Singer/Songwriter

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I started this post yesterday and got stuck, so I’m going to try to keep it simple and unfinished, and figure that it’s still worth sharing.

In the latest post in the “52 Girls” series at The Song In My Head Today, Holly posted “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home?” by the Kinks. A song Ray Davies wrote for his sister who had moved to Australia. It made me think about another song with a girl’s name in the title written to an absent sister, Caetano Veloso’s “Maria Bethania.” It’s a favorite of mine, and the comparison seemed like an interesting way to think about both songs — Ray Davies wistful, restrained, English song and Caetano Veloso’s more emotional, troubled, experimental song.

The more I listened to them, the more I realized how complicated both songs are, and the harder it seemed to encapsulate their differences in any simple scheme. “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home” started to seem more forceful, and more of a rock song as I listened to it, and “Maria Bethania” is experimental but also the structure is very important since the clear contrast in emotion between the verses and the chorus is part of what creates the emotional dynamic of the song (until the final line of the last verse, “but I love her face because it has nothing to do with all that I’ve said” brings those two together. I hear that as the first mention of Maria Bethania in the verses, and the the “she” and “you” before that refer to somebody else who may be a specific figure, or just a general expression of his alienation from Brazil),

But in respect there is a simple and crucial difference between the two songs. Ray Davies is still at home, singing to his sister who has left. Caetano Veloso is the one in a foreign county, having been forcibly exiled from Brazil, moved to London, and is singing to his sister who is still in Brazil. Because I don’t speak Portuguese my knowledge of Caetano Veloso’s career is limited and mostly confined to his songs in English, but some things are very clear about that album. He looks harried on the album cover, wearing a heavy coat, and looking intently into the camera. The first two songs he wrote for the album were “London, London” and “A Little More Blue” (which deserves it’s own post at some point), both songs of homesickness. “A Little More Blue” presents an intense loneliness and “London, London” is more open to the experience — he sings about walking down the streets and not knowing anybody and not making eye contact, but feeling safe and almost whimsical. In the final verse he sings, “I choose no face to look at / Choose no way / I just happen to be here / And it’s okay / Green grass, blue eyes, gray sky, God bless / Silent pain and happiness.” He doesn’t feel at home, but he does feel at peace.

“Maria Bethania” alternates between verses that a deep sense of trouble and of things falling apart (the opening line is, “Everybody knows that our cities were built to be destroyed”) But then, the chorus begins with his sister’s name and instantly the mood becomes tender and one of comfort. Just thinking about her is allows him to relax for a moment. Where Ray Davies asks his sister to move back, Caetano Veloso just asks her to, “send me a letter. / I with to know things are getting better.” And then the song end with two minutes of him vocalizing over very dramatic music before, as I hear it, exhausting some of the tension and reaching a provisional but real resolution and calm.

It’s interesting to have two songs, with a similar inspiration, written five years apart by two of the greatest songwriters of their generation both living in England under very different circumstances.

I’m hoping to do some blogging this weekend but, in the meantime, three items for the fourth of July.

First, Gretchen Peters at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser performing her song, “Independence Day” and talking about what it means to her. The person Gretchen Peters is both a little odd, it’s clearly a slightly awkward setting, but I think her introduction to the song is nice.

Second two songs about, uh, explosions, if you will forgive the entendre.

Eilen Jewell singing “Bang Bang Bang.” It’s a short song, just under two minutes long, but clearly a great performance piece. I discovered her when I was looking for female performers for my Country mix. I ended up using one of her Loretta Lynn covers, but this was also one of my favorite songs that I found during that process.

Finally, Nick Lowe’s sensitive cover of Elvis Costello’s, “Indoor Fireworks.” This is also a relatively new find; last fall I was listening to more Nick Lowe and it got me to look at his catalog again. The Allmusic review of The Rose Of England mentioned that track as a standout and I went looking for it. As it turned out that ended up leading me to make one of my favorite musical discoveries of 2011 but that’s a story for another time . . . hopefully this weekend.

