Monthly Archives: March 2017

Write Here, Write Now: 3.31 – The Fan

Little Feat – The Fan. Much needed to clear the air in this fuggy song.

Little Feat was not a band I’d come across much before about 5 years ago. At college, an amiable local dealer was into them, but I just bracketed them into the same category of good time US country rock where I dropped JJ Cale, Lynyrd Skynyrd and much of the Grateful Dead’s material – a bit Radio 2, a bit safe, a bit like a comfortable old shoe.

But then online enthusiasm for them prompted me to get a bit curious and I bought a 5 album collection going cheap to listen to what all the fuss was about. (I did the same for Joni Mitchell, of which probably more later in the year). I dutifully listened through once or twice with half an ear, while doing other things, but didn’t hear anything to make me fall in love. There must be something fans of their music are hearing, but it’s not getting through to me.  So – perfect for one of these blogs, then. Maybe intensive listening will act like a sourdough starter and get me bubbling for all things Little Feat – or maybe inoculate me against their small acts of wonder.

I just chose this track because of the title. Little Feat does seem to attract devoted fans. First listen and it seemed a very busy noise – too much going on to really notice anything in particular, except possibly a jazzy organ somewhere in the mix? Let’s have a second listen,

Second listen and it’s still very busy. A constant steady rhythm, Indulgent and uninventive, and rather lengthy guitar solo. Wibbly keyboard modulations that don’t go with the guitar or percussion at all. It must have been someone’s idea of a joke to put that in the song. Then it creaks out.

Third listen and I’m getting more attentive. Organ, drums and high guitar notes, then bass starts and the singing. The drumming seems to echo the phrasing of the singing rather than any sort of danceable rhythm, and it is constant, and fairly unvaried. Two minutes in and the guitar solo starts. Only 45 seconds long, it felt longer.  Then it all goes odd, with organs and keyboards throwing themselves into the song.

Fourth listen – let’s read the lyrics first. Oh. The singing is so indistinct I would never have found that out just from listening. Well that’s a subject I would expect from a Steely Dan song – and that’s from reputation only. I’ve never heard a Steely Dan song. Nice’n’sleazy, as the Stranglers might say. It is interesting how the building blocks of familiarity with a song build up. It’s mainly a series of snatches from the song, which make little impressions. Slowly the whole jigsaw is formed from different patches of pieces slowly getting larger – the picture reveals itself.

The song references cheerleaders – there’s a coincidence. I’ve just been watching the TV show Misfits – the episode where a zombie outbreak infects a troupe of cheerleaders and the merry gang of petty crims beat them to death with baseball bats.  And now I’ve got the lyric “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat” in my head – The Ramones. That laugh-free comedy show, The Now Show tonight had a joke about Brexiteers vs Ramoaners. Maybe everything is linked in a cosmic mystical way. Who knows. Let’s get back to the song.

Now on the 6th listen and I feel the constant rhythm beginning to seep into my unconscious. I guess it’s a form of muscle memory – like learning to drive. You teach your body to carry out standard actions and then you can forget you are doing them, instinctively and focus your attention on other things – like what’s happening on the road ahead, for example. These rhythms aren’t meant to be noticed -they are supposed to be the backdrop, the form against which all the interesting bits, like the guitar solo and wibbly keyboard stuff take centre stage.

Talking of the guitar solo, it’ s less irritating, now that I can hear it and the rhythm at the same time. It starts off slow, focused and feedbacky, like something by Neil Young, but ends too bluesy and busy for me.  Still find the keyboard solo that comes after it very busy (in a busy song).

One thing I have worked out – the singing, by having the same pattern as the drumming, is as much part of the rhythmic backdrop to be ignored as the drum and bass.

Nine listens, and I think I wold be able to identify the song if I heard it again now. Would I want to? Not really – it is far too busy – no space – it feels like there’s always at least three or four instruments playing at once.

But it has given me a bit of a taste for the Little Feat rhythm section. If there are songs with less silly lead instruments, I might be more tempted. There are 48 of them in my music library. Plenty of options then.

