The Clash – Combat Rock Sunday, Jun 8 2008 

I feel a little guilty writing up Combat Rock when I haven’t yet listened hard to all of its songs, because the Clash always deserve the benefit of the doubt and certainly earned the right to a thoughtful listening. But just a little. Simply put, Combat Rock isn’t up to the same standards as the Clash’s first three records (viz. the UK version of The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling). At twelve songs, it is at least more concise and therefore more manageable than their fourth (the originally six-sided Sandinista!) – but still packs too much of the unremarkable.

Still, the Clash’s 1982 effort is by no means a bad record. In fact, it boasts at least a couple of darn good, fun songs and at least half of the rest is pretty decent. Top two on my list are ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and ‘Rock the Casbah’. The former is not a typical Clash song, if you think of such a creature as boasting intelligent and/or lyrics; in fact, the lyrics are as stoopid as they come. Sample verse:

Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

The brilliance of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is in the music and the performance. Its appeal is thoroughly visceral: Mick Jones whoops his way through the song, accompanied by heavily fuzzed bass line and guitar riffs and resounding drum beats, and backing vocals by Joe Strummer in Ecuadorian Spanish, just for fun. The simplest of tunes with the simplest of sentiments, but it WORKS, and apparently to great effect when Levi’s used the song to advertise jeans a decade later, causing it to belatedly shoot up the charts. (Or so Wikipedia tells me; Combat Rock was released in the year before I was born and I was nine when ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ enjoyed its renaissance.)

‘Rock the Casbah’ is a hilarious political fantasy and more in the Clash’s usual mould. But the tune and instrumentation are, unusually, written by drummer Topper Headon rather than Mick Jones, and consequently rather new-wave-dance-floor-friendly. Legend has it that, in response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to ban rock music in Iran, Strummer wrote a song imagining the people’s defiance of the ban. But he peppered it with a mish-mash of cultural references from all over the Middle East and North Africa to eliminate the specificity and gleefully hollered his way through it.

Now the king told the boogie-men
‘You have to let that raga drop’
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top

By order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out the electric camel drum
The local guitar picker got his guitar picking thumb
As soon as the sharif cleared the square
They began to wail

The king called up his jet fighters
He said ‘You better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the Casbah way’
As soon as the sharif was chauffeured out of there
The jet pilots tuned to the cockpit radio blare
As soon as the sharif was out of their hair
The jet pilots wailed…

Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

(He thinks it’s not kosher!)

Of course, in horrifyingly typical fashion, conservatives latched on to that one line ‘Drop your bombs between the minarets’ and practically christened ‘Rock the Casbah’ soundtrack to the 1990s Gulf war. Never mind the Clash’s hopes for the peoples of the Middle East to be united by rock music, as depicted on the single cover. Just look at the Arab and the Hasidic Jew boogie-ing together and see if you can help smiling. Almost three decades on, it still isn’t much more than fantasy…

While I was very amused by the mix of cultural references in ‘Rock the Casbah’, the mix-up in ‘Straight to Hell’ actually irked me at first, perhaps because this one is meant to be serious. I applaud Strummer’s concern for the plight of the ‘Amerasian’ babies of the Vietnam War who were abandoned by their soldier fathers when they returned to the US – but the only Asian culture in which ‘san’ is used as an honorific is Japanese. Oh, I suppose I’m picking nits, but for me, the error detracts from Strummer’s otherwise sophisticated rendering of immigrant hopes and dilemmas in several different contexts.

Wanna join in a chorus
Of the Amerasian blues?
When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say ‘Papa Papa Papa Papa Papa -san take me home’
See me got photo photo photograph of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Lemme tell ya ‘bout your blood, bamboo kid:
It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice

Straight to hell, boys
Go straight to hell, boys
Oh Papa-san
Please take me home
Oh Papa-san
Everybody they wanna go home
So Mamma-san says

Can you cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man’s land
There ain’t no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here

The music of ‘Straight to Hell’ pulses with an insistent slow drum beat, guitar strokes and mournful, siren-like, Oriental-sounding violin melody. It’s merely memorable here, but was sampled cleverly, and to stunningly gorgeous effect, by M.I.A. in the song ‘Paper Planes’ off her recent album Kala. To be honest, it was ‘Paper Planes’ – which, aptly enough, also dealt with the travails of with immigration – that made me give ‘Straight to Hell’ another chance. It’s still not my favourite, but the general consensus is that it’s one of the Clash’s major songs.

So… depending on who you are, Combat Rock has either two or three classic songs. Maybe not enough to make a classic record, but when the good songs are so good, still a worthy record.

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Lily Allen – Alright, Still Sunday, Jun 8 2008 

The two things I tend to like in popular music can be summed up thus: (1) musical aesthetics and (2) lyrical content. (On the other hand, my attraction to classical music is solely aesthetic.) My very favourite bands, such as The Clash, are rich in both aspects, but most of the popular music I’m fond of tend to perform relatively more strongly in one aspect than the other.

Lily Allen’s record Alright, Still is among the latter, with the emphasis falling on the aesthetics. Its very best tracks combine stellar tunes, pretty harmonies, the irresistible guitar/percussive skank of ska, and little touches of instrumentation (horns, piano) that testify to Allen’s song-writing chops. I am also very partial to the juxtaposition of her rather sweet singing voice with her refreshingly down-to-earth London accent – not the posh southern ‘BBC’ accent foreigners might be more familiar with, but rather the common, man-in-the-street one complete with glottal T’s.

Not that Alright, Still is empty of lyrical content. If you interpret Allen’s songs as autobiographical, then she appears to be a relatively average twenty-something with the usual preoccupations, viz. love and its end, though with a few exceptions. What makes these entertaining is the tone: this is not a girl who minces her words (nor censors her profanities), and her attitudes are bold and her observations wryly funny. I know ‘Smile’ was the smash-hit charts-wise (and I do enjoy her blithe rejoicing in her ex’s misfortunes) but the knock-out is ‘Knock ‘Em Out’. It is rather well-acted, with Allen serving as both narrator and as shameless girl, and appropriate interjections from the hapless object of her attentions:

Cut to the pub on a lad’s night out
Man at the bar ‘cause it was his shout
Clocks this bird and she looked okay
She caught him looking and walked his way:
‘Alright darling, you gonna buy us a drink then?’
‘…Er no, but I was thinking about buying one for your friend…’

She’s got no taste, hand on his waist
Tries to pull away but her lips’ on his face
‘If you insist I’ll have a white wine spritzer!’
‘Sorry love, but you ain’t a pretty picture.’
(‘Er sorry, yeah, I’m butting out.’)

And then there are the standouts that focus on more unusual subjects. ‘LDN’ cheerfully peels the romantic epidermis from London to reveal a rather less appealing side, and acknowledges that ‘that’s city life’:

Riding through the city on my bike all day
‘Cause the filth took away my license
It doesn’t get me down and I feel okay
‘Cause the sights that I’m seeing are priceless
Everything seems to look as it should
But I wonder what goes on behind doors
A fella looking dapper, and he’s sittin’ with a slapper
Then I see it’s a pimp and his crack whore

There was a little old lady who was walking down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco
There were people from the city having lunch in the park
I believe that it’s called al fresco
When a kid came along to offer a hand
But before she had time to accept it
Hits her over the head, doesn’t care if she’s dead
‘Cause he’s got all her jewellery and wallet

‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’ gets a bit more personal. I can’t quite decide if she’s being bitterly sarcastic or just resigned.

Why can’t I sleep at night?
Don’t say it’s gonna be alright
I wanna be able to eat spaghetti bolognaise
And not feel bad about it for days and days and days
All the magazines they talk about weight loss
If I buy those jeans I can look like Kate Moss
I know it’s not the life that I chose
But I guess that’s the way that things go

Oh yes, I’m fine
Everything’s just wonderful
I’m having the time of my life

I doubt that Alright, Still will be one of the (few) enduring classics that I return to repeatedly. But it’s a good diversion and very enjoyable.

