“I Think I’m Going Back…”Five pieces of music that moved me in 2022

Son Little / Like Neptune
It’s as if Shuggie Otis walked into a recording studio in the middle of a nodded-out Sly Stone session and found Bruce Langhorne in the corner making his sound tapestries for Dennis Hopper’s The Hired Hand. It sounds like the 60s, now, as modern as tomorrow, as old as yesterday. I bought ten copies to give to friends I thought might like it. It’s that good.

Aimee Mann / Queens of the Summer Hotel 
Asked by Barbara Broccoli to write a musical based on Suzanne Keyser’s astonishing memoir, Girl Interrupted, Mann delivered something that was simultaneously beautiful, funny and heartbreaking. The music didn’t lose Mann’s very particular melodic sensibility while still convincing as being Off-Broadway bound. Powered by piano and double bass and Paul Bryan’s beautiful string arrangements, the songs swirl and swoon and spotlight the deeper, creepy undercurrents of the story. The lyrics were non-pareil, conjuring episodes and anecdotes into smart verses and punchy choruses. One song, “Suicide is Murder”, contains the greatest lyrics I heard this year. If it doesn’t reach The Great White Way, then no matter. It’s 40 minutes of shimmering perfection, doing justice to a unique book.

Alison Russell / Outside Child [May 2021, sent to me by T.C. this year]
Awful subject matter exorcised through sublime French Americana, with her clarinet and banjo as a thread that draws the narrative on. Written by Russell and JT Nero, her partner, it’s recorded [mostly] live in Nashville and beautifully produced and mixed by Dan Knobler. Her fluid and beautiful voice takes the listener from childhood in Montreal to motherhood in Nashville. I can’t improve on Joe Henry’s words: “Outside Child draws water from the dark well of a violent past. Though iron-hard in their concerns, the songs themselves are exultant: exercising haunted dreamlike clean bedsheets snapped and hung out into broad daylight, and with the romantic poet’s lust for living and audacity of endurance. This music, no less –– no less –– is a triumph: a courageous work, burnished and bright; unspeakably beautiful as she sings the unspeakable.”

Harry Styles / “As it Was”
My favourite working music was, hands down, Harry’s House. It’s light and free, full of affection and swoon. Plentiful earworms and, like bronze-dye pasta’s way with a sauce, just enough roughness to delicately catch your ear without fully distracting. Top of the pops was the single “As it Was”, which I must have played 200 times and still love. It filled the same place in the summer as Lorde’s Solar [“Lead the boys and girls onto the beaches / Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets / I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus…”] did last year. I originally listened to Harry because I was intrigued that he’d hired Sarah Jones as his live drummer — I figured that showed he had good taste. I had seen her playing with Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip at the RFH, where he supported Lonnie Holley and was hypnotised by her drumming. While his acting appearances have been all-around awful, his way with a pop tune and his choice of collaborators has been impeccable.

Bryan Ferry / “Where or When” [As Time Goes By, 1999]
Found in a junkshop, Ferry’s Jazz Age album uses a fine group of musicians arranged by pianist Colin Good. I don’t remember hearing Rodgers and Hart’s beautiful song before I put this CD on, which seems mad, as it’s one of the most-covered songs in the GAS. It’s a gorgeous meditation on Deja Vu from Babes in Arms, a 1937 musical which also gave the crooners of the day “Lady is a Tramp”, “I Wish I Were in Love Again”, and My Funny Valentine. Some hit rate… I obviously went and listened to 25 versions, including the hit by Dion and the Belmonts’ (written about as the last chapter of Bob’s bizarre Philosophy of Modern Song), but none of them touched me like Ferry’s. It creeps in on the back of an ondes martenot played by the brilliant Cynthia Millar; as Bob says, “the swirling dreamlike quality of Rodgers’ tune gives the listener a feeling of time as mysterious and complex as anything by Stephen Hawking”.The ondes, somewhat like a keyboard-based theremin, give an uncanny and sensual air to the melody. Ferry takes the song gently in his cupped hands and sings it in a bruised whisper, hushingly alighting on the melody, encapsulating the gauzy reverie of the lyric. Beautiful.

* The ondes Martenot [“Martenot waves”] is an early electronic musical instrument. It is played with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a wire, creating “wavering” sounds similar to a theremin. It was invented in 1928 by the French inventor Maurice Martenot. Martenot was inspired by the accidental overlaps of tones between military radio oscillators and wanted to create an instrument with the expressiveness of the cello.

A Christmas Song for 2021

Rather late, a seasonal song. I record one most years, usually a version of a traditional Christmas song such as “In the Black Midwinter” or “Love Came Down at Christmas”. This year I decided to revisit my Pandemic Dirge™ from last summer, retooled as a Pandemic Christmas Dirge. Enjoy!

