Sunday, 26 May 2013

Shameless Self Promotion: 3: Desert Island Discs: Israel Phil: Miracle Mile: Glow

A top slot for Miracle Mile in the series of 'Desert Island Discs'.
You can buy 'Glow' here.

This from Israel Phil:
#1 Miracle Mile - Glow
At the time of Glow's release Prefab Sprouts 'Jordan' had been my #1 album for 15 years, and that had nudged out 'Steve McQueen' from the #1 spot, so I really thought Jordan would be at the top until my dying day or, if it was to be de-throned it would be by another Prefab Sprout album. Then 'Glow' arrived. Even the CD packaging was fantastic! But those songs just somehow connected me with my past. I'd sit and listen to it night after night sipping at my Glenfiddich. Marcus's furnishings of Trevs songs are remarkable. The addition of hammond organ and fugle horn together with BJ Cole and Melvin Duffys Pedal steel all make the album have a 60's feel while still sounding 21st century. I love the album as a whole, but if I had to pick favourite tracks it would be 'What Kate Did Next' ( Bacharach eat your heart out), 'Heels For Dust' ( memories from the playground), 'Call it Home' ( memories can creep deep into your bones) and 'Hey, Light Of Day'.
Glow, really is music for the soul.

David Ashley writes:
Glow is a great lp as they all are - top 5 glow tracks for me
can I start again please
what kate did next
heels for dust
an average sadness
paper planes and ponytails

TT writes: Thumbs way up Phil!
Glow very deserving of top slot...
'Kate' is pure bliss. 
Those horns... Ah!!!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Corsica Bound

Di and I are off to Corsica tomorrow morning.
We have a house to sell.
Sad, but the beginning of a new adventure we hope.
I've scheduled some posts to pop up every now and again.
I hope they show...
If not, I'll be back in a fortnight.
If you're a mate; see you then.
If you are a burglar; trust me, there's nowt worth nicking and... the dog is huge and feckin' starving!

Shameless Self Promotion 2: Toronto Tim Says: Desert Island Discs: Number 5: Hopeland

It's nice to hear when your music has resonated, connected; become a part of someone's life.
Here's Toronto Tim writing about 'Hopeland'.
I've lifted this from the 'Cathedrals of Sound' Blog.
I hope that David doesn't mind.
You can buy 'Hopeland' here...

#5 - JONES - "HOPELAND" (2009)

To every prayer an answer
For every crow a dove
To every life a promise
To every child, love.
I just want to give you something to remember me by 
I just want to give you... give you love.

I've already touched on this during the MM/Jones Top 5 series. Warning: heavy stuff ahead... 'Hopeland' was released amidst a most harrowing period of my life. My wife had just been diagnosed with rapidly spreading stage 4 incurable cancer & was suffering through ravaging surgery/chemo treatments. Doctors were brutally honest about chances of survival... very low. Devastated, overwhelmed, I was barely hanging on. Previous anchors of religion & philosophy offered cold comfort.

'Hopeland'... a little history. March 2010 - Looking for distraction from turmoil and painful reality, I decided to surf the Net and check out the Miracle Mile site. To my surprise Max had completely revamped the whole thing. Trev's mug welcoming the home page accompanied by absolutely enchanting new music - "Bluer Skies Than This". Wow! Proceeding to the main site, greeted by the heavenly strains of "Hopeland"... The comfort of song, healing for the hopeless and broken soul. The timing couldn't have been better...

So there's a lot of emotional baggage that accompanies my #5 pick. The words & music connect very deeply. I'm certain my take on the lyrics do not reflect the original inspiration or intention, but that's the magic of music, isn't it? We can adopt our own interpretations, and make them our own. Regardless, it's simply a stunning piece of art. The union of music and poetry makes for a perfect late night listen, but I must confess that I created an edited version (lacking verse) for the car. It's a truly beautiful collection on it's own. Every song has special meaning for me, and my wife loves Hopeland and MM/Jones music as much as I do. I won't dissect the album, as I'm sure all here know it by heart.

Footnote: 3 years on and my wife Myrna continues to thrive, defying all odds. We're still kinda living in limbo, but we're squeezing every moment out of life. I still have the lyrics of 'Hopeland' posted on my bulletin board, a potent reminder... to hope.

Thanks Trev...

Friday, 24 May 2013

Shameless Self Promotion: 1

David Ashley over on 'Cathedrals of Sound' recently voted 'Alaska' as one of his Top 20 'Desert Island Discs'
You can buy 'Alaska; here.

