Friday, 13th February

OH GOD, NOT THAT AGAIN…
I’m going to tell you, until you all go and see him: Blake Mills played a two-hour set at the wonderful place that is the Union Chapel, with Jesca Hoop as his support act and duet partner. Her minimal, unusual guitar playing and swooping voice were brilliantly suited to the stunning acoustics of the Chapel during her three songs, before Mills joined her to play “Murder of Birds”, a song I knew but had no idea he was the guitarist on. Joined by the band they essayed the kind of performance that would thrill any lover of the musics of the American West, South or East over the last sixty years. I can’t add much to what I wrote about October’s show at Bush Hall. Subtly different, but just as good. Opening song “If I’m Unworthy” has assumed such gigantic proportions of feedback and emptiness, I remember thinking most acts would be thrilled to save that as their last song to ensure an encore…

SOMETHING I LEARNED 1
From Mark Kermode’s Observer interview with Paul Thomas Anderson: “Some years ago, when we were doing an on-stage interview in London, Anderson told me that he sometimes felt his movies were best viewed as musicals. In a now iconic scene from Magnolia, the disparate cast are seen spontaneously singing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up…”

“Well,” he says, “those movies you mention are musicals in the sense that the music is woven so strongly inside them. I think that’s probably true of There Will Be Blood too. But starting with The Master, I was working on things that had a little more dialogue. You know, there’s music in there, but the film isn’t structured like a musical. This was more a matter of just driving to the set each day and listening to some stuff Jonny had sent me, or listening to Can, or Neil Young [both feature on the soundtrack] over and over. That’s what we were trying to do – to make a movie that felt like a Neil Young song, that has that sweet sadness to it.” For all its anarchic sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, Inherent Vice does indeed possess a “sweet sadness”, a quality enhanced by the fact that Anderson’s partner, the actor and comedian Maya Rudolph, makes a small but significant appearance. “Maya and I don’t avoid working together,” Anderson says, “but there just hasn’t been much opportunity before. So we squeezed her in here. And you know that we’ve got her mom [the late Minnie Riperton] singing in Inherent Vice, too? It’s a moment that makes me well up every time – as we’re looking at Maya, you hear her mom singing this song, “Les Fleurs…” it makes me so warm and fuzzy.”

Always nice to be reminded of the great “Wise Up” scene (and of the great Melora Walters, an actress who doesn’t get cast in nearly enough good movies), but just as cool to be sent back to the astonishing Minnie. “Les Fleurs” is  basically a descending chord sequence (courtesy of Ramsey Lewis) above a funky laid-back beat provided by Maurice White (of EW&F fame), topped off with shimmering layers of vocals and horns that keep peaking and waning through the whole of the song in an incredible arrangement by producer Charles Stepney. Interestingly, her most famous song was written for her daughter: “[Perfect Angel Producer Stevie] Wonder felt that one more song was needed to meet the industry standard of a 40-minute album. He asked Riperton and songwriter-husband Richard Rudolph to come up with a tune that they considered to be their “most embarrassing song”. With hesitation, Riperton did mention a lullaby she sang to her daughter Maya to put her to sleep at night so that she and Rudolph could spend “grown-up time”. With Rudolph’s help, Riperton came up with “Lovin’ You” – which was quickly recorded with Wonder on electric piano and synthesizers, whilst Rudolph supplied the chirping birds from a sound effects reel.” – Wikipedia

SOMETHING I LEARNED 2
An interesting tributary that emerged owing to my lack of knowledge re: Enoch Light. John Walters at Eye sends me a great site that details Light’s record label, Command Records, and its commissioning of Bauhaus legend Josef Albers for the cover art.

Obsessed by “experimentation in the realm of stereophonic sound, he went to great lengths to achieve his vision. His sessions used the best available recording studios, musicians, and equipment. He also experimented with the arrangement of musicians during recording to create interesting effects. To achieve the sound he was looking for, Light mastered the first three records 39 times until he got it right. The records came with extensive liner notes, detailing the minute details of the recording process and crediting all of the musicians involved. Each track was also annotated on the packaging, describing the way it would test the home stereo equipment… a sample of his rendition of “Autumn Leaves”… became the theme for the AMC hit drama Mad Men. A very appropriate choice given the television show’s focus on the shifting consumer culture and its influencers of the 1960s. And to add another layer to all this is the fact that the original version of Autumn Leaves was written by Joseph Kosma, who was related to László Moholy-Nagy, another legendary Bauhaus figure and a colleague of Albers there.”

Albers

 

VISUAL OF THE WEEK: Selfridges Window Display: “Bright Old Things” featuring Roger Miles
Roger Miles worked for 32 years as a chartered accountant for Deloitte, and was a senior partner for 20 years. In 2009, he hung up his abacus and went to Chelsea College of Arts, being awarded a BA in Fine Art with 1st class honours. Roger’s final College show in 2014 was an immersive experience that focused on the interaction between visitor and artist. The installation recreated a ’70s record store in a mobile library, with most of the contents coming from his previous art residency at a recycling centre.
This isn’t the first time you have worked at Selfridges? “No it isn’t. During Christmas in 1975, I worked for four weeks in the bedspread department. I had just started my accounting degree, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was at number 1 and punk music was just around the corner. I was working hard to convince customers to convert from bedspreads to the new fangled duvet from Scandinavia. Almost 40 years later, I have returned as an artist – just don’t ask me about tog values…”

Selfridges

ADVICE TO FOLLOW…
David Byrne, The Proust Questionnaire, Vanity Fair
What is your favourite journey? From the barroom to the bedroom… that’s not really true – it just popped into my head, but, wow, it sounds like a song waiting to be written! Maybe a song for someone else, I think. My favorite journey is the journey that an idea takes when taken all the way to its logical conclusion–  which usually ends up being a place that is surreal and ridiculous. Logic and rationality taken all the way to the end are irrational and nonsensical.”