Apologies again for the lack of posting. I got really busy starting last July, and it’s only now starting to slow down (and I’m just starting to catch up). But, for my loyal readers, I do have something new to share. A new mix of county singer/songwriters, that I’m quite excited about. Extended thoughts below the fold but I’m definitely curious to know what people make of it. A lot of this music is new to me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks listening to a bunch new music to work on this, and I’m happy with how it turned out:

Unconventional Country:
1: Walkin’ — Willie Nelson
2: Honkey Tonk Girl — Eilen Jewell (by Loretta Lynn)
3: Saint Anthony With The Broken Hands — Katy Moffatt
4: Hard On Equipment (tool for the job) — Corb Lund
5: West Texas Waltz — Butch Hancock
6: Burning The Toast For You — Suzy Bogguss (by April Barrows)
7: Wander — Paul Burch
8: Listen To The Radio — Kathy Mattea (by Nanci Griffith)
9: Anyhow, I Love You — Lyle Lovett (by Guy Clark)
10: Please — Mary Gauthier
11: Glasgow Girl — Rodney Crowell
12: Six Nights A Week — Peter Case (by Chris Gaffney)
13: Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy — Terry Allen
14: Mystery Train Part II — Steve Earle
15: Out In The Parking Lot — Guy Clark
16: Sittin’ Still — Andrew Jacob Holm
17: Boxcars — Joe Ely (by Butch Hancock)

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been enjoying the year end music posts by the multi-talented Reinvigorated Programmer (and, if you’ve missed my writing I wrote a couple of long comments on his third post in the series).

But something in his wrap-up post caught my attention, he observes

Looking at the list, I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, with the only exceptions being the prog rock of The Incident at #3 and the Beatles’ Help! at #7. Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

I’ve written before about the trickiness of the label “folk music” (and there are a number of good quotations about the nature of folk music posted by RS in the comments for that post). Personally I tend to be somewhat conservative in how I use the term “folk music” and prefer “singer/songwriter” as the broader term for people who write and sing music that has some degree of personal or social significance. I accept, however, that most people use “folk music” as an broader term than I do which refers to a genre of music, rather than some connection to a specific folk culture. I have no interest in policing that, even if I may grumble about it from time to time. When it comes to definitional debates I tend to be a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, figuring that it’s generally more useful to have a sense of how phrases used than to try to preserve a more technical definition.

But, all of a sudden, I’m curious. How do people define “folk music” as a genre term? I always assumed that it was close to how I would use the term “singer/songwriter” but now I’m not sure. So, in the interest of clarifying, here are five songs which are, somewhere in the universe of singer/songwriter and I’m curious, for any or all of the songs, would you include them under a broad definition of “folk music” and if so why or why not? Leave your answers in comments, I have no opinions except to think that I wouldn’t expect all of them to be considered “folk music” but I’m not sure where the line should be drawn. We have:

1) On of Gil-Scott Heron’s more singer/songwriter songs (with a jazz backing) Lady Day & John Coltrane“.

2) A Joe Jackson song imagining that it would take a deal with the Devil to write anything as perfect as a classic folk song The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy“.

3) Amy Rigby on “The Summer Of [Her] Wasted Youth“.

4) A live acoustic version of I May Hate You Sometimes” by the Posies (album version discussed here).

5) Dave Alvin’s “Harlan County Line” from his latest album. Dave Alvin has said. “There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” This would be an example of the latter.

Fire away . . .

I’m back. Hopefully I can start posting semi-regularly again. To warm up I thought I’d start with something simple, fun, and self-explanatory. Here is a song that I’ve wanted to post and/or include on a mix CD several times but has just missed the cut. Hamell On Trial’s song about, one of the problems that can arise trying to date as an adult, the nature of which is obvious from the title: “I Hate Your Kid

(track is from a live CD and, includes the introduction to the following song, but I don’t think it’s too confusing.

Happy new year everybody.

A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in an annual mix-CD swap. It’s a fun thing to do. Making a mix CD means a bunch of focused listening, and it’s good to have a commitment to make time for that, and it’s nice to hear what other people want to share.