Here's David:

13: Alaska by Miracle Mile 2003
This was a tough one . I've got a real soft spot for the pre Marcus Bicycle Thieves as it is the discovery bit (bought on impulse after a review in Q)  and Candids as it was never off the car stereo as my future wife and I drove around California , also I've always been a sucker for  songs about famous people.
When I did the list I originally chose Limbo (Lights of Home one of the best things Trev and Marcus have done) , however last night I made the mistake of playing Alaska and it has gone and sneaked in the back door, so I've had to post this before I play another one and have to do a rewrite..
The cover has you peering between  leaves in on someone's private memories which is what listening to the lp is like. It always gives me a sense of looking back , a mood that tunes into my own memories so that the words start to evoke specific times , places and details , piggy backing on Trevor Jones's original intentions.
The instrumentation is smooth without ever being bland, ranging for the stark piano or guitar to the layered ,where each new listen brings a discovery or a new/forgotten delight.
Seventeen songs and the quality never dips. Ones that I was less keen on initially grow to be firm favourites where initial go to tunes become old friends.

Anyway here are my five favourites moments

1) The chorus and the fade out of Alaska a one scene story  - "a simple truth or a telling lie" 

2) The backing vocals to Wilful like being wrapped in a duvet , and another great fade out

3) The guitar playing on the intro to weather wise before it kicks into a completely different direction (with another killer chorus)

4)   The slightly skitterish backing beat to Malkovich and the slight pause before "high hopes come crashing down"

5) Not my memory or my history but a sadness and celebration to be shared on the so personal it is almost painful Sister Song

Anyway you can buy the lp direct from Miracle Mile's website here and I'd recommend also investing in a bottle of malt to accompany. In fact whilst you are there I'd buy the lot 

Toronto Tim Replies:

A tough choice indeed...

You hit the nail squarely on the head with your comment about integrating personal introspection/memories with that of a songwriter/poet/artist. It's a rare but extraordinary experience when that "connection" is made...

I love your "5 favorite moments!" Wicked difficult! Mind if I give it a go?

1: Alaska - ditto: intro & outro - swirling, icy atmospherics entwined with warmest guitar tones ever. And that chorus!

2: Weatherwise - Melvin's phenomenal pedal steel throughout, especially the soaring solo and outro following Becca's "Hope floats" cameo. Fantastic playful lyrics, "Kiss my ass and call me shorty, coming up fast approaching forty." Who says MM has no sense of humor?

3: Boo Said - chimes & drums right after "That was the moment..." followed by the haunting lyric, "The white swan joined me on the road and twenty feet above it flew, Stayed there for a mile and oh, I swear that it was..."

4: Mermaid - MC's glorious church organ & piano throughout. Astonishingly perceptive lyric.

5: Sister Song: right after "Scattershot memories coming alive" haunting mellotron seeps into "The day you got lost, the day you got found." Also, TJ's stirring vocal - "Go sister... Go!" Finally, the delicate little guitar outro. Perfect. Most profoundly affecting song I've ever heard... 

'Anonymous' adds:

What I like most about Trevor Jones's songs is the unique ability to reconnect me to the past, my own one and even someone else's. Few people like him can create hand-crafted, profound epiphanies, made of memories (his own and the listener's), of quotes and of subtle references which make up full stories. Vice versa, he can take a story (any story) and deconstruct it into lyrics, ranging from the familiar to the highly literate. And it all makes perfect sense.

Israel Phil:

A beautiful record. Although Marcus was onboard with Slow Fade, this is the album that brings his talents to the fore. It really does sound rich and 'expensive'.
The title track is one of their best but my standout tracks are 'Beautiful Mirage'. I adore the sound of that intro. Takes me back to my childhood in the sixties. Memories of some kids tv programme that I still haven't put my finger on. And 'Under My Tongue'. The sad subject matter. Those poor people keeping pictures of their loved ones under their tongues until their images fade away. Gets me everytime.
'Sister Song'. A song so personal I feel like I shouldn't be listening.
With such a strong back catalogue Miracle Mile are one of those very few artists that will have votes for favourite album pretty much split evenly, I would think. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

My Album for Life: 1: Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

"Brucey dreams life's a highway..."

Paddy's got him sussed.
'Cars and Girls' could have been a subtitle for this album.
As could 'Show a Little Faith' or 'There's Magic in the Night'.
I know that some will dismiss this as overblown and bombastic nonsense, Bruce is much maligned simply for being influential. His early work has been tainted, disassembled, often too easily dismissed as lumpy and grumpy, guilty by association with the pale imitators; the Bon Jovi's, the Meatloafs.
Way back when, in the early 70s, Bruce Springsteen was a contender, young, vital, full of piss and vinegar.
Bruce was fucking euphoric.
He had fire in his belly and much to prove...
He had a guitar.
He knew how to make it talk.

