Music Writing

This is where I post about music: concert reviews, album reviews, and anything where I feel I have something to say.

There are a few things worth noting. One is that I embarked on a project to write about this history and music of Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter. You can find an index to this work on a separate page here; it is also referenced in a post below.

You will also find a fair amount of content on David Bowie and Bob Dylan, two other enthusiasms of mine

Bowie’s sublime blackstar: why you should buy the vinyl

I was broken-hearted when David Bowie died in January; but grateful that he left us with one of his finest works, the album called Blackstar or possibly just ★.

I had pre-ordered the CD but soon realised that I would have to get the vinyl. The cover design is different. The CD has a black star on a white background.

blackstar-cd

The vinyl on the other hand has a black cover with a cut-out opening onto the black vinyl inside.

blackstar-vinyl

The cutout hole is like a wound, no coincidence. The fragmented star symbols below spell Bowie. Great work from designer Jonathan Barnbrook.

As a piece of art it is beautiful and powerful, as an album cover it is highly impractical. The cutout star shape is easily bent when you shelve the record, and the transparent plastic inner sleeve is not ideal for protecting the vinyl.

I have even heard it suggested that this is deliberate, the fragility of the package echoing the fragility of life.

In addition there have been quality control issues. Some reissues have a horrible soft PVC inner sleeve that clings to the vinyl and seems to damage it, causing swooshing noises. Others are just rather noisy. You are doing well to get one that plays perfectly on both sides.

I am on my second copy and it is not perfect, but what I found most surprising was how much better it sounds than the CD.

Play Lazarus: the vocals are more real, the bass more dramatic, the wind instruments more sonorous and eerie.

I am curious about such things, and made a 24/96 digital copy of the track. It still sounds better than the CD, though something is lost in the copy. One reason – probably the main reason – is that the CD is “brickwalled”, that is, compressed for maximum loudness at the expense of dynamic range. Here is the view of the Lazarus track on CD in Adobe’s Audition CC:

image

And here is the vinyl:

image

That CD waveform is tragic; all the wide dynamic range of which CD is capable wasted for no good reason.

The vinyl is better in part for technical reasons; you cannot max out vinyl in the same way.

It is also intriguing to see frequencies above 30K in the vinyl (not that you can hear them).

Still, the bottom line is that it does sound better, especially if you hear the vinyl directly.

Recommended, despite the fragility and imperfection of the medium.

Products from Amazon.co.uk

David Bowie, star man

In January 1972 I started at a new school. I had enjoyed pop music on the radio but it was here that I gradually became aware of things called albums, records with other-worldly sleeves and amazing propulsive music. I wanted them.

It look a while to get a record player of my own so I started with cassettes – taping everything I could find.

In April 1972 a single was released, Starman by David Bowie. It was catchy, it was extraterrestial, it was about listening to the radio at night (just like I used to do), it was about letting the children boogie, I loved it.

Moving on to the Ziggy Stardust album, Bowie became special to me. Looking back I am sure it was because I felt a bit of a misfit and Bowie’s music and image was about acceptance and celebration of oddness, as well as exploring sexuality in ways that were appealing and mysterious to innocent young things like myself.

I kept the faith through Bowie’s ch-ch-changes, Ziggy Stardust’s retirement, the fractured world of Diamond Dogs, the strangely downbeat David Live, the funk of Young Americans, train noises and Earl Slick’s frantic guitar on Station to Station, sombre electronica on Low, and then the unforgettable “Heroes”, love in the shadow of the Berlin wall.

Bowie had his difficult middle period for sure, but was always interesting. He was an actor as much as a musician and one of the acts he performed was himself; with Bowie the difference blurs.

His work shows a deep interest in what it means to be human; he’s content that the madmen “are just as sane as me” (with all the ambiguity that implies), his writing on outer space is also about inner space because if you imagine yourself “out there” you have nothing but yourself for company.

Bowie had huge artistic courage. I much regret not seeing his 1995 “Outside” tour when apparently some audience members walked out because he focused on his dark new material and not greatest hits.

