Thursday 25 February 2016

Rainbow by Robert Stillman

The fact that I ever got to hear this album brings together two recurring themes of this blog; Aquarium Drunkard and Hiss Golden Messenger. As I have done since I first encountered it, I regularly check in on the Aquarium Drunkard site and a few months ago read their glowing appreciation of Robert Stillman's latest album, Rainbow. It registered but at the time that's where it ended. Then more recently Hiss Golden Messenger's Twitter feed posted an equally compelling recommendation (see below). With both these guys praising the album, I was now paying attention. And rightly so. The vinyl is being put out by Orindal Records, a Chicago label "specializing in small-run vinyl & cassette releases of eclectic & eccentric home recordings by solo artists." With shipping costs from the US to the UK seemingly rising daily, I plumped for the download option.

On his website Stillman describes the album as, "Six solo-multitracked recordings of woodwinds, pianos, drums, and electronic sound. Composed as dedications to my wife, Anna, my late daughter Ruth, my second-born daughter Romilly, the landscape of my adopted home in East Kent, and my blue station wagon, Warren." In trying to capture what it was about, UK Vibe called it "an ethereal jazz/folk/ambient/experimental hybrid with a gorgeously shameless dose of melancholia". I was blown away by the beauty and intensity of the music. I do not have a deep appreciation of jazz or many reference points, but this music resonated with me.

After I replied to Hiss Golden Messenger's tweet, Robert kindly sent me a message saying he had checked out and enjoyed the blog. That conversation resulted in me buying a vinyl copy of the album directly from him so shipping was more reasonable. If you read the album's backstory, the front cover quote will stop you in your tracks (as seen in the above tweet). The back cover, which Robert says he is particularly proud of, is nicely summed up by Jason Woodbury, who reviewed the album for Aquarium Drunkard, "Stillman sounds as if he’s drawing on a deep reserve of sacred conviction. He’s featured on the back cover with his daughter Romilly and his wife Anna, surrounded by instruments, and the black-and-white photograph speaks to the core of the album: Rainbow is a record of dedications — to family, to traditions, and to musical freedom."

Sunday 7 September 2014

Follow the Music by Alice Gerrard

I confess I hadn't heard of Alice Gerrard until M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger mentioned her at one of his solo gigs last year. He was touring in support of his album Haw and he opened the set with a stark a cappella version of a traditional song variously called 'When I Was a Young Boy' or 'One Morning in May' (you can hear a recording of him singing it here (courtesy of and see Gerrard performing it here). After he had finished he recalled that he had learned the song from Gerrard, who he referred to as the "bible of American roots music". When he asked whether anyone in the audience knew about her seminal albums with Hazel Dickens from the 60s and 70s there wasn't much by way of recognition. He also threw in that he had just produced an album by her that was coming out on Tompkins Square 'sometime'. Turns out we've had to wait until now for it to see the light of day.

Also turns out that those records with Hazel Dickens, as All Music put it, "rank among the most influential recordings in folk music history", which as the press release for this album notes, "laid the groundwork for many artists, especially female bluegrass and folk musicians." Emmylou Harris has said of her, "She is the real deal with the right stuff. She hasn't forgotten where country music came from."

Follow the Music is a mix of traditional songs and Gerrard originals. The production rightly places her vocals front and centre, high in the mix, with the supporting instrumentation symathetically supportive rather than overbearing. The authority and intensity with which she delivers these songs belies, or perhaps only comes with, her age. Gerrard turned 80 this year. The accompaniment successfully laces tradition with just enough edge, undoubtedly aided in no small part by contributions from Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun who have made a career out of such melding of styles.

The liner notes offer Gerrard's brief but revealing thoughts on the provenance of each song. Of opening track, 'Bear Me Away', she wonderfully notes, "I love this song. I heard Bruce Greene singing it one day; he taught it to me. Bruce learned it from traditional singer Naomi Ledford." Or of 'Wedding Dress',"I have no idea where I learned this. I've known it forever", evocatively reminding you of a time when songs were handed down and passed round among singers.

The back cover, though simple, does covey some sense of the music contained within. The elegant handwritten track-listing is stark yet personal. The front cover is perhaps more telling. Rather than choosing a styled shot, we get an image in the making, Gerrard being readied for such a picture. A truer image. There is no artifice to these songs, and you suspect the same is true about the singer herself. This is wonderful music without pretension whatsoever, but with a depth, and occasional darkness - just listen to 'The Vulture' - that will stay with you.

Follow the Music is out on 30th September on Tompkins Square.

Saturday 2 August 2014

A Different Type of Back Cover

I have just finished one of the most absorbing books I have read in a long time, Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price, which is subtitled, The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records. While focussed on a very particular type of collector who seeks out what is essentially a finite resource - there are no masters in existence for many prewar recordings so "the records themselves are the only evidence of these sessions." - you don't have to be into prewar American music to enjoy it. It will resonant with anyone who has ever dug deeper into an artists recorded output, beyond the official records and into the murky world of bootlegs.