He had a car, a dream and faith in the power of dreams.
With cinematic vision he pitched a polemic that I could buy into.
There was romance in the rhetoric:
In the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets… 
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet

The discovery of this album was pretty seismic for me.
I remember it vividly.
I was 15.
I was in the dormitory at boarding school.
Just me and a mirror.
Checking that I was still there...
I used to talk to myself a lot.
I didn't have an awful lot to say... 
Like most pale, male adolescents I was absorbed by my profile, in awe of my shadow. 
I was pretty insular, a self absorbed shit.
I wasn't great academically but was desperate for engagement and for some kind of affirmation. 
I was good at rugby, enjoyed the pats on the back.
But beyond the playing fields I still felt the need to please.
I just didn't know how to engage; how to connect...

Back to the confines of that dormitory: I think I was admiring the new shadow on my top lip when a song came on my little red transistor radio.
'Born to Run'.
The energy, the dynamics, that bit when Bruce counts the band back in after the solo, when the strings echo the main riff. 
Chicken Skin of chicken skins...
Ane he spoke about escape with an irresistible emotional intensity:

Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness 
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul...
Its a town full of losers, we're pulling out of here to win

It stopped me in my tracks.
I scraped together my pocket money and the cash earned singing in the church choir (2d for services, 4d for weddings and funerals). 
I brought the record and immediately brought into Bruce's world.
It took me out of myself; I was transported from my own self absorption into someone else's.
I started to care for somebody else...
Pretty pivotal for me.
Ever since that epiphany the essence of my music has become its transcendent power, its potency, its potential to connect and transport the listener into the lives of others. 
This album is the reason I wanted to write songs. 
Not to emulate Bruce, not to pull chicks, not to make my million, but to tell tales that would please, connect, engage and endure. To invite people into my world and persuade them that I had something to say; something worth hearing...

In 1974 Springsteen had written a song.
'Born to Run'.
The East Street Band were a potent force live but Bruce was aware that his imagining of that song
was well beyond their immediate capabilities.
"Live the limitations of a seven piece band were never going to provide me with the range of sounds that I needed to realize the song's potential. It was the first piece of music I wrote and conceived as a studio production." 
Most of the songs were written on the piano to preclude lazy playing, to ensure open ended arrangements, the encourage the possibilities of sound.
It was during the initial recordings that Springsteen began his friendship with writer Jon Landau who was to become a massive influence on him.

"When I ran into trouble recording the rest of the album he stepped in and helped me to get the job done. We moved to the Record Plant in New York City and hired Jimmy Iovine to engineer. We stripped down the songs and streamlined the arrangements. We developed a more direct sound with cleaner lines." 
Springsteen knew that the album would make or break him and took an age to craft it: 14 months in total, 6 months on the title track alone. It was well worth the wait. The album is an epic Wall of Sound. As overblown as it is ambitious; it unfolds like a film. I always think HudThe Last Picture Show and finally West Side Story. Whilst the soundtrack is stellar, the wide screen narrative is familiar B movie fare; we follow hopeful, hopeless heroes whose dreams are inevitably dashed.

Springsteen talks about this album's 'spiritual hopefulness' and this is pretty much summed up in the album's first song, the magnificent 'Thunder Road'. 
'Do you want take a chance on us?' our hero asks.
There's a specific sense of place in his storytelling: 

The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves. 
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

Mary is part of his scheme, intrinsic to the idea of escape. 
He needs her company because 
I just can't face myself alone again...
And then comes the line could be the banner for the album:
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night...
Bruce wants something better. 
It's out there somewhere, and he's got a plan.
He's got a car...

All the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood...
We've got one last chance to make it real... 
We're riding out tonight to case the promise land...
It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.

As the album unfolds we're introduced to a band of brothers and a myriad of supporting characters. We follow the betrayals and lost friendships. The cast proceed to act out the album's compelling dramas on thrilling but dangerous backstreets. You cannot deny the potency of the rough poetry:

Endless juke joints and Valentine drag
Where dancers scrape the tears 
Up off the street dressed down in rags...
Some hurt bad, some really dying
And night sometimes it seemed 
You could hear the whole damn city crying...

The narrative unravels like a modern day 'West Side Story, working its way to the epic conclusion on the 'spiritual battleground' of 'Jungleland'.

Man there's an opera out on the turnpike 
There's a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops, cherry tops 
Rip this holy night...

Here's where the 'Barefoot Girl' and 'The Rat' "take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane'. 
After the frantic, euphoric operatics, there's a resolution of sorts.
Clarence's sublime sax solo quietens things.