That said, I was fortunate to see Bowie in concert on several occasions, starting with Earls Court in 1978, and including Milton Keynes Bowl 1983 and (most memorably) Nottingham’s Rock City in August 1997.

image
Some Bowie memorabilia from my attic

This last was the closest I got to the man, playing in a small 1,500 capacity club venue and standing fairly close to the stage. He performed a long set with many of my favourites, the darker side of Bowie, starting with Quicksand from Hunky Dory “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought” and including I’m Afraid of Americans, Fashion, Fame, Under Pressure, White Light White Heat, and much of Outside.

Late period Bowie is more of an acquired taste than his early years but rewarding. I found The Next Day in 2013 moving and when he sang “Where are we now” of course I was transported back to my schooldays and asking the same question of myself.

Bowie was reclusive in his later years, especially after being injured on tour in 2004, and lived quietly in New York.

Today’s news brought the news of his death, “after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer” according to his son Duncan.

This means that he composed his just-released album Blackstar in full knowledge of his illness and perhaps anticipating departure.

The song Lazarus, accompanied by a New York musical of the same name, seems particuarly to the point.

“Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?”

Other lyrics on the album have new significance today, like these from Dollar Days:

“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet, it’s nothing to see
I’m trying to
I’m dying too”

Bowie made his ending an artistic moment and one that is not without hope – Lazarus rose again after all – but also, like all his best work, full of ambiguity.

image

Thank you David Bowie.

Unfaithful music & Disappearing ink by Elvis Costello

unfaithful music

I still remember my first encounter with Elvis Costello’s music. It was the John Peel show on the radio of course, the song was Less than Zero, and I found it captivating: distinctive voice, catchy melody, and above all words that were evocative, mysterious and vaguely menacing even though I didn’t fully understand them. I snapped up the album My Aim is True when it was released a few months later and have been a fan ever since, following the twists and turns of his career from punk rock to R&B to country to collaborations with jazz, classical and hip-hop musicians.

Costello is an amazing wordsmith and songs pour out of him, such that many of his B sides and outtakes are more than equal to the best work of many others, a characteristic he shares only I think with Bob Dylan – who makes a regular appearance here as they encounter each other and end up performing together on a number of occasions.

Now this is his book, 36 chapters (plus postscript) and approaching 700 pages. It is an excellent read, presuming you have some time for the man or an interest in the music scene of the last forty or so years. Writing in short pithy paragraphs (just as you would expect) Costello tells the story of his life, his bands, his writing, his father Ross MacManus who was also a singer, girls girls girls, and along the way recounts many entertaining and often alcoholic incidents of life on the road.

The rhythm of the book is somewhat staccato and the sequence of events is only loosely chronological – that is, there is more about his earlier years in the first half of the book, and more about his later years in the second, but he constantly jumps back in forth in time making literary counterpoints. His habit of ending an anecdote just when you thought it was getting going can be annoying; but he is never dull.

It would be an interesting exercise to rearrange, or attempt to rearrange, the book into chronological order, but I don’t fancy doing it with my printed copy.

There are black and white photos interspersed throughout the book; they don’t look great partly because they are printed on paper designed for text. In addition they have no captions. A shame.

Costello writes a lot about his father, and in some ways the book is a tribute to him. He writes of his statement a couple of years ago that he would give up making records, which at the time he said was about spending more time with his children. “The real reason was that I needed time to imagine how I could bear to write songs and not be able to play them for my father. Watching him listen to music was irreplaceable to me,” he says. Such passages are where Costello shows most emotion.

One good reason to read the book is for insight into Costello’s songwriting. Some songs are described in detail, often including how they were influenced by or borrow from existing music, and how the words came together. One of my favourite passages (since I am a fan of both) is a conversation with Dylan:

“One night Bob Dylan said to me: ‘U2! How could they do that to you? How could they take your song like that!

“It took me a moment to know what he was talking about, and a moment more to realize that he was putting me on. But then, U2’s ‘Get on your boots’ was probably to ‘Pump it up’ what ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is to Chuck Berry’s ‘Too much monkey business’.”

Costello is a performer and the book is in a way a performance; I wish it were less so, but perhaps if so it would be less entertaining.

There is a sharp side to Costello which occasionally goes too far. He writes of early days with Stiff (the independent record label responsible for his first releases) and the threat of being paired with another singer, “a horrible little git called Eric, who’d stumbled into the office with a single decent song.” Did he have to say that?