I was really happy with the first mix that I did for this group. But I felt like the one that I did last year wasn’t quite as good. It wasn’t bad, but it suffered from not having a clear theme. It ended up being less coherent as a finished mix, than the previous one.

So I’m happy to report that I have a plan for this year.

I was listening to a recent Judy Collins tribute album and two songs really impressed me, one of which was “Since You’ve Asked” sung by Joan Baez. I hadn’t listed to any recent recordings by Joan Baez and it’s a pleasure to hear her sound that good. Her voice great, and she just sings the song really well. She’s able to combine intimacy and forcefulness in a way which suggests the benefits of experience. She sounds really comfortable knowing both her voice and her own abilities as a performer.

So I’ve decided that my mix for this year will be songs by people who, at the time of the recording, have at least 20 years of experience as professional musicians.

I’m curious to see how it turns out, and looking forward to working on it. One of the interesting things about the process of working on a compilation is how it can focus ones attention on hearing similarities between songs from different artists. The sequence, by creating a connection between one song and the next, forces you to think about what elements make that a smooth or difficult transition. I’m hoping that doing an mix of strictly veteran performances will be an interesting exercise in listening and paying attention to the similarities between what skills different people learn as they accumulate experience.

I may have to work to keep the whole thing from being too cautious. Part of the fun of recordings from earlier in people’s career is that they can have so much more at stake and that can push them in interesting ways. But I’m optimistic that it will work.

I don’t normally like to post songs that aren’t in my collection. But here’s one that I just heard, liked, and am not likely to get a recording of soon.

Every Man I Fall For” by the Cold War Kids

I hadn’t heard of them before. I heard the song in a movie was really struck by it. I’m not generally a fan of indie-rock blues melodrama, but I think it’s great. The performance is fantastic; it’s a very charismatic song and performance.

I also appreciate the cleverness in fact that the song is titled, “Every Man I Fall For” and the description is so specific that it can really only apply to one person.

The sound quality on the video is fine, but not great. Here‘s a live performance which, unfortunately, also doesn’t have great sound, but it’s impressive that they can pull it off, and particularly pull off that vocal performance live.

Maybe I should get one of their albums.

This is a surprisingly sad occasion. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were a couple of songs that I had been thinking about. One of those was a track off of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. I didn’t post it at the time because, in all honestly, I had misplaced the CD, and figured I’d post it when I came across it, which I recently did. I was happy, because it was something I had been wanting to share.

So imagine my surprise, when I went to post, and discovered that Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday.

I’m not quite sure what to say. For me Gil Scott-Heron is a figure who seems to stand outside of time and the flow of popular music. He isn’t somebody about whom I could ever say that I followed his career, or even that I had a sense of the arc of career or life. I heard “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” when I was young enough that it wasn’t surprising to hear something new that didn’t sound like anything else. At the time I didn’t like the other songs of his I heard, which lacked the hooks of, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” but eventually I listened to this compilation extensively and came to appreciate how consistantly strong his work was, through a variety of moods and styles. “Small Talk at 125 at Lennox” is still a track that I’ll use as a stereo test track; it’s a surprisingly beautiful sound recording. Even as I got to know some of his work it felt both powerful, beautiful, and somehow remote in the sense that it never seemed to be in dialogue with other recordings. His influence is obvious, well-known, and immense, and his influences are also apparent but the power of his performances feels neither in debt to anybody else, nor transferable.

This New Yorker profile from last summer describes many of the difficulties in life and the respect that people had for him, and is very sad to read following the news of his death.

The song that had recently caught my ear was the title track, “I’m New Here” because I watched the video and was struck by how strongly it rooted the song in an idea of New York City (and how charismatic Gil Scott-Heron’s performance is). It evokes the folklore of the city and suggests that, only in New York, could Gil Scott-Heron, legend, live, be troubled, inspired, lonely, and be just one person in the crowd. If Gil Scott-Heron is somebody who obviously carried his own history with him the video suggests that New York contains so much history, and so many people, that he could still be “new here, once again.”

