Random Notes (June 2017)

Oof ! At the start of June our government was telling us that the Leader of the Opposition would take us back to the 1970’s & was an IRA sympathiser. A new generation of voters, raised on & unconvinced by Austerity, replied “When?” & “Who?” then exercised their democratic right in favour of a politician they perceived as principled & fighting their corner. Jeremy Corbyn may not be Prime Minister but the Tories, anticipating plain sailing to an increased majority, are a sinking ship, their “strong & stable” banner in tatters. My own cynicism ( a trait I thought to be an attractive one) was refreshingly challenged by the optimistic younglings of my company. This new passion found a focus when terrorist attacks led to criticism of cuts to emergency services & a tragic fire in London exposed policies which favoured profit over respect for the rights of others to fatal effect.

 

I’m no Corbyn cultist though there is much to admire about his successful acampaign in the face of the vilification from the media. I would prefer a united Labour Party confident enough to articulate & endorse the concerns of their support rather than wait for a hopeless, rudderless, all-but minority government to run aground as they blindly attempt to negotiate the choppy waters of our exit from the EU. Whatever the outcome, something has changed.

 

That’s enough politics & certainly too many maritime metaphors. Let’s put some sounds on…

 

 

My musical month was always set to be dominated by “The Nashville Sound” the new much-anticipated (well, by me) new LP from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. It seems that I’m not the only one & it’s selling more copies than the previous 2 award winning collections “Southeastern” & “Something More Than Free”. Whether Jason is rocking out with the band or getting reflective with his acoustic guitar, his wife Amanda on fiddle & harmonies, his mature, assured songs hit the spot more accurately than anyone else around at the moment. That heart-wrenching line “I’m just lucky to have the work” from the title track of “Something…” is still tearing me up now here’s another 10 tracks to have around the house & to get to know.

 

Image result for the nashville sound jason isbellThis time around Isbell is stretching himself lyrically. He & his protagonists, mainly Southern American men, are living in Trump’s America, something needs to be said about the frustration & anger that brings. “Hope the High Road” & “White Man’s World” are not political with a capital P, his character studies are accurate & sympathetic. Any false steps, there is sometimes a slight lyrical clumsiness, is offset by great contributions from all the musicians involved. Hey I’m being picky here. The last 2 records have been very good company, taking their  time to reveal their full depth & qualities. “Cumberland Gap”, “If We Were Vampires” & “Tupelo” are  are already welcome guests. I look forward to becoming more familiar with the rest of “The Nashville Sound”.

 

 

I’ve been an admirer of Steve van Zandt since he was consiglieri to Bruce & the E Street Band before doing the same job for the Soprano family. Hell, I even hung around “Lilyhammer” long after it had jumped the reindeer. Now his immaculately curated Underground Garage (every show archived somewhere around here) is my Interweb radio show of choice. Little Steven’s Rock & Roll sensibility & taste sit very well with me & it only took a listen to a couple of tracks off of his new LP “Soulfire” & I was on it (new fave phrase, courtesy of the hilarious Count Arthur Strong) like a German Shepherd on chicken !

 

Image result for steve van zandt james gando;fini“Soulfire” is infused with Steve’s abiding belief in music’s redemptive quality. Older songs, 2 that he gave to Southside Johnny, are spiritedly resuscitated. “Ride the Night Away” reclaims that great opening riff to “I Found Love” a co-write for Lone Justice. Strong new songs cover similar ground, there are 2 covers, a Blues from Etta James & a spectacular version of James Brown’s “Down & Out In New York City” (from the movie “Black Caesar”). The bold, brassy Spectoresque Wall of Sound, employed by Steve & Springsteen back then, is made loud & clear by master engineer Bob Clearmountain & it’s so good to hear the Persuasions, a classic vocal group, back on record. No new ground is broken on “Soulfire”, it’s traditional American Rock done well by one of the guys who set the standard & it’s glorious.

 

 

Image result for kwyet kinksOK, it’s not all new music round our end, it never is. This month it’s been the Kinks that have made it to to the front of the stack & stayed there. Back when the money from my paper round didn’t stretch to expensive 12″ vinyl discs record companies offered EPs, Extended Plays, 4 tracks for less than double the price of a 2 track 45. Of course the Beatles led the way with  “Twist & Shout” (1963) & “Long Tall Sally” (1964), a great collection of previously unreleased recordings. Both sold more than many hit singles. The Stones matched these with “Five By Five” (1964), new cuts from sessions at Chess studios, & “Got Live if You Want It ” (1965). EPs were mainly recycled material, a chance to buy a couple of singles you had missed. The Kinks were one group who had songs that never made the A-side but were more than album filler.

