Sunday, June 17, 2012


It's been a long time and a hard, difficult decision has been made to leave blogger and move to wordpress, to start a new blog under the old name, make a clean slate and in a sense begin all over again. I hope anyone who has been reading this blog will be willing to move to my revamped site. Over there I've added new features (such as tags, embedded videos and extra pages). I'm bringing over my old reviews one at a time, revising them as I go. I'm using my Nymith moniker and have dispensed with the Monday regime. I have tried to retain the spirit from over here regardless and hope any who check it out will see these things as improvements rather than unnecessary clutter. It was a great journey to make, from my earliest reviews to my final ones, but this blog is now the record of my first apprenticeship. My new blog is the continuing story. Please check it out. I won't be posting here again but I'm grateful for what silent audience I was able to muster this time around. Goodbye. R.M./C.M.

Monday, April 2, 2012

51st... A bitter glass of life

Scary Monsters.

After this, for David Bowie, there was nothing. That's the popular consensus, at least. This 1980 record is given somewhat undue status in the Bowie discography for the simple enough reason that all the fans, left bewildered and betrayed as he spent the ensuing decade in an advanced state of sell-out, were left clutching Scary Monsters as the symbol of genius past, the last true David Bowie album.

That doesn't make the CD first tier, of course. It's a world-weary and cynical affair, a followup and stepdown from his Berlin Trilogy, or if you like, Heroes. To me, it's the other side of Lodger - fixing that record's main flaw, Scary Monsters is a cohesive whole which has a specific road to travel, unlike Lodger, which starts abruptly, takes several violent shifts in direction, scatters itself to the four winds and then just stops. Scary Monsters is technically the better production, even though it's not as much fun to listen to.

David's partnership with Brian Eno had lost its creative spark, so they went their separate ways, Brian to make sound paintings and produce the Talking Heads, David to make music that would be accessible. Gone here are the improvised lyrics and waves of dissonance, and the production only rarely gets out of bounds. At the same time, having survived the seventies, his divorce finalized and all his emotional baggage needing to be unpacked, what took place in the studio was what David later described as "some kind of purge." In direct opposition to the glamorous dystopias and insular characters from earlier albums, Scary Monsters has a sense of the real world and its forceful intrusions upon an artist's inner life.

Of all the captivatingly odd beginnings in the Bowie catalogue, from the heartbeat drum of Five Years to the train sounds to David's starkly intoned "Nothing remains..." on Sunday, Scary Monsters wins the "most astonishing" prize. It's No Game (No. 1) begins with Tony Visconti starting up a tape deck, a quick spin of a noisemaker and then wham! you're accosted by the angry voice of a Japanese lady (Michi Hirota). When David does get in on the act, his voice is as painfully contorted as his body was on the Lodger cover, screaming about revolution, refugees and fascists. Clunky, mangled guitar matches him straight to the end, to his final cries of "shut up!" The song is ugly, plain and simple. It's also totally brilliant, a four minute showcase of David's willingness to go out on a limb.

Up the Hill Backwards is a slab of cacophonous but accessible art-rock. It's pretty obviously a divorce song, but one senses a hangover of civil unrest that infects the whole record. David sings in chorus over all kinds of Bo Diddley beats.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is expansive and claustrophobic (rather like a speeding car). It's also an ominous work, David's voice distorted by an extreme cockney accent and an attitude of cruel indifference to a mentally ill girl. "She asked me to stay and I stole her room/asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind/now she's stupid, in the street, and she can't socialize," to sarcastically conclude "well I loved the little girl and I'll love her till the day she dies." The repetitive striking of metal and the guitar licks aid the atmosphere, though it does go on a bit long...

Ashes to Ashes is one of the ultimate Bowie classics, with a shimmering melodic hook and his voice at its fragile best in the confessions of long lost astronaut Major Tom. The beauty of the work is reflected in the video, featuring David in an extraordinary, very European clown costume, suffering quietly through all manner of strange things. The music video never got better than that and new wave never got better than this. The haunting backing vocals, the dignity that carries the chorus and ending refrain "my mama said/to get things done/you'd better not mess with Major Tom," is exquisite.

Fashion is a cynical dance-floor track, filled with the obvious beats and handclaps, while simultaneously provoking a flood of sharp-edged, angry guitar. Ah, if he'd taken Fashion as his cue in making Let's Dance....he'd have made a lot less money.

Anyway... Side Two gets started with the criminally underrated epic Teenage Wildlife. David's powerhouse singing as he unveils a tale of desperation and unhappiness, going from guttural to falsetto, dispassionate to anguished, articulate to incoherent.... It's amazing and I'm puzzled at the song's obscurity.