One thing which comes over powerfully though is his love of music and absolute belief in its importance. Of music he says, “There is no superior. There is no high and low. The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to choose, you can love it all. Those songs are there to help you when you need them most.”

That in the end is the great thing about Unfaithful Music and disappearing Ink; it will inspire you to go back to the music, both from Costello and from others, and perhaps even to go beyond your comfort zone and explore some artists you may have missed or dismissed. He did.

This is among the most enjoyable music books I have read; recommended.

Shadows in the night by Bob dylan

shadows in the night

Dylan is a man of many moods. If you are looking for Dylan the folk singer, Dylan the prophet, Dylan the protestor, or the electric Dylan of Highway 61 revisited, you may not find this album to your taste. Instead, we are transported to the fifties, Frank Sinatra and the pensive small hours of the morning. Dylan is soulful and languid, singing standards from another era, songs of autumn, songs of night. The music is melodic, slow and recessed; the mood is reflective, the voice is tour-weary but tuneful (for Dylan) and articulate; Dylan has taken a lot of care with this album, nothing is thrown away, nothing breaks the mood, and the lyrics are full of meaning; even though others wrote them down, he makes them his own.

These are the songs of a man who has been everywhere, done everything, and has nothing left to prove. It feels like he is singing for himself and allowing us the privilege of listening in. Sometimes he is confessional; “I know I have sinned, I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,” he sings in Stay with Me; and “Show me that river, take me across and wash all my troubles away” in a magnificent performance of Lucky old Sun at the close. These are songs of yearning; “if my one wish comes true, my empty arms will be filled with you” he croons in Full Moon and Empty Arms.

As a Dylan fan of many years, and one lucky enough to have seen him perform on many occasions, I love the album. It is different but not different; as ever, he follows his artistic instinct, never mind what others think. “Let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown …. don’t you remember I was always your clown, why try to change me now?” he sings.

Thank you Bob for giving us an enchanted evening.

Ian Hunter and the Rant band at the Stables, 30 Sept 2014

The Stables is a delightful small venue near Milton Keynes, and when I saw that Ian Hunter was due to play there with his Rant Band I grabbed one of the last remaining tickets.

image

He came on shortly after 9pm, following an energetic set from support act Federal Charm, and told us in a croaky voice that he wasn’t feeling too good. In that case he is a true star (he is anyway) since he went on to give a great performance; his voice was a little gruff at times, but hear him belt out Sweet Jane and you discover that he has no problem delivering powerful vocals when it counts.

I am a fan: I loved Mott the Hoople from the first time I heard them (it was the cover of At the Crossroads on the famous Island compilation Nice Enough to Eat); and both with Mott and on his work since, Ian Hunter is able to achieve a musical texture that is rich and evocative, as well as being able to rock out on occasion.

Hunter is a great songwriter too, coming over as an honest and thoughtful voice in an industry full of decadence and plastic.

I enjoyed every minute of the concert, even though I felt that Hunter’s voice was mixed too quiet and that the sound overall could have been better. I have not seen him perform since Hunter/Ronson days; it has been far too long.

Highlights for me included When I’m President (a more recent song), Irene Wilde performed from the keyboard, a powerful rendition of Bastard, All American Alien Boy with its sharp reflections on life in the US of A, Once Bitten Twice Shy of course, Sweet Jane and the closing medley including All the Young Dudes, I Wish I was your Mother, and a strong performance of Boy. “Genocidal tendencies are silly to extremes” – I wasn’t expecting to hear Boy (my hunch is that the lyric refers to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs) but it was great.

Thank you Ian for keeping on keeping on; it was a wonderful evening.

Kraftwerk at Tate Modern, London. Computer world. 11 February 2013

Yesterday I journeyed to London to hear Kraftwerk perform Computer World at the Tate Modern.

A cold night, and I was glad to reach the warmth of the Tate Modern. We picked up our green armbands, and 3D spectacles, were instructed that no re-admittance was possible, and move on into the concert foyer where vaguely Germanic sausages, bread, chips and mustard was on sale, along with cans of flavourless beer.