 

Image result for well respected man kinks“Kwyet Kinks” came around in September 1965, a year when the group had 5 Top 20 hits. Their early energy had converted R&B influences into aggressive, punk Rock & Ray Davies, still  just 21 years old, was developing a more introspective songwriting style. Both Summer hits “Set Me Free” & “See My Friends” combined a wistful lyric with a distinctive, inventive guitar sound. The oh so good, oh so fine “Well Respected Man”, a first excursion into sly social commentary, was picked from the EP by offshore pirate radios & played to an audience of over 10 million as often as any new hit. The Kinks’ record label & management doubted the group’s new direction but their fans were already on it. “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along” was the first song to be solely credited to the younger Davies, guitarist Dave. It would be a couple of years before Dave made his own hit solo records but the talent is there to see on this one. The other 2 tracks “Don’t You Fret” & “Such A Shame” were not saved for “The Kink Kontroversy”, their 3rd LP.  In 1965 the Davies brothers, Pete Quaife (bass), Mick Avory (drums) & their producer Shel Talmy were mining a very productive seam.

 

Image result for dedicated kinks epThe following year “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, a sharp lampoon of Carnabetian Swinging London, was the first in a series of acutely observed, distinctively British, classic Kinks hits. Pye, never slow to capitalise on their back catalogue, released the “Dedicated Kinks” EP, the title hit, “Set Me Free”, “See My Friends” & the raucous, rocking “Till the End of the Day”. Now that sounded like value for my hard-earned to me. A good reason for a Saturday, the one day I was holding folding, visit to the local record shop.

This Week’s Pick Of The Pops (New Music)

It’s not even the middle of the month but this can’t wait. In March my head was more than turned, it was spun around, by 3 new LPs all of which made it into my collection & will be played for a long time. This week it’s been 3 individual tracks, clear, crisp, just 3 and a bit minutes each, that have been doing the trick. I’m not sure that any new lovely 7″ vinyl discs are still being manufactured, there’s probably not a radio station that’s going to pick up on these very same songs so I’m going to put them somewhere where I can easily find them & I can play them to my heart’s & ears’ content. That would be here then…

 

 

This is, for me, genuinely exciting. It’s been 20 years since the last new music from Peter Perrett. “Woke Up Sticky” (1996) was released as P.P & the One & that came 16 years after the last studio LP from his group the Only Ones. Peter’s affection for serious drugs is well chronicled & has hindered continuity in his musical creativity. It is a measure of just how good he can be that 39 years after we first heard “Another Girl, Another Planet”, the one song of his you all know, we are still enthusiastic to listen to any music he wants to make. In those uncertain, monochromatic, early-Thatcherite years when the 1970’s became the 1980’s the Clash provided political idealism & calls for unity while the Only Ones soundtracked a cogent, more personal reaction, acerbic cynicism leavened by heart & humour. “Why Don’t You Kill Yourself”, that was meant to be funny.

 

Related image“How the West Was Won” is recognisably Perrettian, verse, chorus & a blazing guitar solo. A slow “Sweet Jane”/”If Not For You” riff, the Velvets & Dylan, classic Rock influences. The lyrics are a forthright, caustic condemnation of the Evil Empire, the verse in praise of a Kardashian rear-end seems a little incongruous but it’s making me laugh. There was a planned LP when the Only Ones reunited in 2008 but steroid use for  a lung condition led to Peter’s voice developing a helium-tinge & it never happened. It’s great to hear him sounding so much stronger. This is the title track from a new LP, backed by his sons Jamie (guitar) & Peter Jr (bass), produced by Chris Kimsey whose long CV includes co-credit on many Rolling Stones records. 10 new songs to come, it’s gonna be good. Domino Records, 30th June 2017, say hello if you see me in the queue.

 

 

A new track from Jason Isbell will always cause a stir round our yard too. It’s a taster for “The Nashville Sound”, a new LP due to surface on June 16th (man, I’m going to have to save my pennies!). “Southeastern” (2013) & “Something More Than Free” (2015) deservedly placed Jason at the forefront of American singer-songwriters after over a decade of honing his craft with Drive-By Truckers & on 3 earlier solo records. The blend of Country, Blues & Soul influences is perfectly balanced. His getting clean, his marriage to Amanda Shires, gave him great material & his skill at translating the personal into something sympathetic & more universal made for 2 great records. Jason’s doing well, he gets awards, he’s playing bigger halls. I know people who like this kind of thing but don’t know this music, he should be flipping massive !