London lessons Thursday, Apr 3 2008 

I studied in London for a year but spent much of that time doing, er, studying. I can’t say that I’ve properly experienced the city as a true Londoner. Oh, I’ve done the usual tourist suspects – Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Hampton Court, &c. But apart from occasional visits to Leicester Square for food/gatherings, I’d never really taken advantage of the unique, simple pleasures that living in London offers. Dropped into a random church just out of curiosity, say; or spent a weekend exploring the British National Museum. It was only great good luck that enabled me to revisit London on two work-related occasions in the past 6 months. And this time, with the help of my York-born but London-living friend, I had a few successes in my quest to stop experiencing London as a tourist and learnt a few things along the way.

interior of the victoria & albert museum

1. Visits to (free) art galleries are like balm for the soul. My fourth trip to the National Gallery reminded me of the beauty of Sassoferrato’s work and the genius of Michelangelo and da Vinci. My maiden one to the Tate Britain confirmed that I can love modern art, key criteria being (a) ‘if it makes sense’ (as my dear friend pithily observed); (b) if it is aesthetically appealing. It also exposed me to the gorgeous works of John Piper and reaffirmed my fondness for the pre-Raphaelites. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also delightful, with its exhibits ranging from cartoons by Raphael to Islamic art, fashion, furniture, and E. H. Shepard’s original Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations.

2. A good classical concert can literally give one chills. I attended a ridiculously affordable concert (my seat with restricted views cost nine quid) by the extremely competent Vasari Singers held at the lovely (undergoing-restoration) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the baritone solos in Fauré’s Requiem literally raised goosebumps on my neck. I had no idea quite how famous the Vasari Singers are until I Googled them. This concert triggered a spell of massive re-listening to all my classical favourites, including J S Bach, Mozart and of course Fauré.

interior of st stephen walbrook

3. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a church service held in London. (Funny thing is, I can’t say the same for the church services I have attended in Singapore.) It so happened that when I entered the interestingly round church of St Stephen Walbrook – designed by Sir Christopher Wren – there was a service going on. Quite befittingly, the service ended with a quietly beautiful three-part mass by de Victoria, sung a cappella by an alto, tenor and bass. The whole experience was clean and elegant – not unlike the church itself.

hampstead heath

4. It’s lovely to have easily accessible parks to pop into fresh out of a tube station. There’s the Hyde, the Regent’s, and of course, the (Hampstead) Heath. It was winter and the trees were skeletal, but the green alone was pretty and peaceable. In a similar vein, London gardens can be jolly nice – I envy the English their varieties of native plants.

charing cross tube station

5. The London Underground, despite frequent delays, suspensions, surprise closures and tonnes of stairs, is really an excellent way to get around because of the density of the stations, especially in central London. What the Tube doesn’t adequately cover, the buses make up for, which is a great credit to the city’s public transportation system. (Love Ian Bostridge too – where else would you find an advertisement for one of his concerts?)

hampstead village

6. And yet the great thing about London is that you can have a rather fulfilling everyday life without walking further than 20 minutes from your home. The ‘village’ concept is still in force; you can generally find a good array of shops, food places offering varied cuisines, Starbucks, your local bank, the parish church, and even a cinema. I watched the excellent ‘Michael Clayton’ at the Swiss Cottage Odeon on a Saturday evening and it was lovely to be able to walk home discussing it.

Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous Sunday, Feb 10 2008 

I fell for Rilo Kiley when I heard More Adventurous – a record that comprising a wonderful mix of musical styles, lyrical subjects and emotional tones; by turns dramatic, passionate, musing, amused. It isn’t perfect, but just about everything is catchy, aesthetically gorgeous, tuneful, richly and carefully detailed, and lyrically interesting, so that it gets even better with repeat listens. I dropped it for a while and recently returned fairly obsessively to it, amidst renewed appreciation for Rilo Kiley’s newest album Under the Blacklight… but that’s another blog entry for another day.

Lead guitarist Blake Sennett is due tremendous credit for the lovely guitar-playing – including all sorts of beautiful effects, whether crunching electric riffs, folkish acoustic, shimmering picking, legato phrases, layered lead lines, rhythmic plucking, harpsichord-like tinkling. Then there is Jason Boesel’s light, intuitively agile, warm and superbly detailed drumming. And of course, Jenny Lewis’ remarkable voice: a clean, bright, warm mezzo-soprano, capable of shading from sweet to ferocious; delicate to strong; spare to full-blown and back again… But the main strength of More Adventurous is the amazing songwriting.

I was rather surprised to recognise ‘I Never’ – which I’d first encountered in the film Must Love Dogs – since I’d never (haha) knowingly heard Rilo Kiley before. It was used quite appropriately in the film: Diane Lane’s character haplessly falls for a charming cad to Jenny Lewis’s confession that ‘I’m only a woman/ Of flesh and bone’. (Yes, I’ve watched this film quite a few times – it’s got John Cusack in it.) This is a seemingly straightforward soul number, complete with big voice, organ chords, strings and even a male chorus going ‘ah-ooh’; but with structural and lyrical tricks. Jenny declares – no less than 50 times – that

I never … loved somebody

The way that I loved you.

And what a triumphant declaration it is, followed as it is by a dramatic coda of electric riffs that sweep you along to the song’s conclusion.

‘Does He Love You?’ was the next song to strike me: an indelible, emotionally-wrought adultery song, with a musical and lyrical narrative twist of the knife at the end. Lewis’ envy of her friend’s perfect marriage suddenly becomes entirely too personal:

Late at night, I get the phone

You’re at the shop sobbin’ all alone

Your confession is coming out

You only married him, you felt your time was running out

But now you love him, and your baby

At last you are complete

But he’s distant and you found him on the phone pleading

Saying ‘Baby I love you and I’ll leave her and I’m comin’ out to California’

Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend

I am flawed if I’m not free

And your husband will never leave you

He will never leave you for me

In quite a different vein is ‘Portions for Foxes’, where Lewis sweetly and blithely admits ‘Baby, I’m bad news/I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news’. The song is a veritable showcase for various guitar tricks. Swirling bell-like notes alternate with drum-led crunching chords, mandolin-like vibrato, percussive plucking, and pulsing legato harmonies… The lyrics are solidly pessimistic, but are sung with an endearing air of cheerful unrepentance:

I know I’m alone if I’m with or without you

But just being around you offers me another form of relief

When the loneliness leads to bad dreams

And the bad dreams lead me to calling you

And I call you and say… ‘C’mere!’

‘It’s a Hit’ was Robert Christgau’s Song of the Year for 2004. Not hard to see why: it is smart, verbose, reflective, political, philosophical, and… funny. To a catchy tune and cheery instrumental accompaniments (including Christmas-time type jingling bells), Lewis observes wryly that

Any chimp can play human for a day

Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform

And run for office on election day

Fancy himself a real decision maker

And deploy more troops than salt in a shaker

But it’s a jungle when war is made

And you’ll panic and throw your own shit at the enemy

The camera pulls back to reveal your true identity

Look, it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing

A smoking gun-holding ape

[…]

Any fool can play executioner for a day

And say with fingers pointed in both directions ‘He went that-away’

It’s only a switch or syringe, ah-huh

Exempt from eternal sins

But you still wear a cross

And you think you’re gonna get in

Ah, but the pardons never come from upstairs

They’re always a moment too late

But it’s entertainment, keep the crowd on their toes

It’s justice, we’re safe

It’s not a hit, it’s a holiday

Shoo-bop shoo-bop, my baby

The title tune describes one girl’s breathtakingly total and complete submission to love, set to a sweet country melody, with beautifully tuneful steel guitar and harmonica. Would that we were all as brave and articulate and witty.

I read, with every broken heart

We should become more adventurous

And if you banish me from your profits

And if I get banished from the kingdom up above

I’d sacrifice money and heaven all for love

Let me be loved, let me be loved

[…]

And maybe ours is the cause of all mankind:

Get loved, make more, try to stay alive.

‘Table for One’ (Liz Phair) Sunday, Jan 13 2008 

Robert Christgau has been getting a lot of flak on the Rolling Stone website for his reviews of (what he deems) ho-hum or poor albums. Most readers’ criticisms centre on the dense, (in Singlish) ‘cheem’ nature of his writing, essentially a complaint that the review is difficult to understand. Well, that brings to mind a Terry Pratchett quote on the problems he has had with American publishers, captured for posterity in The Annotated Pratchett Files:

That seems to point up a significant difference between Europeans and Americans.

