Saturday, June 16, 2007

Hayseed Dixie

We're not scared of gimmicks and novelties are we? It's better if the music comes first but you've got to warm to a band who have at least made the effort to come up with a good story. I don't fear the gimmick. I embrace the novelty and cop a sly feel of the one hit wonder. So how about Hayseed Dixie?

A bunch of hillbillies playing speeded up Bluegrass covers of AC/DC songs? I'll have some of that. According to their own story (which I'm buying into completely) it all started when stranger's car crashed near their isolated Tennessee valley home of Deer Lick Holler. On the back seat they found some AC/DC records, but they could only play them on their old 78 record player. "The boys all agreed it was some mighty fine country music. So, in memory of the stranger who had perished the boys set about learning these songs." Now anyone who doesn't believe that story will also have doubts about the sibling nature of The Ramones and may wonder why one of The Corrs just seemed slightly less attractive than the other pouting poppets.

Hayseed Dixie followed up the AC/DC album with rollicking live shows and the albums Kiss My Grass (a Kiss tribute), A Hot Piece Of Grass, Let There Be Rockgrass and the new album Weapons of Grass Destruction. The later albums have a mixture of classic rock and Punk covers, with a couple of originals thrown in. eg their own sensitive song about dealing with loss…I'm Keeping Your Poop In A Jar.

They play "Songs that are fun to play while drinking beer and are hopefully fun to listen to while drinking beer." The playing is phenomenal though. Drummerless, but stonking honky tonkin' with frantic mandolin, fiddle and banjo, dungarees, scary mullets and ponytails. And vocals that go from a yodelling yelp to a thick lascivious gurgle.

There are some people who think that AC/DC is schoolboy smut played by trolls. Some people think that Big Balls (elaborate well attended social occasions, with dancing), Lets Get It Up (possibly not about raising the Titanic), Sink The Pink (snooker?) are double entendres. These people have taken it the wrong way.

Hayseed Dixie think that AC/DC songs are about drinking, cheating, killing and hell. Which does indeed make for mighty fine country music. Frontman Barley Scotch reckons that the Lost Highway that Hank Williams sang about and AC/DC's Highway To Hell "Were the same damn road…They were singing about the same stuff, from the perspective of a working class guy who's reserving his right to fight the man and raise some hell." He also said that "I'm not trying to advocate alcohol…but I love beer." But later on in an interview with The Guardian it turns out that Barley Scotch is actually John Wheeler who runs a recording studio in Nashville and has a PhD. I still want to believe that his bandmates Reverend Don Wayne Reno and Deacon Dale Reno are trading under their real names though

On the dixified Highway To Hell you can hear all the little country and bluegrass tricks that the Stones and Gram Parsons used, played at berserker speed but still obviously both AC/DC and Bluegrass. It's great to hear him sing, "Hey Satan paid my dues singin' in this bluegrass band."

It's hard to top the way that Brian Johnson wails the line "Yeah you" on the original version of You Shook Me All Night Long, but Barley Scotches delivers the line "Knockin' me out with them American thighs" with the ripe country fruitiness and overstuffed contentment of a good ol boy that finds he's not just at Tractor Pull but there's a Hog Roast too! It's a sound that Brian would find hard to match, but Brian also finds it difficult to stand with his legs any less than 3 feet apart.

The new album features covers of the Scissor Sisters I Don't Feel Like Dancing, a countrified Holidays In The Sun and Judas Priest's Breakin' The Law.

