ONE IF YOU DON’T ALREADY KNOW IT…
Song Exploder is rather great, featuring as it does musicians talking about how something they’ve made actually came together. The latest has Nicholas Britell on the evolution of his Moonlight soundtrack. Get through the (rather long) set-up and hear how the layers of the main theme came about.
“It’s going between the major one and the minor four chord. You’re in a major key so there’s this sense of stability, but the alternating back-and-forth creates, for me, a feeling of introspection… there’s a violin that’s doubling the melody on top, and the sound of the violin… what I asked [violinist Tim Fain] to do, was to play it as quietly as he possibly could while still generating enough sound that he felt comfortable with the note, and then we recorded it close to the mike.” It gives the theme a kind of brittle age, like something created long ago by wind blowing across pampas grass by the ocean.
He goes on to say: “I actually do a lot of experimentation with reverb, because the sound of an instrument is entirely related to where you’re hearing it – the space that you put an instrument in changes so much of the character… [in this piece] there’s actually another piano, underneath the first piano, which fades in over the course of the track. The first piano is a fully-in-tune grand piano! The second one is a sort-of-noisier upright piano with a loud mechanism, it’s not a really, incredibly in-tune piano (laughs), but that’s what’s beautiful about it. It feels so human and so true.” Amen to that.
TWO MICHAEL HEAD, THE SOCIAL
Tim takes me to see Michael Head, once of the Pale Fountains and Shack (and even Arthur Lee’s backing band on a tour in the early 90s). It’s at The Social in Fitzrovia, a basement club with nice bar staff and a tiny stage. A man, that Kitty Empire said, “has spent the best part of 30 years not getting famous”, Head is playing to a room of devotees, not only from his home town of Liverpool, but from every corner of Europe, judging by the accents around us. No idea what to expect, but it doesn’t phase any of the audience that the support acts are a man reading a short story (excellent) followed by a poet, Paul Birtill, who is also great. And it’s good to be surrounded by people listening to songs that obviously come from a time and place that mean so much to them – their goodwill for the man on the stage is palpable. I’m less carried away, but I don’t have that shared background. Also, I have an issue with solo guitar-strumming shows. The kind of romantic/poetic/stoic songs that are Head’s stock-in-trade need, for me, the melodic buttress of a band around them.
THREE GRAMMY & GRANDPA
From the always entertaining Every Record Tells a Story: “The Grammys operate in a strange time-warp, the 2017 awards covering the music released between mid-2015 and mid-2016. As a result, gongs are handed out for songs that have been missing for longer than the hair on the top of Donald Trump’s head.
It’s odd in such a fashion-conscious and fast-moving medium that the 2017 Grammys’ Song of the Year, Adele’s “Hello”, was released in October 2015. That’s a longer period of time than the entire career of The Bravery. It was bad enough when the charts were announced on Sunday and you watched Top of The Pops on a Thursday… You begin to feel for the voting committee being so far behind the times, bless them. What will the committee think when they hear about the break up of The Beatles? Will Kanye West boycott the next show because there was no nomination for “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus and Pliers? David Bowie, meanwhile, had never won a Grammy for his music before – the single most remarkable failure to honour something since the Brexit campaign promised £350m a week to the NHS. The Grammys had never honoured the music of Pop’s Great Innovator, whilst giving six awards to The Red Hot Chilli Peppers…”
FOUR LATE REVIEW
Marc Myers, Anatomy of a Song, The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits. I’m a sucker for a good oral history. My first copy ended up with a man I sat next to on a plane coming back from Morocco. He was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (featuring “a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer”) and I had just finished Anatomy of a Song. We fell into conversation, and it turned out that he had been at every Glastonbury Festival since the first, in 1971 when it was the Glastonbury Fair. At the end of the flight I felt that he would enjoy it. So I bought myself another copy, then decided that it would make a perfect Christmas present. It got to the point where my wife kept steering me away from bookshops as Christmas approached and it became a family joke along the lines of “you know what would be a perfect present for [insert name here] – Anatomy of a Song!” Anyhow, buy it, it’s great. One thread that runs through the book is how accidental many of the great moments in Popular music history are.
