soundstreamsunday #85: “Oil on Panel” by Wovenhand

wovenhandconcertLike Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes — last week’s soundstreamsunday entry — David Eugene Edwards brings to American folk, rock, and country an utterly unique, instantly recognizable voice.  Unlike Pecknold, Edwards toils in relative obscurity, which is a shame, as for the last 20 years he’s brought a wide-eyed intelligence to songs extending darker traditional themes, shimmering with christian imagery, to bracing goth soundscapes.  While you could make favorable comparison of Edwards’ bands, Denver’s 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, the better starting point, should we need it, might be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or perhaps the old testament.  Or Carravagio.  With a voice both commanding and vulnerable, Edwards brings to his arrangements sonic chiaroscuro, breathing life, momentum, and dimension across acoustic and electric instrumentation tuned to his songs’ subjects.  Compositionally, he is a painter looking, I think, for balance, perhaps reflecting his relationship with his faith.

“Oil on Panel” is from Wovenhand’s third album, 2004’s Consider the Birds.  Referencing the act of painting, three of the deadly sins, Roma, and Yeshua, the song captures the direction Wovenhand was charting as it set out in the early aughts, into-the-christian mystic, highly refined, mannered, powerful.  With a windy, buzzy ambience overlayed with piano and distant strings, the song blossoms into near-orchestral grandeur halfway through, Edwards telling a story heavy with images invoking less a narrative than a feeling, of being unmoored, freighted with guilt but defined by faith.  If the edges bleed it is not without purpose.  “I paint them roughly, I paint them in my sleep.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

*Image of Wovenhand in concert by Colin Gentile, 2015.

soundstreamsunday #84: “Your Protector” by Fleet Foxes

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Fleet Foxes is a progressive rock band in the same sense Gazpacho is, where what they’re getting at is a total environment or vibe rather than a particular baroque form of electric music with rock instrumentation.  I read recently what I think is a good observation, that their third album, 2017’s Crack-Up, has an appropriate home in Nonesuch, which started as the classical wing of Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records, but in recent years has extended its reach to artful achievers in what we might otherwise think of as the rock world.  It’s the right label for a band that doesn’t like to rush things.  Their previous record, Helplessness Blues, was released in 2011, after which songwriter and lead singer Robin Pecknold, by then a rock star, decided to push pause and go to college and wait for the muse to revisit.  It did.

In a rock world where everything is “post-,” Fleet Foxes shares with the other intelligent American bands of their era — thinking Spoon, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Shearwater — a smart melodic sensibility and a complex vocal approach to its music, atop an intense but restrained musicianship.  With a sound instantly identifiable, in its harmonies the band reliably draws comparisons with the Zombies, Moody Blues, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and while I get it I don’t really hear it, maybe because I find Pecknold’s lyrics darker, funnier, better, or maybe because there’s no smack of the hippie, despite the hair, that so defined those groups.  I think if anything Fleet Foxes taps into the reverb-drenched sound of 90’s Britpop, the adventurousness of the early 70s British folk scene, and the impressionistic poetics of Dylan‘s best work.  Even while being on the inside there’s an outsider’s sensibility.

“Your Protector,” from Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut, is like a puzzle you turn in your hands trying to figure out how it comes apart.  I can’t really parse it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a happy story, while the galloping, western-movie chorus is an inscrutable, spine-tingling chant difficult to forget.

As you lay to die beside me, baby
On the morning that you came
Would you wait for me?
The other one
Would wait for me

The live-in-studio version here shows the band in full flight, as part the second series in Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement program, and includes drummer Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) soon after he joined the group.  There’s a sleekness to the work that speaks volumes on the meticulousness of the band’s constructions: the simplicity of the arrangement, the power in its dynamics, the harmonies.  The air crackles and sparks.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Closure” by Opeth