Scream Like a Baby is too tricked out and effects-laden for its own good, starting strong within the rattled brain of a victim of a totalitarian regime. "Well, I wouldn't buy no merchandise/and I wouldn't go to war/.../and I hide under blankets/or did I run away? The machinery rhythms in the music strengthen the vision, but somehow it doesn't coalesce into anything. It feels like filler when it really shouldn't.

A Television cover! Why wasn't this a single? Devoid of the lyric, Kingdom Come is an excellent slice of pop music, remarkably short and enjoyable. The story it tells is probably meant to evoke negro songs from the plantations, but here the context shifts to the territory of prison camps, gulags and the hopeless endurance of a man who sees no future left for him. Grim.

Stuart Townsend guests on Because You're Young. His riff is awesome, but the track suffers from over-production. It's way too busy for its own good, worked over past endurance. A pity, since there's a good song in there someplace. Visions of war-torn young lives, and the unexpectedly unguarded line "the people I know/people I love/they seem so unhappy/dead or alive..." and Townsend on guitar are all lost, drowned by all this stuff. A pity.

It's No Game (No. 2) plays over the same backing tracks and has the same tempo as the original. No Japanese and no violent guitar. It's a weary, more coherent version of events, all the bile having run out over the past nine songs. David sounds like he's glancing at his watch. He sings his last song, puts on coat and hat, leaves the building. And then he just stands drained in the doorway, looking out onto the street. "So where's the moral?"

No, it's not the last great Bowie record. There were a few more in the offing....

Well, so it's another of those dark CDs I like so much. Enjoy.

Monday, February 6, 2012

50th.... "These dark cafe days"

I've finally done it. Several weeks behind ideal schedule, I have reached my first milestone. 50 fine reviews in backlog, people! Next milestone is, of course, 75 - that's to let me celebrate more often.

Now on to the business at hand. If I'd been thinking about it, I would have picked a more grandiose commemorative CD, but this is the one I really wanted to hear this week.


This may be the ultimate singer-songwriter album right here before you. Behold Blue. Behold Joni Mitchell in 1971, writing songs on the guitar and piano, not feeling too great about herself. Having split up with Graham Nash she went on a vacation in Europe and wrote most of the songs for this record, considered her finest work and one of the pinnacles of 20th Century music. The sound of the record is quite spare, yet incredibly unique. Joni tuned her guitar differently to augment her appreciation of jazz chords and also played Appalachian dulcimer in preference to it on some of the tracks. Additional guitarists (such as James Taylor and Stephen Stills) and a drummer help out on half of the ten tracks. Her subject is solidly confessional.

So it's the best summation of the singer-songwriter genre, but what is it that makes it good? There is firstly her supreme talent for songwriting. A Case of You is a fine example not only of her intricate melodies but also of her singing method. Each time she reaches the chorus she approaches it differently, altering what it was before. Her songs are unexpected. It's not surprising that she later tipped over into jazz experimentation but her early work makes for some of the most variated and mature music to fit in the singer-songwriter canon.

The subject of most of the songs written on Earth is love, in one form or another (that statistic was a guess, by the way, but a valid one). Consequent to love songs being a dime a dozen, most of them look pretty superficial and fall into one of two categories:
"I'm in love and it's a sunny day!" (Good Day, Sunshine)
"Some people cry and some people die by the wicked ways of love" (Heartbreaker)
Blue being an honest representation of how Joni was feeling at the time, it is not so easy to sum up. There is an overall downcast feel to the songs - it's a somber record, and a changeover one as her last allowance of a clear-cut, folkish simplicity of style and her first wholeheartedly confessional, first-person set of narratives. And yet, despite the somberness of the record, there's also an ambivalence that is, as far as I'm concerned, genius.

That mixed-up quality is clear from the start with All I Want. First off: her singing is incredible as she speeds through this ridiculously detailed jumble of melodic virtuosity and delightfully confused emotional imagery. It's a love song, homespun and quite ardent but almost the first thing she says is "I hate you some/I love you some/I love you when I forget about me." It's honest and revealing but most of the song is built on idyllic hopes and wishes that, together with the sheer amount of perception crammed in 3 1/2 minutes, makes the mood strangely complex and thoroughly charming.

My Old Man is Joni at the piano for an eloquent, simple vignette of a woman with whom "the blues collide" every time her lover goes away. It does not capture the attention quite as well as the opener, but it builds upon the theme of this first domestic chapter of Blue.