If you have never heard the solo please take the time.
It's worth a lifetime of 'jazz'. 
There are three rounds.
Each increases in intensity.
The energy of the playing is scintillating.
The phrasing of the 3rd round W I L L  B R E A K  Y O U R  H E A R T.
Unless you've a heart of stone.
Calm, then a pause...
Becalmed we refocus on the fate of the two protagonists, maybe the characters that we first met in 'Thunder Road'.

Beneath the city two hearts beat
Souls engines running through a night so tender
In a bedroom locked
In whispers of soft refusal
And then surrender...

As in all quality noir, things end badly:

In the tunnels uptown
The Rat's own dream guns him down...
No one watches as the ambulance pulls away
Or as the girl shuts off the bedroom light...

The city is  'a real death waltz' and devours the hopes of two more dreamers, rendering them anonymous.
Were they even real? 
Flesh or fantasy?
Still, their familiar story has been told.
Inevitably the dreamers become the victims. 
They tried to 'reach for their moment'.
They tried to 'make an honest stand.
But they still 'wind up wounded, not even dead'.
Springsteen would continue to follow the lives of these characters in his future writing.

His previous album 'The Wild the Innocent and the East Street Shuffle' was populated by local eccentrics. The follow up 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' would place its broken, bitter characters in leaner, tougher times; in communities under siege, where people had to account for the damage done by dashed ambition. These folk had to meet their defeats head on rather than eyeing the horizon for escape and redemption.
On 'Born to Run' the characters were wide eyed, there was still the possibility of escape, of transcendence.
'Thunder Road' and 'Born to Run' spoke of those possibilities.
'Backstreets' and 'Jungleland' toted the defeats.
All romantic life is here.
Life's cliches abound and resonate keenly here because the platitudes are steeped in wisdom and truth.
Inevitably, all youthful hopes are dashed.
As we are diminished by the years, so do we surrender to compromise.
But not before that joyful, wide eyed, passionate, breathless ride...

It was 1975.
I was 15.
This music came from a different world.
A world that wasn't mine; but I was transported there nonetheless.
I was besotted, bowled over by Bruce and his romantic vision.
He might not have been The Future of Rock and Roll, but he was the future of my rock and roll.
I knew then, as I know now, that this was a landmark recording.
I knew then, as I know now, that this music was mine.
My Album for Life.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

In Cassidy's Care: The Pre Launch Launch

Marcus and I had our pre release launch soiree, chez nous last night.
As is now customary we went off a little too quickly.
I believe that the 2nd bottle was opened before 6pm.
Definitely before Bazza arrived.
Consequently The Hunchback and The Scientist proceeded to slide further and further down the sofa with no great dignity...
We still managed food.
My spicy meatballs were pronounced 'the dog's bollocks'.
I'm unsure if that's a good thing.
Before we waved Bazza off into the night we found the time to light some candles and sit through a playback of 'In Cassidy's Care' which was proclaimed:
'Lovely' - Di
'Almost as good as the artwork' - Barry
'Fakkinbrullianch..." - Marcus
I'd been rendered speechless at this point so was unavailable for comment...

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Albums for Life: 2 (Part 2): Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen

Again, no apologies for these albums sharing the number two spot. I hold them close like stumbling siblings.
Paddy and Paul...

As Paul Buchanan's late night train leads him inexorably towards the next morning's cup of coffee, you kind of know that, by that time Paddy will already have had half a dozen espressos. He's up and at 'em is Paddy, a bundle of springs. It's sad that his recent health problems have rendered him increasingly inactive, but his ambition, wit and intellectual curiosity seemed inexhaustible at the time of 'Steve McQueen'. Sure, there's bitterness in certain recognitions but there is also a youthful, unsatiated desire for all of the sweetness that the world has to offer. He wants to taste everything; he wants names for everything so that he can understand, name and claim everything.
But why? 
But why? 
I think we'll call it 'appetite'. 