Opeth2Turns out the best Swedish death metal band of the 90s and early oughts was listening to those Bert Jansch and Popol Vuh records all along.  And such grooves are not as unrelated to Opeth’s charge as first glance might suggest.  Having spent the better part of a decade determinedly NOT (no, never) dancing around the DADGAD maypole in the relatively quiet interludes of scorching song suites lasting upwards of 20 minutes, Opeth bookended their 2002 LP Deliverance with 2003’s Damnation, and the acoustic drone floodgates opened.  Prog polymath Steven Wilson, who’d helmed the band’s production since 2001’s Blackwater Park, found in Opeth’s singer/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt a like-minded soul who, after a blistering half-dozen LPs replete with growls, blast beats, and super doom — though never rote, and always smart — needed some wind in the sails.  Unplug, let the mikes breathe a bit, leave the distortion pedals at home, I can imagine part of the conversation going, and so it sounds anyway on the recorded evidence.  Damnation is a masterpiece, a quiet, spacious death metal record, a grim yet lithe prog album, and with that said and with that description, no, it sounds nothing like the Cure, but it may appeal if Disintegration is your cup of tea.  It’s Wilson’s and Akerfeldt’s best and most dramatically pioneering record (although Opeth’s Wilson-less Ghost Reveries, from 2005, is maybe most representative of their work until the band’s real act two began with 2008’s Watershed).

Soon after Damnation‘s release the band took their show to Shepherd’s Bush in London, and there recorded 2004’s live Lamentations DVD, long since a YouTube staple.  Just as “Closure” anchors Damnation, its live cousin fills the same role on Lamentations.  The show is worthwhile to watch in its entirety, as Opeth takes some giant steps, with jazz-touched atmospherics and restrained but potent jams.  The band acknowledges its debts while shrugging off the diehard metal kids who came out for blood (they’d be given their due anyhow in the harder part of the show, and even in the Damnation section it ain’t exactly MTV unplugged).  If there’s a point where Akerfeldt became who he is, it’s on full display here, an artist who, as he appeals to his audience, is confident in his direction.  Just glorious.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series: Trouble No More, Volume 13 / 1979-1981

by Rick Krueger

I’m not a hardcore Bob Dylan fan, but I admire quite a bit of his work: the early folk music, leading into the groundbreaking electric stuff (basically what’s in The Original Mono Recordings box set); Blood on the Tracks and Desire; the recent run of “old guy plays the blues” albums that started with Time Out of Mind.  I’m also grateful that Dylan’s music has midwifed some of the most resonant work by highbrow rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, along with poet Christopher Ricks’ masterful Dylan’s Visions of Sin.

To top all that off, Dylan’s Bootleg Series is, in my mind, one of the best-curated rarities/reissue series from a major artist.  Every volume has been at least an interesting listen for me, and I consider the last two releases, The Basement Tapes Complete and The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (as well as Volume 4, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) downright essential.

I also remember, as a college freshman, reading Jann Wenner’s review of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming in Rolling Stone.  Wenner knotted himself into a human pretzel trying to reconcile the free-spirited, hippie picture of Dylan he had built up for himself with a new album of — shudder — “born-again Christian” music.  It was unintentionally hilarious.

I’d argue that Slow Train Coming was really more of an “lost Old Testament prophet” kind of record — and thus in line with Dylan’s long-term aesthetic.  It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was quite good — and there were occasional fine songs on the other “Christian” albums, especially “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love.

Thus, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Volume 13 /1979-1981 is definitely on my want list.  8 CDs plus 1 DVD of live and unreleased studio material, to be issued (like King Crimson’s Sailor’s Tales) on my birthday, November 3.  I really need to find some long-lost rich relatives!

More info here.

The Albums That Changed My Life: #2, Rubber Soul by The Beatles

by Rick Krueger

I’ve already written here about how, in late November 1977, this album grabbed me and has never let go.  Rubber Soul is (to paraphrase my previous comments) a sharp, cogent take on the folk rock fad of the time, mixing in flavors of soul, Indian ragas and Baroque elegance, with words matching the music’s new maturity.  It’s the sound of the Beatles downshifting and heading for new destinations, ready to move beyond shaking their moptops to a big beat and basking in the resulting screams.

There are no duds on either the British or the American versions of this album.  The UK Rubber Soul kicks off with “Drive My Car” — an exuberant Stax pastiche, a knowing mutual flirtation sketched in three-part harmony, topped with that goofy “beep-beep-yeah” tag on the chorus.  The US version, in contrast, starts with “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (from the British Help!) — Paul McCartney breathlessly singin’ and strummin’ a tale of new infatuation, a stream of consciousness laced with unexpected internal rhymes. Neither was at all typical of the Fabs; both sound wonderfully fresh, setting the tone for a different kind of Beatles record.