It feels like a lot of attention has been paid to the total experience. The 3D glasses are packed in an envelope specific for the evening. The programme is only a sheet of A4, but it is informative and intriguing.

“A vision of bright hopes and dark fears of the booming microchip revolution, Computer World is a serenely beautiful and almost seamless collage of sensual melodies and liquid beatscapes,” it says.

image

We move on into the concert space. Black pillows are handed out; essential if you plan to sit on the cold concrete floor. The hall is not huge, but it is exceptionally high. It is a relatively small crowd, and not entirely composed of middle-aged men as you might expect. The iPad-using guy next to us is 29, he says.

The concert starts at 9.00pm sharp. Everyone stands; forget the pillows then. Four men stand behind desks and barely move; the sounds of Numbers fill the hall, and 3D images pass across the screen.

image

The images are integral to the show. The effect is more that of an animated slideshow than a film, with many loops and repeats. The images are iconic; watching the show is like walking round an art gallery, with one carefully composed image following another.

Lead man and co-founder Ralf Hütter is on the left and does vocals; I am not sure you can call it singing. What are the others doing? Are they playing real or virtual keyboards? Running programs? Tapping out percussion? It is all part of the mystery.

image

Next it is Pocket Calculator. I love this song. “I am adding. And subtracting.” it says. It is about delight in technology. It is about doing things that would otherwise be impossible. It is about dehumanisation, no more pen and ink, columns of numbers, mistakes and crossings out, but just a few keys to press.

image

We no longer have pocket calculators so the whole thing is decidedly retro. Can you be simultaneously retro and futuristic? Apparently you can. The main car in Autobahn is a VW Beetle.

Autobahn as it happens comes rather quickly, after around 23 minutes according to my watch. That’s odd, since Computer World the album is over 34 minutes.

We did not get the whole of Computer World and I want my money back.

Well, maybe not. The concert was stunning and I would not have missed it for anything. But I was surprised.

image

Autobahn seemed to go on endlessly, which is as it should be of course. Then the VW took the exit slip and it was over.

Radioactivity. This song has been updated and now features Fukushima alongside other nuclear incidents like Chernobyl.

image

This is a disturbing song. “Radioactivity is in the air for you and me … contaminated population” The jolly melody is at odds with the subject matter, but it works; does it represent the PR machine?

image

Trans Europe Express. The train song is perfect for Kraftwerk. The train rushes towards us. Travel. Communication. Engineering. Cold steel. Kraftwerk.

image

Two songs which are particularly striking live are The Robots and the Man Machine. The Robots come first.  This is where the band performing in front of the visuals works so well. What is more true, that the robots are human-like, or that the band is robot-like?

image

Are we, in fact, machines ourselves, making the whole question moot?

image

image

I have skipped over a few, songs in fact which touch on the more human side of Kraftwerk’s art. After Space Lab, The Model is performed to a backdrop of black and white glamour girls, retro, unreachable.

image

Neon Lights is a short, refreshing interlude. The melody is stark and beautiful. If Hutter ever sings, he sings here.

image

A note on the sound quality. In general, good, and not ear-splittingly loud for which I am grateful. It did get louder as the concert progressed, and I felt there were times when it distorted; but improved again towards the end.

There was true chest-shaking bass at times, something you had to be there to feel.

Tour de France is rather good. We see human endeavour, more black and white footage for the retro feel, and followed by Vitamins, making a point perhaps.

image

Vitamins give rise to some strange 3D effects. Giant pills seem to float out over the audience, but as they fall, they fall behind the band, breaking the illusion.

image

The Techno Pop section is the last in the concert. There is Boom Book Tschak, and another song I think, then Musique Non Stop, just as the concert is in fact stopping. The musicians leave the stage one by one, until only Hutter is left.

image

He moves to the right of the stage, he bows, “See you tomorrow”. Unfortunately I will not. Then he is gone.

No encore. It is not the Kraftwerk way.

That was Kraftwerk. Repetitive, yes. Perplexing, yes. Beautiful, yes. Unique, yes.

Everything is ambiguous. Perhaps we are participating in an elaborate joke. It does not matter. Wonderful.

