Sunday, 19 November 2017

Eye Music 17

Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black, album review

If Only...

Mavis Staples at 78 has witnessed a world of wrong, and in these songs, mostly written by Jeff Tweedy who also produces, she adds her experience to their narratives, clearly in tune with them in so many ways. Build a Bridge is a fine if distinctive example, a song that echoes, if this makes sense, a Rolling Stones-esque soul-rock number, a chorus in a high register mimicking Jagger, and the lyrics suggesting the positive need for change – still hopeful, after all these years, in Staples' singing endorsement.

There are some stand-out funky numbers on this collection: opener Little Bit with its running up and down riff, a gospel-answering choric vocal and Tweedy’s brisk bending guitar notes; and third Who Told You That which is a funked-up gem.

The title track is the second song, a collaborative write with Tweedy, and the lyrical ruse of If all I… promotes what is so much of this album’s assertion that there is much more to give and achieve in an otherwise negative world, and more specifically the America of Trump and racism and guns and so on. The chorus resonates from the context of Staples' 78 years of experience,

All the love I'd give (Got love to give)
I've got natural gifts (Got natural gifts)
I've got perspective (Got perspective)
Just might make your shift (The way you look at it)

We Go High continues the positive urgings and one has to hope it can matter, though history tells us different. In this respect the album and its music is positioned within that ‘protest’ lineage of earnest but ultimately meaningful songwriting about rather than instrumental in creating change. This is followed by a blues chug of Try Harder which acknowledges evil in the world and the self, perhaps a more realistic summation of who and what we are, though the I am as good as I can be and got to try harder also sums up the other realities of caring. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Space Music 21

Bob Seger - I Knew You When, album review


I caught up a little with Bob Seeger a while back here, and need to do more [though I have – just didn’t write about it].

This latest seems more of the fine same to me, and that’s an accolade because he has his signature and this is it, though opener Gracile is a dirty swamp-rock that is a stand-out track.

Indeed, for me this album’s strength is its signature sound throughout – basically upfront, straight rock that avoids complexity and is informed by Seger’s distinctive voice – but the fact it is bookended by Gracile and, on the deluxe edition, closer Glenn Song dedicated to his great friend Greg Frey gives it a memorable edge. The percussive beated simplicity of this song’s pace and its foreground lyrics in terms of rhyme are perfect as a fond, unadorned lament, the violin providing its plaintive accompaniment. I think it is superb.

The album also reflects on other passings with covers of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, this latter’s selected song Democracy [a rousing cover] so the album is reflecting on more than recent musicians’ deaths. We’re going to get more of this over coming years, sadly, but when it is as honest and self-reflecting as this, the music becomes the truest empathetic obituary.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Into the Distance Music 63

Jeff Lynnes ELO - Wembley or Bust, album review

Long Time Coming

I've written about this before, a couple of years ago. The consolidation of change continues...

When studying in Oxford I used to live in a flat just off the Iffley Road. It was a downstairs flat with another one above.

The first occupant upstairs was an American studying at one of the universities - I forget which - and he once invited me and my wife to his College for a meal in its great hall and with all the service afforded to those studying there. It was a most pleasant experience.

The second occupant was a drunkard and a complete asshole who used to play his music extremely loud late at night and it was usually ELO. I damaged the bathroom ceiling from banging on it for him to turn the volume down; called the police once who said they couldn't do anything for me [a lie I think], and I once stormed up to his place and pulled the stereo lead from the wall in as threatening a manner I could, and I think for that night only he didn't play any music. He probably fell asleep in a drunken stupor.

He ruined our lives at the time, ruined to this day my wife's ability to sleep soundly on a regular basis, and definitely ruined listening to ELO - so much so that hearing the band on the radio made us both sick and angry.

That was around 1979-80. I avoided ELO until 2015. Read here.

So I've listened to this album all these years later with the baggage lightened, especially through the catharsis of disliking intensely the asshole 'above' rather than the music he then played, and it is excellent. Lynnes' vocal is softer it seems to me, and the orchestrations on this recording less full of pomp and more restrained. The songwriting, obviously, retains its brilliance, including that not from ELO.

It's only taken nearly 40 years.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Joanna MacGregor & Andy Sheppard - Deep River, album review

Both Sax Sides

I have returned to this album after seeing Andy Sheppard live a few days ago. Along with pianist Joanna MacGregor, these 2005 covers of gospel to contemporary songs are beautifully as well as  excitingly played, and my focus has been on Sheppard’s stylistic variations.

Opener Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is of course an indelible tune and one therefore listens for the nuances in the cover. Sheppard here is in his breathy mode and this is then developed with loops and multi-tracking effects to merge traditional with modern, electronic whines and wails railing across the looped sax and the trilling runs of MacGregor on piano. Second, the gospel again of Everybody Help the Boys Come Home is entirely modern with samples of an original recording by William and Versey Smith, MacGregor on piano-percussive beats and Sheppard on sax runs, the two merging in and out of those beats. A favourite is third Spiritual, the Charlie Haden song made memorable for me by Johnny Cash’s emotive cover, and Sheppard matches this with an emotional crescendo in his playing.

It is a beautiful album throughout. A pairing I will finish on is the sweet and delicate delivery of fourth track Georgia Lee which reminds most of the tone and pace of Sheppard’s Bristol gig I reviewed here. This is juxtaposed dramatically two tracks on by Up Above My Head with an acoustic blues guitar opening and the multi-tracked soprano sax of Sheppard, MacGregor joining her piano runs to Sheppard’s increasingly wild-rolling play. Two tracks on from this, a remix of the same song features Seb Rochford who also played the Bristol gig.