Friday, 11 September 2020
Friday, 4 September 2020
“I’d always thought of the uke as a toy … a little handful of happiness. But not anymore. From the moment I picked it up, I fell in love. A ukulele has a sad, fractured sweetness, like a broken harp. And a modesty. It doesn’t try to impress you, it almost apologizes for being there.”
So spoke Sylvie. 'Fractured sweetness' pretty much sums up the appeal of this delicate offering. It's quite an achievement that an album birthed in hurt is steeped in such serenity. The portents weren't good. Simmons had recorded her 2014 debut 'Sylvie' in Arizona with the grandaddy of Americana, Howe Gelb. She returned to Gelb's favoured Tucson studio WaveLab in 2017 to start work on the follow up. However, whilst out walking in the desert after the first day's recording, a stumble led to serious injury; particularly a badly broken left hand. That hurt not only halted the recordings and challenged Simmons' future uke skills, but actually threatened the loss of a limb. Sylvie retreated to her home in San Fransisco to recover and reconsider. Time told. Wounds eventually healed. With itching scars still smarting, she gamely returned to the source of the hurt. Hurt and recovery are major themes here. 'Blue on Blue' a perfect title then. You get the feeling that Sylvie's world is hurtful, hopeful and homely. That she managed to recreate that feeling so far from home is credit to the company she chose to keep for these recordings.
Producer Howe Gelb famously sees rehearsal as 'the enemy'. He gathered a trusty crew of Tucsonan musicians to come play his ruleless game: familiars who recognized the virtues of spontaneity. Gelb kept things suitably understated throughout: there's plenty of space left for nuance, finesse, and the wonder that is Sylvie's breathy delivery. Her ukulele, that 'broken harp', laconically leads, keyboards whisper, a bass occasionally wanders into the spartan room, guitars gently conspire to caress the silence. There are whistles and bells (yup) but they are playfully placed to unsettle any possibility of ennui. The lack of drums and percussion lend a faltering uncertainty which adds to the woozy, indolent charm. And charm is central to the success of this album. There is vulnerability in Sylvie's gentle voice: a quivering quaver that speaks of hard earned heartache. And what of the songs? Given the preceding trauma, you anticipate bitter darkness: you are gifted sweetness and light.
Her style is classic Laurel Canyon 70s song-smithery, and Sylvie references that influence with a calm, quiet confidence. It is clear that she has spent a lifetime marinating in music. Her journalistic career has required her to consider and critique the successes and failures of others. Gamekeeper turned poacher then? More like poacher turned sitting duck: a courageous step away from the relative comfort of disinterested editorials, towards the faltering uncertainties of a life as troubadour. And Sylvie surely leads with her chin. You feel the kindred influence of Nico in the loose limbed, quotidian appraisals. You sense the presence of Leonard Cohen in the lyrical conceits, in the way that Sylvie catches and caresses the mundanities with her poets' eye: “ladybugs climb up the blade of grass and balance on top of a dewdrop, swaying in the breeze like they were floating on a fish eye.” You hear Neil Young in most every fragile melody. This does not confer Simmons a copyist. How could a life in music not influence her creativity? What's fascinating is that, because she has left it so late in the day to write these songs, she's too worldly to play the ingénue. She presents herself as she is, not as what she wants to become. And yet this awareness is not a cocky strut. It's a gentle, breezy dance: a composed, rear mirror recognition of where her life has beached her. And that Sylvie chooses to keep dancing, with no shoes on, amid the broken glass and dog shit, renders her tender songs as mischievous, elegant courtship. It's that heady mix of knowing and naivety that makes 'Blue on Blue' simply irresistible.
Saturday, 15 August 2020
Vinyl & CD: Released 23 October, 2020
I have followed Chris Thomson's music from the off. Friends Again's 'Trapped and Unwrapped' (1984) was a fine debut. It mined a similar vein to Roddy Frame's Aztec Camera and that was good enough for me. When they split in 1985 I'd heard that Chris had formed a band as a vehicle for his idiosyncratic stylings. I remember buying the first album 'Unusual Places to Die' in 1987 and was intrigued, although a little unsure of the ramshackle musicality. 1990s 'Sweet Deceit' was a step in the right direction for me, but I was still not overwhelmed. And then the band signed to German label Marina and the stars seemed to align.