At the time I saw the video I thought it was a beautiful tribute to the folklore and idea of the urban center, and life affirming. At the moment I see the sadness in it as well. But I think it is, ultimately positive. From the New Yorker article:

“I’m New Here” is a reverent and intimate record, almost more field work than entertainment—a collage partly sung and partly talked, and made largely from fragments of Scott-Heron’s poetry, handled here in a voguish manner. It presents a notional version of Scott-Heron, which is Scott-Heron as hip-hop practitioner.

Scott-Heron recorded the songs and his poems, and Russell added the hip-hop tracks that accompany them. “This is Richard’s CD,” Scott-Heron says. “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

“I’m New Here” is twenty-eight minutes long and has fifteen tracks, four of which are songs, one of which Scott-Heron wrote. Russell left the microphone on between takes and during discussions, and so he collected asides and observations, which he presents as interludes.

Writing the previous post I was thinking that “nonsense” might be a better word than “silly” to describe “Bahamut” and that got me thinking about It’s Saturday, my favorite King Missile song.

I first heard the song on a mix from a friend and it immediately stood out as one of the more fun tracks on there. It’s clever, surprising, and just barely manages to not be too precious. Compared to other good King Missile tracks like, “(I’m a) Sensitive Artist“, “Take Stuff From Work“, or “Cheesecake Truck” all of which are funny and memorable, “It’s Saturday” has more than one idea that nicely catches one’s attention.

It’s a sign of how well constructed it is that it can move from the familiar joke, “I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like” to the entertainingly over-educated elaboration, “I want to call into question the very idea that identity can be attached” to the final lines, “Whatever happened to protesting nothing in particular, / just protesting cause it’s Saturday and there’s nothing else to do?” and feel like a natural progression. The individual lines may be too-clever-by-half (which is no criticism, in this case) but the song as a whole feel reflective and sincere in some way.

As a music fan it’s inevitable that one speculates, in various ways, about the state of mind of the performer. One of the most basic and unanswerable questions to ask is what creative mood inspired the particular performance.

It’s always fun to listen to a recording and have the sense that the musician was creatively inspired in some way and perhaps even surprised themselves while making it. With the constant demand for novelty in pop music there’s no shortage of opportunities to hear somebody taking a step into a new creative direction — sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and the feel of somebody who’s perhaps a little unsure of themselves but also with the spark of doing something new.

I was reminded recently that it can be equally interesting when somebody is doing something familiar but without any sense of it having become routine. A while back RS gave me a copy of Booker’s Guitar by Eric Bibb, and I’ve just been getting around to listening to it and have been impressed. It’s a good example of material which feel very present and felt, while also feeling like he has a deep familiarity with the music.

The story behind the album (and album title) is that Eric Bibb had a fan come up to him after a show ans ask if he wanted to play the guitar that had been owned by Bukka White. However that incident inspired this album, it feels to me less like finding new musical territory than re-discovering the pleasures and the depth of music. And I say this not having heard anything by Bibb prior to this.

I would say that it’s a very serious album, not because the mood is unhappy, but in the sense of an intense interior focus.

For example, “New Home“, has a classic blues feel, played with a real richness. And then you have something like “Wayfaring Stranger” which feels meditative in a good way.

After I listened to the Emmylou Harris version of “Wayfaring Stranger” I looked up a number of different performances on youtube and, in general, I was surprised at how may of them I didn’t like. I think it’s such a beautiful tune that I resisted performances that are too forward or like too performance oriented — for example the Neko Case cover which isn’t a bad performance, but just doesn’t feel right to me). Listening to Bibb’s version I felt like it delivered exactly what I wanted in a performance of the song which was one that honors the emotion of the song but also feels responsive to the internal experience of being a musician and playing and singing such a perfect melody. Listening to it I feel like I can just inhabit the song and that he’s right there too, in the music and in that moment.

Update: It strikes me that this is one case in which I am particularly glad that I have the ability to share a copy of the recording as well as write about it. I don’t feel like I’ve precisely described what it is that I like about the recordings, but I know that there is the artifact itself which may be helpful towards understanding my description. Technology does have its benefits.

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