A European says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with me?’ An American says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with him?’

I make no suggestion that one side or other is right, but observation over many years leads me to believe it is true.

More difficult to dismiss is the criticism that Christgau’s negative reviews are just, well, off-the-mark – that he has somehow missed the genius at work, mistaken brilliant music for terrible music, &c. For whatever reason, however, I find almost all of his reviews spot on. A sample of negative reviews of artists I like reveal quite clearly that careful listening has gone into that particular album review. The great thing is that he will (for ‘Honorable Mention’ and ‘Choice Cut’ reviews) identify the one or two excellent songs on an otherwise dull record.

Liz Phair’s 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle received one such (B-plus, which is actually not too bad) review.

In pop, when the production’s solid and the voice a little less so, the songs had better be on the money (“Got My Own Thing,” “Table for One”)

And this is precisely the case. Somebody’s Miracle is not very remarkable save ‘Got My Own Thing’ and ‘Table for One’ – the two songs I find myself returning to, especially the latter. A simple but lovely melody, gorgeous classical Spanish-style picked acoustic lines, and a vivid, sweetly-sung account of alcoholism:

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee

I drink it till the kitchen stops shaking

I’m backing out of the driveway and into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me

Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone

With my sympathy beside me

I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me

Feasting gleefully

On my desperation

I delight in Ms Phair’s lyrical tricks, and many they are, too, like this mid-sentence switch of (grammatical) subject:

I hide all the bottles in places / they find

And confront me with pain in their eyes

And I promise that I’ll make some changes

‘Both Sides Now’ (Joni Mitchell) Saturday, Jan 5 2008 

I am inordinately fond of the quietly pretty performance of ‘Both Sides Now’ found on Joni Mitchell’s 1974 live album Miles of Aisles. The song structure is simple enough, with a memorable melody repeated through 3 verses (no chorus); it is the lyrics that are remarkable.

They start out merely poetic, but then become surprisingly pointed and even downright declarative: describing ‘both sides’ of clouds, love, and life – and concluding quite firmly that she doesn’t know any of them at all.

Her thoughts on life:

Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say to someone ‘I love you’ right out loud

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds

I’ve looked at life that way, sometimes I still do

Now old friends are acting strange

They shake their heads, and they tell me that I’ve changed (Yes, I have)

Something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From up and down, and give and take

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions that I recall

Role reversal Sunday, Apr 1 2007 

It’s funny. My mum sticks her head into my room whenever I put on the Clash or the Ramones, grimaces and says, ‘I don’t understand how you can like something so noisy.’ And yet, yesterday, when I suggested she pick some song from my collection for her mobile ringtone, she plumped for the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’ and Joey Ramone’s cover of ‘What a Wonderful World’ – hardly tranquil, soothing pieces of music.

I pointed out the incongruity, but she said the whole point of having a loud ringtone was to wake her up – and, of course, to be heard. Ironically, I had avoided picking loud music for my own mobile ringtone because I didn’t want to give my colleagues a shock every time it came on in my (quiet) office. Of course, the net result is that I hardly ever notice when my phone starts ringing (playing the intro to Camera Obscura’s ‘Lloyd I’m Ready to be Heartbroken’), and even less when a text message arrives (to the tune of the low-key ‘Center of Gravity’ by Yo La Tengo). I think it may be time for a change… Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ or the Clash’s ‘Death or Glory’, perhaps…

Carlo Gesualdo – Sabbato Sancto Sunday, Mar 25 2007 

I’ve decided to preserve, for posterity, the only music review I’ve ever written outside of this blog. It was written on Amazon.co.uk more than 4 years ago (gorsh), just for a lark. Since at the time I listened almost exclusively to what most people term ‘classical’ music – that is, if you, like Amazon, divide the music world nicely into classical and popular music – it was a classical review. I still remember that I bought this CD at random while in Melbourne for a summer school programme in 2000, and it had the hugest impact on me, kicking off my obsession with Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale and the harmonia mundi music label. I still think they’re the bee’s knees, actually, and have recently started listening to their records again.

Carlo Gesualdo is not your run-of-the-mill Renaissance composer of vocal music. Juicy details about his rather exciting life abound, and his unusual experiences are believed to have contributed to the very unusual nature of his music, but to focus on them would be to miss the point. His music is the work of absolute genius and unbelievable originality – there is no way that his work could be mistaken for that of any other – and at the same time utterly gorgeous. The melody lines are unexpected but make complete sense, a remarkable feat at a point where most of his contemporaries were reduced to producing formulaic stuff, rehashing tried and trite methods. The frequent changes to tempo and dissonant interjections keep you on your toes, and the interplay between the different voice parts is fascinating.

The Sabbato Sancto showcases Gesualdo at this best: dark and ominous, lullingly beautiful, or quietly contemplative by turns, there’s never a dull moment. The motets included on this disc are equally outstanding in their own way, and illustrate the sheer skill that Gesualdo possessed for putting music to words in a way that colours in their very meaning.

So, in the first place – brilliant music.

In the second place – brilliant performance.

It is sad, but unsurprising that Gesualdo’s music isn’t more well-known than it is: it simply defies convention and classification, and requires a great deal of bravery and technical skill to execute. But Philippe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Vocal Europeen, as expected, achieve it with their usual panache. Herreweghe directs with surety and intelligence, and the stellar Ensemble Vocal Europeen provide purity of tone combined with goosebump-raising sonority. None of those jarring vibratos; just clean, crisp vocal lines, each of which can be followed individually. As usual, the sopranos are wonderfully dark, perfectly suited to the music; the altos are strong; the tenors hit their notes with nary a sign of strain; and the basses are simply outstanding: deep and effortlessly sonorous. The pronunciation is consistent and the enunciation disciplined. This is just about the finest example of vocal performance available.

Sandro Gorli’s Requiem rounds off the disc, and is entirely in keeping with the experimental air of the whole thing. An extremely ‘modern’ piece that probably is more difficult to appreciate than the Gesualdo tracks; I loved it though, if only because it demonstrated yet again the technical finesse of the Ensemble Vocal Europeen. It’s not the familiar Latin Requiem either, but an Italian one of poetic beauty. Altogether a delightful ‘extra’.

This disc approaches perfection.

Joni Mitchell: For the Roses Sunday, Mar 11 2007 

Blasphemy though this may be to most Joni Mitchell fans, I like For the Roses even more than I like Blue. Writing-wise, it’s more masterful; musically, it’s more filled out; stylistically, it’s more varied; lyrically, it’s more adventurous; and tone-wise, it’s more cohesive, invoking a sort of dreamy, detached mood throughout the album. Kind of like the album cover, with its washed-out blues and greens and scene of calm pastoral natural beauty. And the album title, which is somehow indirect and evocative all at once.

Most of the songs on For the Roses are remarkable in some way or other. ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’, for example, is the first use of a seventh interval for vocal harmonies that I have encountered in Western popular music, and sounds, quite against expectation, gorgeous. The lyrics are atypical of Ms. Mitchell, being a lot of disparate but vivid phrases strung together to form a bizarre narrative of sorts. And the whole thing is kept from floating off into the ether by the rather organic sound of squelching fingers on guitar strings during the complex chord changes.

But there’s lots of typical Mitchell here too, exemplified by the very personal, incisive, yet somehow clinical dissection of her relationship with her parents in ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’:

She don’t like my kick-pleat skirt

She don’t like my eyelids painted green

She don’t like me staying up late in my high-heeled shoes

Living for that rock and roll dancing scene

Papa says, ‘Leave the girl alone, Mother

She’s looking like a movie queen’

Mama thinks she spoilt me

Papa knows somehow he set me free

Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten

She blames herself, but Papa, he blesses me

It’s a rough road to travel

Mama, let go now, it’s always called for me

The title track is simultaneously a showcase for pretty acoustic guitar and a knowing, biting commentary on the funny business that is the music business. You can’t help but wince when she describes the contradictions inherent in selling ‘art’ or ‘self-expression’:

In some office sits a poet

And he trembles as he sings

And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around (…)

Remember the days when you used to sit

And make up your tunes for love

And pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee

And now you’re seen on giant screens

And at parties for the press

And for people who have slices of you from the company

But what makes ‘For the Roses’ special among the many diatribes against the commercial nature of the business, apart from the degree of articulateness, is the degree of self-awareness which keeps her from sounding pompous and hypocritical. Mitchell is quite cognisant of the fact that

I guess I seem ungrateful

With my teeth sunk in the hand

That brings me things I really can’t give up just yet.

