Friday, 25 March 2011

P J Harvey - Let England Shake

What does one make of PJ Harvey? Genius or madwoman? Or both? Certainly, she lacks nothing if not integrity, ploughing her wilfully lonely furrow for over twenty years without any sort of acknowledgement of prevalent trends.

I don’t mind admitting that despite my preference for weird and wonderful artists, I have struggled with Polly Jean. I’d like to be able to love her unreservedly and whilst some of her output has been dazzling there are significant areas that I have always found unpalatable. But of late, I have come to an uneasy truce and it is her output since ‘Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea’ in 2000 that has suddenly clicked with me.

My problem has been that her first two albums, ‘Dry’ (1992) and ‘Rid of Me’ (1993) were fierce and almost savage in their presentation making for some very uneasy listening. The next two, ‘To Bring You My Love’ (1995) and ‘Is This Desire’ (1998) were more interesting, the latter having some very fine moments indeed, but I still found listening to an entire album hard work. On the plus side, live performance was another matter altogether. PJ thrives in a live environment and comes to life in her natural habitat where she can perform but on album, somehow it just doesn’t work.

But with the recent trilogy of ‘Stories’, ‘White Chalk’ (2007) and her most recent offering, ‘Let England Shake’ (2011), the penny has finally dropped. These three albums are poles apart from one another; ‘Stories’ is edgy pop/rock with her usual snarling guitars and vitriol laced lyrics, ‘White Chalk’ comprises hushed ethereal piano-led laments and ‘Let England Shake’ is a variant of early Pink Floyd progressive folk. With its unusual arrangements, use of out of sync effects and lyrics dwelling on war and death, it is very possibly, a masterpiece. Ask me again next year and let’s see.

The key to these latter releases is melody and consistency. PJ has developed a real skill with melody that bucks the trend of virtually all other artists I know. Generally, it seems to be the case that an artist’s ability to write new tunes wanes over time and is concealed by ever-more sophisticated production, but not PJ. Her capacity to write unusual melodies appears to be in the ascendancy and she presents them in a stripped down format which is why I have accepted her later work more readily. Also, her latter albums are more cohesive to the point where to pull out a song and stand it up on its own makes no sense. As with Pink Floyd, you have to hear the album as a whole. As always she is different, unique and out-of-step.

But lest you think with all this tunefulness, she has copped out of the ‘madwoman of rock’ tag, consider this. Who else, after a period of inactivity, would choose to perform ‘Let England Shake’ from her current album live on Andrew Marr’s political talk show in front of Marr himself and then-Premier Gordon Brown? A more unlikely audience could not be imagined as she put on her best ‘bag-lady with an autoharp’ act, screeching out her disgust of England’s hidden truth whilst they sat, be-suited and uncomfortably goggle-eyed in shot.

Genius or madwoman?

Friday, 18 March 2011

Sarah Blackwood

‘The best things in life are free’

So sang The Beatles in one of their early covers and who would argue with them?  Recently, I posted about the return of ace 90s band, Dubstar but prior to that reunion, singer Sarah Blackwood, at a loose end whilst her then band Client was on hiatus, indulged in a short solo career whilst retaining her identity as ‘Client B’.  In 2008 she played an informal acoustic gig with ex-Dubstar guitarist Chris Wilkie.  A selection of seven songs was subsequently released as a free download entitled ‘Client B – Acoustic At The Club Bar and Dining’ and it is these that I have been playing constantly since I discovered them.

The short set list comprises old Dubstar songs (‘Stars’, ‘Not So Manic Now’ and ‘Elevator Song’), Client songs (‘Drive’, ‘Price Of Love’) and two covers (‘Stop Me’ – The Smiths and ‘True Faith’ – New Order).  The performances are mesmerising.  Chris Wilkie’s acoustic guitar picking is crisp and precise and Sarah’s vocals are beautiful once she has conquered first song nerves.  I’ve always rated Sarah Blackwood.  She has an intensely honest vocal style which is million miles away from the vocal gymnastics of a Maria Carey or a Whitney Houston.  Her style is unfussy, almost conversational and direct and the small venue acoustic setting for these songs suits her like a second skin.

The two covers especially, are fabulous.  You’d think that the twin issues of Morrissey’s idiosyncratic singing style and his highly personal kitchen sink drama lyrics would make difficult subjects for anyone else to cover.  The only person I know to manage this to date has been Sandie Shaw with her interpretation of ‘Hand in Glove’, but Sarah’s matter-of-fact delivery of ‘Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ makes the hairs on my neck stand up.  Wilkie’s Johnny Marr impersonation with little more than an acoustic guitar is also first rate.  Similarly, her stripped down version of ‘True Faith’ shows a depth of lyric that I barely noticed in the New Order original.