Hayseed Dixie are a great idea for a band and they play like demons. Just have a look at their version of Motorhead's Ace Of Spades http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYJUywl7CFw


They're not only ones to tackle AC/DC's back catalogue though. If Bluegrass AC/DC is unlikely, then how about Folky AC/DC? The first solo album from Mark Kozelek (from sensitive 4AD types Red House Painters) included 3 AC/DC songs recorded as folky acoustic interpretations. They worked so well he recorded an album full with it's follow up What's Next To The Moon. His version of Love At First Feel takes AC/DC's slashing strutting boogie, puts it's trousers back on and gives it a haunted, regretful quality. It's a contrast to when Bon Scott sings, "They told me it was disgusting, they told me it was a sin" because you know that Bon wouldn't want it any way but sinful and disgusting. There's a Kozelek sample at
http://www.badmanrecordingco.com/bands/default.aspx#11

In fact to square the whole folk/metal circle, Kozelek's version of Love At First Feel actually ends up sounding like That's The Way from Led Zep3, but obviously with less elves. AC/DC never wrote about elves. They were too busy writing about drinking, shagging and Rocking. And they did do a lot of Rocking

Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Hawley

When the Arctic Monkeys received their Mercury award with the words "Call the police, Richard Hawley's been robbed" it was a good natured nod to their Sheffield neighbour. It seemed that the world had almost caught up with Hawley's modern retro melancholia.

On that occasion he missed out on a cheque and something to prop behind the toilet door, but with his fourth album Coles Corner, he had delivered something new, in an old fashioned way....he'd also taken his time doing it.

I mean what is the likelihood of a 40 year old guitarist with greased back hair, specs and a hair lip making that move a few feet to the centre of the stage, from hired hand to star and then that big leap into our hearts?

"I could always hum along cleaning the pots. But after the Longpigs split I thought it was about time I stopped washing the pots and crack on with writing and recording".

He originally played guitar with Sheffield indie poppers Treebound Story and the more angsty LongPigs. When the latter disintegrated space was at a premium in Drink and Drugs hell.

Old friend Jarvis Cocker threw him a lifeline with his offer to play guitar for Pulp on their popularity squashing “This Is Hardcore” album. He spent the next six years working with Pulp and also Cocker's art/performance skeleton suit wearing side project, Relaxed Muscle.

He also played the guitar solo on All Saints version of “Under The Bridge”, wrote “Clean” for Robbie Williams but turned down further collaborations with him because he wouldn't have known what to do with the money. "I just didn't want to do it. It would have changed my life too much. Earning millions of pounds is not the reason I get up in the morning".

Hawley grew up in Pitsmoor, Sheffield where his dad was a steelworker who played in rock n roll bands. Hawley started playing guitar at 6 and was gigging with his dad and uncle as a teenager. Hawley's musical heroes are the likes of Link Wray and the original Sun artists, like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis...probably just like his dad.

Now I think there's something quite poetic and fitting about growing up in a Rock 'n' Roll household, having a youthful dalliance with indie pop and then hitting your musical prime as you approach your forties with music that draws heavily from your dad’s influence.

It's all in the Sidies....The sideburns you have at 40 are different to the ones of your 20's. Bushy grey truck driving monsters....none of your razored clubland cool, designer beers and bars...it's all tea and greasy spoon.

Which is fairly Rock 'n' roll when you consider that that the modern British mecca for Rock 'n' Roll is the original Rock 'n' Roll Mecca. The Ace Cafe with a car park full of oil leaking British bikes that dropped their engines in the road on the journey. Tellingly Hawley's 3rd album Lowedges has a classic BSA on the cover.

What Hawley has done with his music is to take a retro grown up, adult music, strip out any elements that don't work anymore, (there have been some very odd ideas about backing vocals and orchestrations that although they were ground breaking and maybe even necessary at the time, when you're given the choice, you wouldn't use again.) Richard Hawley had the choice and hasn't used them again.

Take for example Ray Charles “Modern Sounds In Country And Western”. As a link in the development of soul music and as a shake up to the country music establishment it's crucially important. But 45 years on, it can sound a bit syrupy to my ears.

Well Hawley has taken the style and sound of Roy Orbison, Sinatra or Johnny Cash and turned it into a very late night music. But without the cheese, despite the fact that he does call it cheesy old bloke music. The self deprecation is part of his charm.

