Wednesday, May 2nd

It was a week of strangeness, a week where Gibson went bankrupt, Bob Dylan turned distiller and Prince had a new song out…

ONE “I’M LIKE A BIRD WITHOUT A SONG”
With some synchronicity, there I was talking about Susan Rogers (see the music player on the right) and Eric Leeds, when she’s interviewed by The Guardian for the release of Prince’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. “One day, he went into a room with a notebook and, within an hour, emerged with the lyrics to “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Rogers, who witnessed many such bursts of creativity, remembers, “The song came out like a sneeze.” As usual, she rolled the tapes as Prince laid down instrument after instrument, mixing and overdubbing in the same session (Eric Leeds overdubbed the sax part three days later).”

It starts for all the world like a Harry Nilsson song, a fairground calliope round punctuated by a percussive dah-dah! Then the vocal starts, a tune you know so well that any deviance from the version you’ve loved since 1990 pulls you up short. There’s an unexpected muscularity as the drums and swooping guitar fly in at the end of the first line. It has that loosey-goosey drumming style that Stevie Wonder had when he overdubbed on top of his own drum parts. (Eddie Hinton was another captain manyhands in this regard – try “Watch Dog”). It also has a couple of bluesy turns to the melody which really work, and listen to how Eric Leeds’ tenor picks up on that sour/sweetness beautifully. Susan thought the finished song was “exceptional, in his Top 10”. She was right – it’s a masterpiece. Really.

TWO “I BEEN A MOONSHINER…”
As I write this, son is in L.A. attempting to buy a bottle of Bob’s new signature hootch, Heaven’s Door. According to Clay Risen of The New York Times, “the palate opens with a soft cocoa and buttercream note, then sharpens toward black pepper and cigar tobacco. The finish is slightly bitter, with the sweet spiciness of an Atomic Fireball.” Sounds good, Clay. Let’s hope Gabe hits paydirt. It’s occasioned the release of more pictures of Bob in his ironworking studio, along with inspirational quotes…

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…but there’s a cute bit of the Heaven’s Door site that has a random selection of Bob’s original typescripts for songs. This one, for “Blind Willie McTell” – bootlegged whisky in his hand – has the fabulous (cut) couplet, “Just me and Betty Grable, trying to stay warm…”

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THREE “DON’T THINK TWICE, IT’S ALRIGHT”
While typing, I’m listening to Verona, the last show of the Dylan European Tour (it’s here) which features heavily re-arranged versions of the entire set-list. There’s an intimate and gentle loveliness to pretty much everything played, like the band are gathered around one mic in a triangle of light. Although it’s all very restrained, there are some neat angles to the melody lines (mainly in the form of unison lap steel/guitar features). The version of “Tangled up in Blue” is very odd, but the American Songbook stuff is gorgeous, “Honest with Me” is given a total Eddie Cochran makeover (quite a lot of the gig has a dawn of R&R feel) and “Pay in Blood” has now become a brilliant kind of Weimar Blues. Bob’s own piano playing is on-the-money, operating at the most eccentric end of his spectrum. The interludes in “Ballad of a Thin Man” – well it’s nothing like you’d expect. The whole band sound like they’re having the damnedest time. Good on Ol’ Whiskey Bob.

FOUR RY COODER TOURS AGAIN, AT SON’S INSISTENCE…
Well done, Joaquin! Of course, The Prodigal Son London date sold out instantly. A shame, as Cadogan Hall would be an excellent venue to hear him and his band of young guns play. I managed to get tickets for the gig at the National Stadium in Dublin, the world’s only purpose-built boxing stadium, built in 1939. Wish me luck. I mean, acoustically it could be fine, I just have my doubts… Oh, and someone put this excellent promo film on YouTube recently: Van Dyke Parks’ first music video production at Warner Brothers Records, in 1970. “I headed up a pioneering office that I titled ‘Audio Visual Services.’ Of those several ten-minute documentary musical shorts, I know of only one that survives – ‘Ry Cooder’”. Dig the pick-up truck and Airstream trailer.