How many changes can you ring on the classic love song?  Rubber Soul shows how far the genre could stretch: surrealism with sitar (John peppering “Norwegian Wood” with non sequiturs a la Bob Dylan); break-ups with a backbeat (Paul’s “You Won’t See Me,” eventually covered with even more swagger by Anne Murray); suffering with added social comment (John’s “Girl,” featuring a chorus that’s just the title word and a deep, frustrated breath).  Ringo Starr does a country heartbreak turn on “What Goes On”; George Harrison glumly protects his personal space on the Byrds homage “If I Needed Someone.”  And this isn’t even including Paul’s earnest “Michelle,” which, if you were an easy listening artist and had already done “Yesterday,” quickly became the next Beatles tune to cover.

But what’s made Rubber Soul my ultimate touchstone for all things Fab is John’s “In My Life.”  It’s hard to top the reflectiveness and wisdom of these lyrics (in fact, I would argue that Lennon’s most famous songs are far less mature).  Every year they resonate more for me:

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Set to a lovely mid-tempo lope, with George Martin’s getting his Bach on for a gracious piano interlude, “In My Life” is evidence enough that, after Rubber Soul, both the Beatles and rock music would never be the same.   Listen to the album here:

Other Favorites by the Beatles: Well, the whole catalog, really.  But other favorites among the favorites are (as I’ve mentioned before), A Hard Day’s Night, Revolver, Abbey Road, and whatever Beatles album I’ve listened to last.

Related Favorites:

The Byrds: Essential Byrds (compilation); There Is A Season (box set); Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Inspired by A Hard Day’s Night, the Byrds added Dylan, folk and country to the mix and made magic.  “Turn Turn Turn” is another song I never tire of hearing.

Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight; At Budokan.  The Fab Four (pure pop version) of the late 1970s.  With added harder rock and wacky stage moves.

The Chipmunks: The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles. The first album my parents ever bought me.  Apparently I was tired of The Sound of Music.

Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw; Field Day,  The pride of Berkley, Michigan, replete with Beatlemania stage credentials.

The Smithereens: Blown to Smithereens (compilation); Meet the Smithereens (cover version of the complete U.S. album Meet the Beatles).  The Fab Four (pure pop version) of the late 1980s.

 

soundstreamsunday: “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine

prine-on-couch-fca50a192d324d600e6f76c149c8061fdfeec145-s800-c85Successful Americana music hews a particularly demanding line.  It’s a “post” genre, looking to blues and oldtime musics as a starting point rather than an end, as a shared story for the getting-on-with of the next chapter.  To say the least, there’s a large margin for failure.  The masters of the form, like Randy Newman and Joe Henry and Leyla McCalla, offer an unaffected, plain spoken drive to the heart of an America that is in its essence a crossroads.  In such hands it goes far beyond a romance of sepia-tinged dustbowl-era hardscrabble, the sharecropper’s plow and his wife’s gingham print dress.  It is the common song and in it is America.

John Prine didn’t set out to do it, since as a genre it wasn’t really acknowledged until relatively recently, but he put flesh and bone to Americana songwriting.  Equal parts humor, sadness, and frank talk as broad as its landscape, the pictures in his songs are drawn, I think, from the same kind of middle-of-the-country upbringing that so imprinted itself on Mark Twain.  One of those songs, “Paradise,” from Prine’s 1971 debut, made its way to me as a tune John Denver covered on his 1972 album Rocky Mountain High.  Which was the first album I ever owned, so that when I was six I knew that John Prine, credited on the sleeve, had written one of my favorite songs.  Paradise was “where the air smelled like snakes, and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”  How the air smells like snakes I don’t know but I know what he’s getting at somehow — it’s the kind of thing a guy from Missouri or Kentucky who grew up when Prine did would say.

“Angel from Montgomery” is Prine’s loveliest melody, but not necessarily as it’s sung by him.  It’s been covered countless times, but it seems to be at its tuneful best if the singer is a woman, perhaps because its narrator is female.  So Bonnie Raitt’s version is the go-to, and Susan Tedeschi is its current champion (following Raitt’s interpretation).  But in these remarkable and wonderful tributes to Prine and his songwriting, what is absent is the charming gruffness Prine brings to the role play, and as recorded on that first record, an approach that is more gospel soul than sweet country ode.  On an album absolutely loaded with outstanding songs, Prine goes with the piano and organ and the churchy atmospherics because this is a song about a tested faith, where things could’ve turned out differently, and would have, “if dreams were lightning, and thunder was desire.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Drowning in the River Half Laughing” by Joe Henry

joehenry2 - EditedJoe Henry always tells it like it is.  What this “it” is depends on his song or object of the moment, but if artistry is about honesty then here’s a man who can be a W. Eugene Smith one minute and a Romare Bearden the next.  His is an Americana in context, wrought with a realism that has to, must, consider the world beyond the borders of his song.  And yet his skill at creating a complexity of life within the three- or four-minute lengths typical of his work belies this, so that his portraits are breathtaking and you are standing next to him, watching and hearing him compose a complete picture.