And, of course, the imagery. It really is quite unfair that she can come up with such apt and unusual comparisons as

The caressing rev of motors

Finely tuned like fancy women in thirties evening gowns

and

The moon swept down black water

Like an empty spotlight.

‘For the Roses’ is one of the quieter songs on the album, utilising the spare combination of guitar and vocals that characterise much of Blue. But the song, like the rest of For the Roses, exhibits substantially stronger melodies and even more beautiful vocal lines. Furthermore, Mitchell incorporates quite a few other additional elements in the arrangements, to good effect. Apart from the (plumper) piano, doubled guitars and richer harmonies, new instruments include the flute, saxophone, hand-drums. There’s even harmonica on the country-inflected number ‘You Turn Me On I’m a Radio’. As rock-and-roll myth has it, this was the sarcastic product of the record company’s directive to produce a radio-friendly hit, quite like the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. And like the latter, the result is pretty great: a catchy, breezy gem of a song that acts as a successful extended metaphor complete with puns.

You turn me on, I’m a radio

I’m a country station

I’m a little bit corny

I’m a wildwood flower waving for you

Broadcasting tower waving for you (…)

I’m going to tell you again now

If you’re still listening there:

If you’re driving into town with a dark cloud above you

Dial in the number who’s bound to love you (…)

If your head says ‘Forget it’ but your heart’s still smoking

Call me at the station, the lines are open

‘Electricity’ is another shining example of extended metaphor. And you might be forgiven for thinking, ‘Hey, what is with all the extended metaphors? Are they just poetic exercises of some sort? Is she just phoning it in?’ But no worries on that account. ‘Electricity’ is once an expository tale of a pair of lovers, as well as a thoughtful commentary on relationships between men and women and on the wider state of the world.

And she holds out her flashlight and she shines it on me

She wants me to tell her what the trouble might be

Well I’m learning, it’s peaceful

With a good dog and some trees

Out of touch with the breakdown of this century

They’re not going to fix it up too easy (…)

And she begs him to show her how to fix it again

While the song that he sang her to soothe her to sleep

Runs all through her circuits like a heartbeat

And in spite of this complexity, everything pulls together with the help of Ms Mitchell’s usual vivid imagery, memorable melody, and the apposite but subtle arrangement – note the steady, light, hypnotic, pulsing taps on a hand-drum that come in for just a couple of drawn-out breaths right around ‘heartbeat’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’, which features a lovely guitar riff and painfully sharp lyrics:

I am a woman of heart and mind

With time on her hands, no child to raise

You come to me like a little boy

And I give you my scorn and my praise

After the rush when you come back down

You’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high

Drive your bargains

Push your papers

Win your medals

Fuck your strangers

Don’t it leave you on the empty side?

Again, as in the case of Blue, there are a couple of songs (on a 12-track album) that I don’t much like. For whatever reason, they are the opening and closing items: the excessively dramatic, sanctimonious ‘Banquet’ (‘Who let the greedy in and who left the needy out?’) and the aimless (music-wise, lyrics-wise) ‘Ludwig’s Tune (Judgement of the Moon and Stars)’ respectively. Then again, it is easy enough to skip these without sacrificing the flow of the intervening tracks.

I understand that Mitchell’s most popular albums by far are Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). The intervening For the Roses (1972), has perhaps gotten lost in the scheme of things. Undeservedly so, in my opinion.

The Velvet Underground: Loaded Saturday, Feb 24 2007 


I’ve read a few reviews of Loaded that equated its commercial approach – the Velvet Underground were instructed to make a record ‘loaded with hits’ – with poor quality. Indeed I recall one purist complaining that bassist Doug Yule’s ‘sappy boy-band influence’, or something like that, had come to fore after the departure of multi-instrumentalist John Cale whose tastes ran to the extreme avant garde. Perhaps it’s simply not as, uh, cool to like something as accessible and listenable as Loaded.

But I’ve never thought that the Velvets’ need to produce something that would appeal to the mainstream marred the record. Loaded is simply less perverse than, say, White Light/White Heat (the second album), the most difficult of their oeuvre, being full of wailing, screeching instruments, extended improvisation, dissonance, feedback, and of course a preoccupation with drugs and similarly unpalatable themes. Furthermore, in the case of Loaded, the commercial imperative resulted in pretty melodies and harmonies; catchy, structured songs; and disciplined yet exuberant, tuneful solos. What’s not to like?

I first encountered the music of the Velvets – specifically, the music on Loaded – when I watched the film High Fidelity, which prominently featured the first and last tracks off the album. They both feature Yule’s gentle voice rather than songwriter/guitarist/primary singer Lou Reed’s flat, sarcastic one, and are the better for it. The album opener, ‘Who Loves the Sun’, is an exercise in contradiction, with petulant lyrics set to bright, cheerful harmonies and chiming acoustic riffs:

Who loves the rain?

Who cares that it makes flowers?

Who cares that it makes showers

Since you broke my heart?

The other High Fidelity soundtrack item, ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin’’, is my favourite song on Loaded, and ironically enough the least commercial of the lot, being (a gripping) 7 and a half minutes long. In fact, it is perhaps my favourite song by the Velvets. Gorgeous major-key blues music; amazing extended guitar-plus-drum solos; shadowy harmonies; and a profound subject – poverty – given simple, wistful treatment and an earnest, cracking, empathetic vocalisation:

Say a word for Polly May

She can’t tell the night from the day

They threw her out in the street

Just like a cat she landed on her feet

And say a word for Joanie Love

She ain’t got nuthin’ at all

With every day she falls in love

And every night she falls when she does

She said

‘Oh sweet nuthin’’

You know she ain’t got nothing at all

Lou Reed’s expressive, exuberant vocals are put to good use on this album, though. He sings ‘Train Coming Round the Bend’, a relentlessly pounding blues rocker, in a strangled, off-key voice that occasionally drops out and suggests the train isn’t the only thing going round the bend. And he puts a whole lotta feeling into ‘Rock and Roll’, which perhaps is not surprising since, as he said, what happens to Jenny in the song was what happened to him:

Jenny says when she was five years old

There was nothing happening at all

Every time she puts on the radio

There was nothing going down at all

Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station

You know she don’t believe what she heard at all

She started shaking to that fine fine music

You know her life was saved by rock and roll

Despite all the amputation

You know you could just go out

And dance to the rock and roll station…

It was all right

The song may be highly personal in origin but its appeal must be universal: it really captures that feeling you get when you discover rock and roll. Reed’s energy is infectious and you can’t help obeying when he admonishes you ‘Oy! Listen to me now’ (he’s Jewish). ‘Rock and Roll’ is preceded by ‘Sweet Jane’, a great pop song that is similarly amusing and affecting all at once:

And there’s, you know, some evil mothers

Well, they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt

You know that women never really faint

And that villains always blink their eyes

And that, you know, children are the only ones blush

And that life is just a dive

But anyone who ever had a heart

Oh, they wouldn’t turn round and break it

And anyone who ever played a part

Oh, they wouldn’t turn round and hate it

If it seems like I’m quoting rather a lot of the Velvet Underground’s lyrics, I am. Displaying the lyrics in their full glory is the best way to make the point that Lou Reed has really interesting things to say, even on this supposedly most commercial and therefore least-worthy-of-cult-interest album. The bouncy ‘Cool It Down’ advises – unusually for a rock song – a young man to take things slowly with his young lady, though without a hint of old-fogeyness. I also love the fact that this advice is given in two slightly different versions of vocals, which has the effect of an uncoordinated Greek chorus – especially when one comes in ever so slightly behind the other.

The music on Loaded is full of such cute, creative touches, typical of this notoriously ground-breaking band. ‘Sweet Jane’ has an organ blasting a deep bass melody for just a few seconds right at the end as the song fades out, but that’s enough for impact in a song that is otherwise built on a repeated series of simple, rhythmic guitar riffs. Then there’s that delightful musical transition in ‘Rock in Roll’. It comes after the first bluesy guitar solo, where, although the lead guitar line has reverted back to the melody of the verses, the drumming and rhythm guitar delay their switch back for two bars. The effect is… captivating.