I’ve always felt that the acid test for any song is whether it still holds its magic when performed acoustically.  The MTV ‘Unplugged’ series in the 90s tested this theorem and discovered a few nuggets and the same holds with this collection.  This is music at its most accessible delivered without pretension to a small audience.  Yes, there are a few wobbly moments yet it is steeped in an authenticity that is hard to ignore.  It is an instance where the artist connects directly with her audience even via the recorded medium and you can’t always say that of music today.

For those interested, these songs are available via a link from
The download is in .RAR format so you will need to extract the MP3 files using something like WinZip or UnRar.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Adele, Rumer & Duffy

Who’d have thought it?  Nearly 50 years after The Beatles assaulted the charts, an artist has equalled their record of having 2 singles in the top five singles chart and 2 albums in the top five albums chart.  Congratulations Adele!  It seems that there is no stopping the girls these days who are cornering the solo singer market with apparent ease.

When I was a nipper in the 1960s, there was Sandie, Cilla and of course, Dusty.  These three represented what to me were the musical equivalent of the stand-up comic in comedy circles in that they didn’t play an instrument, they didn’t write songs, they didn’t – horror of horrors – dance, nor did they fraternise with others in the form of a band (at least not after Dusty left the Springfields).  They just stood there in front of an audience and sung – beautifully.  There were others of course, like Lulu; but then she had her Luvvers and there was the likes of Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey and Helen Shapiro but somehow they belonged to a different era and didn’t count.  No, Sandie, Cilla and Dusty were the ones.

Today, I am getting this feeling again.  The industry seems to be overflowing with solo female singers.  This situation has been building for at least the last ten years and we have seen the emergence of Gabrielle, Dido, Norah Jones, Katie Melua and Corrine Bailey Rae to name but a few.  I’m excluding all talent show participants and ex-members of Girls Aloud here, but even so the tide of female singers is growing.  But for me, the three that stand out, just for the moment are Duffy, Rumer and Adele.

All three satisfy the Stand-up Comic test even if these days an artist must, at the very least, contribute to their own material less they are labelled an incomplete musician.  But they do stand in front of an audience and sing (no dancing!) – beautifully.  And all have a bluesey poignancy that sets them apart.

A year or so back, Duffy ruled supreme but a period away from the bright lights and a less than well received second album have knocked her back to a point where she is hanging on by her fingernails to a top three position and I hear on the grapevine, may retire altogether from the music industry.  Rumer, on the other hand is a rising star and an interesting performer with a voice that is part Karen Carpenter and part Dusty Springfield.  Her debut single ‘Slow’ sounds, as one YouTube commentator put it, like Karen Carpenter doing a Bond Theme.  And it does.

The youngest of the trio is Adele, now 21 (as her new album proclaims) and holder of the ‘I equalled The Beatles record’ award.  Possessed of an extraordinarily emotive voice, she looks set for a glittering career despite not conforming to the conventional image of a present day pop star and makes the talent show wannabes, who do, look like so much chaff in the wind.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Lyrics - a Forgotten Art?

‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise’

Amazing how some lyrics can transport you to another place.  In this well known case you can see the setting sun glinting on the Thames as a chill wind whips through the concrete arches, yet it gives you a warm comfortable feeling.  Ray Davies was always at his best when conjuring images of old England – a place we’d all like to visit but never will as it only exists in our imagination.

I’ve always felt that a song is basically about the music and that whilst important, lyrics are secondary to a good tune but when the two come together the effect can be sublime.  In the hands of the best writers, it only takes a few words to create an image and some of them are quite strange.  One of my favourites is:

‘And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast’

Taken from Don McLean’s epic ‘American Pie’ this concept always makes me smile.  It’s the mixture of the celestial and the mundane that intrigues.  Were they strap hanging in a crowded carriage?  Did the Holy Ghost have an argument with the ticket inspector for not having a valid travel pass?  The possibilities are endless.

But if you want realism, look no further than a lyricist with a flair for kitchen sink drama - The Smiths’ Morrissey, whose ability to sum up teenage angst was legendary.  Try this;

‘Boy afraid
Prudence never pays
And everything she wants costs money’

Or this:

‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job
And heaven knows I’m miserable now’

Morrissey’s acute observation and black humour always makes me laugh.  He is one of the most humorous writers around yet has a reputation for being a miserable old sod.  Perhaps he is, but he’s a funny, miserable old sod.

My final example is a bit of a cheat as it is not a lyric at all but a piece of genuine poetry.  In the middle of Curved Air’s 12 minute prog masterpiece, ‘Piece of Mind’, Sonja Kristina recites the following over a rippling piano and violin theme:

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

It comes from T S Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ and it sends shivers down my spine even today.  There is something about the imagery (the Thames again) and Curved Air’s classical rock musical hybrid that just works in this instance.  Of course this is a vast subject, I haven’t even started on Joni Mitchell or Jim Morrison, so I may return to it in the future.

In the final analysis a great lyric cannot save a poor song but it sure as hell elevates a good one.