Thursday, February 16th

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

head

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 DiscoThe 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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Friday, February 10th

ONE THIS WEEK IN FILMLAND 1
I often think that getting older is a fight against becoming jaded. And this thought occurs often when watching films. So few do anything out of the ordinary, that you haven’t seen a hundred times before. Television has now become the place for long-form narratives, leaving most films with an undercooked set of characters (stack 120 minutes up against several thousand – we could call it, say, the Analyse This vs The Sopranos syndrome). To watch a film like Hackshaw Ridge is to see (once, that is, you’ve got past Mel Gibson’s gratuitous and unsavoury dwelling over flailed and melted flesh and blown-apart faces) a film cleave so strongly to the time-honoured template that you know every plotline and signpost right down to the end credits. Large chunks of predictable dialogue, poor CGI and painfully obvious music leave you wondering just how much time and money it took to make such a mediocre film, one that does no service to the incredible true story that it’s based on.

So this week it was great to see two films that jettisoned most of the rulebook. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is an hallucinatory impression of the time between the assassination of JFK and his funeral procession through a stunned Washington, from the viewpoint – and through the face of – Jacqueline Kennedy. From the first, queasy string figure over impressionistic images of Natalie Portman as Jackie, the music mirrors the choppy, darting way that the film is edited. The score, by Mica Levi, is solemn and vertiginous by turns, and stunningly integrated. Apparently she sent some proposed sections to Larrain before the editing started and he worked with them. Maybe that’s how the jolting lurches, the film’s visual signature, came about.

This is from groovy online magazine FACT: “I’ve just always been interested in those glisses,” Levi says of the warped sound that permeates the score. “It’s something that happens if you slow [your playing] down, you get this glooping and distortion and morphing of [sound].” A glissando, or a glide, also gives the score an extra frill – but it also creates a sound palette for Jackie that is both reminiscent of the 1960s, and reflective of music right now. “Back in the day, especially around this time, a lot of music was quite soupy and there was a way of being indulgent by having a glissando. There’s something quite rich about it,” Levi says. You can stream the soundtrack here.

[I’d really recommend watching a fascinating and beautifully-made documentary found on National Geographic’s channel, JFK: The Final Hours, before seeing the film [on YouTube here]. It examines the three-day trip to Texas that ended in Dealey Plaza, interviewing people who met or saw the First Couple, from 8-year old Bill Paxton (who narrates the film) to 30-year-old Alexander Arroyos, vice chairman of the League of Latin American citizens, whose event on the eve of their flight to Dallas was graced by Jacqueline Kennedy giving a short speech in Spanish, which she’s seen practicing in Jackie.]

TWO THIS WEEK IN FILMLAND 2
I’m not sure what to say about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, only that it’s absolutely astonishing. Paradoxically it builds up a head of steam while becoming quieter and more static, so that by the last scenes you’re almost holding your breath. No reviews that I’ve read so far have really conveyed what makes it unique, and I’m not going to try. Visually it looks like it’s been shot by a great photojournalist and, sonically, the score by Nicholas Britell is perfect [excerpt here].

THREE SKY ARTS LIVE AT ABBEY ROAD CLASSICS (!)
I can’t tell you how many of the performances in this series are anything but. However, a new low was reached by Bryan Adams, promoting his 2008 album, 11. A self-satisfied cliché-machine, he managed to talk about his own studio in Vancouver (“State-of-the-Art” – aren’t they always?) rather than say anything about the hallowed space of Abbey Road. After 20 minutes of sustained pummeling, the chords of D and G were ready to give up the ghost. The lyrics. The lyrics. The lyrics! Not even Songwriting 101. “She’s got a way of getting inside your soul/She’d breach the walls of Jericho/Make you fall like virgin snow…” And the deathless, “She comes to me like rain falls down my window, Sure as night will follow day.” Anyway, here’s a still of Jerry Jemmott’s exquisite fingers (he was playing with Gregg Allman on one of the programmes) from just before the fade for the end credits.

jemmott

FOUR DAVID BYRNE ON THE ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG SHOW
On seeing the exhibition at Tate Modern, Byrne wrote:
“We began to ask about the place where Bob spent some of his formative years, Black Mountain College, in North Carolina… Here are the basics of the school’s philosophy. John Rice, the founder, believed that the arts are as important as academic subjects; there was less segregation between disciplines than you’d find at a conventional school; no separation between faculty and students; no grades; no compulsory classes. Here’s what now seems like a really radical idea – manual labour (gardening, construction, etc) was also key. No one had outside jobs; they all chipped in to build the actual school, and helped serving meals or doing maintenance. I asked the curator, Achim, if these new ideas about progressive education were what was primarily responsible for the explosion of creativity in this tiny school. He said, yes, those factors were influential, but just as much were other factors – the fact that many of the faculty were refugees (those pesky immigrants!) from the rise of nationalism and intolerance going on in Europe at the time.”

Here is a link to the story of the cover that Rauschenberg made for Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues.

FIVE EVEN MORE MUSIC TV
The Channel 4 series, The Great Songwriters, has been hit and miss – Ryan Adams was a little dull, Bill Withers was interesting (but the programme featured his daughter performing his songs rather pallidly), Jimmy Webb strangled his own creations and Carly Simon was fine-ish. The Barry Gibb one was fascinating, though, as Barry, like Tom Jones in his autobiography, was straightforward and honest about failure as well as success.

Can I ask you about “Islands in the Stream”?
“Islands in the Stream” was written with Diana Ross in mind, as we were finishing up that project, which proves that R ’n’ B and country music are alike in many ways – we didn’t think of it in terms of Kenny Rogers. Kenny called up and said, would you do a couple of songs for me? And, once again, Maurice said we should be recording this song, but I believe if we’d recorded that song we wouldn’t have got on the radio. Because it was post-Fever, and that was our fate at that point, but hey, we thought we were finished in 1972!

It was Eric Clapton who said, “Why don’t you do what I did, and record in Miami? You make a record on American turf, you become Americanised…” So we did… The Eagles had brought out “One of These Nights” (also featuring a lot of falsetto as it happens!), and everyone was[recording] next door to us. Crosby, Stills and Nash were sitting in our studio as we recorded… not in the control room, on the studio floor! And Steven Stills played timbales on “You Should be Dancing”. Those experiences were phenomenal!” [ed: Which led to their post-shooting soundtrack work on Saturday Night Fever – where, in fact, John Travolta had actually been dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs tracks during the filming.]

AND FINALLY… THINGS I FORGOT TO POST IN 2016, PART 1
A wonderful piece on an extraordinary event: George Foster was at Albert Ayler’s appearance at the London School of Economics in 1966, and this is his fascinating account of how shabbily the establishment and the BBC dealt with it. The International Times printed this (below), and you can read the piece, published by London Jazz News, here.

! Ayler.jpg

If you’re receiving the e-mailout, please click on the Date Headline of the page for the full 5 Things experience. It will bring you to the site (which allows you to see the Music Player) and all the links will open in another tab or window in your browser.

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