Little Green is somewhat left-field, a beautifully sung guitar ballad whose meaning the lyric does not entirely make clear. The welfare of a child is the focus as Joni wistfully lists what the child shall expect. "There'll be icicles and birthday clothes/and sometimes there'll be sorrow." It has a similar quality to The Circle Game and unlike the others, this song had been in storage since 1967 and so its thematic placement on the record is unsure and yet oddly suited to the recent material.

What's really out of place are the backing vocals on Carey. This song kicks off the "expatriate chapter" of the record (I'm serious, this is clearly divided into three parts). The song is snazzy and self-confident as Joni prepares to depart the roughshod bohemian life she's led on Crete. As she plans her departure to nicer climes "maybe I'll go to Amsterdam/or maybe I'll go to Rome/and rent me a grand piano/and put some flowers 'round my room," she thinks with passing regret about having to leave her "mean old daddy" Carey behind. Stills' guitar and bass and nice ways to expand the sound, but those backups are an unnecessary production flourish.

Most of these songs have the ring of prose about them but Blue itself is a poem. Joni was living in California (rock's tenth circle of hell) and this is her poetic glance at its dubious offers. "Well there's so many sinking now/you've got to keep thinking/you can make it through these waves." Metaphors of the ocean and tattoos are used, though for a purpose too obscure for me to grasp completely. Her singing on this one is heartbreaking.

California is the other side of the story, as the expatriate has had her fill of Paris and Spain and looks forward to coming back home. It's the brightest song in this crowd and includes some pedal steel for variety.

This Flight Tonight is the bridge from traveling to being down and out. Love, a subject skirted after the first two songs, can no longer be drummed out. For the first time, a sense of genuine regret and uncertainty greets the wandering heroine as she flies across Nevada and longs to turn around. Still sporting pedal steel, the sound is darker, Joni sounds more distracted. Best of all, though, is the radio cut-in from a song she's hearing on the airplane. For some reason, that's what gives this song its kick.

By the time of River, Joni's singing of being trapped, all alone, rooted in one place with only her self-awareness left. A simple piano accompaniment that sounds at first like a distortion of Jingle Bells enhances the sense of holiday blues. She clearly misses the Canadian winters. "I wish I had a river/I could skate away on/I wish I had a river so long/I could teach my feet to fly." It's one of the most acute cases of regret depicted in music.

A Case of You is, I believe, the first Mitchell tune I ever heard and which left me non-plussed for the longest time. It's one of her best, most ambiguous, lyrics. "Oh I am a lonely painter/I live in a box of paints/I'm frightened by the devil/and I'm drawn to those ones that ain't..." Entirely complicated, she doesn't even sing the same number lines in each verse. It never ceases to amaze me how she fits melodies onto what appears in print so solidly prose. This strange tale of devotion in hindsight compares a man to holy wine, the title referring to how much of him she thinks she can take.

The Last Time I Saw Richard is the summation of every small event in past songs. The contrast is astonishingly simple as it merely tells of a conversation between Joni and Richard where he dismissed love as "pretty lies" and she, the idealist, defended it. And in the present, Richard is settled down and married while Joni's lost in sorrows and cynicism. However, this happens to be the most upbeat downbeat finale I've ever encountered on CD (and a complete reversal of All I Want). "All good dreamers pass this way some day/hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes/.../only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away/only a phase, these dark cafe days."

I have only heard three Joni Mitchell records. Thought all are excellent, Blue is far and away the best of them. With a psychological realism that never takes an easy way out in the complexities of feeling, sparse musical materials, a way of getting the most out of a song and a stunningly emphatic voice, I think this must be the single greatest accomplishment in the realm of the singer-songwriter.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A freelance review

This is not going to be one of my elaborate reviews. Rather, it's going to be a rambling, enthusiastic recommendation to my readers to try something new and track down some Etta James. I myself only got around to her because of hearing about her recent death, so this appreciation is more in line with my earlier epitaph for Lena Horne than any of my usual reviews. Also, I hope some of my readers will appreciate my effort to keep up some level of activity on this blog.

If any of you ever want to send me fanmail or something....

The late Etta James was recording for Chess during the 1960s, when a singer's career was made or lost on the basis of singles. Albums scarcely entered the picture unless you were on the folk scene. Chess Records harboured musicians such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Howlin' Wolf. From what I know about them, Etta James was really something else.