He's an unabashed crooner and a shameless romantic and as the cd slides into the drawer, the hour seems to get later, the whisky bottle gets emptier and (depending on the song) the lover is either longer gone or closer to home.

And because this music is from the past if your TV's on in the corner, you'll find it's got less channels and your central heating has turned into a hissing gas fire.

Because Hawley is very muchin the wistful crooner tradition, you're not going to get the full highs and lows of the feelings behind the songs just from his vocals. It's just not part of the style.

That whole easy tradition that Hawley has drawn from, that Frank Sinatra, rinky dink and Martinis, showed pain without the wrenching Soul style pain of what Sam Moore from Sam and Dave called "The ugly face." The key to depth in Hawley's music is the arrangements rather than his vocals.

Hawley's arrangements are built on sparse echoing guitars, gentle sweeps from the lap steel and plenty of reverb. It's Twin Peaks soundtrack territory. Lowedges from 2003 is very much built on this sound with the likes of “Darlin'” with its Roy Orbison vocal style.

There are lots of songs about going away and coming back...exactly what the heartbroken crooner needs. “You Don't Miss Your Water (Till Your River Runs Dry)” has the line "Like A Thief In The Night, You Stole the love from my world... You Don't Miss Your Water Till Your River Runs Dry. You don't miss your lover till they're waving goodbye." And let's face it if you're never going to hear Roy Orbison sing those lines then Richard Hawley will do just fine.

“I'm On Nights” is a wonderful song built on a guitar that twangs like broken heartstrings. It feels like “I'd Rather Go Blind” which has been covered by Etta James, Clarence Carter (who was blind) and Rod Stewart (who was blonde, apparently) amongst many others.

Just the phrase itself "I'm On Nights" gives it an English feel despite the fact that he's crooning an American style song. "I'm on nights, we need the money" but in classic style he'll be coming back "Now it's time to lose your sorrow, I'm on days and off tomorrow."

While “Lowedges” mines the a rich but underplayed echoing guitar sound, “Coles Corner”from 2005 spans a wider range of styles.

“Coles Corner” refers to the popular meeting spot for lovers outside the Cole Brothers department store in Sheffield. Even though it was demolished in 1969, local people still refer to it and still arrange to meet there. The title track starts with an impossibly lovely sweep of strings as Hawley hopes that "Maybe there's someone waiting for me with a smile and a flower in her hair."

Actually he gets stood up, but the whole thing of singing about a place that no longer really exists, but is still a part of the city's emotional and social landscape and part of the soundtrack that's in his head definitely seems a very Richard Hawley thing to do.

“Darlin' Wait For Me.” Oh yes it's another darlin' song, another song about going away and coming back and another song where you can hear hints of Elvis. Thing is you can bet, Hawley can always hear Elvis.

“Tonight” is another song that seems rooted in Sheffield and while there may be other cities that have hills, to my ears the only thing that could make this song more Sheffield would be a line about Richard Hawley's beloved Henderson's Relish and the less loved Human League.

......"Oh tonight I got it really bad, Maybe I'll go out walking, Don't feel like staying home, Might take the car up to the hills and watch the city lights below."

“Wading Through The Waters Of My Time” is Johnny Cash style Country whilst on Woody Guthrie's “Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Feet” the echo is on the vocal rather than the instrumentation.

It's sparse and haunting with a thick, muted sound from the barely brushed guitar. Closing track “Last Orders” was written in a taxi on the way to the studio and is more Twin Peaky atmospherics. Maybe if the journey had been longer it wouldn't have ended up as an instrumental. Nonetheless it's a clever contrast with the lushness of the opening title track.