It particularly resonated with me because of a topic I have written about here before. That is, the magic of capturing a genuine performance. This is something that links my fascination with both old blues recordings and the ragged LPs of Neil Young (see for instance here on why Young has so much emotional pull and here for some quotes on 'Immediacy and Impulse: The Vibration of the Take'). The technology of the time only allowed for single microphone recordings to be made, so you had no option but to record a one-take performance. As Petrusich notes, "the most important component of any country blues song is still the performer's articulation of the blues "feeling," that amorphous, intangible, gut-borne thing that animates all music and gives it life." Elsewhere she notes one of the key figures in the book, Chris King, as insisting he wasn't merely collecting records, but collecting performances.

I still find it hard to articulate the wonder of hearing today recordings captured over 80 years ago, unchanged from the moment they were performed, save perhaps for some additional crackle. A moment in time preserved, hopefully forever. Petrusich however does a much better job than me and on finishing the book it has even pushed me to order the Anthology of American Folk Music on vinyl, something I had previously only owned digitally but which has recently been reissued on Mississippi Records. Given the investment involved, that is deservedly heavy praise for this wonderful book.

Given what this blog is meant to be about, it seems fitting that the back cover gets replicated here too!

Saturday 22 March 2014

Vinyl: My 1st 100 records

I have just checked my iTunes library and it is currently home to 31,957 tracks. Many I have never listened to and many I won't ever return to. Frankly an unmanageable and unlistenable amount.  My solution? My iPod now only contains the tracks that I own on new vinyl that I have amassed over the last two years or so. I now only buy new music on vinyl too, so I really have to want an album before I buy it. No more frivolous purchases. I have written in previous posts about why I started buying vinyl, as well as the benefits of a less is more approach to acquiring music, but as I recently bought my 100th long-player (clue above) it seemed like a good a time as any to look back on what I now focus my listening on.

This list doesn't quite represent what I would claim are the best 100 albums of all time. Instead it is a combination of albums I do think should be in such a list, but also those that I have some reason to be nostalgic about and are meaningful to me, as well as a few rash purchases when I had money in my pocket and found myself in a record shop. Limiting myself to new and currently available vinyl does result in some glaring omissions and a few albums I definitely consider great are missing. Neil Young's On The Beach being one that springs to mind. Indeed the whole Doom Trilogy is missing. But it does give me something to look forward to should he ever get round to reissuing them on vinyl. In fact these were due a Record Store Day box set release this April but look to have been delayed until November...we'll see.

While the Bob Dylan albums here may not form many people's sole recommendations for where to start with him, there is nothing very unusual on the list. In fact nearly a third of these albums feature in the 2011 edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. A few of less well-known cuts (Vernon Wray, Jim Ford, Chris Darrow, Bobby Charles) I've been steered towards either by digging into the influences of more recent artists or by sites such as Aquarium Drunkard.

So, what might you make of this list. Well, I like music made in the 60s and 70s, particularly between 69-75. I like Neil Young too. I also like music being made now that draws on the same aesthetics (Wooden Wand and Hiss Golden Messenger for example). That is to say, organic sounding records made by people who really care about the music they are making and make it with sincerity. Where I have written about the albums in these pages before I have included links.

So, in broadly the order I bought them, here they are:

1. Poor Moon - Hiss Golden Messenger
2. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground
3. The Creek Drank The Cradle - Iron & Wine
4. Being There - Wilco
5. Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys
6. In Rainbows - Radiohead
7. Loaded - The Velvet Underground
8. L.A. Turnaround - Bert Jansch
9. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
10. Fleet Foxes + Sun Giant EP - Fleet Foxes
11. After The Gold Rush - Neil Young
12. De Stijl - The White Stripes
13. Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
14. Plant and See - Plant and See
15. for Emma, forever ago - Bon Iver
16. Exile On Main Street - The Rolling Stones
17. You Are Free - Cat Power
18. Bad Debt - Hiss Golden Messenger
19. Rubber Factory - The Black Keys
20. Bringing It All Back Home - Bob Dylan
21. Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers - Gene Clark & The Gosdin Brothers
22. Twins - Ty Segall
23. Smoke Ring For My Halo - Kurt Vile
24. All Night Long - Junior Kimbrough & The Soul Blues Boys
25. The Rough Guide To Blues Legends: John Lee Hooker: Birth Of A Legend - John Lee Hooker
26. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere - Neil Young
27. Either/Or - Elliott Smith
28. The Stooges - The Stooges
29. No Other - Gene Clark
30. The Band - The Band
31. The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark - Dillard & Clark
32. Harvest - Neil Young
33. #1 Record - Big Star
34. Marquee Moon - Television
35. Neil Young - Neil Young
36. Revolver - The Beatles
37. Forever Changes - Love
38. Surf's Up - The Beach Boys
39. I Can't Stand The Rain - Ann Peebles
40. The Dictionary Of Soul - Otis Redding
41. Man In The Hills - Burning Spear
42. Live At Massey Hall 1971 - Neil Young
43. Harlan County - Jim Ford
44. Bend Beyond - Woods
45. Wrecked Again - Michael Chapman
46. Lord I Love The Rain - Hiss Golden Messenger
47. Root Work - Hiss Golden Messenger
48. Big Inner - Matthew E. White
49. King Of The Delta Blues Singers - Robert Johnson
50. The Beatles (White Album) - The Beatles
51. Pink Moon - Nick Drake
52. Blood Oaths of the New Blues - Wooden Wand
53. Briarwood - Wooden Wand & The Briarwood Virgins
54. Haw - Hiss Golden Messenger
55. Golden Gunn - Golden Gunn
56. Artist Proof - Chris Darrow
57. Impossible Truth - William Tyler
58. Fully Qualified Survivor - Michael Chapman
59. Country Funk 1969 - 1975 - Various Artists
60. Delta Swamp Rock - Sounds From The South : At The Crossroads Of Rock, Country And Soul - Various Artists
61. Time Off - Steve Gunn
62. Music From Big Pink - The Band
63. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground
64. White Light - Gene Clark
65. Workingman's Dead - Grateful Dead
66. Jessica Pratt - Jessica Pratt
67. Wasted - Vernon Wray
68. Garra - Marcos Valle
69. Cerulean Salt - Waxahatchee
70. Promised Land Sound - Promised Land Sound
71. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes - Elizabeth Cotten
72. Nashville Skyline - Bob Dylan
73. John Wesley Harding - Bob Dylan
74. Long Journey - Michael Hurley
75. Wooden Wand & the World War IV - Wooden Wand & the World War IV
76. Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan
77. Corsicana Lemonade - White Denim
78. Solar Motel - Chris Forsyth
79. Born With The Caul - Cian Nugent & The Cosmos
80. The Magnolia Electric Co. (10 Year Anniversary Edition) - Songs: Ohia
81. Jesus I'm a Sinner - Daniel Bachman
82. Live At The Cellar Door - Neil Young
83. Blue Rider - Zachary Cale
84. Unhalfbricking - Fairport Convention
85. Jackson C.Frank - Jackson C. Frank
86. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight - Richard & Linda Thompson
87. Bobby Charles - Bobby Charles
88. Bad Debt [reissue] - Hiss Golden Messenger
89. Live at Fillmore East - Neil Young
90. Hard For To Win & Can't Be Won - Nathan Salsburg
91. Nixon - Lambchop
92. The Immortal - Mississippi John Hurt
93. Atlas - Real Estate
94. Bill Withers - Just As I Am
95. Neil Young - Zuma
96. Kurt Vile - Wakin On A Pretty Daze
97. Phosphorescent - Muchacho
98. The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream
99. Funky Kingston - Toots & the Maytals
100. Radio City - Big Star

Thursday 26 December 2013

Live At The Cellar Door by Neil Young

Live at the Cellar Door is the latest in Neil Young’s Performance Series of archive concert releases. That it is numbered 2.5 in the series, chronologically following volume two (Live at the Fillmore East from March 1970) and preceding the third instalment (Live at Massey Hall 1971), suggests the tapes for this gig have surfaced since the original release schedule was drawn up. Or maybe it’s just Neil being Neil, cantankerous as ever. Indeed, much of the early talk around this release has focused on how chronologically close the performance is to the Massey Hall concert, which was recorded only one month later. There has therefore been some disgruntlement that this has been an opportunity missed to release something from another period, say the late ‘70s, which is as yet uncovered by the Performance Series. This of course will not stop people buying it, not least because those who already own Massey Hall will most likely be Neil devotees and they’ll want this too. And rightly so. This comes from arguably Young’s most fertile period, when he was so prolific he was playing songs live he would not get round to recording released versions of until years later, if at all. But with Massey Hall considered by many to be the last word on early 1970s solo Neil live, does Cellar Door have anything to add?
Cellar Door shares seven of its 13 tracks with Massey Hall. Where Massey Hall points towards HarvestCellar Door focuses on his third solo album, After the Gold Rush (released just three months before this gig), along with songs from his time with Buffalo Springfield. Interestingly, it ignores his first self-titled solo album altogether. This set feels more intimate than Massey Hall but also more tentative, reflecting perhaps the fact that these shows were considered a warm-up for a Carnegie Hall gig a few days later. Given the quality of the songwriting this isn’t really a criticism and the tracks come over as fresh and new born. There is also less of the rambling, albeit charming, between-song banter that peppered Massey Hall. The main exception is the introduction to ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ when Young gives a suitably stoned-sounding explanation that the song is about dope. If anything, the crowd is even more polite than Massey Hall, which only adds to the intimacy.
As with Massey Hall, Cellar Door mixes acoustic guitar tracks with songs demonstrating Young’s elegant and understated piano playing.  In fact, it’s the piano songs that provide many of the highlights, such as a majestic ‘Expecting To Fly’. Most notable though is the rare, and beautiful, piano version of ‘Cinnamon Girl’, which given it is one of his early signature guitar songs, shouldn’t work but does (“That’s the first time I ever did that one on the piano” he notes at the end). It also features the first performances of ‘Old Man’ (the only track to appear from Harvest, which was still over a year away) and ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, which didn’t surface officially until On The Beach, four years later.
Given the man’s track record, Young fans are used to erratic release schedules and they should soon stop worrying about what could have been released. With Neil you never know what’s around the corner anyway. Whether Cellar Door is better or worse than Massey Hall is somewhat irrelevant – it’s just wonderful to have both. As one contributor to a discussion board on a Neil Young fan site says, “Repetition doesn’t matter, hearing the performances does.” We couldn’t agree more.
This review originally appeared for Muso's Guide in December 2013.
As a postscript, Neil Young News, a news blog from fan site Thrasher's Wheat, returned to the old Cellar Door venue to 'recreate' the gatefold photo used for the album. Read more here.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Year-end List