Etta James is basically uncategorizable. She'd try her hand at anything, starting in the doo-wop and R&B genres, covering old pop tunes, covering the blues, adapting to soul, rocking out and even succeeding with the GREAT funk-tinged All the Way Down. At the advent of disco, she threw in the towel. "...I wasn't about to try to be like Donna Summer," she later said. This puts her golden period squarely in the 60s, and the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection of Her Best (pictured) is the place to start.

Frankly, Etta's homelife has the sound of a prolonged car crash. Underage mother, unknown father, on the road in the music business as a teenager, putting up with a string of abusive men and stuck with a drug habit almost all her life, Etta was nevertheless tough enough to survive all of what life dished out - and reflect it in her songs. Her tough, wiry, "don't mess with me" voice rings with an assurance that makes you believe all those emotions were being pulled from somewhere in herself. With her best material, you tune in to the joy or pain or recklessness within seconds.

The early selections on this particular CD are mostly made of recycled standards from the 40s. Being meant for crooners, that meant only one thing: schmaltz. Her signature song, At Last, has enough strings on it to make Phil Spector blush. That hardly matters with Etta singing so soulfully, so peacefully. The other tunes, such as My Dearest Darling, A Sunday Kind of Love, Trust in Me and Don't Cry Baby have a similar quality: they should be rather mundane love songs, but Etta refuses to croon, emoting and suffusing each song with an individual aura. It's not all gold. All I Could Do Was Cry has backing doo-wop vocals that sound horrible to my ears, at least.

The jauntier material is nothing if not better yet. If you don't smile the first time you hear Something's Got a Hold on Me, I'll worry about you. What starts as a cheeky send-up of gospel quickly becomes an awesome slice of early rock and roll, while Next Door to the Blues scorches with a sense of defiance and near-flippancy.

The second half of the CD sports a changing sound as music evolved from year to year. Two Sides to Every Story uses the horns and backup singers of classic uptempo soul, rushing headlong through the usual three minutes designated to pop songs. Pushover (one of her biggest hits) takes the same tack but mixes it with a slapdown of a self-assured town "Romeo" that makes for a satisfying story.

With the exceptions of the dirges Stop the Wedding and Losers Weepers, Part One, the rest of the late material is really strong, but first I'll mention the two duets. The early duet was If I Can't Have You (with Harvey Fuqua), a brassy little number with two rather comically opposed voices - Harvey sounds rather fussy, while Etta's all fire and strength. The other duet, In the Basement, Part One (with Sugar Pie DeSanto), is a delightful ode to the party zone. Etta and Sugar Pie compliment each other perfectly and the song shares the verve that Something's Got a Hold on Me had. A fun track.

A live bonus comes with the cover of Jimmy Reed: Baby, What You Want Me To Do. Etta could handle pure blues and judging from this sample, she must have been great to hear live. Messy, simple, weary and fierce (Jimmy himself never could sound fierce, which is why I like him anyway, but Etta's spin is excellent). She uses her voice like a horn at the end, which is enough reason to be impressed by this song.

In 1967, Etta went down south to Muscle Shoals and again revitalized her sound. Tell Mama was her big hit from this era, a strong piece of material, but the real gems are around it. There's the epic (five minutes!) funk influenced All the Way Down, an elaborate tell-it-like-it-is track, all about "boys playing games/changing their names/pulling tricks/getting their kicks/all the way down..." A truly great song and justifiably on the CD. There's an excellent Otis Redding cover, Security, and then there's I'd Rather Go Blind.

I'd Rather Go Blind is probably going to get among my top ten sad songs (and I've heard an awful lot). Everything about this short song is perfectly balanced and it gives me chills, that's how good it is. If I had to choose her definitive song, this would be the one. She sounds like she means every word she's saying, and the simplicity of the words (written by Ellington Jordan, who was a man in prison at the time) strike at the center of sorrow, and I, at least, have never been able to keep any sort of defense in place when listening to it. I feel it every time.

My conclusion is that Etta James deserves to be heard, and so I'm doing my own bit to spread the word, get some people to investigate her so they don't do what I, for the longest time, did: get her confused with Ella Fitzgerald. Do yourself a favour, track her down, give her a few listens and learn what I just learned. A great song has nothing to do with lyrical or musical virtuosity and everything to do with soul. And Etta James had a lot of soul. God bless her for it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

49th... Decadence

Aladdin Sane.

Okay, firstly I am sorry for the lapse. Really. It is unfortunate that I had to fall down over the holidays, but I'm back on my feet now. This review would have been ideal last week, but I was pressed for time and didn't make it, so up it goes now. My humblest apologies.