Setlist

Numbers
Pocket Calculator
Computer Love
It’s more fun to compute
Autobahn
Radioactivity
Trans Europe Express
The Robots
Spacelab
Metropolis
The Model
Neon Lights
Man Machine
Tour de France
Vitamin
Planet of Visions
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non Stop

Review: Nina Nesbitt and Owl City at Kings College, London

Yesterday I went along to Tutu’s, a club which is part of Kings College Student Union in London, to hear Nina Nesbitt and Owl City.

The venue was mostly great, top floor overlooking the Thames, friendly atmosphere, docked a point for terrible beer (no bitter whatsoever, let along draught). It was packed: Adam Young’s Owl City may get terrible reviews from the likes of NME, but he strikes a chord with many dedicated fans.

First up however was beautiful Scottish singer/guitarist Nina Nesbitt, who has just announced her own headlining UK tour. She has great stage presence and won over the audience with her passion, melody, strong percussive guitar and engaging personality. Highlights were the forthcoming single Boy, an earlier song called Glue, and by request an energetic cover of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers. She closed with The Apple Tree from her EP of the same name. She thanked the audience for listening to her – in other words, not talking loudly and heading for the bar – saying it was a rare experience, but if she keeps up this quality she will have no problem keeping attention. One to watch.

image

At around 9.00pm Owl City came on to perform the last date of their 2012 summer tour. The opening was stunning: fired-up crowd, opening drums from Steve Goold, and then Young was on singing the opening number, Cave In from the album Ocean Eyes.

image

The sound was not great – I heard some bass distortion from where I was in the gallery – but the power and energy coming from Young, the band, and the enraptured audience was not to be denied. The music was also more muscular than I had expected, benefiting from the backing of a full band which the recordings mostly lack, and a nice counterpoint to the dreamy, introverted songs.

A key song is Umbrella Beach, which was the closing number. Something about exploring inner space. “Home is a boxcar – it’s so far out of reach,” he sings:

Home will always be here unseen, out of sight
Where I disappear and hide
I think dreamy things as I’m waving goodbye
So I’ll spread out my wings and fly

image

at which point Young does a marvellous Owl-like flapping motion with his arms, it sounds daft but we were transported.

I am old enough to remember being searched for cameras and recorders when going to a concert. Things are different now and everyone seemed to be making their own videos with smartphones held high. I even saw someone wielding an Apple iPad to take photographs. 

image

The band was:

  • Jasper Nephew on guitar
  • Steve Goold on drums
  • Daniel Jorgenson on guitar, vibraphone, “he plays everything”
  • Breanne Düren on keyboards and backing vocals

image

Emma Bladon Jones and Troubadour Rose at Bartons Nottingham

Last night I wandered over to Bartons in Nottingham, a newish venue in a converted bus garage – doesn’t sound promising, but it is fantastic, especially when tastefully set out with tables, candles and roses as it was last night for the second of its monthly unplugged events.

image

The musicians were local singer and guitarist Emma Bladon Jones along with the London folk band Troubadour Rose.

image

Bladon Jones was on first and treated us to an excellent set with her clear voice, sensitive songs and inventive guitar work. She played songs from her EP Life is Self Taught, a tender cover of In My Life by the Beatles, and a new song called Iris of War. It all went over well with me. She has a gadget called a loop box which lets her play a few bars and have them repeat live so she can accompany herself; seems risky but worked really well, and those moments where she experimented a bit with the sounds she could get from her guitar were highlights.

Next up was Troubadour Rose: Bryony Afferson (guitar and lead vocals), Lizzy O’Connor (banjo, mandolin and vocals) (and Gary Bridgewood (violin). Apparently the band used to be called something else, but came up with a song called Troubadour Rose (which they performed last night) and liked it well enough to rename themselves accordingly.

image

It is a great song, starting quietly and gathering pace, full of melody and drama, driven by Afferson’s expressive vocals, O’Connor’s sweet harmonies, and Bridgewood’s at times frenetic fiddle.

Other highlights included the two songs from the band’s single, Labour of Love and Find and Arrow, which you can hear on Spotify or iTunes.

A great evening and a shame rather few people turned out to enjoy it; but a treat for those us who discovered it.