In short, Loaded emphatically does not exhibit the superficiality of theme and tone and that one usually associates with mainstream pop music. It still sounds remarkably like the Velvet Underground, and looks like them too: the album cover depicts an entrance into the New York City subway, complete with emanating cloud of stench, coloured pink for some reason. (To be fair, the subway has been cleaned up and the smell wasn’t bad when I was there last year, despite it being summer). Again, what’s not to like?

List: Pop Music on Gilmore girls Saturday, Jan 27 2007 

The Gilmore girls (© 2006 The WB Television Network)

I’ve been watching Gilmore girls [sic] since its first season – that is, since 2000 – and never caught any of the popular music references. And there are a lot of references, partly because Lorelai and her daughter Lorelai (Rory) Gilmore, the girls in question, are deeply steeped in pop culture, and partly because Rory’s best friend Lane is a complete audiophile and plays drums in a rock band. There was even one episode in which the Bangles made an appearance (the girls were attending a Bangles concert in New York City) and we were treated to a bracing dose of the classic ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ as well as footage of the band ‘performing’ ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Hero Takes a Fall’, &c.

But in the time that I’ve started exploring popular music, I’ve been rewatching old episodes and find that I get a lot more of the music-related jokes, am capable of identifying songs played on the show, and have (re-)discovered good music too.

A few of the memorable jokes and references:

  1. Rory, in an effort to persuade her boyfriend to go to her formal coming-out (into society) that requires correspondingly formal wear, makes him watch Neil Young’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction because ‘doesn’t Neil Young look cool?… If you’ll notice, he’s wearing a tux.’ Her boyfriend’s rejoinder: ‘Neil Young looks cool because he’s Neil Young, not because he’s wearing a tux.’ How true.
  2. Grumpy diner owner Luke warning his ne’er-do-well nephew Jess to knuckle down and pay attention to his studies: ‘If you’re not careful you’ll wind up like that loner at the back of the class who repeats every year and listens to Steely Dan.’ Retorts Jess sarcastically: ‘Steely Dan? Nice topical reference.’ Luke, unabashed: ‘The band may change, the guy never does.’
  3. The guitarist of Lane’s band, threatening the hapless asthmatic bass player to shape up or else: The Who bassist ‘John Entwistle’s nails were still growing when they found his replacement.’
  4. Lorelai’s immediate reaction to the lounge pianist hired by her stuffy parents for a posh Thanksgiving party – ‘He can play anything’ – was the shouted request ‘Free Bird!’, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that is a staple request at rock concerts
  5. Taylor Doose, Stars Hollow’s town selectman, making things difficult for Lorelai when she attempts to acquire the requisite permit to set up her own inn, insists that the inn’s 18 parking spaces won’t be enough for the potentially 20 guests occupying its rooms. Lorelai argues that ‘if the parking’s not enough, we can always add more.’ Rejoins Taylor, quoting Joni Mitchell’s delightful ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: ‘So, pave paradise and put up a parking lot?’
  6. An excerpt from Rory’s high-school valedictorian speech: ‘My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be. She filled our house with love and fun and books and music, unflagging in her efforts to give me role models from Jane Austen to Eudora Welty to Patti Smith. As she guided me through these incredible eighteen years, I don’t know if she ever realized that the person I most wanted to be was her.’

Songs I hadn’t known in my previous (unexposed to popular music) life, but which I actually recognized this time when played (either by the original band or by Lane’s band) on the show:

The Clash – ‘London Calling’, ‘White Riot’
The Ramones – ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’
Siouxsie and the Banshees – ‘Cities of Dust’
Pixies – ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’

Songs that Gilmore girls introduced to me:

The B-52’s – ‘52 Girls’, ‘Dance this Mess Around’
Joey Ramone – ‘What a Wonderful World’
Blondie – ‘Heart of Glass’
David Bowie – ‘Suffragette City’
XTC – ‘Then She Appeared’
Bananarama – ‘Shy Boy’
Yo La Tengo – ‘My Little Corner of the World’
Ella Fitzgerald – ‘I Can’t Get Started’

Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps Sunday, Jan 21 2007 

I still remember the very first thoughts I had when I heard this album for the first time. I couldn’t believe my ears when faint sounds of the audience cheering and clapping came through on the first track, ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’. They went thus:

1. This is an amazingly clean recording, for a live performance. It sounds like a studio recording.

2. This is live. LIVE. He’s playing that acoustic guitar and blowing that harmonica and singing perfectly, all at once, and live.

3. Eeks. I hope there isn’t going to be audible cheering and clapping all throughout the recording.

No worries on that last account. I understand that the audience track was removed from what was indeed a series of recordings made of new, unreleased songs that Mr. Young was trying out on a previous tour. But Rust Never Sleeps is more than just a pioneering effort. Had it been a conventional Neil Young studio effort (if there is such a thing), it would still have been an astounding musical achievement. Especially that guitar-playing. This is the album that made me want to learn guitar. Whether acoustic or electric, I didn’t care – and there’s plenty of both on the album – I just wanted to be able to produce the gorgeous/ferocious combination of sounds that was assailing my ears.

Not that Rust Never Sleeps is all harsh on the ears. I wasn’t paying full attention on first listen, but I got a vague feeling that the songs were getting more and more fierce/wild/loud/fast as the album progressed. It was quite a surprise to find out subsequently that the album had in fact been neatly split into acoustic and electric halves, coinciding nicely with the two sides of a vinyl record in, ahem, the days of vinyl. I listen to it in CD form, of course, but it’s still a nice idea. At any rate, it showcases to good effect the two (main) sides of Mr. Young’s musical personality – elegiac acoustic folk and heavy electric rock – as became apparent to me the more of his albums I heard.

I like both sides. Both sides of Rust Never Sleeps and of Neil Young’s musical personality, that is. The acoustic portion of Rust Never Sleeps has some of the most lovely music he has ever written and performed, in particular the gorgeous bridge of ‘Ride My Llama’, which juxtaposes jerky, rhythmic acoustic guitar and bass and the silky-smooth unison singing of Mr. Young and Nicolette Larson to incredible polyphonic effect. But ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Sail Away’ have no less beautiful, though simple, melodies and arrangements. The appeal of the really loud electric half, with its distorted guitars, occasional feedback and extended soloing (never mind if it sometimes consists only of repeated single notes) is more… visceral. Crazy Horse, Mr. Young’s usual ‘back-up band’ (although I don’t think the term does them justice) are tremendously sympathetic in their playing and vocal harmonies. And I’m very fond of the percussive clapping used in ‘Welfare Mothers’ (at least, I think it’s clapping): I wonder just who did that; perhaps the stagehands were roped in? Plus, the huge contrast between the two versions of what is essentially the same song – the acoustic album opener ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and the electric album closer ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ – is a wonder to behold.

Rust Never Sleeps is also special to me because this is where I first recognised Neil Young’s wonderful and essential lyrical weirdness. He is real knacky where the music is concerned, but he’s no slouch with the words either. The songs on Rust Never Sleeps are tied together loosely by a few motifs, including Native American history, time travel, a long journey, &c, and sometimes they come together in a bizarre but highly pleasing mix of imagery. To wit, ‘Pocahontas’:

I wish I was a trapper, I would give a thousand pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt

In the morning, on the fields of green

In a homeland we’ve never seen

And maybe Marlon Brando would be there by the fire

We’d sit and talk of Hollywood, and the good things there for hire

And the Astradome, and the first tepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

The idea of a long journey – often an allegory for the artistic quest – is not exactly ground-breaking in rock music. But few, if any, have written about it in such an interesting manner, I think. From ‘Thrasher’:

It was then that I knew I’d had enough

Burned my credit card for fuel

Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

With a one-way ticket to the land of truth

And my suitcase in my hand

How I lost my friends I still don’t understand.