Aladdin Sane is possibly the ultimate "New Year's" record. An album that rocks and is camp (this in the same year that Queen first appeared on the map); an album that wears the Rolling Stones on its sleeve and refers to all-night parties, champagne, beautiful women, showbiz, insanity, inner-city unrest, world war and the ravages of age. It has incredible artwork. Even the title is cool. It's everything you could want in rock music, combining decadent style with tight songwriting and musical virtuosity. David Bowie's voice, meanwhile, underwent a radical change between the recording of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. In 1973, his voice, good as it was before, had gained a whole new vibrancy and assurance.

Watch That Man is an odd choice for an opening salvo, being as the vocals are all in the back. This doesn't harm the song, which is a start to finish rocker that you can dance to (I speak from experience). The song would seem an uncomplicated, glammed-up tune, but the album as a whole juggles glam with soul/doo-wop (courtesy of the backup singers) and what I would describe as cocktail jazz (courtesy of the great Mike Garson on piano). Sonically upbeat, Watch That Man is actually a paranoid scene of party excess gone awry if you listen closely. "A lemon in a bag played the Tiger Rag/and the bodies on the screen started bleeding..."

Aladdin Sane is tonier, a sophisticated mixture of jazz piano, Japanese rhythms and WWI ruminations (based on the literary source of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies). The centerpiece is Mike Garson's avantgarde piano solo - dissonant yet, as you become familiar with the song, strangely melodic... The song cuts through the extravagances of pre-war society to land in the fractured madness of war itself. The subtitle (1913-1938-197?) puts this as squarely in the Cold War as in the First and Second World Wars. As for Aladdin Sane, he hardly exists on his own record. He's more a phrase than a person. That makes this one of the best, and certainly the most elusive war song ever penned.

Drive-In Saturday is one of the great underrated Bowie tracks, a song drenched in vibrancy. Doo-wop, fabulous percussion, saxophone, scat singing, bombast and space-age synthwork at its finest abound. The story is of a post WWIII landscape, the denizens of a land "where once it raged, the sea that raged no more," watching old movies, fondly remembering the days of Twiggy and Jagger, trying "to keep formation/mid this fallout saturation." I haven't figured out what it all means, but it's wonderfully glamorous and melodramatic.

More eclecticism on Panic in Detroit, with congas and whooping female soul singers backing a riff-centric slice of rock and roll that caves in to dissonance in the end. This one has David relating a story of inner-city chaos, police crackdowns, anarchist celebrities and their fans.

Cracked Actor is full-throttle raunchy blues-rock (with the harmonica fed through an amp) from first note to last. Ornate glamour is cast aside and the debauchery of an aging film star is dragged right out in the open. It's quite the savage little piece, but it still rocks like hell.

Time is the album's resident epic. Garson's piano is pure cabaret glory, Mick Ronson is finally let off the hook for a solo, David's at his theatrical best... Time is drama of the highest order; it's almost camp, but ambiguity saves it. What starts as pure theater ("Time/he's waiting in the wings/he speaks of senseless things/his script is you and me") expands to include fear ("Well, I look at my watch/it says nine twenty-five/and I think, Oh God/I'm still alive") and a very strange attachment ("...perhaps you're smiling now/smiling through this darkness/but all I have to give/is guilt for dreaming"). If you can make sense of all that, more power to you. And when I count the great lyricists, David Bowie is right up there with the usual folkie suspects.

Doo-wop makes a flaming comeback with The Prettiest Star, an old tune he had first recorded in the early seventies. This remake actually fits perfectly into the Hollywood trappings, despite being written somewhere on Gloucester Road. It's a sweet little interlude, and sports an endearing guitar riff. The "bop-bop-ba-oo" line is suspiciously similar to the one in his later showbiz-draped love song Absolute Beginners. Light and frothy though the song is, it's still delightful.

Then there's...Let's Spend the Night Together. Did he really have to cover the Stones? The good first: it rocks. Okay, now the bad: the synth overplays its hand and becomes plain obnoxious. Also, this is not a hammy Stones song and so it doesn't adapt nicely to the glam treatment. Lastly, the song isn't sophisticated enough to fit in. It doesn't make the cut anymore than a cover of Long Tall Sally or My Generation would. Yet oddly, his late '73 cover album Pin Ups was a stunning exercise in adaptation. Maybe David just needed practice...

The Jean Genie does something different, taking a classic blues riff (I'm a Man, anyone?) and vamping up a completely new lyric to make a swaggering, sophisticated slab of New York City blues-rock. The characters could have walked out of a Velvet Underground song, the lyric strangely surrealistic and the title a forgivable pun on French writer and criminal Jean Genet.