“Coles Corner” is the critic’s choice but my tip is buy both and spend more time with “Lowedges”.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Richard Hawley

When the Arctic Monkeys received their Mercury award with the words "Call the police, Richard Hawley's been robbed" it was a good natured nod to their Sheffield neighbour. It seemed that the world had almost caught up with Hawley's modern retro melancholia. On that occasion he missed out on a cheque and something to prop behind the toilet door, but with his album 4 th Coles Corner, he had delivered something new, in an old fashioned way....he'd also taken his time doing it. I mean what is the likelihood of a 40 year old guitarist with greased back hair, specs and a hair lip making that move a few feet to the centre of the stage, from hired hand to star and then that big leap into our hearts?

"I could always hum along cleaning the pots. But after the Longpigs split I thought it was about time I stopped washing the pots and crack on with writing and recording"

He originally played guitar with Sheffield indie poppers Treebound Story and the more angsty LongPigs. When the latter disintegrated space was at a premium in Drink and Drugs hell. Old friend Jarvis Cocker threw him a lifeline with his offer to play guitar for Pulp on their popularity squashing This Is Hardcore album. He spent the next six years working with Pulp and also Cocker's art/performance skeleton suit wearing side project, Relaxed Muscle. He also played the guitar solo on All Saints version of Under The Bridge, wrote Clean for Robbie Williams but turned down further collaborations with him because he wouldn't have known what to do with the money. "I just didn't want to do it. It would have changed my life too much. Earning millions of pounds is not the reason I get up in the morning"

Hawley grew up in Pitsmoor Sheffield where his dad was a steelworker who played in rock n roll bands. Hawley started playing guitar at 6 and was gigging with his dad and uncle as a teenager. Hawley's musical heroes are the likes of Link Wray and the original Sun artists, like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis...probably just like his dad.

Now I think there's something quite poetic and fitting about growing up in a Rock 'n' Roll household, having a youthful dalliance with indie pop and then hitting your musical prime as you approach your forties with music that draws heavily from your dads influence. It's all in the Sidies....The sideburns you have at 40 are different to the ones of your 20's. Bushy grey truck driving monsters....none of your razored clubland cool, designer beers and bars...it's all tea and greasy spoon. Which is fairly Rock 'n' roll when you consider that that the modern British mecca for Rock 'n' Roll is the original Rock 'n' Roll Mecca. The Ace Cafe with a car park full of oil leaking British bikes that dropped their engines in the road on the journey. Tellingly Hawley's 3rd album Lowedges has a classic BSA on the cover.

What Hawley has done with his music is to take a retro grown up, adult music, strip out any elements that don't work anymore, (there have been some very odd ideas about backing vocals and orchestrations that although they were ground breaking and maybe even necessary at the time, when you're given the choice, you wouldn't use again. Richard Hawley had the choice and hasn't used them again. Take for example Ray Charles Modern Sounds In Country And Western. As a link in the development of soul music and as a shake up to the country music establishment it's crucially important. But 45 years on, it can sound a bit syrupy to my ears. Well Hawley has taken the style and sound of Roy Orbison, Sinatra or Johnny Cash and turned it into a very late night music. But without the cheese, despite the fact that he does call it cheesy old bloke music. The self depreciation is part of his charm.

He's an unabashed crooner and a shameless romantic and as the cd slides into the drawer, the hour seems to get later, the whisky bottle gets emptier and (depending on the song) the lover is either longer gone or closer to home. And because this music is from the past if your TV's on in the corner, you'll find it's got less channels and your central heating has turned into a hissing gas fire.

Because Hawley is very much in the wistful crooner tradition, you're not going to get the full highs and lows of the feelings behind the songs, just from his vocals. It's just not part of the style. That whole easy tradition that Hawley has drawn from, that Frank Sinatra, rinky dink and Martinis, showed pain without the wrenching Soul style pain of what Sam Moore from Sam and Dave called "The ugly face." The key to depth in Hawley's music is the arrangements rather than his vocals.