The above evokes the most important idea in Rust Never Sleeps: that the artist must vigilantly fight the temptation and tendency to stagnate. Even the album title serves as a rather lyrical admonishment: Wikipedia informs me that ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was the slogan of an anti-rust paint, Rustoleum. This theme, together with the acoustic/electric split, makes for quite a concept, and is itself fully embodied in Neil Young’s work on this album.

Rust Never Sleeps was released in 1979 (strangely enough, in the same year as my favourite album London Calling). The musical event which provoked Mr. Young’s reflections was, of course, the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. Punk rock was anti-establishment in both its musical style (short, loud, ferocious, simple to the point of simplistic) and lyrical preoccupations (aggressively rebellious, politically and socially aware, and sometimes anarchic). It was uncomfortable and uncomforting, a direct counterpoint to the popular music that came before, and emphatically not inclined to rest on its laurels. A secondary musical event was perhaps the 1977 death of Elvis Presley, himself a pioneer in his prime. So Neil Young pays tribute to those newcomers – like the Sex Pistols – who were, at that point, forcing established artists like himself to keep staying relevant or suffer artistic death:

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

This is the story of a Johnny Rotten

It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps

The King is gone but he’s not forgotten

And to underscore the crucial importance of guarding against artistic complacency, Mr. Young made it the subject of the album’s ‘bookends’, viz. ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. The late Kurt Cobain may have shared this belief, including a now infamous line from the former – ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – in his suicide note. (I say ‘may’ because there is controversy over the rather romantic suggestion that Mr. Cobain killed himself because he simply could not deal with the massive and unexpected success of Nirvana.) And I did quite a double-take when I re-watched the film High Fidelity (one of my favourites, in part because of John Cusack), and finally recognised the line, coming out of Jack Black’s mouth while his character Barry was ranting to Cusack’s character Rob:

‘Rob. Top 5 musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s: Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticise a formerly-great artist for his latter-day sins? Is it better to burn out or to fade away?’

That line, that theme, and Neil Young by extension, have certainly entered pop culture. A funny incident occurred the other day. I mentioned to a colleague that Mr. Young’s 1970s retrospective compilation album Decade was going for a rather exorbitant price in a music shop in Singapore, and my colleague replied: ‘Oh, but Neil Young is rather esoteric, isn’t he?’ Well, perhaps he’s considered esoteric here. But even though 10 months ago I myself had never heard of Neil Young, I find it funny now to hear him spoken of as if he weren’t a Major Artist in the history of popular music. Rust Never Sleeps plays a big part in that.

‘Chelsea Morning’ (Joni Mitchell) Sunday, Jan 7 2007 

Ever since I discovered a mysterious affinity with New York City, anything with a New York connection tends to pique my interest. But I didn’t immediately make the connection with ‘Chelsea Morning’ (off Joni Mitchell’s 1969 record Clouds), since I associated Chelsea primarily with the posh London district and its football club than with the NYC one. That’s what comes of staying in the UK in 4 years. (My sister, who spent a year in New York state, had the opposite association.)

So it’s a bit funny that ‘Chelsea Morning’ doesn’t really have a New York flavour at all. It’s all wordplay and word-painting of the ilk I’ve come to expect from Joni Mitchell, impressively structured and accompanied by jolly, pretty, acoustic guitar plus a sprinkling of lively harmonies. I’m not surprised that the Clintons were inspired by something so gorgeously evocative to name their daughter Chelsea (who, I understand, attended the same college for a year that I did, but she left just before I started). (Such connections!)

There are two gems of metaphors/similes in ‘Chelsea Morning’, tucked in amongst a whole lot of seemingly effortless imagery. Hearing that the New York ‘streets are paved with passersby’ reminds me, somehow, of the cobblestone-paved streets of my university town. (Not to mention that it is a greatly apt and just plain great description.) And what about this, eh?

And the sun poured in like butterscotch

And stuck to all my senses

Yummy. (Pun intended.)

Double wordplay that is heightened by the repetition of the structure and the contrast of the different senses being stimulated:

Oh, won’t you stay

We’ll put on the day

And we’ll wear it ’till the night comes (Chorus 1)

Oh, won’t you stay

We’ll put on the day

There’s a sun show every second (Chorus 2)

The Clash: London Calling Tuesday, Dec 19 2006 

I really love the Clash. This is not to say that I love everything they’ve done (and I’ve heard the vast majority of it), though I like lots of it. But if I had never heard anything of theirs save for London Calling, they’d be one of my (two) musical heroes all the same. I listened to this double-album (double in the days of vinyl, that is) early on in my popular music phase – which began about 7 months ago – and almost nothing else has come close to matching it. (A couple of Neil Young albums do, and that’s why he’s my other musical hero.)

London Calling is simply bursting with… exuberance. I think that’s the most apt description of the energy and fun on this record. Well, gosh, just look at the cover. That’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass – in sheer frustration at a show that was going badly, actually – but this image completely evokes, for me, the power, spirit and audacity of London Calling and the Clash in general.

The 19 songs draw, musically, on a whole bunch of genres. There is punk rock (naturally) as on the ominous title track; ‘50s rock-and-roll like the gleeful cover of ‘Brand New Cadillac’; reggae, including the joyful ‘Revolution Rock’ and the clear-eyed depiction of inner-city violence that is ‘The Guns of Brixton’; ska, e.g. ‘Wrong ‘em Boyo’ which actually starts off as a dramatic Broadway-style number , then breaks off abruptly so that they can ‘start all over again’, this time in frenetic ska mode… Quite a progression from the very straightforward three-chord punk of their eponymous debut, and quite a musical feat for a band classified as ‘punk’ (or any band for that matter).

But London Calling isn’t great simply by virtue of being a musical experiment that worked. Well, yes, the music is pretty fantastic – all credit to Mick Jones, who wrote some incredible melodies and arrangements here (to which the rest of the band no doubt contributed). But it’s really Joe Strummer’s lyrics that make the whole thing, and make the whole thing cohere: the varied arrangements may not be punk, but the lyrics are pure punk (in terms of thematic preoccupation and attitude, that is). It’s shocking how often Strummer manages to Say Something of lasting meaning. And what’s more, he’s witty, funny, sophisticated, literate, and most importantly (from my perspective) really humanistic about it. London Calling could almost serve as a handbook on how to grow up, become and remain somebody you’re proud to be – for both men and women – and to have fun while you’re at it.

Consider ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, in which a bunch of rude boys (in the ska culture sense, not the literal sense) conduct a good-natured verbal sparring match with people who consider themselves respectable pillars of society:

Well they’re saying:

‘How you get a-rude and a-reckless?

Don’t you be so crude and a-feckless

You’ve been drinking brew for breakfast’

Rudie can’t fail.

We reply:

‘I know that my life makes you nervous

But I tell you I can’t live in service

Like the doctor born for a purpose’

Rudie can’t fail.

This is an argument that has been played out in many a time and place between two different generations, only set down here with more poetry. Furthermore, the lyrics – partly written (and sung) in Jamaican patois – are perfectly set to ska-inflected rock (audible in the bouncy guitars, joyous horns, and Topper Headon’s astounding drumming). These people really know what they’re doing. And the result is spectacular songs.

Another of my (many) favourites, ‘Hateful’, is an empathetic, understanding account of addict and his dialectical relationship with the drug/s, featuring outstanding rhythm-section work. Strummer really outdoes himself here, especially with the call-and-response structure of the verses:

Well, I got a friend who’s a man

Who’s a man

What man? The man who keeps me from the lonely, the only

He gives me what I need

What you need?

What you got? I need it oh-so-badly

Oh, anything I want he gives it to me

Anything I want he gives it, but not for free

Hateful

And it’s paid for

And I’m so grateful

To be nowhere.

The other myriad subjects in London Calling – including the Spanish civil war (‘Spanish Bombs’), the futility of war in general (‘Death or Glory’, ‘The Card Cheat’), Montgomery Clift (‘The Right Profile’), suburban alienation (‘Lost in the Supermarket’), the loss of youthful individualism (‘Clampdown’), commercialism and capitalism (‘Koka Kola’), the sexual politics of contraception (‘Lover’s Rock’), and even a(n anti-) love song that became a hit single (‘Train in Vain’) – all receive thoughtful and earnest treatment.