FIVE MORTIFICATION CORNER
I’m at the dentist, around the corner from Selfridges. Across from me, looking at his phone is Toby Jones. Who doesn’t love Toby Jones as an actor? Brilliant in his breakthrough role as Truman Capote in Infamous, marvellous as Neil Baldwin in Marvellous (the story of Stoke City Football Club’s kit-man), and fantastic alongside Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists.

I have a guitar with me, which I never do. I hate carrying a guitar around town. I feel a charlatan. I have it because my sister-in-law, Hedda, has asked me to bring it to that evening’s Mark Kermode in 3D at the BFI, of which she is one of the producers. Not to play, you understand, but as a back-up, in case actor Johnny Flynn can’t bring his to the show. Johnny wrote and the theme song for Detectorists, so I’m amused by the coincidence. Dentist visit done with, I head to the South Bank, and to the Green Room. Tonight’s guests are Charlie Brooker of Black Mirror fame and Jessie Buckley and Johnny, who are there to talk about their new film, Beast.

I’m talking to Mark, who says that Johnny won’t be here for the start of the show, and we work out a bit of business where, as Johnny’s introduced, Mark will ask if anyone has a guitar. Guitar secreted under my seat, that’ll be my cue to hold my hand up and pass it to the front. Hilarity will ensue.

Mark asks if the guitar’s in tune, so I say yes but get it out to check. As I’m doing so, Mark then suggests a run through, and pulling out his harmonica, calls Jessie over, and expects me to play along, with Charlie Brooker and Hedda for an audience. The chords for, yes, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” fly from my head, and Jessie’s lovely voice is left to deal with my all-over-the-shop guitar.  Attempting to pull the chords up on the phone is tricky, as the BFI building seems to block 4G signals, but Mark somehow gets them. Not so they fit on a tiny phone screen, however. We go again, there’s much stopping and starting, but it gets the key worked out, warms Jessie’s voice up and allows Mark to sort out the right cross-key for his harmonica.

The show is, as usual, highly entertaining, and Charlie Brooker’s love for the terrifying Magic Roundabout film, Dougal and the Blue Cat, a sight to see. Then Johnny arrives on stage, and he and Jessie try to talk about a film that is almost impossible to without spoiling its taut roll-out of character and tension. Then Mark asks his guests to play a song, and if there’s a guitar in the house. There is. It’s Johnny’s, but no-one’s told Mark so he points me out, and expects me to hand it to him. But I’d been asked to leave mine in the Green Room in case Johnny wanted to familiarise himself with it. And no-one’s told Mark, but it only adds to the rather carnival-esque atmosphere of these shows… All is well, though, and they essay a sweet, skipping version of “Don’t Think Twice”.

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Afterwards, I talk to Johnny about his love of the fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt (listen to the Detectorists theme to check that out), his upcoming live album (and great live albums of the past), Blake Mills’ production of his friend Laura Marling’s Semper Femina (I love how Mills pushed the structures of the music, but he’s not so sure) and his lovely 1934 wooden Resonator guitar (a National Trojan, I think). He’s a lovely guy, great at both things he does, as is the extremely talented Jessie. And, thankfully, I hadn’t seen the excellent Beast before I met them both. That’s all I’m saying.

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Wednesday, April 18th

This week’s missive has been written to a soundtrack of Bettye Lavette singing “Emotionally Yours” from her new record of Dylan covers, “Sometimes It Snows In April” from Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s Ventriloquism, her album of 80s covers, Melody Gardot’s fine Live in Europe, and The Kills’ new single (see below).