Buchanan asks his questions wearily, warily, non specifically, reluctantly, maybe because he is fearful of the answers. MacAloon is as interested in the questions as he is the answers. It's as though he is trying to work out how he's wired. 'I spend the day with my vanity.' He has no time for the cumbersome, crippling weight of nostalgia, and makes that clear from the offset: "Antiques, every other sentiment an antique. As obsolete as warships in the Baltic." He dreads nowt. It's not your usual rock 'n' roll rhetoric of regret, but Paddy's well aware of the genre's lingo: 'You give me Farron Young, four in the morning..." He's not aloof, he's a 'simple slave of appetite', he also "counts the hours, the minutes, the seconds too", he recognizes the 'missed chances and the same regrets', Yup, regrets are inevitable; 'all my insights from retrospect' but he's just not a traditional guy, you can keep your platitudes, 'Save your speeches, flowers are for funerals'. 
His emotional curiosity is keen and he's aware of the vagaries of love. 'Desire is a self figured creature that changes her mind'. You can take nothing for granted so... you have to stay on your toes. You need to be ahead of the game, you need defense mechanisms to protect yourself from the indulgence of indifference. 'When love breaks down the things you do to stop the truth from hurting you..." but Paddy also recognizes the importance of the thrill of love and its transience; 'life's not complete 'til you heart's missed a beat'.
These aren't vague observations; these are case studies: Johnny, Johnny whoooo?
'Desire As' feels like the album's centre pieceRegardless of his apparent detachment, Paddy has taken a few to the chin. 'I've got six things on my mind. You're no longer one of them' is heartbreaking in its disingenuousness. Denial never sounded so sweet. Love does indeed break down and love never seemed so fragile. Here comes the sweet regret: 'They were the best times, the harvest years with jam to lace the bread. So goodness, goodness knows why I throw it to the birds..." Paddy had it good, and it's gone. 'It's perfect as it stands so why then crush it in your perfect hands.' He tortures himself by asking 'In whose bed you're gonna be'... We've all been there; visualizing the unthinkable then grasping for something to salve the ache. And salvation comes in the form of song; self deception is part of self protection, but ever the romantic poet, Paddy breathlessly, unflinchingly continues his quest to find the truth in beauty, the beauty in truth. He's aware of the pitfalls of pity, 'Lying is killing the good things in me" but he's not beyond recognizing that need to salvage something from the wreckage; 'All you have to tell me are blueberry pies'

'Sweet' is one of MacAloon's favourite words, and while Paddy might sing to express his belief "that sweet talk like candy rots teeth" there are some of his sweetest melodies here. As with 'Hats' the voice is stage centre, the band are effectively rendered bit part players. And although this isn't really a band album, the musicality and production is unobtrusive but perfect. Thomas Dolby artfully coats the pill with just enough sugar as the make the confection addictive. It's never predictable or formulaic; the angelic, breathy samples, the floating snares, the rim shots, the pauses, the pumping bass lines, all work sympathetically to underpin and support the concerns of that gloriously light voice. 

So there you go. 
Poles apart: these two albums regard love and its loss from a different aesthetic and artistic point of view, but are entirely apposite in each other's company. 
Paddy would insist that we need to name them to recognize ourselves in them. 
Let's not call them 'heartache' because it's not a boy's name. 
Paul would surely go for 'A Love Theme for the Wilderness' but that seems less germane than maybe 'Songs for the Hopeless and Hopeful'. 
That would cover the bases. 
Or perhaps 'Gloom and Vroom' would be catchier. 
All emotional conceits are covered by these two wonderfully fragile albums. And I hold them close like stumbling siblings, too close to separate my affections. Paddy is a younger, wide eyed brother, full of energetic inquiry and eccentric contradiction. Paul is the wounded elder, a battered sage who'll reluctantly give you directions but knows that ultimately you'll walk the same streets as him; the way of all flesh and blood. 
For their weakness and their strength, for the candour of their council; I love them both like family. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Albums for Life: 2 (Part 1): 'Hats': The Blue Nile

I'm not trying to steal a march on you here by publishing this early. It's just that I've got to cram two posts into the time space of one...
No apologies for two albums sharing the number 2 spot.
I always hold these two close even though they're poles apart.
First up is The Blue Nile's exquisitely mournful 'Hats':

A Love Theme for the Wilderness seems a perfect title for the emotional hinterland that The Blue Nile seem to lay claim to, both for adolescents and, particularly, middle aged men. I've leant against many a balding fortysomething quietly weeping into the sleeve of his business suit at a BN gig. This music signifies love and loss; the disappointments of underachievement and the alienation of late night city life... its monochrome, lonesome streets are familiar as those trod much earlier by Frank Sinatra when he articulated a similar obsessive preoccupation with urban detachment and late night ennui frequented 'In the Wee Small Hours'. 
Unrequited love seems key to these songs. I don't hear much genuine engagement. I sense much sexual frustration. Maybe this record should have been sponsored by Kleenex rather than Linn...

In 1985, looking for a follow up to 'A Walk Across the Rooftops' Linn Records had put the Blue Nile into digs near their recording studios. Things didn't go well; the band were unproductive, uninspired, homesick and argumentative:
"We were up against the wall," recalls Paul Buchanan "Living away from home, no money, miserable, getting sued. We were absolutely zonked, the record company weren't pleased and everyone around was starting to think, this record is never going to get made. It was exhausting." 
The band were eventually kicked out of the studio and returned home. They refocused almost immediately, overcoming any threat of writer's block:
"The period when we got bumped out the studio we had nothing else to do, so we packed up and went home. Which is what we should have done in the first place, because when we went back home we reverted to our old routines—practise, play and sit about each other's little flats and talk things through. We should have done that to begin with, really."
With songs written and arrangements put down roughly on a portastudio they eventually reconvened in the same studios in 1988 and worked quickly from there; "we knew exactly what we were doing. We actually recorded the rest of Hats super quick... Honestly, half of Hats was, like, a week." 