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Write Here, Write Now: 3.30 – Dry The Rain

The Beta Band – Dry The Rain Does what it says on the tin.

The song that was played in Hi-Fidelity by Jack Black’s assistant character in the record shop as a guaranteed seller, I was intrigued to give this a careful listen. I think I may have heard it before, but it just slipped in one ear and out the other, without really catching, no matter how often I played it. That seems to have been the case with many songs for me. If they are not immediately catchy, I rarely invest the time to get to know them. That probably meant the songs I do like are ones that I heard unconsciously over and over until something stuck. When I chose to listen to them, the seed was already planted.

I’m on my third listen to this now. The singer starts off unimpressive, almost sullen, but by the end, is carried along, maybe even roused by the orchestration of many instruments. Particularly good are the bass line and the trumpet – they really give the song much-needed energy. The guitars less so, coming over as almost as downbeat and soggy as the singing. The slide guitar is particularly swampy, which is OK when the beat gets going in the second half, but is part of the morose atmosphere before that.  Wooden blocks mark a pause at 1 minute and it perks up somewhat. The drums and bass, when they come in at 2 minutes, straighten things up – invigorating like a vigorous dry down with an abrasive towel. The guitars align themselves more confidently with the beat. The singer increases the volume. And then, for the last two and a half minutes, the trumpet dominates – a blast of warm air to dry the hair.

Maybe that’s the way to think of the song. The band come in out of a particularly manky cold and wet Scottish afternoon and the song is the towel and hairdryer they need to recover.

A few listens and I feel I understand the song a bit more than before. I don’t think I am ever going to love it. It’s too down at heel, particularly the vocals, which necessarily dominate the mood of the song. It’s like it caught a cold which it hasn’t quite shaken off.

But to finish on a positive note, the best of the song is definitely the bassline – I love a good bassline, and this one is big and proud and front and centre in the last part of the song.

Write Here, Write Now: 3.29 – Telling Stories

 

Tracy Chapman – Telling Stories. Bedtime stories.

Tonight I’m going to do a whole album for the second time, and again as a result of a request from a reader. Because it’ll take a long time to listen , I’m going to blog as I listen the first time through, and maybe go back again if inspired.

Telling Stories – an appropriate title for Brexit Day – a whole work of lies to persuade Britain to step off a cliff.

Tracy Chapman – is hardly unfamiliar. Back in the 80s, Fast Car was ubiquitous – you couldn’t escape it. Listening to the first two songs so far, she doesn’t seem to have changed at all. Same gentle tones, same mid-tempo beat, same inoffensive lyrics, same rather pedestrian bass lines. I don’t think this is going to be difficult listening at all, except in avoiding drifting off through lack of attention.

It’s very nice, and maybe after a few listens it would seep in and subtleties I haven’t yet noticed would become earworms – the rewards of benign, healing music. But there’s something a bit earnest about her voice that sets me on edge, a touch of vibrato mixed with indistinct pronunciation that I don’t enjoy listening to.

Telling Stories. Bass and organ try to give this song a swing it just doesn’t have. I think if I was testing this album and this was the opener, I wouldn’t bother with the rest. It sounds tired. Hard even to take pity on it. If I was a vet, I’d put it out of its misery. ‘Sometimes a lie is the best thing’? No, not on this day it isn’t. Absolutely not.

Less Than Strangers. Another pedestrian number (1,2,3 and it numbs). Tracy, love – can you put a bit more oomph into it? No? Oh well, as you were then. Musicians, you can slow down, get a bit more flaccid, and don’t do anything but play the melodies – no experimentation, please.

Speak The Word. Nope, it’s not getting any more energetic. Just repeating the title over and over again doesn’t inspire. This really needs a sympathetic listener – someone prepared to suffer with her. You need patience, endurance to get through this one. It saps energy.

It’s OK. Wow, a bit of a beat. Hmm. It doesn’t last before descending into the fuggy mix of music again. The bass just blankets the whole song, which is a shame, as somewhere buried in the sound is some nice little guitar dueting. As for the singing, that is as restrained as before.