Hawley's arrangements are built on sparse echoing guitars, gentle sweeps from the lap steel and plenty of reverb. It's Twin Peaks soundtrack territory. Lowedges from 2003 is very much built on this sound with the likes of Darlin' with its Roy Orbison vocal style. There are lots of songs about going away and coming back...exactly what the heartbroken crooner needs. You Don't Miss Your Water (Till Your River Runs Dry) has the line "Like A Thief In The Night, You Stole the love from my world... You Don't Miss Your Water Till Your River Runs Dry. You don't miss your lover till they're waving goodbye." And let's face it if you're never going to hear Roy Orbison sing those lines then Richard Hawley will do just fine.

I'm On Nights is a wonderful song built on a guitar that twangs like broken heartstrings. It feels like I'd Rather Go Blind which has been covered by Etta James, Clarence Carter (who was blind) and Rod Stewart (who was blonde, apparently) amongst many others. Just the phrase itself "I'm On Nights" gives it an English feel despite the fact that he's crooning an American style song. "I'm on nights, we need the money" but in classic style he'll be coming back "Now it's time to lose your sorrow, I'm on days and off tomorrow."

While Lowedges mines the a rich but underplayed echoing guitar sound, Coles Corner from 2005 spans a wider range of styles.

Coles Corner refers to the popular meeting spot for lovers outside the Cole Brothers department store in Sheffield. Even though it was demolished in 1969, local people still refer to it and still arrange to meet there. The title track starts with an impossibly lovely sweep of strings as Hawley hopes that "Maybe there's someone waiting for me with a smile and a flower in her hair." Actually he gets stood up but the whole thing of singing about a place that no longer really exists, but is still a part of the city's emotional and social landscape and part of the soundtrack that's in his head definitely seems a very Richard Hawley thing to do.

Darlin'Wait For Me. Oh yes it's another darlin' song, another song about going away and coming back and another song where you can hear hints of Elvis. Thing is you can bet, Hawley can always hear Elvis

Tonight is another song that seems rooted in Sheffield and while there may be other cities that have hills, to my ears the only thing that could make this song more Sheffield would be a line about Richard Hawley's beloved Henderson's Relish and the less loved Human League. ......"Oh tonight I got it really bad, Maybe I'll go out walking, Don't feel like staying home, Might take the car up to the hills and watch the city lights below."

Wading Through The Waters Of My Time is Johnny Cash style Country whilst on Woody Guthrie's Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Feet the echo is on the vocal rather than the instrumentation. It's sparse and haunting with a thick, muted sound from the barely brushed guitar. Closing track Last Orders was written in a taxi on the way to the studio and is more Twin Peaky atmospherics. Maybe if the journey had been longer it wouldn't have ended up as an instrumental. Nonetheless it's a clever contrast with the lushness of the opening title track.

Coles Corner is the critics choice but my tip is buy both and spend more time with Lowedges

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Devo

Now here's the question. Were Devo a silly group? Apart from the Flowerpot hats, the jerky songs and jerkier dancing, the yellow chemical suits and half baked theories about unbaked potatoes and evolution going backwards? Well there's certainly a lot to love about the first album but they also encompass social history and change, from their arty beginnings and the Kent State university shootings through to Punk and the MTV generation. Phew! Pass me a flowerpot hat and let's get started.

Bassist Gerald Casales, Mark Mothersbaugh and original guitarist Bob Lewis were at Kent State University Ohio and had used the devolution concept or the idea of humans evolving into primitive forms as the basis for art exhibitions. The theory really took root with them with the killings at Kent State University in 1970 as 4 students were shot dead by The National Guard. Casales told The Vermont Review that "I was white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends… Until then I was a hippie. I thought that the world is essentially good. If people were evil, there was justice and that the law mattered. All of those silly na├»ve things. I saw the depths of the horrors and lies and the evil. In the paper that evening, the Akron Beacon Journal, said that students were running around armed and that officers had been hurt. So deputy sheriffs went out and deputized citizens. They drove around with shotguns and there was martial law for ten days. 7 PM curfew. It was open season for students. We lived in fear."