Lady Grinning Soul concludes the record with a genuinely romantic ballad. Mike Garson aims for Chopin and Liszt, Mick Ronson adds a flamenco guitar bridge and David's voice is at its most delicate and ethereal. The lady in question is a woman so perfect she seems to leave men in rapturous uncertainty as to her very existence. At the end of the song, piano, voice and Ronson's electric guitar all soar away in a breathtaking finale.

As amazing a rock album as Ziggy Stardust was, Aladdin Sane - its American counterpoint - bests it through sheer eclectic pizazz. It can be forgiven a small misstep. Next year, David would best himself again with the even more elaborate, extravagant Diamond Dogs. Then, realising he'd taken pure rock as far as that angle would go, he spun off into blue-eyed soul, looking for a new approach. He got it, too. He melded soul with the inexpressive machinery of krautrock and came up with Station to Station. And it only took him three years to get from here to there!

I call that impressive.

Monday, December 12, 2011

48th... Few "loyal knights" left here...

Mirror Blue.

(Apologies for having to call in sick last week)

All Richard Thompson fans start their tribute reviews with a variation of this line: "I can't understand why this guy isn't more popular." The praises have been sung: great songwriter, great singer and great guitar player, insanely prolific and always of high quality. He's been at work since the late 60s and so there must be an album for every mood (I don't even own a tenth of his output, shame on me). If you're new to his work, drop everything and buy Action Packed: Best of the Capitol Years, as fine an introduction as you'll get.

So why isn't he more popular? I'll attempt an answer.

1. Bad timing. Richard started at a time when great guitar players were making their reputations, and he was on the wrong side of the fence. Folk just doesn't have that big an audience compared to rock, and so he always got the level of notice accorded to folkies - in the grand scheme of things, not a lot.

2. Richard's always had a black sense of humour, cropping up at odd moments, frequently blunt, off-colour and off-putting. If you don't have a cynical bone in your body, you probably won't like this guy.

3. Emotional cynicism. I got my first Thompson CD while witnessing a marriage break apart and ever since I've considered him the bard of divorce. His steady theme is love and he examines it from every conceivable angle, most of them pessimistic. When love is real (which isn't often), it costs. When love is not real (more often), it still costs. And you thought Leonard Cohen was depressing....

4. There was some damn fine music being released in 1994, debuts from Katell Keineg and Jeff Buckley among other stuff. Mirror Blue should have been released a year earlier, but there were reshuffles at Capitol and releasing and promoting Richard Thompson became a backburner priority. When the album came out even the critics didn't like it, claiming Mitchell Froom's production got in the way of the songs. I don't see it myself. But what does annoy me about Mirror Blue (that title's a quote from Tennyson, by the way) is Richard's cagey distrust of his audience. He can't trust them to handle a good, heartbreaking ballad, so he throws joke songs out to ruin the feeling. This happens twice. His earlier release, Rumour and Sigh, has the same problem.

Things start out in restrained manner; For the Sake of Mary is driven as much by percussion as guitar and takes a rather unexpected tack - there aren't that many devotional love songs in the Thompson canon, but this is one of them, focused on the nitty-gritty changes that have to be made to look after someone else, and the emotional trip-ups that can get in the way of the best intentions. "For the sake of Mary/I keep the flame/I don't want to be the villain again/she's had her bad times and it's shook her about/I don't want to take the easy way out." There's some great guitar here, as a sample of what's to come.

That's a distorted washboard you hear at the opening of I Can't Wake Up to Save My Life, a delightful rocker that best shows off his weird sense of humour. It's about a man who's done (unspecified) things that "make [his] dreams go bad/like Borstal boys coming home to Dad..." The imagery is choice; funny and dramatic, whilst the ridiculous situation heightens the inherent truth of the song.

MGB-GT tackles the car song with easygoing charm and some fabulous middle eastern flourishes. The happiest fellow you'll meet on this record spends all his time tinkering with his automobile. The man responsible for all the percussion is called Pete Thomas and he's brilliant - the messy drumroll tossed in at the end fits the song perfectly. Delightful stuff.

The Way That It Shows features the stormiest guitar playing herein as Richard contemplates the moment when an adulterous woman finally fives the game away. The passion-wracked guitar coda stands in direct contrast to the clinically observant verses.