The Wedding Song, and the sentimental tone actually matches the theme. I can appreciate this one, without falling for it. She actually sounds confident, hopeful, warm. It isn’t an ordeal to listen. Wow, she raises her voice – louder and up the scale. It’s almost joyous. Steady on…! Awful shuffling drumbeat, though. Just doesn’t match the tone of the song at all.

Unsung Psalm – maybe it’s the absence of the bass, but I don’t mind this delicate song – the soft music suits her rather more breathy voice. It’s clear, unforced, unaffected singing.  It’s a pleasure to hear her in my ears, for a change. It’s still backed by predictable, pedestrian easy listening music – in this case a rather irritating chiming guitar – but it (mostly) doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Nothing Yet – back to sorrowful Tracy here. A bit of a struggle listening to this one, just because it drags on. Mildly interesting guitarwork, mind. I have a feeling she is singing of some terrible injustice, so I feel slightly guilty about dissing it. But that is the worst of Tracy – the guilt-tripping worthiness – I’d better like it because she’s singing about real issues, no matter the quality of the song.

Paper and Ink. Another dirge, in every line she is discouraged by something. Money is only paper. Who made the sun, who owns the sea? Not very insightful. Some banjo-type instrument strummed incessantly and heavily, calmed and oversweetened by wholesome guitar chords. And then fade…

Devotion. A bit punchy, with words marked by drum beat and underlaid by pleasant rhythm guitar but spoiled by soft focus vocals. It sounds like she’s too tired to sing properly. And then here comes the bassline, predictably following the melody and rhythm to the note. Then it just stops.

The Only One. This one is quite affecting – again, she seems best suited to soft singing with understated music. Really not sure about “Does heaven have enough angels yet” – such maudlin religious mythology detracts from a heartfelt meditation on loss.

First Try. Again, her voice seems to work best almost unaccompanied, wavering and searching. The plucked strings suit this very well. Backing vocals come in at the right moment to uplift the end of the lines. May be the best song. Good to finish on a high note. The minimalism of the accompaniment reminds me somewhat of the Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for the David Lynch ‘Straight Story’ film. Quite haunting.

So, sorry Frank – by my estimate, 4 out of 11 isn’t a great hit rate, and I’m afraid I’ve rather trashed what may be a favourite album of yours. I tried to be fair, but to be honest, her worthy but dull reputation goes before her, and although I hoped to be proved wrong, I was rather dreading having to trawl through a whole album’s worth.

Write Here, Write Now: 3.28 – Razed To The Ground

Archive – Razed To The Ground. Downtempo, downbeat, downtrodden.

Having thought I’d covered the alphabet of new songs by bands I didn’t really know, I realized I’d started at ‘B’ – so this is to fill the gap.

Archive – one of those bands whose one word titles are gnomic and undescriptive enough to have no baggage when I first started listening tonight. It’s all synths and low bass tones, with pitter patter hi hat drumming – atmospheric soundscape without much melody, a few strings towards the end, and all supporting a rapper.

That is, a rapper who first starts up about halfway through the track, after a minute of synth sounds and then another minute accompanied by beats. Two minutes of a rap and then a minute and a half of instrumental beats.

It’s a sombre rap, pessimistic on a personal and a wider, social level – ‘a threatening future awaits’. It doesn’t take much to link the lyrics to the effects of climate change and the enormous changes needed to ‘future-proof’ the planet. Changes that don’t seem likely in the current political climate.

It’s hard to challenge the inertia of doing the same thing as you’ve always done, particularly when that brings comfort, ease, respite from the stresses of life and work – why not drive, eat lots of red meat, chocolate, drink alcohol? It feels good and you only live once. Climate change activists rely on extreme forecasts to try to provoke people out of their stupor to act, but it is too easy to be the frog in the slowly cooking pot, not realizing the comfortably warm will soon turn hotter and hotter. Indolence prevents action, particularly when the outcomes of a warming climate are still only happening incrementally.

