitar clicks that are a bit like how The Edge plays, but cleverly the record gets to sound more and more like Daft Punk as it heads towards a monstrous electronic splurge. Terrific stuff.

Disco infiltrator is a really apt title to come from the New Jersey Punk kid and the vocal is another salute to the Mark E Smith style “Stop. You can shake the waist...aah” while the electronics bubble up the octaves, rising to the surface like a windy bottomed bath night.

What makes the records interesting is the mixture of styles, clubby electronics, post punk sensibilities and occasional raucous guitar.

He built his first studio with the help of Steve Albini who described the recording process as “Look, you just put the mic in front of it and set the gain until it's correct. You just follow the rules.” The records are well constructed though, so the Punk Rock kid has still got the studio engineers careful methods. Murphy says “If you're creative, you'll be creative once you know the rules really well.” But in contrast he doesn’t write the vocals until the day they're recorded, because “I feel like it would make them false” which is a real American straight edge Punk angle.

There are more punk versus corporate contradictions with the release of the 45 33 album in 2006. It was commissioned by Nike and released as an ITunes only download. With a running time of 45 minutes it’s billed as being written with the warm up, midpaced temp, faster intervals and cool down periods designed for an ideal 45 minute run. To the pie shop and back.