And so, to the albums. ‘The Marina Trilogy’.
Lagoon Blues (1993)
Even though adrift, Chris seems closer to ‘home’, the injuries more local, he remains disoriented, loss and loneliness still inform the songs. In ‘Weem Rock Muse’ he’s “... lost in the Scottish mountains. Alone in the Scottish mists”. He’s haunted by the ‘lost brown eyed Scottish girl’ of ‘She’s Gone Forever’. And finally, devastatingly, he’s cast astray in the desolate conclusion of ‘The Dutch Venus’: ‘There’s nothing left to trust. Everything is lost.” Champion or chump? Thomson's gallant hero might be a fool for love, forever putting his face to the pie, doomed to repeat the same mistakes, but has the arc of despair ever been rendered quite so beautifully?
Kelvingrove Baby (1997)
Our man is still world weary, troubled, but here he seems more focussed on his foibles. We are offered snapshots rather than fleeting images. He catches things square on, rather than from the corner of his eye. It is all the more engaging for that. Our capture and commitment makes for an easier engagement than previously. Thomson's foil appears to have resolved a few of his issues, although he's forever fated to struggle with detailing, let alone defining, love’s mysteries. Less impressionistic: more assured, where love was once unrequited, there was now a girlfriend: something that initially gives the album an almost celebratory feel.
“Isn’t she fine? Positively the sweetest of her kind.”
And then, line of lines, moment of moments, as the song rushes towards its thrilling climax, Thomson asserts:
When you girl looks at you
Yes when she sighs
When she moves beside you
You want the moment
Touched with magic
You want rain
You want soft music
And the last words to be about love.
It is a transcendent, celebratory, chicken skin moment that I’d recommend to the hardest heart. The intoxicating vagaries of desire distilled into a single beat. It reminds us why we love music: it takes the mundane and somehow, miraculously renders it holy. The holy held: the unobtainable grasped. It is more than just a ‘connection’, it feels more like a communion. A joyous, hopeful moment to remind us that we are all connected: as much by our defeats as by our victories, and that, however fleeting, that moment needs to be marked. That generosity is positively elevating. The finale of this song alone made me love the album. 'Kelvingrove Baby' feels like the conclusion of the record but only ends side 1. Flipside there’s a more prosaic joy in ‘Dial’. “There’s nothing quite as sweet, kicking off your shoes in the sand”. But then, as the album slips gracefully towards conclusion, you feel a mournful sense of slippage, as though a spell has been broken. The Keatsian conceit is that beauty is transient. Similarly, Thomson is recognising the impermanence of acquisition: reminded that defeat follows victory as surely as night follows day. You begin to wonder whether the ‘girlfriend’ is flesh or fantasy, a figment of a hopeful heart. Our principal is laid bare, vulnerable, earthbound; languorously concluding ‘I was not born to fly’.
Yes I love you
Until the orchids
Forget to bloom
Yes I love you
Until the roses
Lose their perfume
Yes I love you
Until the poets
Run out of rhyme
Yes I love you
Until the twelfth of never
And, baby, you know that’s
Such a long, long time
In lesser hands the sentiment could be sweet, saccharine, valentine card trite. As a sign-off from an artist who is more often lost than found, the effect is heart-swellingly moving. Thomson lays himself open: his dignified croon straining, struggling. It speaks more about the healing powers of love than the injuries of loss. Victories and defeats are our daily bread. Somehow, miraculously, Thomson serves them up as manna from heaven.
‘Kelvingrove Baby’ is certainly The Bathers' most coherent album to date. One that many consider Chris Thomson’s masterpiece. I can but agree. It deserves to be held in the same esteem as The Blue Nile's 'Hats'. I can't think of a higher compliment. I can also confidently attest to the accumulative effect of the music on these three albums. With each release, The Bathers got better.
The Marina Trilogy deserves to sit atop the highest pedestal. Like much worthy art, it often willfully disguises intention, challenging you to find meaning. Perhaps ‘understanding’ is not pivotal here. Why try to demystify? Why sacrifice magic for meaning? Maybe all that’s required is willing. You do have to be up for the challenge. Best not to look too long or think too hard. Best not to attempt to decode the veiled messages: they’re often too lateral to be taken literally. Best to surrender to Thomson’s vulnerable charms and admire his ambitious devotion, then douse yourself in the vagaries of his intent. Best to steep yourself in the kindred sorrows and, dare I say, wallow in the recognitions. Better; to celebrate the brief sojourns and then marinade in the melancholy of their loss. Better still, to simply immerse yourself in Chris Thomson’s brave, bold and beautiful quest for betterment. But please, don’t just dip your toe, this is music to bathe in.