Guides to better behaviour, sources of inspiration, examples of where I can be ‘led down the wide path’ before I am ‘steadily lowered into the ground’ all are welcome.

Write Here, Write Now: 3.27 – Sub-Lingual Tablet

The Fall – Sub-Lingual Tablet. Suck it and See.  No sweetness to sugar the pill. Take this, it’s good for you. Etc, etc.

Another request tonight, this time for a whole album – The Fall’s 2015 50 minute album. It’s certainly something I haven’t heard before, and probably something I won’t listen to again, but it stretched beyond the length of music I normally listen to of an evening for these blogs – certainly not enough time to listen to it 6 times.

What’s it like? Well, it’s the Fall, who have produced some 30 albums, all of which involve Mark E. Smith shouting over some discordant music, fuzz guitars and challenging rhythms. I exaggerate, of course. I don’t think I have consciously ever listened to a Fall album in its entirety before. Why would I? It’s the opposite of easy listening. I might as well try listening to prog, for all the listening pleasure it would bring.

In fact, this album isn’t so unbearable. In as much (after one listen) I can tell the songs apart, Junger Cloth is actually quite listenable. Solid bass lines, interesting, but not unrhythmic drumming, pleasant keyboard melody – even Mark E. Smith isn’t shouting – more speaking out loud. Nice while it lasts, but then jumps into the bass riff heavy, MES on full snarl ‘Stout Man’. Endless whiney guitars and pushy drums.

As I’ve jumped into track by track assessment, here comes Auto Chip, that reviews (hello Quetus & Pitchfork) mark as the centrepiece of the album. Steady bass – I like that. Melodic lead guitar notes. A lot of repeating of “Suffering” – is this the repetitive jamming style of Krautrock having its influence? Repeat a tune, line often enough and it directly drives an appealing wedge into your mental hard drive of music, forcing a space for its status as potential earworm? It’s not quite working. I’m just a little bored now. Come on, come on – give me the next song.

That’s the thing. One thing I keep coming across in these blogs is – repeat anything often enough and its music starts to appeal, bits stick in the memory and stand out when the track is played again. They are listened out for and begin to lengthen as the bits around the first hook also familiarize themselves – like floating detritus trapping itself around a branch sticking out into in a river.  But if there’s nothing that appealing or memorable in the first listen, it’s a chore to keep chipping away. Ok, there’s nothing satisfying about taking a rotten piece of wood to pieces, but there’s not much fun in carving granite. If you manage to make any purchase on the surface, eventually you’ll end up with something hard wearing and durable. But better for looking at every now and then, not comfortable for everyday use.

Ramble, ramble, and now it’s the next song. Pledge! Give money or wash my windows? It’s hard to tell. Wavy, hazy synth drone accompanies random clatter drumming and buried guitar churnings, as MES variously bleats and growls the words.

The next one’s Snazzy. A song that doesn’t go anywhere, speeds up and slows down over and then stops. Definitely a case of being glad I’ve stopped hitting my head against a wall.

Driving bass, dull needling guitar riff before helium MES demands a Facebook troll. Give him one and let me have some peace. I have a 2 year old daughter who is just as persistent in her demands, and just as willing to have a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get her way. In both cases, the best response is to ignore them, but stay there until they stop in case they do any damage to themselves or anyone else around them.  Though I don’t expect MES is as cuddly and sweet when he has calmed down*. Just another minute and a half and it’s the last song. Waiting, waiting. Now MES is joined by others in the band voicing their demands. That’s often what happens. Best to separate them so they don’t influence each other.

Quit Iphone – old people can be so technophobic, can’t they? Do they have to be humoured? He could write to his local newspaper or call Radio 4’s Any Answers. Anita Anand is very good at tolerating and nursing these aged balls of rage at the modern world, without coming over as patronising.

I say I never listened to any albums by The Fall – that’s true, though I used to enjoy Hit The North and their cover of Victoria. Not a great success rate. Mind you, it’s probably a good thing that they exist. Just as long as I don’t have to listen to them (very often).

