Friday, 29 July 2011

Juliana Hatfield

There are some artists that never really lodge themselves in the consciousness of the great buying public and thus never appear on those worthy ‘best of’ lists.  However, before I get too pompous about this, bear in mind that I am as guilty as the rest when it comes to US singer/guitarist, Juliana Hatfield, yet an album that I return to on an unnervingly frequent basis is her ‘Become What You Are’.

Originally the bass player with the Blake Babies in the 1980s, Juliana flirted with Evan Dando (in all senses of the word) and his Lemonheads before issuing her first well-received solo album, ‘Hey Babe’ in 1992.  But it was the follow up in 1993, the magnificent ‘Become what You Are’ that gave her a deserved 15 minutes of fame with frequent airplay of both singles culled from the set.  Configured as a classic power trio with a bass/drums rhythm section in addition to herself on guitar, she produced music that is a joyous throwback to gutsy guitar rock with proper tunes and few overdubs.  Thankfully, it is also exceptionally well recorded giving a ‘live’ feel which accentuates the looseness and excitement of the material.  How many times have good albums been dragged down by indifferent production?

But the real draw to BWYA is the way that the music reflects her own personality: a sort of child-woman with attitude.  The whole album is a battleground where her angst, given full rein in grungy guitars and pointed lyrics is constantly tempered by quieter girlish moments of feminine vulnerability.  These competing sides to her psyche were to be laid bare in 2000’s double album ‘ Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure’ where one whole album (Juliana’s Pony) would be given over to delicate acoustic songs whilst the other (Total System Failure) would indulge in an orgy of electronic white noise that even Sonic Youth would shy away from.  Whilst this later album shows the separated extremes, ‘Become What You Are’ demonstrates what happens when the two are cleverly combined and it is a magic that she has not quite managed since.

Juliana continues to release albums today and I feel a little guilty that I have not investigated many of them.  Somehow, BWYA has spoiled me and I don’t anticipate that anything else she does will satisfy.  Perhaps I’m wrong and in a way I hope I am, but it doesn’t take away from BWYA – an album to which I will always return.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Pierces - 'You and I'

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me perk up my jaded ears and sit up and listen, it is a dose of classic harmony singing – think Everly Brothers, Beach Boys or even The Bangles.  So when I was wading through the hours of Glastonbury footage and came across The Pierces, I was more than happy to pay attention.

It turns out that The Pierces are an ex-Alabama, now New York based sister act, Catherine and Alison Pierce, who have been around for some ten years yet only seem to be hitting the UK now with their fourth album, ‘You & I’, co-produced by none other than the Coldplay team of Rik Simpson and bassist, Guy Berryman.  Their brand of upbeat retro-Californian pop is almost irresistible in these times of austerity.  Once you have added their song writing ability that brings together elements of The Mamas and Papas, Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac, early Jefferson Airplane and strangely, Crowded House when both Finn brothers were both on board, to their sibling voices, you have a very marketable package indeed.

Having downloaded ‘You & I’ I am now wallowing in some of the best harmony singing I’ve heard for some time.  I gather that their previous albums have been a little quirky and that this is their tilt at the big time, hence it does come across as very polished  70s style AOR which I’d have thought was a little out of fashion at the moment but notwithstanding the production, this is quality stuff.  The song writing is solid with the up-tempo stuff sounding a little better than the ballads which are a touch staid but the overall effect is very listenable.  However, if their inspiration truly is the sunny Californian pop of the Mamas and Papas, they ought to be a bit more careful how they disguise it  as ‘Kissing You Goodbye’ is so close to ‘California Dreaming’ that if anyone associated with John Phillips’ estate gets to hear it there may well be Lawyers at dawn.

But accusations of plagiarism aside, there is something magical about sibling harmonies that just sets the hairs on my neck going.  It’s the closeness of those genes that makes everything so beautifully seamless yet just different enough to set them apart in the mix.  Someone should devote part of a book to this phenomenon…wait a minute, someone has – it was me.  Singing is food to the soul as church-goers past and present have discovered, as have those who now cram the halls of England to attend ‘Rock Choir’ events.  And harmony singing is the next step to heaven.  Those that can do it well, especially when singing live have my undying attention.