1990’s Shuffletown recalls both the chamber folk-pop of Cat Stevens and the improvisational glow of Astral Weeks, T-Bone Burnett’s restrained production going live to two-track and allowing a breathing space that played against the channel-filling fashion of its time.  I remember, then, marveling that an album like this could even get made anymore, much less thought of.  A modern record with a backroads feel that doesn’t get lost in bucolic moods or sentiment, it is more defining in its sound and in its genre than it gets credit for.  At its core — and the same could be said of Morrison’s and Stevens’ records — is an immediately recognizable voice, for Henry’s finesse with language is honored by a vocal delivery that is hip to its own thing, knows it limits and its power and its text.  It’s also full of hooks, patient in its timing, finding and following melody in Shuffletown‘s deep dusks and twilight.

“The moon is losing ground, drowning in the river…”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Into White” by Cat Stevens

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The best records — and I guess by “record” I mean the standard late 20th-century long player — feel like one long song.  But I don’t think this sense comes just from the record itself, although certainly most musical artists search for unity in their work.  Just as much it comes from the listener, the tricks of memory, emotions of sound and a tuned mind’s expectations.  I often hear musicians say that the meanings of their songs are ultimately as much up to their listeners as to themselves, and this, I deeply believe, is true:  We are not a raggle-taggle bunch of music nerds, we are the song’s second composers.

Composing the life of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Steven Demetre Georgiou has taken a long, and at times fraught, road towards himself.  His journey, written into his music early as if he was an oracle, reads like a movie script: young man finds himself an English pop star in the late 1960s and doesn’t care for it; reinvents himself as a singer-songwriter and becomes a pop star again, this time worldwide, despite his reluctance; has a life-changing experience in the late 70s that spurs a religious conversion and exit from the stage; finds himself in the center of controversy 10 years later based on his religion’s teachings — there is regret, denial, and heartbreak for him and for his fans, his co-composers, who so treasure the peaceable and gentle music music he once made; seasons pass; twenty years on he starts making records again.

A remarkable, and remarkably human, life, full of success and missteps.  It’s all there in the song “Into White,” from Stevens’ fourth LP, Tea for the Tillerman (1970).  But the same could be said of any of the songs from the three albums flanking that record, Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Teaser and the Firecat (1971), and Catch Bull at Four (1972).  With ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith producing and guitarist Alun Davies providing detailed flourishes to Stevens’ simple strumming, these albums largely defined a genre in the early 1970s, their consistency of sound — acoustic, breathing, mostly stripped of effects except for exquisitely executed mic placement and recording — matched by Stevens’ lyrics of personal searching and that incomparable voice.  “Into White” is, in Stevens’ own recounting, a song about color, and how when the color wheel is spun it turns white.  He turns the effect into poetry, surely, much as one might expect from the man who could make such an album and also paint an LP cover that so deftly illustrates his own music.  The images he makes in the song are ripe with Green, Brown, Yellow, Blue, Red, and Black, as he renders this waltz-time world a temporal illusion, with “everything emptying into white.”  Youth and wisdom and a turning universe reside here.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention

fairportconvention2With deep roots in the mountains of north Georgia, young Hedy West presented authenticity and authority in her singing of old time folk music.  By the early 1960s she had become a mainstay of the growing traditional music revival in America, having written the often-covered “500 Miles” and dazzling audiences with her fluid clawhammer banjo style and clear, naturally inflected, singing voice.  By the mid-1960s she was touring Europe, singing and playing with like-minded fellow travelers of the British folk revival.  But if you’ve heard of Hedy West, even if you’re acquainted with the American and British folk revivals, you’re an exception.  She kept a low profile, and her career as a musician was wrapped tightly with her political activism.  She was no rock star — although many thought her the best of the “girl” folk singers of the era.*