Easy There, Steady Now is toward the top of my list standouts here. That's Danny Thompson's double-bass backing the manic, flurried guitar; the verses are hazy, lost in the visions of wandering at night in an empty town. There's more to it than just booze and a femme fatale...the music is too silvery bright, the narrative too impressionistic, the narrator too unconcerned....

King of Bohemia is Richard and an acoustic guitar. Lyrically he contemplates the case of a "refugee from the Seraphim," a girl who's been broken by the world. "Let me rock you in my arms/ I'll hold you safe and small," is how the song starts, and he sings it so gently you're liable to pause and draw breath, but in the end there's no conclusive evidence that he can help this wounded creature. The song is so spare that it sits uncomfortably in the midst of Mirror Blue.

Shane and Dixie is a rock and roll pastiche about a pair of bank robbers. It's a rather crass and obvious story as Shane decides to secure their fame by a suicide pact - the only hitch is that Dixie thinks he's nuts. It's funny, it's in bad taste, it's a throwaway and there is no reason it has to follow King of Bohemia in the running order. For shame.

Mingus Eyes is something of a mantra, slow, soothing and unsettling. There's a darkness at the heart of this song - it's thin on content but thick on atmosphere.

I Ride in Your Slipstream shares the pace of Easy There and does away with verse-chorus procedures. It's somehow even more disconcerting, as this narrator is a married man saying some rather odd, inscrutable things....

All the stops are pulled out for Beeswing - a delicate, expertly written ballad featuring a gorgeous melody, fiddle, flute, concertina, Northumbrian pipes, mandolin and the acoustic guitar. It's a tale of lost love, tackling the irrevocable conflict between love and freedom, and justly considered one of his best songs. Richard lets the poet out for the descriptions. "Brown hair zig-zagged around her face/ a look of half-surprise/like a fox caught in the headlight/there was animal in her eyes."

And then he does it again! Fast Food is a blunt satire directed against a target that's never deserved it more: "Water down the ketchup, easier to pour on/pictures on the register in case you're a moron/.../sugar, grease, fats and starches/fine when you dine at the golden arches." It's actually funnier to read than listen to, but there's some cheeky strands of folk music threading through it. The question is why did it have to follow Beeswing?

Mascara Tears is an attempt at heavy metal, angst-ridden and out of place. Yet there's a certain fascination in it just because Richard doesn't usually indulge in those sort of emotions, and also since it's about a self-destructive couple savaging each other...

After that burns itself out there's the beautifully theatrical coda: Taking My Business Elsewhere. A soft, echoing, darkly amusing song. There's something of the lullaby in its melody. You know the scene: the lovelorn sap bores the waiter with his woes after his girl fails to show. And yet it manages to captivate once more. It's the icing on the cake.

Stats: of the 13 tracks, only three could count as love songs, and only one had genuinely happy people as subjects. That's about the average ratio. Thompson's World is broadly pessimistic, featuring a cast of cruel and adulterous women, with men as losers, nerds and borderline nutcases. Every now and then comes a tender portrait of a damaged woman, or decent men surface to alleviate the gloom - these characters shine the brighter in their surroundings. All of it is oddly true to life.

Musically, this guy is a treat. Richard Thompson never gets old, he's always creative and expressive, finding new stories to tell, new angles to take. For some reason most of his catalogue is out of print. Did you know his debut album is reputedly the worst selling record Warner Bros. ever released? So if you've never heard him before, check him out. I most highly recommend it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

47th... Interior lives

Ladies of the Canyon.

Come Thanksgiving, for some reason I always get a hankering for the music of Joni Mitchell. She just seems suitable to the occasion.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell really came into her own. She'd already won a Grammy for Clouds (only her second album) and was taking the music world by storm on the strength of her songs and her ability to arrange them. Clouds was Joni unaccompanied - Ladies of the Canyon shows her expanding her repetoire; her lyrical subjects pointing ahead to albums such as Blue and For the Roses; musically beginning to experiment with jazz. Joni was getting ambitious, and this album is a perfect balance between the phases of her early career and therefore a recommended starting point.

Each of the 12 songs would make an excellent poem, and some could easily by imagined as short stories. Joni always had a pleasantly "literary" quality which, of course, explains her appeal to me. However, she also had several key musical qualities: her arrangements and her voice, which would play with the words, never singing all the verses in one manner. It's never predictable, listening to her sing.

Morning Morgantown starts things off with genuine charm, though it's almost unbearably twee and precious. "We'll find a table in the shade/and sip our tea and lemonade/and watch the morning on parade/in morning, Morgantown." There's affection and enthusiasm in her style, and it's quite charming.