ONE RECOMMENDED FILMS 1
If you’re a lover of B-Movies then get to the cinema quickly for A Quiet Place, so you don’t read anything more about it [like this – Ed]. Director John Krasinski played composer Marco Beltrami Peter Gabriel’s version of Bowie and Eno’s “Heroes” as a direction for the minimal score, to be done on a minimal budget. “All I needed were strings and a piano. I de-tuned the piano’s black keys to make it a little askew.” It works beautifully, merging in with the almost silent film, where most of the sound comes from whispers, feet padding on sanded paths, and the tiny creaks of floorboards.

TWO RECOMMENDED FILMS 2
Also out now, the terrifying You Were Never Really Here, by Lynne Ramsay, with Joaquin (or as he’s now known in our house, WhackHim)
Phoenix. Wow. Dark, disturbing, oppressive, incredibly filmed and directed, it’s a nasty, bruitish tale that seems totally at home in the world today. I always think that films dealing with exploitation veer perilously close to the thing they’re moralising about, and this is in the tradition of Scorsese and Schrader’s Taxi Driver, and, especially, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, the next film he wrote, about a father searching for his daughter amid the world of Snuff films. There is one of those sequences that critics call “bravura”, where Phoenix is seen dispatching various hoods via CCTV screens, as a distorted soundtrack plays Rosie and the Originals “Angel Baby”, a song that even in its original form is pretty distorted.

In an interview with Emily Yoshida for Vulture, Ramsay tells how this sequence came about: “So we started walking through the whole sequence, and the DP shot it, and I started thinking about how I was going to use the sound. And I started to think, you know, this [the grainy CCTV footage] feels right for that moment in the film. It’s a risky thing to do, but it was kind of a light-bulb moment when our backs were against the wall in many ways. And then for the sound stuff, with the skipping music, we tried a lot of different things; we tried using just room tone. But “Angel Baby” was the first track I tried, and I thought, maybe it’s just an interior track. And we were playing with it, and it kind of messes with your brain a little bit; it comes out of different speakers. And then the idea of the time slice, where you take little pieces of the song out, so the cuts “jump” even more. It sets up sort of a startling tone. So once we kind of hit on that, I was like, we’re kind of using the music in a different way — you don’t exactly know what or why, but it does something to you.” Startling is right – it’s a brilliant effect, and if the film is slightly unsatisfying it’s not for want of realism or talent.

THREE ANOTHER FILM RECOMMENDATION!

5-billfrisellThis time on DVD, this one Emma Franz’ intimate film about Bill Frisell, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, which illuminates the rather terrifying creative process that takes place in Bill’s mind. At one point he’s doing a concert with pianist Jason Moran, and sends him over a sheaf of song ideas, about forty, from a pile of hundreds that he’d written in a short period. My favourite section has Frisell trying to remember how a particular song goes, and failing, saying how he hopes it will come to him in the moment, and cutting to him playing it brilliantly that night. It also has the treasurable Joey Baron, as interviewee and collaborator, whose recollections are a total hoot. Help enable Emma to make more great films by buying a copy!

FOUR THINKING ABOUT RECORDING WITH…
Ndugu Chancler [see the music player on the right] made me look out this, Eric Leeds’ horn chart for Hot House’s “Means Too Much”
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He flew into L.A. from Minneapolis to work with our co-producer, Susan Rogers, who was also recording with Wendy & Lisa on her days off. We asked Susan if Eric would write a horn section for this song and, boy, did he ever. He came in and blazed his way through the five parts (alto, three tenors, baritone), not a note out of place. It was like magic.

FIVE EIGHT BY EIGHT BY…
I was interviewing legendary NYC Art Director Robert Priest by Skype this week about his extraordinary global football magazine, Eight by Eight, when he asked me what I was listening to. That question always blindsides me, but as I was seated at the computer, I was able to give him a couple of names. I reversed the question, and he said that the Priest & Grace office loved The Kills. Which was weird, as I was going to mention their new single in answer to his original question. It’s called “List of Demands (Reparations)” and is fantastic – a howling thump of in-your-face menace, placed right at the corner where The Ting Tings meet Queen’s “We Will Rock You”!

If you’re receiving the email out, 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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