The album was released in 1989 to massive critical acclaim.
Yup, a love theme for the wilderness'Hats' was, and remains; a triumph; a soundtrack for melancholics (mainly male I'm sure) who haunt the early hours. 
There's a strange alchemy as Buchanan's richly imperfect tones warm the ice cold synths and programmed drums. He gives passion to the bloodless synth pads that bejewel the songs like rain soaked streets, replacing the robust, clunky, chunky arrangements of their excellent debut with something sonically sublime, smooth and quietly majestic. Wistful trumpets sing out like lonely, lofty lotharios in search of some kind of worldly connection; the word elegiac is much overused regarding music but seems apt here. 
I've heard folk say that the perfect back drop to these songs of estrangement and alienation would be Edward Hopper's empty bars and diners. Clement Greenberg said of Hopper that he was a bad painter; but that, if he'd been a better painter, he wouldn't have been such a great artist. You could say the same for Buchanan. If he was a stronger, better man he surely wouldn't have such a mesmeric artistic presence. The musical hue is suitably subtle and sombre but its light is perfectly cast. The dirth of real instruments somehow makes the voice more humane. 
There's a mournful majesty to the melancholy that, for me, is unmatched in modern music. 

Excuse the many quotes but Buchanan's pained presence is central to the heartache. "Close your eyes, can't you see. Only love will survive. I love you." The search for connection is unrelenting. 'Where is the love? I need love to be true'. That vulnerable voice is always searching for something better; walking streets where 'all the rainy pavements lead to you... He's up, he's down, he's up again. His defeats and little victories aren't pathetic, but heroic in their pathos. 'Tomorrow I will be there, just you wait and see... It will be alright'. Helplessly hopefully, the challenges of daily life are simply stated; "Working night and day I try to get ahead'. The downtown lights and empty streets offer diversion, 'Baby, baby, let's go out tonight'. There's always a possibility of connection, but will it be recognized? 'How do I know you feel it?' There's cold comfort in the companionship; disappointments and infidelities are inevitable. 'Who do you love? Who do you really love?". If the city fails you there's always a promise of escape or the comfort of home. Somewhere 'over the hillside'. 'I know a place... where everything's alright'. There's not a lot of starlight on this album, Buchanan had yet to pack that suitcase. Relief or release is seldom realized but it's often alluded to; there's always an empty train or a ferry to 'carry us away into the air'. But redemption is always just out of reach. And then... just when everything seems bleak and black 'headlights on the parade light up the way'. But there's no escaping the grim realities. "I'm tired of crying on the stairs'. No escaping until, of course, the next Saturday night when 'an ordinary girl can make the world alright..." That resolve on 'Saturday Night' is the album's centre piece. That's when my shoulders start to shake. 

There's no fool like an old fool; what makes our crumpled hero so recognizable and righteous is his resilience; his ability to dust himself off and give things another go. Maybe (like me) he's blessed with a bad memory. His moods are as transient as his memory, his glimpses of happiness ephemeral, he survives by moving from one moment to the next. His vulnerability makes for his humanity. We recognize and empathize with his daily dilemma; the disappointments, the dashed dreams. The nameless girl he kisses goodnight is surely looking over his shoulder for something better. And, as much as he remains ever hopeful, the light at the end of his tunnel is probably another trainload of missed opportunity...
There will be no musical clips from here on in...
If you don't own 'Hats' I suggest that you get the recently remastered version here.
This is the ultimate in late night mood music, music made to wallow in. 
The only company you should rely on is the spirit of Frank; that obligatory bottle of single malt...

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Albums for Life: 3: Joni Mitchell: Blue

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for something, what can it be?

The simple poetry sounds like an entry from any young woman's diary.
The musical template is simple, understated: piano, guitar, dulcimer.
The musical hue is blue.
The message seemed simple enough too; this was an elegy to a lost bohemia.
At the turn of the 70s a sadness permeated American pop culture.
Introspective songwriters were everywhere. 
No-one did 'introspection' more compellingly than Joni.
The hippie generation had stumbled and wasn't getting back up, the 60s, that decade of musical innovation and innocence had had its heart ripped out by Manson, Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy's assassination and the disintegration of the Beatles.