Here is the video that started me out on this trail of discovery – The Pierces at Glastonbury doing a live acoustic spot for the BBC and making their hit ‘Glorious’ sound well, glorious.  If the harmonies at about 1:40 don’t make you go weak at the knees, you have no soul.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Glastonbury Festival 2011 (Part 2 - The Awards)

This year the Glastonbury Festival marks its fortieth anniversary, the first (then free) festival taking place on a cobbled together tubular steel and wooden plank stage in 1971.  In order to celebrate the fact, a ‘Spirit of ‘71’ stage was included this year where many of those who performed in 1971 returned to the scene of their crimes to perform to nostalgic on-lookers.  To see the likes of Melanie and Edgar Broughton belting out old familiar numbers even gave hardened old cynic me a misty eye.

The Hippy roots of Glastonbury continue to pervade the Festival to this day and there is no doubt that the festival spirit affects both performers and audience alike.  Major beneficiaries this year were undoubtedly Elbow whose connection with the huge crowd was quite mesmeric.  But they weren’t the only ones and it is one reason why I love this Festival – for three days, the world seems at peace.

But enough of this new-agey stuff, on to the Music Obsessive Awards which this year were very tricky to pitch given the huge and generally enjoyable line-ups on virtually every stage.  However, a decision has been made. 

In third place comes the old crooner himself, Morrissey who played as the warm up act to the all-conquering Coldplay on the Saturday evening.  Despite the fact that he is clearly middle-aged these days and the old joints are not what they were, and the fact that the set went a bit flat in places, I thoroughly enjoyed his mix of solo stuff and old Smiths songs.  It served as a timely reminder of what a way the man has with words.  The mixture of kitchen sink, no holds barred truths and wry black humour has never really been matched by anybody writing since and to hear the likes of ‘I Want the One I Can’t Have’ and ‘This Charming Man’ again was a real pleasure.  All together now;
‘I would go out tonight
But I haven’t got a stitch to WE-AR….’

In second place is Beyoncé.  Yes, I know.  Before the Festival started, I would have laughed in your face if you’d told me I was going to type those words, but it has happened.  Despite not really knowing much about her music, I was vastly entertained by her Sunday headline set and I was entertained because she didn’t fall into the trap so many of her mega-star ( and I have to say American – sorry guys) peers fall into and kept it simple.  No constant costume changes, no huge sets, no complicated Busby-Berkeley dance routines – a bit of glitz, sure, but just music.  Glastonbury is all about music and the connection between the performer and the audience and Beyoncé seemed to understand this.  The mix of songs was spot on, drawing on all her influences from funk to ballad, from R&B to soul.  Glastonbury is not a place to plug your new album, it’s a place to display your best stuff and to convince people who are not necessarily your fans that you have worth and for me she did just that.  Once again Glastonbury wove its magic and you could see the emotion, especially during final song ‘Halo’ where she had to stop to catch her breath.  Beyoncé, you have a new fan.

And so to my Number One Act.  They played two sets; one on the Park stage on Friday and one on the John Peel Stage on Saturday afternoon and they are the all-female foursome from Los Angeles – Warpaint.  Warpaint is such a clever name for starters, combining the slang for makeup, thus underlining their gender, with the more tribal connotations of warfare.  Their music could also be described as ‘tribal’ being a cross between 1982 Cure/Siouxsie gothic and 1992 Cocteau Twins.  It has a peculiar quality of being quite mesmerising without seeming to go anywhere in particular.  Somehow, it doesn’t really matter as the heavily chorused guitars chime over intricate bass patterns and complex drumming and you are drawn in forever.  Their live vocals could do with beefing up a bit as they don’t quite match the studio versions I now have in my possession on their debut album, ‘Fool’ but otherwise they were beautifully understated, yet wonderful and worthy winners this year.

But that is not really the end of it.  Special mentions must also go to The Horrors, Kool and the Gang, Rumer, Hurts and Elbow and a very special mention must go to Jessie J who played her set with a broken foot and provided us with a magic moment.  It occurred when she asked for a member of the audience to help her with ‘Price Tag’ and we old cynics cringed.  But it turned out to be nothing like the toe-curling moment we expected and a gobsmacked Jessie didn’t quite get what she expected.  It put a smile on my face for hours afterwards.  Magical.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Glastonbury Festival 2011 (Part 1)

Well, you have to hand it to the BBC, they always do a wizard job of covering the Glastonbury Festival and this year was no exception.  The only problem for goggle-eyed TV viewers like me is finding the time to watch over 24 hours of footage, either live or recorded.  It is becoming a bit of a marathon involving a sagging couch and several crates of beer.

Nevertheless, this year’s event was well up to standard and remains the Festival that all Festivals should aspire to.  Despite the enormous amount of airtime set aside on up to three BBC channels (plus the red button), the ever growing size of the goings-on is beginning to defeat even the wily TV editors and the viewing experience is becoming one of not so much what you do see, but what you don’t.