I thought I would share the list of albums I submitted to Muso's Guide for their year-end list. Interestingly, I feel as if I have been much more engaged with music this year, although not because I've listened to more. I have actually had less money to spend on it and this has meant buying less and listening more. I think my listening experiences have been better for it. I've also focused my buying on vinyl, so less frivolous 'only ever to be listened to once' downloads. Add to that the fact that I've been casting the net a little closer to shore; I've paid attention to the output fewer labels and blogs, but really engaged with the ones I have followed. Of course this approach means there will have been much great stuff released this year I simply won't have listened to, but a manageable and deep listening experience seems preferable to me.

Paradise of Bachelors releases are most heavily represented here, a consistently brilliant label I've written about before. That's a selection of their back covers to the right, all of which feature in my list. As ever I have also kept a close eye on what Light In The Attic have been up to; more unwieldy but always interesting. This hasn't been to the exclusion of other labels, but these are the two I return to most often to see what they are up to.

The writers who have consistently pointed me in the direction of great music have been John Mulvey (of Uncut Magazine. I strongly recommend you follow his Wild Mercury Sound blog) and the Aquarium Drunkard site generally, but particularly Tyler Wilcox (also check out his Doom & Gloom From The Tomb musings). Where possible I have added links to relevant articles for each album.

Anyhow, here you go (in no particular conscious order):

1. Hiss Golden Messenger - Haw
2. William Tyler - Impossible Truth (reviewed for Muso's Guide here - that's the back cover at the top)
3. Steve Gunn - Time Off
4. Wooden Wand- Blood Oaths of the New Blues
5. Matthew E White - Big Inner
6. Michael Chapman - Wrecked Again (reissue)
7. Kurt Vile - Wakin' on a Pretty Daze
8. White Denim -  Corsicana Lemonade
9. Lal Waterson - Teach Me to Be a Summers Morning (reissue)
10. Chris Forsyth - Solar Motel
11. Bob Dylan - Another Self Portrait (reissue)
12. Golden Gunn - Golden Gunn
13. Promised Land Sound - Promised Land Sound

To this I would definitely add a couple of late entries that I have only just got hold of:

14. Neil Young - Live At Cellar Door (I reviewed this for Muso's Guide here)
15. Daniel Bachman - Jesus I'm A Sinner

Thursday 10 October 2013

Folk, Blues & Beyond by Davy Graham

This is definitely an example of an album I would not have been aware of were it not for my father. The fact that he had had a radio show on an RAF base that he named after it slipped out in conversation in the way you often hear of your parents past. It comes from a time when the back cover was a story and piece of literature in itself. There is wonderful commentary about each song and the back cover literally speaks for itself.

My interest in Graham was piqued by the fact that he had written Angi, later played by Bert Jansch and Paul Simon. Always in the shadows, including extended periods in retirement, a few years before his death I was surprised to learn that he was playing in a small club down the road from where I lived in Crouch End, London at the time. I duly went along and saw a man who can only have been a shadow of his former self. Almost toothless, which must have affected his singing, but I don't recall this, or indeed whether he sang at all. I think I was just amazed that someone who had been so influential* was yards away from me playing in a tiny venue, well passed his prime, but still doing what he loved.

*he is credited with introducing the DADGAD guitar tuning to the English folk scene, which was subsequently used by John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Jimmy Page.