Almost every song on London Calling has something to recommend it as special. It might not be apparent on first listen, but that’s often the case with the Clash because the words are sometimes hard to pick out; put it down to Strummer’s Cockney accent and muffled enunciation. (Thank goodness the lyrics are provided in the insert!) A great Clash song generally grows on you. The music hits you first and then over repeated listens the lyrics creep up on you and before you know it you are marvelling open-mouthed at the craft and collaborative sympathy of the two principal song-writers. (Simonon contributes ‘The Guns of Brixton’, and there are a few covers on this album.) Indeed every time I think I’ve gleaned everything that London Calling has to offer me, I pick up on yet another delightful detail. I don’t think London Calling has finished growing on me yet.

Excepting Headon, perhaps, none of the Clash has exceptional musical chops in the conventional sense. Simonon especially seemed to be the archetype of good-looking non-musicians, although he grew to become a decent bass player: Jones approached him to be in the band purely because of his marketable looks. Jones himself is quite a good lead guitarist though not amazing; Strummer plays ferocious rhythm guitar and sings in a distinctly unmusical manner. But they function superbly as a collective, trading lead vocals or chiming in on the chorus, meshing their instruments, synchronising their tone and energy levels. The outstanding rhythmic slashes in the opening bars of ‘Death or Glory’ – by guitar, bass and drums – come to mind: you can’t help but nod/bounce in time. No wonder the audiences used to pogo furiously at Clash gigs.

And you can’t get much better vocalists in popular music than Strummer. Yes, he doesn’t quite hit the notes dead-centre, and he gargles on the words occasionally. But the emotional range of his delivery is unmatched. In the course of the album he snarls with menace, spits with contempt, yelps with glee, howls (literally, wolf-like) in fear, drawls in a voice that is dripping with sloth, stutters uncertainly, ingratiates himself, squawks in mock-anxiety, and even manages to wink-and-nudge audibly… Strummer is plainly enjoying himself to the hilt on London Calling, and that translates into pure fun for the listener. This listener, anyway.

Sure, London Calling is political and aggressive and scary. It’s thoughtful and socially-aware and occasionally sad. But it is also fun and completely joyous a lot of the time. And that’s why London Calling is not just, objectively-speaking, one of the best albums ever recorded (insofar as it is possible to judge music objectively, but that’s another issue for another day). It’s also one of the most enjoyable albums to listen to. That makes it doubly rare, I think.

Neil Young: Comes a Time Sunday, Dec 10 2006 

There was a time when I’d play only the title track of Comes a Time, without listening to any of the other tracks. I had heard the entire album once through – just once – before I started this pattern, deliberately ignoring the temptation to listen to the rest of the album. For a temptation was what it was. I was supposed to be studying for exams and/or writing my dissertation and am one of those unfortunate souls who is unable to do much that is productive while listening to music. Simply put, music doesn’t remain ‘in the background’. Even the stereotypical soothing classical music – say one of Bach’s cantatas – get me singing along with everything, waving my hands in what I think is conductor-fashion and generally acting silly.

So, while putting on the song ‘Comes a Time’ takes only 3 minutes out of my work, putting on the album Comes a Time would take about 40 minutes. In my responsible mood, the choice was clear-cut. I’d lit on that particular song as my sample of choice because of the utterly striking chorus:

Oh, this old world keeps spinning round

It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t laying down.

It’s not just the words there. It’s the combination of the imagery and the falling melody line: Neil Young and Nicolette Larson’s harmonies really do describe a spiraling downward trajectory over the second half of each of those lines. Which makes me feel, for some reason, as if I’m surrounded by a circle of tall evergreens – pines, because the shape of their branches reminds me of the jagged harmonies – with the sunlight filtering down through the branches, while I’m standing in the centre and getting dizzy. Is there any ongoing scientific study of such combined effects of music and words on the brain? They feel like a new sense in operation.

Suffice it to say that Comes a Time (the album) is shot through with such beautiful imagery, especially relating to nature, which is especially complementary to the sweet, wistful acoustic love songs – folk tinged with country – that constitute the majority of this album. This must be a Canadian thing. It is a pet theory of mine that Canadian artists, growing up with such scenic beauty around them, can’t help but show it in their work. The last song on Comes a Time bears out this theory, too: it’s a cover of ‘Four Strong Winds’, a quintessential Canadian song written by folkies Ian and Silvia Tyson. Yet the words on this album aren’t dripping with gorgeousness in the way Ms. Mitchell’s sometimes are. They’re simple enough, but usually laced with what I’ve come to think of as Neil Young’s essential weirdness and a bit of wordplay, making them vividly memorable. Thus:

Comes a time

When you’re driftin’

Comes a time when you settle down

Comes a light

Feeling’s liftin’

Lift that baby right up off the ground.

Similarly, from ‘Lotta Love’, which is quite amusing:

So if you look in my direction

And we don’t see eye to eye

My heart needs protection

And so do I…

The gorgeousness is reserved for the arrangements. The opening track, ‘Goin’ Back’, exhibits what I think of as the absolute pinnacle of prettiness in popular music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not loaded with the usual instruments that people nowadays seem to think are necessary to make a song pretty: orchestral strings, tinkling chimes, &c. Again, as with the best of Neil Young, it’s simple enough – a few acoustic guitars and feather-light percussion, plus a bit of harmony vocals – but conceals complexity and no little musicianship that become apparent on repeated listens. You start to discern the individual melodic lines of the guitars, weaving shimmering cant and descant, picked rapidly but with gentle clarity. Yet the guitars aren’t even the star attraction. Yes, they get their chance to shine, but there’s no soloing, and the main melody left to the vocals. Everything is… well-balanced. The whole comes up, truly, to something more than its parts.

Not unlike the song’s author, who on his best days gives equal importance to both the music and the words and therefore comes up with something wonderful. The decision to add a one-time, isolated, extended electric guitar riff about mid-way through the Crazy Horse collaboration ‘Look Out for My Love’ – a punchy, muscular, squelching, rum riff – was absolutely inspired.

Comes a Time isn’t consistent all the way through. There are two songs I don’t particularly care for, even though they do have merits, because they rather distract from the overall tone of the album. The exaggerated feel that ‘Field of Opportunity’ has – from the extended metaphor to the very country tune, the fiddling (yep, it’s definitely called a fiddle, not a violin, in this case) and even the nasal voice that Mr. Young adopts – is a bit jolting. Still, you can’t help but to wonder at the exact meaning behind the lines ‘In the field of opportunity it’s ploughing time again/There ain’t no way of knowing where these seeds will rise or when’. Then there’s the diverting ‘Motorcycle Mama’, an incongruously gritty blues rocker with larger-than-life vocals courtesy of Ms. Larson and larger-than-life lyrics courtesy of Mr. Young (‘Motorcycle Mama won’t you lay your big spike down?’). But these songs are not grievously annoying, and even better, they’re easy to skip since they’re back to back.

So, high marks overall to Comes a Time. Sweet and substantial.

Joni Mitchell: Blue Saturday, Dec 2 2006 

Recently I have been putting Blue on – and singing along – every time I turn my computer at home, which is every weekend – the only time I get to listen to music, really. I’ve become word perfect on a few of the songs, and get a serious kick out of some of the rest. No, I don’t love every single bit of it, although how many albums can you say this of? In particular, I don’t care for the aptly-titled title song – precisely because it is so dreary and rather dramatic, even veering into the self-absorbed – and ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’, which seems like a rambling, tuneless, and painfully introspective effort to me (this is saying something coming from a very introspective person). Listing the bad bits may be a funny way of saying that I like Blue very much. But by getting it out of the way I hope to make it clear that the rest of the bits are good.

There’s a good reason why Joni Mitchell was deemed the 72nd greatest guitar player by Rolling Stone magazine, even higher than 83rd ranked Neil Young (!!), even you don’t put much stock in such lists. (Which you might be wise not to, given that Ms. Mitchell is one of only two women on the list of 100, the other being Joan Jett.) Blue exhibits lots of subtle acoustic guitar, with gorgeous riffs and unusual chords, sometimes enhanced by piano, dulcimer and/or light percussion. It also happens that Ms. Mitchell is the first popular musician I’ve encountered with a vocal timbre like mine; I’d always thought previously that clear, bright, soprano voices were confined to classical music, and am delighted to discover otherwise. She puts her voice through lovely leaps and swoops: it’s light and mercurial and yet almost always weaves a memorable melody. All of which add up to ‘pretty music’, as my sister puts it.