This year the number of stages and line-ups over the three days was so huge that I was left feeling a bit frustrated by the fact that some of the smaller bands I wanted to see were not covered.  Of course, the answer is to attend the thing myself, but as BBC presenter Jo Wiley put it so succinctly, ‘Why brave the mud, when we can do it for you?’  Having said all that, the atmosphere was like a well-used comfort blanket and for a weekend, music did what it should and provided a considerable amount of emotional pleasure.

The 2011 extravaganza was thus for me, one of undoubted enjoyment but tinged with a sense of loss.  I have no real attachment to any of the three headliners, U2 (it rained heavily on them on the Friday evening - so there is a God), Coldplay (OK, but they didn't play 'Speed of Sound' - my only real must-have Coldplay track) and Beyoncé (more of her later) so this year I became more attuned to some of those lesser names further down the playing order.  Many were very good indeed and some will feature in my top three acts which will be revealed, as has now become a MO tradition, in my next post, but there were names that never saw a TV camera. 

Of those that were given airtime my particular favourites included the astounding vocals of Hurts, the neo-prog of Everything Everything, the wild Aussie rock (circa 1969) of sister-band Stonefield, the quite outstandingly good harmonies of The Pierces (I’m sure John Phillips was smiling down at their Mamas and Papas meets the Jefferson Airplane song, ‘Glorious’) and Jessie J complete with broken foot.

Sadly, top of my list of non-shows was the Swedish female quintet, Those Dancing Days, which was first introduced to me by fellow blogger, Zee, and whose last few singles I have enjoyed enormously.  Their raw energy and slightly ragged playing style puts me in mind of bands like The Slits and the Raincoats, but they have a classic Swedish ambience all of their own.  Apparently, their set on the Park stage on the Saturday was beset by technical problems so perhaps it was best they remained anonymous this once.  However, in order to balance out the fact that they got no airtime, here is their latest poptastic single, ‘Can’t Find Entrance’.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Kate Bush - Director's Cut (Part 2)

Previously on Kate Bush – Director’s Cut:

So having listened to it for a week or so, what’s the verdict?  The short answer is that she has about got away with it by the skin of her teeth – but only just.  I suppose my main criticism of this album is that I didn’t like most of the songs, the majority of which come from ‘The Red Shoes’, to start with, so the process of making a silk purse out of the various sows’ ears was always going to be a problem for me.  Having said that, there are one or two cuts that have been improved.  I don’t think I have listened to ‘Rubberband Girl’ more than about twice, ever, but this new version has been immersed in a classic Rolling Stones chugging rhythm that is difficult to resist.

The other song that I feel has been improved is ‘Lily’ which appears to have been slowed down very slightly and given a vice like groove and excellent new vocal. So far so good.  In fact, the new vocals on every track are remarkably good.  Set in a new lower key to accommodate her more mature voice, each song is sung with real abandon and a lack of self-consciousness that is pleasantly surprising and provides a real link to her younger self captured on the original recordings some 20 years ago.

In the main, these tracks have not been altered radically but rather set free from their 1980s/90s trappings.  Gone are the gated drums and slightly compressed overall sound and in their place are beautifully recorded instruments which have warmth and space.  There is no doubt that in pure sonic terms this album sounds so much better than the originals.

Whilst the more relaxed nature of the songs works for most of the time, I cannot help but feel disappointed with my two favourite songs here.  One is ‘Deeper Understanding’ which has lost its flow completely during the ‘computer speech’ sections where a vocoded/autotuned line of speech by her 12 year old son has been inserted.  So where there was a great surge of harmony we now have a jerky mechanical voice and it just doesn’t work.

The other major disappointment is the wonderful ‘This Woman’s Work’ which in its original form is a real emotional roller-coaster.  But again the vocal has been slowed down and chopped up to a point where the rhythmic integrity has been lost.  In the original, the drama of the chorus is intensified by a quickening of the vocal delivery.  In this version the opposite occurs and all the energy of the piece dissipates.  The underlying electric piano isn’t helping either making the whole thing a bit ‘chicken-in-a-basket’ nightclub fare.

On balance this album is a bit of a curate’s egg.  The de-restriction of the instrumental sound and new vocals are definite plusses but the loss of intensity in the drama of some of the songs is a definite debit.  And I still don’t like many of the songs, overhaul or not and that’s the bottom line with ‘Director’s Cut’.  As I said, all things considered, I think she just about comes out on an even keel.  Let’s see what the new material brings.