In 1970 Joni was just back from a jaunt living in a cliff cave in Matala, Crete, probably with the Greek God Apollo's first commandment ringing in her ears:
'Know Thyself'.
That nirvana had been compromised by a local Greek entrepreneur who made the hippie haven into a sightseeing tour; concreting over the muddy town square to accommodate the tourists.
'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.'
Joni knew that travel stimulated her muse and wanted to break free from the claustrophobic rigors of the music industryShe'd made 3 successful albums since 1968 and her apparently idyllic LA lifestyle as a lady of the canyon was starting to pall.
"I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage."
She took with her a mountain dulcimer on which she composed and played for her fellow cave dwellers. Her monastic environment colored her writing. 
'The wind is in from Africa'. 
The caves were on an arm of land that expended into deep water.
Joni was surrounded by one colour: deep blue.

'Blue' was not so much a love letter to the loss, more a mournful recognition that the ideal of the comforts of the Laurel Canyon community were a thing of the past. She'd had affairs with Graham Nash and James Taylor but her love life was tainted and tempered by an ever inquisitive, demanding, almost self destructive muse.

'Oh I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you
Oh I love you when I forget about me'

Joni laments lost love specifically but the fanciful sorrow is both introspective and projected. Here was a lady, alone, band less. What could she do but make her own way, muttering as she meandered, inquisitive and vulnerable. 'Will you take me as I am?' A mind in pursuit of meaning; she asks a lot of questions but recognizes that there aren't always answers. Sometimes it's enough just to ask the question and recognize the wonders of mystery and the inevitability of loss; acknowledging that "sometimes there'll be sorrow". Sure, Joni's lost and lonely, but there's adventure in her journey and she's meeting it head on and wide eyed. I love the dawning openness of Joni's expression in this photo taken at the time...

Those observations and the questions resonate so keenly because they are not original thoughts; she is everyman/everywoman here, reflecting on her loss and accepting her lot. Whether she spoke for the listener was dependent on the listener. Were we stepping into her world, or she into ours?

"The beauty as a listener is you have an option. Either you can see yourself and your humanity in the songs, which is what I'm trying to do for the listeners. Or you can say 'that's the way she is and equate the songs with me. The richest way, the way to get the most out of it, is to see yourself in it."

She colours her canvas carefully but here's no bile in the recognitions; just a big broken hearted sigh.
'Blue' strikes at the heart of introspection. 
What does that mean?
Blue, in Joni's own words 'gave melancholy its proper due.'
The fragility and intensity of the soul searching is compelling, touching, irresistible, unfathomable, because she articulates the bleeding obvious but wraps the songs in such delicate, specific personal observations that we can surely never grasp their full meaning. They are steeped in her own secret biography but she leaves just enough room for us to insert ourselves into the stories.

"What I did was bring just a little more detail to pop lyrics like 'I feel blue' for example, pairing it with more specific character and metaphors and making the music actually feel blue with what I call my chords of inquiry. I was trying to grow up the American pop song into an art song.'

Joni colours her characters and metaphors artfully with an obvious sense of compassionate responsibility. There's no saccharine in the nostalgia. Neither is there bitterness or self pity. She doesn't harangue or bang on. She risks all, unveils her mysteries, makes herself vulnerable, strips herself bare and asks 'will you take me as I am?' In laying her soul bare, confession is a major part of the process. She sublimates herself to achieve the sublime. Shame surely leads to salvation. At the time her contemporaries wondered at her revelations. Was she revealing too much?

"They were embarrassed for me. Because the popular song had been about posturing. It had been self-aggrandizing. The feminine appetite for intimacy is stronger than it is in men. So my songwriter friends listened and they all shut down, even Neil Young. The only one who spoke out was Kris Kristofferson. 'Jesus Joni,' he said. 'Save something for yourself.'"

This is as genuine and as generous as it gets.
As she sings, so the songs become her.
She recognizes her moment, acquaints herself with her (gulp) inner self...  and moves on.
It's almost as though the song itself is a baptism.
Holy water is seemingly everywhere.
'River' always reminds me of the Ted Koosner poem 'Skater'.

She was all in black but for a yellow pony tail
that trailed from her cap, and bright blue gloves
that she held out wide, the feathery fingers spread, as surely she stepped, click-clack, onto the frozen
top of the world. And there, with a clatter of blades,
she began to braid a loose path that broadened
into a meadow of curls. Across the ice she swooped
and then turned back and, halfway, bent her legs
and leapt into the air the way a crane leaps, blue gloves
lifting her lightly, and turned a snappy half-turn
there in the wind before coming down, arms wide,
skating backward right out of that moment, smiling back
at the woman she'd been just an instant before. 