SONG OF THE WEEK
“Stonemilker” by Bjork. Entirely written, played and produced by Bjork. The Max Richter-like orchestration. The ebb and flow. The percussion from the Beach Boys’ “Diamond Head”.  The way she sings “juxtaposition”.

IF I WERE ON TWITTER, I’D FOLLOW: Maureen Van Zandt

Maureen

AND ON THE PLAYLIST THIS WEEK…
Isn’t it odd when you haven’t thought about a musician in years and then, in the space of a few days their name comes up. Recently, designing a novel for Sam Charters, this was quoted at the start: “In the olden days they called them fables/But they’re nothing but doggone lies…” Old minstrel show song recorded by Jesse Fuller, “The Lone Cat.”  A lovely post by Thom Hickey, dreaming of being the Smithsonian’s Director sends me back to Jesse’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” (which you’ll find on the music player to your right). Here’s the nice story of the inspiration for his homemade foot-operated bass/percussion instrument, the Fotdeller: “It took me a whole week one time when I wasn’t doing anything, and I made the thing I call the Fotdella in my back room. I just got the idea lyin’ in my bed one night, just like I write songs… I thought about doin’ something like that (the Fotdella) so that I could have something to go along with me and help me out instead of another fellow. I just took some Masonite, heated some wood in hot water and rounded it off around a wheel. I learned that in the barrel factory where I used to work – that the way they do the staves. I tried to use bass fiddle strings, but they don’t sound so good, they stretch out of tune so I use piano strings”.

Five Things Extra! Blake Mills at Bush Hall

BM

First thing I wanna say: Alabama Shakes are in good hands. The producer of their second album, due soon, is on stage at Bush Hall tonight and is, second song in, playing Joe Tex’s “I’ll Never Do You Wrong” up a storm, his unfettered guitar slashing out a solo that is terrifyingly “backwoodsy”. He isn’t going to lose the Shakes spontaneity, that’s for sure. His Coodercaster-style guitar has a pickup that sounds like a swarm of bees, apposite considering Joe’s wonderful lyrics for that song (“And if I ever make you cry/Baby, I hope a fly alight on my pie/I hope a bee sting me over my eye”), but his syncopated style puts me most in mind of Lowell George, another great songwriter/guitarist with an unusually broad musical worldview. Seated for the whole gig, Mills would often take delight in a particular phrase and caress it again and again, smiling to himself all the while, especially when leading the band to the brink of a canyon of noise, to only let it all fall away, opening up a cavernous gap filled only by the sound of reverb throbbing its way into the distance…

At various points you could say Manuel Galban or Les Paul, or, I don’t know, Dick Dale, Chet Atkins, Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson. I’m not trying to pigeonhole, just trying to get a little of the flavour of someone who – combining great taste with an experimentalist’s bravado – takes the audience (which tonight includes Don Was and Marcus Mumford) on a sonic tour of all the places a guitar can go. Some songs sound beamed in from the mazy dreamscape of an American midnight, where you hear the gaps between the radio stations and the signal comes and goes. Others (the “Who Do You Love” riff, bludgeoned – thrillingly – for about six minutes) show that taking the volume control down to one doesn’t negate his love of turning it up to 11. Oh, and I’ve never seen a performer hit his guitar as much as Mills, either thumping the upper bout or wrenching the body back from the neck for a little improvised tremolo.

With a fine rhythm section of Stuart Johnson, on a kit that includes an enormous Marching Bass Drum and – I think – no hi-hat, and Sebastian Steinberg on deep, deep bass, with Tyler Chester on vintage keys (Chamberlin, Mellotron and Wurlitzer) the music could flip between a swampy ZZ Top boogie and a wistful Randy Newman vibe with ease. The switches in tone  were jagged and dramatic, but they always made sense. Fiona Apple joined in for a suitably gothic/gospel version of Conway Twitty and Jack Nance’s “It’s Only Make Believe” and a couple of the songs that she sings on Mills’ new album, Heigh Ho. After an audience meltdown brought them back for an encore, we were treated to an extraordinary cover of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” that was part-Elvis, part-Twin Peaks (it owed a lot to Chester’s fifties sci-fi soundtrack organ). In a burnished croon, head flung back and eyes closed, Blake Mills sang it to the rafters, and then soloed with a hushed, dampened series of semi-atonal Les Paul phrases. I realised that for most of the gig I had been leaning forward, not to watch his fingers, but because the music somehow demanded it.

The are some good videos online, but nothing really replaces sitting twenty yards from his amplifiers. Fretboard Journal has a fascinating hour-long interview here.

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