Things become more dramatic and somber with For Free, a piano ballad and a glimpse of the kind of confessional reportage that came into its own on For the Roses. A singer-songwriter who plays for money sees a man on a street-corner who performs for free. In her ensuing comparison, there are shades of guilt, anger, regret, resignation and sorrow - all the great dramatic emotions underscored with taste and sophistication. And at the end, as the piano fades with her voice, the "one man band" takes over with his clarinet. It is sublime.

Conversation switches back to guitar with some light percussion and more jazz flourishes during the overlong coda (this time on pipes and saxophone). Three characters: a sympathetic waitress, an unhappily married man and his wife. You can tell where that's gonna go, but Joni ignores a conventional story and focuses on the smallest of thoughts and actions. Told through the waitress' view, everything is skewed in shades of gray. The overlapping barbershop harmonies and false cheer of the ending are kind of annoying though.

Ladies of the Canyon (Laurel Canyon, I presume) paints a picture of certain bohemian women who make the place their home. The melody is lovely and the harmonies much nicer this time. Unfortunately, the vision is cloyingly sentimental - the hippie dream for female artisans, which is nice but not especially interesting in the album's context.

Willy is a short and unadorned song for piano. Since she was apparantly in love with Graham Nash at the time, it gets attributed as an ode to him. Whatever the inspiration, it is this track that points toward the style and subject of Blue most clearly. "But you know it's hard to tell/when you're in the spell if it's wrong or if it's real/but you're bound to lose/if you let the blues get you scared to feel/and I feel like I'm just being born." Her voice is so expressive that the point comes across with remarkable subtlety.

The Arrangement starts slowly, piano filling time, waiting close to a minute before Joni starts to tell the latest story. In relatively few lines, her voice cutting through to the essentials, she lays bare the empty, purposeless life of a man who has won the rat race. And what now? she seems to ask. Who cares if you've won? Isn't your life worth more than its setting? Standout, just for conveying so much in under three minutes.

Rainy Night House has lovely piano and some cello, but the melody is unmemorable at best. Dwelling on the simple details of a quiet encounter which I've heard is about Leonard Cohen. I have not confirmed this, but everyone knew everyone back then and she does describe him as "a refugee from a wealthy family" and "a holy man on the F.M. radio," which sounds about right. Unfortunately, the song is done in by its dull melody.

The Priest is much better, returning to guitar and some percussion. This one hearkens back to old balladry; it sounds like something Fairport Convention or Pentangle would have been comfortable playing. A highly dramatic song, though the story is again internalized (most of the songs are) as a woman and a priest sit in an airport bar, talking and observing. Fascinating stuff married to a highly memorable melody.

The only truly sad song is Blue Boy, as a man's depression and a woman's idolizing completely destroy their relationship. It's Joni's expressive singing that makes the song so tragic; she sounds as unhappy as if it happened to her.

So of course, Big Yellow Taxi is compensation to cheer everyone up. It sounds like Joni trying to write a dumb pop song, though she wrote it about the destruction of the environment and how "you don't know what you've got till it's gone." It's a cute joke song, it jives, and that's all. For some reason, it's also a classic Joni Mitchell tune, and its popularity is beyond my understanding.

Woodstock is another classic, but not as she wrote it. Upset over having to miss the festival, she wrote an idealized vision of the event and turned it into a dirge. Amazingly, she utilized keyboards, which add to the strangely haunting sound of the longest track on Ladies of the Canyon. After Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young heard it, they seized the tune to cover and got a hit. And since they had been at the event in question, their rocking version was closer in sound and spirit to what actually went on. Either version: the chorus is dynamite and the song is better than 9/10ths of what played in the Woodstock film. So I think, anyway.

Another classic is the final song, The Circle Game, which has CSN&Y on backups, some say - though the credits say it's the Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir (which is so patently ridiculous a name that it's got to be a cover-up for something). The song is much more serious, a clear-eyed observation of a boy growing up, passing through the seasons with a carousel as metaphor for time "until the last revolving year is through." Reminding the listeners of time and mortality at the end of her's a pretty good reminder, if you're at all sensitive to the thought, to immediately be off and doing something worthwhile with the rest of your day.

Ladies of the Canyon is a great album, and if you want an idea what the singer-songwriter genre had to offer in the 60s and 70s, my advice is to postpone the James Taylor and start with a Joni Mitchell recording instead. This one will do nicely. To those who already know the CD, this review functions the way all my other ones do: as a token of appreciation, my online tribute to the fine music of this world.