Pretty, but not twee. The lyrics are surprisingly unsentimental, straightforward accounts about the doings of an assertive, sexually liberated woman (it was the 1960s and 1970s), as I found out when I listened a little more closely to the lyrics of ‘Carey’:

Oh Carey, get out your cane

And I’ll put on some silver

Oh you’re a mean old daddy but I like you… fine

She declares unabashedly to ‘My Old Man’ that ‘We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall/Keeping us tied and true’, and doesn’t mask her desires behind convention or maidenly evasions, making quite a list of them in ‘All I Want’. You might think the lyrics would be incongruous when paired with the sweet acoustic music and feminine voice, but they work surprisingly well together, with one component tempering the other. And, despite the title, Blue isn’t all late-night confessions either. There’s plenty of lively, cheerful stuff. There’s plenty of drinking too:

Come on down to the Mermaid Café

And I will buy you a bottle of wine

And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing

And smash our empty glasses down

Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers

A round for these friends of mine

Let’s have another round for the bright red devil

Who keeps me in this tourist town

Ms. Mitchell’s got beautiful imagery, as befits someone who sees herself primarily as a visual artist – specifically, a painter – she paints quite a few of the covers for her albums, though not for this one. I’d say she certainly has a gift for word-painting. ‘Little Green’, though a wistful tale about teenage (single) parenthood, has a gorgeously evocative chorus, the type of lyric I associate with her compatriots in general (Neil Young, L.M. Montgomery), for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s because Canada is supposed to be such a beautiful country.

Just a little green

Like the colour when the spring is born

There’ll be crocuses

To bring to school tomorrow

Just a little green

Like the nights when the Northern lights perform

There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes

And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

Neil Young: After the Gold Rush Saturday, Oct 28 2006 

I love Neil Young. He’s absolutely one of my musical heroes, being so cranky, weird, and uncompromising, but with a sense of humour. He’s bursting with personality, which is what makes his songs so fantastic, I think: if your music is about (ugh) personal expression, then you had better have a darn interesting self. What’s more, he pairs his strange and wonderful lyrics with the most amazingly memorable tunes, and then plays and sings the hell out of them.

Well, I know this now. But there was a time that I thought of him as a sort of countryish musician with a formidable reputation (and there was a long time before that when his name meant nothing to me). I put off listening to him because whatever country-tinged music I’d heard before simply didn’t appeal to my tastes. But the first time I tried After the Gold Rush, I just found myself wholly bemused: even with my prior prejudices, I really liked the very countryish, in-3/4-time, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. How could I not, with that melody? Then the title is incredibly pithy and it’s got delightful lyrics:

I have a friend I’ve never seen

He hides his head inside a dream

Someone should call him and see if he can come out

Try to lose the down that he’s found.

Well, those prejudices are no more; After the Gold Rush sort of opened the way to country music for me. And I got over Neil Young’s much-remarked-upon nasal tenor (occasionally alto, occasionally off-pitch) vocals pretty quickly, too; it’s just part of him and I don’t think a conventionally good voice is a pre-requisite for good music. Anyhow, all 33 minutes of After the Gold Rush is beautifully written and arranged – whether harmonica-laced country, acoustic folk-rock, piano balladry, or electric rock – and very well put together. Despite the variety of styles on display, the album is remarkably cohesive. Plus, it flows beautifully, right down to the order of the songs. Who else but Neil Young would have thought to ease the transition from the scathing rocker ‘Southern Man’ to the wailing cover of the country song ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ with the totally apt 1 minute 20 second interlude that is ‘Till the Morning Comes’? (Complete lyrics: ‘I’m gonna give you till the morning comes/I’m only waiting till the morning comes.’)

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ must be one of my favourite Neil Young songs. Melody, check. (I’m sure I can’t have heard it more than twice during my 20-odd years in the pop-wilderness, and of course I didn’t know whose song it was; and yet the first time I heard it properly on ‘After the Gold Rush’ the tune just leapt out of my memory. How does he do it?) Lyrics, check. (‘Blind man running down the side of the road with an answer in his hand/Come on down to the river of sight and you can really understand’) And, perhaps most importantly: spirit, check. In the face of a desolate landscape, the narrator advises:

Don’t let it bring you down

It’s only castles burning

Just find someone who’s turning

And you will come around.

(!) I’m not quite sure what exactly he means here (which is par for the course where Neil Young is concerned)… but all the same I like it very much indeed. Completely lovely song.

I understand that some people (whom Southerners might call Yankees) admire ‘Southern Man’ a great deal, especially in the context of the 1960s civil rights movement. Well, the lyrics are certainly powerful:

Southern man, better keep your head

Don’t forget what your good Book said

Southern change gonna come at last

Now your crosses are burning fast

Of course, we must question the implication that all Southerners are racist hypocrites. Reluctance to eliminate institutionalised racism and so-called redneck attitudes, post-civil rights revolution, weren’t and aren’t limited to the South. But I suspect that Neil Young was well-aware of that anyhow, and was deliberately playing on well-entrenched stereotypes. (Interestingly, ‘Southern Man’ was written apparently after he got beaten up for his long hair while travelling in the South.) After all, contrary to the myth about a feud, he was good-natured about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s riposte in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (another song I’m very fond of):

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her

Well, I heard Old Neil put her down

Well, I hope Neil Young will remember

Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

Apart from the slightly dubious note struck by the lyrics, the music of ‘Southern Man’ alone is pretty great. The song doesn’t mar the listening experience of After the Gold Rush in the least, not for me, anyway. It’s not just one of my favourite Neil Young albums, it is also a good way to get into his music; though I love Rust Never Sleeps best, After the Gold Rush is more accessible. And no, ‘accessible’ is not a pejorative term.

Television: Marquee Moon Tuesday, Oct 24 2006 

I became quite obsessed with Marquee Moon on second listen. It wasn’t just that it had eight instantly memorable songs (out of eight). I don’t think it was because of the tremendously hooky riffs, or the artistic improvisatory guitar solos. Neither was it down to the spacy (in a really good way) lyrics. Nor the fantastic musicianship (both the guitarists – Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd – are technically superb, and the rhythm section is wonderfully sympathetic). Nor even Verlaine’s distinctive yowling vocals (‘strangled’ seems to be the adjective of choice among critics).

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‘Complete Control’ (The Clash) Sunday, Oct 15 2006 

It occurred to me only this morning, while humming it, that Mick Jones used modulation to fantastic effect in this song (both in the writing and the guitar-playing).

And the echo-y chorus is pretty great.

‘C-O-N… control!’

Interestingly, this is one of five Clash songs that made it to the Rolling Stone list of 500 greatest songs (the others are ‘London Calling’, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, ‘Train in Vain’ and ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’). You’ll never agree completely with lists like that, but it’s always nice to see songs that you like popping up on them.

How this started Sunday, Oct 8 2006 

One day in June 2006 – the eve of the last day of my final exams – I found myself getting horribly distracted from exam preparations by, of all things, thoughts about how wonderful London Calling (the album, not the song) was. I alternated between berating myself, trying (to no avail) to concentrate on my notes, and digging out the album insert to scrutinise the lyrics of ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. This was, for me, quite a strange and unnerving experience. I don’t generally have problems remaining focused on important (or at least immediate) tasks. Later that night, lying quite sleepless in bed, it came to me: I need to write about my feelings on such things as London Calling.

Call it catharsis if you will. When I subsequently read Emily of New Moon for the first time, I finally understood her ‘flashes’ – instances when she felt very close to a world of indescribable beauty – to be identical to the experience I had with London Calling. I’ve had flashes all my life, except that where the stimuli for Emily’s flashes were always visual, my flashes are brought on by all sorts of things, including nature, art, books, films, and of course music. When they come on it’s as if some sort of veil or fog that perpetually surrounds you lifts momentarily: and you suddenly perceive everything more vividly. The world is more colourful; sharp; tangy; and, for whatever reason, hopeful. You feel more alive. You are overcome by feelings of great pleasure and wonder. And then you feel an incredibly pressing need to record those sensations.

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