Thursday, 13 August 2020
Monday, 20 July 2020
Tuesday, 14 July 2020
Friday, 10 July 2020
Fast forward to last week: I got a call from Daniel. He had been playing guitar in HÆLOS, a 4 piece band, but wondered if I’d take a listen to a new musical project that he was working on with his cousin Aris Schwabe. ‘False Native’ was their moniker, ‘Satan Salad’ the beguiling title of their first single. The press release warned that we’d be “transported to a bad dream brimming with all that is sinister in the human condition”. I looked at the accompanying photo to see that Daniel’s wide-eyed gaze had been finessed to a steely stare. Seemed that he’d found his attitude. I wondered if a Giant Sand/Calexico hybrid was inevitable. I was promised “Tom Waits caught in a Mexican standoff with Nick Cave deep in the Sonoran Desert” and considered hiding under the bed, but instead fronted up the speakers and pressed ‘play’. I expected darkness but got light. No gothic rumble, but a light acoustic shuffle, the sweet, ghostly shimmer of pedal steel, sound-tracks a half-spoken vocal detailing the “anti-conformist ways of a troubled man”. What could have been sardonic is rendered satirical by the oblique lyric’s smart, crooked smile. They are detailing a rocky road but their hands are firmly on the wheel. The deftness of touch initially belies the subject matter, but there is a controlled knowingness that renders that dark tale authentic and alluring. ‘False Native’ suggests displacement, but they surely inhabit their world. Their idiosyncratic narratives and nimble arrangements, married to a parochial sense of place, reminds me more of fellow southerner Jim White than the more worldly Waits or Cave.
I’m intrigued to hear how this musical landscape will be developed into the promised ‘Rodeo Nights’ album. I suspect a rough concept will dovetail more dark tales. I’m in though: this is a beguiling debut that offers more light than darkness. Skillfully sourced, beautifully produced and perfectly rendered, ‘Satan Salad’ is sure to whet the appetite: focussed and succinct: perhaps promising more than it delivers but, in doing so, leaving us wanting more. This salad the perfect entrée then.
Wednesday, 1 April 2020
Another day in isolation. I'm intrigued by the music that I am reaching for. It seems that comfort is paramount. It suggests that the 'middle ground' isn't a bad place to be in such times: perhaps the excitement of 'the edges' are a currently a little unreliable...
So, today I'll be trying to work out just why I love Jackson Browne's words (mainly) and music so much. To many he represents everything bland, smug and staid about the singer/songwriter tradition. Not for me: there is a poetic vision rooted in his 'everyman' akin to Springsteen's. But while Bruce often walks the streets head down, Browne's view is loftier, although his brow remains mainly furrowed, always 'one day way from where I want to be'. His was always an old soul in an ever youthful skin. Maybe that's the nub of my attraction: in his naivety he's a kind of kindred spirit. His sagely confused, yet almost adolescently formless gaze remains heaven bound, 'in search of truth and bound for glory' and yet... his lofty philosophy is grounded daily: 'nothing survives but the way we live our lives'. I'm unsure whether this duality is deliberate, but Browne’s daily struggle with that contradiction is what makes him so compelling: he’s fuelled by a false dichotomy: and I recognise that familiar struggle with the heavenly and the homily. Although the demons are an uncomfortable distraction, perhaps you can have too many angels?
Can I suggest that you listen to the title track of 'The Pretender' this morning but, before you do that, why not try and get through the album version of 'Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate' dry eyed. It's only 2:35 and well worth your attention.
Dare I say that only the blind would see it as bland?
Saturday, 25 January 2020
His recent autobiography revealed a surprisingly fragile man who often hurt the ones he loved and who loved him: Bruce concedes that this is an attempt to make the broken pieces fit, or at least meld his sharp edges with another fractured souls'. It is particularly moving therefore to watch he and Patti console and resolve during the finale, when old home footage of the couple, just married, segues into 'Moonlight Motel': they circle in dignified dance, then lean into each other: a perfect fit.