 

Related imageSo, if I’m going to listen to anyone sing about Trump America then it’s Isbell. “Hope the High Road” is no call to arms, more an acknowledgement that many people are feeling pretty pissed about the way it went down in 2016, that “there can’t be more of them than us” & well, let’s hope things get better.  I’m reminded of the anthems Springsteen & Jackson Browne used to write & if “Hope…” lacks the authority of those then these are different, less certain times. The new record is credited to Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, his touring band who have all played on the last 4 LPs. Maybe, as he says, “I’ve sung enough about myself”, Jason is smart enough to know that relying on autobiographical lyrics for a third time could be one too far. The postman brought me tickets for his Autumn tour today so c’mon, let’s get Summer over & done with !

 

 

OK, after a couple of artists I have followed for some time here’s something that I was only recently put on to. Ette’s “Attack of the Glam Soul Cheerleaders (Part 1 & 2), (how could I resist that title ?) is from last summer’s “Homemade Lemonade”, a collaboration between Carla Easton & Joe Kane. “Attack…”‘s  bustle, brio & catchiness (I’m still on a Pop poetess Shirley Ellis kick at the moment) brought to mind the early records of the Go Team & I liked that. 2016 was a busy year for Carla, her band TeenCanteen released their debut LP “Say It All With A Kiss”. Just one look at the 4-piece group’s videos that’s all it took.

 

Image result for teencanteenTeenCanteen have been around Glasgow since 2012. Carla’s voice is strong, individual & her songs are equally impressive. Their C86 lo-fi indie take on the Wall of Sound has echoes of the classic girl-group sound (Oh yeah, the 4 members of TC are all female) & the retro/modern balance is just right. They have a Sunshine Pop charm & you can never have too much of that. “Millions”, with its crying that is so Shangri-Las, is in the shops on the 22nd of April, part of a 4 track EP “Sirens”. In a parallel universe where the attraction of a 3 minute blast of pure pop music has not been diminished “Millions” would be the follow up to 2 or 3 big hit records (here’s one of them, “How We Met (Cherry Pie)“) & I wouldn’t have to carry on about just how good they are.

New Music From Jason Isbell

A great weekend for new music. Wilco give their album “Star Wars” away buckshee,  singles from Keith Richards, Public Image Ltd & Public Enemy. Over the coming days I’m sure that I’ll be returning to all of them. It may be a while before they hit the front of the queue because today (Saturday) this year’s (2015) most eagerly anticipated music came around. “Something More Than Free” is the new LP by Jason Isbell, the follow up to 2013’s “Southeastern”, a record that has given me so much pleasure since its release & continues to do so.

 

 

I won’t presume to tell you everything about the new record, it’s only been in the house for 12 hours for Jah’s sake. “Southeastern”, like all the best things, took its time to reveal its depths & its delights. I wrote about it here, struggled then to pick 3 songs & would possibly select 3 others if I did it all over again (I didn’t pick “Live Oak”. What was I thinking ?). “24 Frames” has been on the Y-tube for 6 weeks, it’s rock for & from the heartland, the most accessible track on the record & pretty, pretty good. Isbell was Artist of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Awards, his “Cover Me Up” won too. I have a problem with “Americana”, it seems to be no more than a catch-all, a marketing tool. You, & Bill Hicks, know what you should do if you’re in marketing…

 

 

After such an acclaimed LP, one instigated & inspired by some major, positive life changes, getting straight & getting married to Amanda Shires, it was always going to be interesting what came next. Those confessional, vulnerable, raw emotions can become contrived if you go to that well too often. On “Something More Than Free” he’s still writing about goddamn lonely love & life but his blue-collar characters are more than settling, they see a little light. Working with the same producer, Dave Cobb, there are musical similarities to “Southeastern”. At the moment tracks 5, “Children of Children”, 6, “The Life You Chose” & 7, the title song, have more expansive arrangements, not grandiose but substantial, played live they should be a little more raucous, both rockin’ & rollin’. I expect the more restrained offerings to catch my attention later. Man, I’m pleased to hear this record.