If you enjoy (!) this one, previous years’ songs can be found at martincolyer.com

A peal of bells
And north wind swells
Carry Christmas through the land
But a plague’s abroad
A threatened sword
Puts paid to all our plans

A grave new world
Its flag unfurled
And summoned on a storm
Makes Christmas bleak
Its promise weak,
wrapped in a wreath of thorns

A chill’s been here
But don’t you fear
We’ve made it through before
Kindness found
And duty bound
Will cause the frost to thaw

A peal of bells
And north wind swells
Carry Christmas through the land
But a plague’s abroad
A threatened sword
Puts paid to all our plans

So hold your friends
To family tend
And think of more clement climes
This too shall pass
So fill the glass
And toast to better times

Welcome back, friends…

Five Things End of Year Part 1

The reasons that I don’t write about everything that I see and hear each week are many and various. Sometimes it’s laziness, sometimes I just can’t find the time to do something justice, sometimes I don’t want to be too negative, so I just let the subject slide, and sometimes everyday life gets in the way. So here are some things that slipped through the net in 2018. [All photos enlarge when clicked]

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s BEAUTIFUL AVIARY, with birds landing on and triggering electric guitars, and her drum kit played by cherry stones that fell from the ceiling – set off by visitors’ mobile phone signals – were part of the Voyages a Nantes art fair. Nantes is well worth a visit. There’s always something art-related happening, it’s the home of LU Biscuits and Les Machines de L’ile (the giant elephant, among other huge mechanical puppets), the Loire is gorgeous and it’s a quick drive to the seaside town of Monsieur Hulot.

I really loved the BOB DYLAN EXHIBITION at the Halycon Gallery in Bond Street, but not for the exhibits that were the basis of the show, rather lame drawings illustrating selected lyrics, uninterestingly handwritten by Bob. The bookshelf with Bob tomes (above) was an inspired idea, the Steel Gates still look pretty, but the best came on the back wall downstairs – a fantastic art piece in itself: a wall of cards from the Savoy “Subterranean Homesick Blues” shoot by D.A. Pennebaker. And, alongside, a rather good fifteen minute encapsulation of Dylan’s career ran as a film loop.

Oh, and this was a pretty good use of photography, too…

Two brilliantly AMERICAN THINGS that I unaccountably forgot to mention. The 749 song requests that the organist at Fenway Park, Josh Kantor, received this season (and played)! But, as he told one follower, “Your dream of a world where every ballpark has organ instrumentals of Pile songs may be a long-shot at best.” And this beautiful song map of the USA from the brilliant Dorothy (check out their Electronic Music Stamp Set).

In the New Yorker, this extraordinary piece by John Seabrook on STEVE MILLER’S COLLECTION of 450 guitars. “I had two humidified rooms,” he said the other day, during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Musical Instruments. “I had a hidden room next to the studio. I’d say, ‘Open, sesame,’ ” and a door would open, revealing a guitar forest of rare mahoganies and rosewoods…” When he’s asked to be on the board of Jazz at Lincoln Center, “I walked in and said, ‘Jesus, this is a real fuckin’ board. That’s the guy who built the building. That’s the guy who raised the twenty million.’ ” And now there’s the guy who wrote, “Ab-ra-ca-dabra / I wanna reach out and grab ya.”

From JEB LOY NICHOLS’ regular column at Caught By The River, on “As I Don’t Want To Take A Chance” by Wee Willie Walker: “I remember as a child, driving along the Texas coast with my father, listening to the radio, and telling him that the song playing was “the best song ever!” When the next song came on, I dismissed it, saying “this song is awful.” He stopped the car, and we stood on the beach. After a few minutes he said, listen to everything! Who are you to turn up your nose at someone’s hard work? You can’t say that anything is the best. I don’t want to hear that. You can’t dismiss anything. That’s like standing on the beach and saying you got a favourite wave. It’s nonsense. Music, he says, just keeps coming.”

In graphic news, who doesn’t love a piece of data that reveals the most and least “HIP HOP” WORDS? From The Pudding.

Sadly, I didn’t enjoy DEVA MAHAL at St Mary’s Music Hall in Walthamstow – an odd gig in a newish venue under the umbrella of the EFG London Jazz Festival, for no good reason. A noodling piano player, a somewhat robotic drummer, a bass player who seemed to be in a different postcode and a rather ineffectual guitarist, all served up with a muggy sound mix, rendered the soul / RnB of her debut album formless, with her voice just one more murky instrument trying to reach the congregation…

My FAVOURITE TV MOMENT may well have been Trini Lopez on one of those ghastly Andre Rieu broadcasts on Sky Arts from somewhere like Vienna (best city in the world for quality of living for the ninth year in a row, apparently). Trini was sporting his fantastic Gibson Trini Lopez model from 1964. [For Guitar fans only: It’s a 335 with mods, mostly in the form of diamond-shaped f-holes and neck inlays, with a Firebird six-in-line headstock. It’s Dave Grohl’s favourite guitar, which is why his signature Gibson is based on Trini’s]. It was utterly bizarre – an orchestra playing “If I Had a Hammer” featuring a rather frail vocal performance from Trini, Andre fiddling like Rome was burning, and an audience who looked like they were at a young fogey’s convention, going batshit crazy.

I’ll end Part One with a favourite video clip discovered this year. Guitarist FREDDY KOELLA, playing Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” on guitar, which is a tricky thing to do. But Freddy plays the hell out of it, complete with a lovely breakdown solo. He’s some kind of genius. Part Two later this week…

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