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Hedy West

Following Hedy’s death in 2005, a collection of recordings and papers — including hundreds of tapes of interviews with her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West that in themselves are a storehouse of Appalachian culture — made their way to the special collections library where I worked at the University of Georgia.  As my colleague Christian Lopez and I started working through some of the boxes in 2010, we found pictures Hedy had taken of two young men in a flat, sometime in the mid to late 1960s.  We were flabbergasted: they were Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy.  Both of us were fans of these two, knew their work and their cultural impact on British rock and folk music.  And it’s an interesting thing, Hedy taking these pictures.  Like West, fiddler Swarbrick and guitarist Carthy were leading lights of their folk revival, in Britain, often recording as a duo.  According to Swarbrick, in an email response to Christian, the three traveled Europe together, and it was  “on the banks of a river in the former Yugoslavia” that Hedy played for Swarbrick and Carthy a tune called “Maid of Colchester.”  Why, you might ask, was Christian emailing the ailing Dave Swarbrick regarding this tune, and why should it be important in any way? To condense a long story, I started as a Martin Carthy fan because I was a Steeleye Span fan because I was a Jethro Tull fan.  And, by the time I saw Carthy play his adaptation of “Famous Flower of Serving Men” in 1991 in a community center in a London suburb, also on my radar was the tune “Matty Groves,” from Fairport Convention’s live record, House Full (recorded 1970, released 1986 — of course, “Matty Groves” was the epic track of their seminal album, 1969’s Liege and Lief).  Swarbrick was Fairport’s fiddler on these records, and anyone familiar with British folk-rock and with half an ear knows that the central tune for “Famous Flower of Serving Men” is identical to the extended jam-band outro of “Matty Groves.” Carthy identifies the tune to “Famous Flower” in the liner notes to 1972’s Shearwater as “Maid of Colchester,” learned from one Hedy West.  Christian had emailed Swarbrick to see if we could close the loop, since Fairport’s “Matty Groves” pre-dated Carthy’s song.  Swarbrick confirmed that his and Carthy’s source for the tune was the same, and it was indeed Hedy West.  Our minds were fairly blown.  Two keystone songs of the British folk revival and British folk rock rely on a riff brought (back?) from America, by a woman who as far as we know never recorded the tune herself.

As sung by Sandy Denny in 1969, “Matty Groves” is a song of adultery and tragic murder that became the centerpiece — along with the riff monster “Tam Lin” — of Fairport’s pinnacle album.  Denny and founding bassist Ashley Hutchings left Fairport weeks after the release of Liege and Lief, and while Richard Thompson would stay for one more album, by 1971 he had embarked on a solo career.  But between the departure of Denny and Thompson, Fairport Convention hit its stride as a live band, touring widely. For the first time without a female lead singer, the group indulged its triple attack of guitarists Simon Nicol, Thompson, and fiddler Swarbrick, trading vocals depending on the tune.  The addition of Dave Pegg on bass gave them a heavier sound, and what sounded on Liege and Lief a bit thin was overpowering and raw live.  By the time they hit a residency at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in September 1970, they were on fire, delivering absolutely devastating versions of Thompson’s new song, the mighty “Sloth,” as well as a huskier, rocked-out “Matty Groves.”  With Thompson singing lead and the others in support, the tale takes on a dark, derelict tawdriness, unlike the tragedy it was in Denny’s reading, and when at the break they launch into, yes, “Maid of Colchester,” they may as well have been the greatest rock band on earth.  At breakneck speed, Thompson demonstrates why he is who he is, while Swarbrick’s performance is electric and Dave Mattacks’s drumming dependably dynamic and fully engaged, as it always was and is.  According to Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer — for who else would it be — during Fairport’s stay at the Troubadour Led Zeppelin stopped by, sat in, and the music that happened was “not fit for a family album.”  No doubt Zep loved their Fairport, if only based on the evidence of Denny’s presence on “Battle of Evermore,” but beyond that there is in this music a ragged-but-right universal tone that both bands were following at the time and in their own ways.  As Hedy and others before them had done, they took what they needed from the ancient songbag and made it something else, in the spirit of Art.

*This from A.L. Lloyd, who was sort of Britain’s Pete Seeger.  Seeger, for his part, also held Hedy in high esteem.

Image above: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, 1970.

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