Read the story of Pink Floyd shipping the 24-track tapes of “Another Brick in the Wall” from LA to London to have their engineer find a local school to sing on it. Read an interview with the man who was “Carey” in Joni Mitchell’s song, and hear what he thinks of it – “I knew I was in way over my head. I couldn’t earn a living and she was way too talented for me.” Read Loretta Lynn on the musicians she recorded “Fist City” with: “Grady [Martin, guitarist], bless his heart, would set a quart of whiskey next to his chair. When I first met him, I said to Owen [Bradley, producer], “We don’t want him playin’ on my record if he’s drunk, do we?” Owen said, “He’ll do better drunk than sober, so let’s leave him alone.” And read the story of how long it took to record the drums for “Heart of Glass” while listening to the track – fantastic.
My favourite chapter may well be the one about The Hues Corporation’s rhumba/disco crossover, “Rock the Boat”. It’s got the Stonewall riots, the New York clubs acting as rhythm laboratories, the beginnings of dance culture, and a weird group name, from songwriter Wally Holmes – “I was a rebel then and disliked wealthy people, so I named [our] trio the Children of Howard Hughes, since they obviously weren’t”. Seeing the legal complications ahead, he changed the name to the Hues Corporation, and the song was recorded twice, the second time with L.A.’s finest, including Jim Gordon on drums and Larry Carlton on guitar (he provides the crazy solo in the song’s fade).
It was used in Ridley Scott’s The Martian as part of the soundtrack (disco tunes left on a crew member’s laptop provides the reason). Megan Garber in The Atlantic made an interesting point about its humanising use in the film… “No offense to the Hues Corporation, but “Rock the Boat” – “Rock the boat (don’t rock the boat, baby)! / Rock the boat (don’t tip the boat over)!” – is not, whatever else it may be, terribly epic. Astronauts may technically be named for sailors, and space-faring vessels may technically be called “ships,” but beyond that, the maritime metaphor will not extend. In using it, though – and, in general, in creating a soundtrack that might as well be nicknamed Now That’s What I Call Disco – The Martian is doing some boat-rocking of its own. It is effectively rejecting the traditions and clichés of the space movie. It is rejecting the standard, soaring spirituality of the typical space score in favour of something that is smaller and more human. It is trading Holst for Houston.”
FIVE FIVE THINGS RECOMMENDATIONS
Carrie Rodriguez, Lola. An album that transcends its nominal genre of Spanglish Tex-Mex (if that is indeed a genre). As Felix Contreras wrote on NPR’s First Listen, “In my mind, there’s a magical Mexican restaurant located somewhere in Austin, Texas; it’s a place where people of all cultures, backgrounds, ages and languages rub elbows over mouth-watering Tex-Mex combination plates. Aging hippies, Chicano hipsters, old-school Texans in cowboy hats, abuelitas, blues musicians, Western fiddlers – they’re all there. It’s an image I’ve imagined ever since I first heard music that combines influences across cultures, like Americana accented with conjunto or a blues-rock trio singing in Spanish. But I’d never heard the exact sounds that I’d imagined playing in a jukebox in that made-up restaurant until I heard Lola, the new album by Carrie Rodriguez.” It was possibly my most played album of last year, its sultry sway backing surprisingly pointed lyrics, and with a secret weapon in American music’s MVP, Bill Frisell. Once again, I have to thank Tim.
The Word Podcast, A Word in your Ear, with Barney Hoskyns. Listen as Mark Ellen and David Hepworth quiz Barney about all things Albert Grossman.
13th. Mick Gold disagrees with my assessment of Hackshaw Ridge. In penance (I like to think), he flags up the sombre and brilliant 13th, up for the Best Documentary Oscar, a graphically-inspired documentary on the implications of the 13th Amendment. It runs, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”, and the film illuminates the extraordinary way that the corporate world moved into the prison system to utilise the labour force created by the staggering statistic that America has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. On Netflix now.
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