 

Jason Isbell’s music covers rock, country, blues, all that stuff. He served an apprenticeship at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, did time with the Drive-By Truckers, learned his trade. As a singer & a songwriter he is at the top of his game, comparable to Springsteen & Steve Earle when they were hitting that same good spot. These are the only 2 songs from the LP I can find on the Interwebs so here’s Jason & Amanda playing “Live Oak, the one that got away last time. On his 2013 visit to the UK he was playing small venues & I’ve just found out he has a gig in Manchester in January 2016. I’ll get on to that the first thing tomorrow.

 

It Would Make A Great Story If I Ever Could Remember It Right. (Jason Isbell)

It has taken some time for me to get round to “Southeastern” by Jason Isbell. The album was released in June 2013 but you have to be careful with some of this new music. It may seem all shiny, toe-tapping & necessary but…anyone want this Alabama Shakes CD because I will never play it again ? Any road up, the music Jason Isbell made with Drive-By Truckers has been in my collection for a while & still gets played. The 3 other LPs since he left the D-B Ts all have good songs on them. There is a focus & a consistency about the 12 songs on “Southeastern” that definitely makes it a keeper. Here’s one of the noisier ones now.

“Flying Over Water” is one of those grand American  rock anthems like you used to hear on the radio. I love that music but it’s a fine line between the sublime (Springsteen, Steely Dan, Tom Petty) & the ridiculous (Cougar Mellencamp, By Jovi, oh & Springsteen). Jason Isbell respects the traditions. He was raised in Alabama with the twin influences of the Pentecostal church & the Grand Ole Opry. His publishing deal was with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, a wonder of the American music world. Like the generation that forged the Shoals legend he knows the song is the thing. His own generation, Isbell is 36, include some great rock music as part of their roots. “Southeastern” is a traditional, classic American rock record, y’know like The Band used to make, like Neil Young sometimes still makes, like the radio used to play. Nowadays this music is packaged as “Americana”, a hook for a niche market which by definition seems to be looking backwards.

There is a strong narrative to accompany this record after Jason finally arrived in re-hab, got clean, got married &, it seems, has been able to get these experiences into his songs in a mature & assured way. There have always been characters in Isbell’s songs. This time around his own experiences are at the centre of the songs. He has been doing this songwriting thing long enough to do it sensitively & properly. Perhaps I’m being a little cold here but a reformed junkie’s story can be wearisome, self-regarding…a bleat. If all you have going for you is an appetite for getting fucked up & once you stop doing that  all you can talk about is something that you used to do then I’m out of here. I have known people who are lovely, interesting & addicted. John Murry’s record “The Graceless Age” may be considered a masterpiece by some but, sorry, all I hear is a whining ex-baghead.

“Southeastern” has a lot of stories about good times & bad times, times that were both. Man, it’s tough to choose just 2 to post here. The LP sits as a piece & my picks, the earworms, change by the week. “Cover Me Up” has just won the 2014 Americana Awards Song of the Year so that may cross your path. “Elephant” is strong stuff, for adults only I guess. “Different Days” is my current squeeze, it reminds me of Little Feat’s “Willing”, a song strong enough to get the wider hearing it deserved. This time around it’s not “weed, whites & wine” but Benzodiazepine, different days indeed.

Jason Isbell wrote some of my favourite songs by the Drive-By Truckers. There’s the title track of “Decoration Day”, 4 songs on “The Dirty South”, only 2 on the follow up. The D-B T’s were getting mighty crowded with 3 very talented songwriters, one of them a little wasted & not married to the bass player any more. “Danko/Manuel”, a tune inspired by & paying respect to, a couple of the great talents who were playing in The Band, is a lovely thing, a true modern American Classic written & performed by a guy who gets it. Those college graduate bands posing as backwoods beardies just don’t get near. “Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold ?”

So that’s a Wow ! The most important thing is that Jason continues to walk the walk & keep himself together. As you can see in the clip, his new wife, the lovely & talented Amanda Shires, seems a damn good reason for a good man to keep on his chosen path. The Americana Awards made him Artist of the Year too. He has a great back catalogue of songs & an outstanding LP. The last time this music came to the UK the gigs were in lovely grimy rock bars like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow & The Garage up in Islington, North London, very small places.

The canon for American rock was written in stone some 20 years ago or longer. Steve Earle had to make a lot of good music before he got there, Ryan Adams almost made it, let’s hope that Wilco did. Jason Isbell is that good & it would be a pity if his music is not more widely heard. “Southeastern” has covered a particular, significant period in his life. Next time around he needs to step away from the that was then but…he doesn’t need telling, the man knows what he’s doing.