Like Malcolm Mclaren hanging Punk Rock up on the coat hooks of situationism and the Paris riots, Devo had a theory to back up their world view. In the same way that half the fun of Art is pulling the wings and legs off the theory behind it then great tunes can sound better with something to think about...even if that something boils down to the 5 Devo oaths

Be like your ancestors or be different. It doesn't matter.
Lay a million eggs or give birth to one.
Wear gaudy colours or avoid display. It's all the same.
The fittest shall survive, yet the unfit may live.
We Must Repeat.

Not forgetting Casales idea of the potato "It's the self. And it's the all-seeing potato, it's got eyes everywhere, even in the back of it's head"

Never could see how it all tied in with Kent State though. Neil Young wrote Ohio, Buffalo Springfield released For What It's Worth. Devo went to the green grocers.

Devo spent the next few years playing often confrontational gigs. Their film The Truth About Devolution won a prize at the 1975 Ann Arbor festival. They put out 2 singles Mongoloid and their deconstruction of The Stone's Satisfaction on their own Booji Boy label in 76 and 77.

By the time they hit Britain though it was on the back of the New Wave in 1978 with a Brain Eno produced album, released on a bewildering selection of coloured vinyls. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo. Call and response vocals, theories, dressing up and a band who could career jerkily round the stage and yet all step up to the mic simultaneously just like the Clash. They looked brilliant and of course they didn't sound like anyone else.

The album stands up really well today. Uncontrollable urge has got a fabulous yelping "Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” opening line. Well I think that says a lot and I also really like the call and response chorus, "He's got an uncontrollable urge " "I’ve got an uncontrollable urge". The guitars alternate between crisp riffing and a bendy spring string sound. If anything it's like a bastardised Twist and Shout

But not quite as big a bastard as Satisfaction. The backing track pops, scratches and scurries like a little Captain Beefheart hamster all twitchy nose and whiskers. It's absolutely unrecognisable as a Stones backing track. The vocals yelp the familiar Jagger consumer blues lyrics. Marvellous

Mongoloid has electronic drum thwackery, synthesizer sighs and the guitar sounds thick but distant. Normally you hear an electric guitar and you want to know that the air around the speaker is actually moving. Noise and movement. But then you would expect oddities on an Eno production.

Gut Feeling speeds up as it moves from House Of The Ring Sun sound to a Stranglers style keyboard whirl segueing straight into the jerkiness of Slap Your Mammy.

The first album has a great mix of unfamiliar sounds teased out of conventional; instruments. I remember breathlessly asking an older mate who'd just been to see them in 1978 what instruments they used, as in my head these sounds could only have been made using strange futuristic instruments. I was a bit disappointed when he said “Just normal ones” Probably not even star shaped guitars either.

On subsequent albums they fully embraced electronics. The 3rd album Freedom Of Choice released in 1980 had the big hit Whip It which became an MTV staple but I'd lost interest after the first album really. They did mange to continue without me though. Bizarrely Oh No It’s Devo was produced by Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, but the game was pretty much up by 1984’s Shout album. Day jobs beckoned

Mark Mothersbaugh, started a music production company Mutato Muzika , for commercials, films and TV soundtracks including the Rugrats and The Royal Tenenbaums. Gerald Casales makes commercials and music videos and has worked with The Foo Fighters amongst others.

The last proper Devo album was Smooth Noodle Maps in 1990, but there have been one off tours and side projects such as Jihad Jerry And The Evildoers and also The Wipeouters. And of course…. Devo 2.0 which was the Disney backed creation of a Devo covers band of child musicians and actors, with the videos directed by Devo and the lyrics cleaned up. Ouch! And if you really want to know what that sounds like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnot_03IAbQ

A safer bet is Devo’s version of Satisfaction.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvcuaJy9OwI&mode=related&search