I quite like the idea of them – raucous singer over clattering, rhythmic rock.  The band who I do like to listen to who did that better was Levellers 5/Calvin Party – may be they were a Fall rip off/Fall-lite, but I still like their music. The Fall – not so much (just in case that wasn’t so clear form the above).

Will that do, Iain?

*Well, there’s not sweetness and cuddling – but there is whistling. Which I guess is all you could hope for.

Write Here, Write Now: 3.26 – Goin’ Down To Mexico

ZZ Top – Goin’ Down To Mexico. Singing the Same Old Song

A band I knew from their “what’s wrong with being sexy” period in the eighties – Legs, Gimme Some Loving, Sharp Dressed Man. They were supposed to have had a credible early career in the seventies doing a unique mix of rock and blues with a Tex-Mex flavour. So that’s where I’m digging in now. Their most popular pre-Eliminator songs being La Grange, about a whorehouse, and Tush, about bottoms, I looked for a song that might be less pre-feminist.

A quick initial review – Goin’ Down to Mexico starts well with a nice guitar riff and tight drumming. Vocals – not particularly inspired. Let’s get back to those drums and guitars – two of them, it sounds like. And the bass that joins in. Some nice riffing – repeating, then pausing for another round of singing, about something or other. then it all just stops.

I think I’d like this song if there were no words, or if they were better, or not sung in a rather thin, reedy voice. The music itself has promise.The rhythm and lead guitars get into a good groove with the swinging drums. Like a lot of rock music, I can’t really hear the bass underneath all that – I guess it’s shadowing the lower notes of the rhythm guitar.

That is until about 1.20 into the song when the singing lets up. Then you can hear the bass as an equal player with the other instruments. It’s the best bit of the song. Really grooves. fast paced, driving drums, dynamic. The lead guitar leads the ear on a merry little chase, with the rhythm guitar pushing from behind. And just before the vocals come back in, there’s a neat little change of pace.

I’ve never been to Mexico, though I have been to New Mexico. A road trip from Philadelphia, it was the end of many long days behind the wheel, as the landscapes and vegetation slowly turned from green to brown. Santa Fe, my final destination was an attractive town with a Georgia O’Keefe museum, a lot of adobe buildings and a lot of modern artists . A vry civilized place for hipsters, I would have thought, if hipsters had been a word I knew in the mid-90s. Alternative bourgeois was probably what occured to me then – and  I felt right at home, though without the money to match the lifestyle.

‘Dust on my boots’ is about as close a link I can feel to this song, from that experience. I feel I’m rambling, rather like Dusty Hill in his singing. Time to call a halt, to this blog and to this alphabetical series of unknown songs. I’ll fill up the rest of this month with oddities and other suggestions.

Write Here, Write Now: 3.25 – Music For Evenings

Young Marble Giants – Music For Evenings. Steady, chugging guitar.

The second song in a row about rejection. To quote Will.I.Am, where is the love? Young Marble Giants -another of those bands without a great deal of chart success or popularity, yet with a lot of influence on successive bands. I first came across their name when I heard Galaxie 500 covering their song “Final Day” for a Peel Session. A song which I think is better heard as a cover than as an original.

Maybe it’s a question of the band writing good songs, but not necessarily being able to sing or play them as well as others.

It’s a low key song. I can hear the chugging rhythm guitar, the steady bass and the vocalist. That’s about it. There isn’t much in the way of a lead instrument. Rather minimalist, keeping a tight lid on things.

Rejection. Well, I suppose I reject this song, much as the singer rejects the person in the song. It’s quite hard to take, whenever and however it comes. The prospect of a door opening onto a new chapter in life being closed in the face. This is how I imagined it would be vs the reality of that being denied. The investment in the imagined future. After rejection, is it right to set the sights lower, be less ambitious? Expect less from life. Be accepting of one’s lot in life? Channel energy in ways where there isn’t the competition for the unattainable? We create the world we want to live in, but only to the extent that those around us allow us to.

When what we want to happen, can’t,  is it best to button things down and live in understated caution? I do hope not. I wouldn’t want to live life like a Young Marble Giants song.