I'm realizing that 'Blue' is important to me because it helped me to understand women.
There's a difference, a difference that needs to be celebrated daily.
Here was another blithe spirit, kindred but different.
Our journeys are similar.
We're both searching for meaning.
We're both searching for love.
We're both searching for home.
We can see the signs better if we have another perspective.
Blue flows beautifully and is imperfectly perfect because, for all of its undeniable progress, it is unresolved; not quite long enough; the river doesn't quite reach the sea.
Yet still, the raw, tender beauty of Joni's artfully nuanced song unwinds like a river.
There's serenity on the surface, but the river is deep and, ultimately, unfathomable.
And that river is blue.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Albums for Life: 4: Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen

If it be your will that I speak no more
And my voice be still as it was before,
I will speak no more.
I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
If it be your will.
If it be your will that a voice be true,
From this broken hill I will sing to you.
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring.
If it be your will to let me sing.

For someone whose singing voice seems commanded by God, it's odd that Leonard Cohen didn't see fit to record his debut until 1967, well into his 30s. He was already a noted literary figure in Canada so why did he choose to sing? The story goes that he went to a Bob Dylan concert in Montreal in 1967.
"This guy is so bad." he was reputed to have said "If that son of a bitch can make a living singing then so can I."
With this album Cohen commenced upon a lifetime's quest to articulate his romantic and personal life through poetry and music. He trod a similar path to Joni Mitchell; both are restless visionaries who recognize the wonders and mysteries of life. If they shared a t shirt it would say "There are more questions than answers". Joni once cited Leonard, her one time lover, as the only outside influence on her work besides Dylan. "Those two are my pacesetters'." Hard to believe but... They first met at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Both restless souls, they shared a wanderlust but also a soft spot for nostalgia:
'We're poets because we're such reminiscent kind of people. I love Leonard's sentiments, so I've been strongly influenced by him."
After their break up she mocked his influence and use of religious imagery, dismissing him as  'a holy man on the FM radio". Later she seemed a little more conciliatory, acknowledging his influence again in 'A Case of You':

You said 'love is touching souls'
Surely you touched mine
'Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time.

'You're in my blood like holy wine" again recognises his familiar themes of sex and religion.
Although she later dismissed Cohen as a 'boudoir poet' she confessed "I'll always love some of Leonard's writing. He owns the words 'naked body', that's his. I don't think that he can write a song without using 'naked body'.

Stark naked kind of describes this affair. There's an austerity, even bleakness to the debut album that Cohen had to fight hard for. Producer John Simon wanted strings and horns. Len was right of course; I love the musical austerity, there's not a wasted note or word, making vital the intrusion of anything other than the voice and nylon stringed guitar.
The literary quality of Cohen's work has held me in awe ever since I first heard this album; if I had to define its tone, I'd go for 'erotic melancholy'. 
I'd love this record if only for that one famous line from Suzanne:
"and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China"
I once taught a girl who swore that 'Suzanne' was her mother.
Maybe she meant Marianne...
Wisdom has it that the sexy, intelligent, neurotic heroine is in fact Joni.
Who could deny that when Cohen sings:

While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her

For she's touched your perfect body with her mind

A traveller, a worldly man, a master of Zen, a student of Islam, Cohen's grace and fierce intelligence as the "poet of existential despair" , the 'patron saint of the sacred and the secular' continues to astound. Though his wisdom seems ancient and all encompassing, the modesty of his musical template ensures that he always hits his target; Bullseye! He can make the complex simple, he can render the mundane profound. And so he continues his journey, spiritually engaged, yet full of red blooded wit. Who wrote the line "You fucking whore, I thought that you were really interested in music. I thought your heart was somewhat sorrowful' and edited it down to 'but you don't really care for music, do you?'
Why, laughing Len of course. He also wrote the uncomfortable "Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell, if it be your will to make us well." He seems understandably preoccupied with death and redemption of late, although there's still enough juice in the old fella for him to be regularly chastised for goosing his ever present female backing singers...  

I always have two books in my travel: a Raymond Carver collection 'Where I'm Calling From' and an Everyman Pocket Poet Collection of Leonard Cohen's work.
The following quotation appears on the title page of all of Everyman's Library volumes. It's a quotation from the medieval play Everyman in which the character of Knowledge says:

I will go with thee
And be thy guide,
In thy most need 
To go by thy side.

The final words in the collection are Cohen's:

So let's drink to when it's over
And let's drink to when we meet
I'll be standing on this corner
Where there used to be a street

Yup, if you're looking for a challenging but reliable drinking partner, Len's your man. 
He is surely not Everyman, but he never disappoints, he's a trusty companion for life; he has always delivered, from that early promise to his more recent realizations. 
He's more relevant to me now than he was back in the early 70s, when I first heard this stark, haunting debut. I'm older now. I still don't understand everything he's telling me but I'm getting there...
He's a writer, a poet, a singer, a lover, a teacher and, in so many ways, he remains The Master.