Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Celtic Soul

Soul music is not just by black people for black people.Obviously. Though you'd be forgiven for thinking so by the lazy shorthand people use these days. The number of times one hears Louis Walsh saying "Your voice is really soulful" to some contestant destined for 7th place in the X-Factor when Louis Walsh wouldn't know soul from westlife, and all he's actually, patronisingly, saying is "I notice you're black".

What is soul music? Well, in Kenya, I remember my friend Job telling me he was a fan of soul music, and when I asked who, he said Erasure, so you know, it's different things to different people.

The kind of soul music I'm going to talk about is the kind that Louis Walsh ought to be well versed in, being as how he's Oirish and all that, it's a disappointingly small subgenre beloved of a knowing few called Celtic Soul.

Now, if I really knew what Celtic Soul was, I'd be well set to write this post. So I thought I'd look it up on wikipedia. But, shock upon shock, it doesn't even have its own wikipedia entry. Dear oh dear. Put in "Celtic Soul" and the closest you'll come is 'Celtic Soul Brothers', the first song on Dexys Midnight Runners' classic album 'Too-Ry-Ay' ... which is a good start as to what Celtic Soul is. Well, not a start, you start with Van Morrison and move to Dexys Midnight Runners, go a little sideways to the Proclaimers and maybe take in the Waterboys too. And what else? Emeli Sande? Glasvegas? Eek.

The inclusion of Proclaimers is helpful, though, because that ties into the other side of how I conceptualise Celtic Soul, which is hinted at (but not dealt with as wholly as I thought it might be) in the book and film 'The Commitments'. A lush film. A film about an Irish soul band, as a expression of their Irish working class roots.
The famous quote goes "Do you not get it lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.  So say it once and say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."
Though the Commitments pointedly play American soul music, Motown, Stax, Atlantic etc, and paved the way for any number of student bands, wedding bands and karaoke singers belting out 'Mustang Sally'.
Ironically, it's a wedding scene in The Commitments which sees the singer Declan drunkenly belting out 'Letter from America' by the Proclaimers. Jimmy Rabbitte notes "that eejit's singing something approximating music".
Dexys and the Proclaimers toured together - truly some kind of Celtic Soul Brothers.
And Dexys covered Van Morrison's Jackie Wilson Said, and that's the very crux of this Celtic Soul Music.

I happened to see Dexys and Van Morrison both playing on the same day this summer. Very enjoyable, particularly Van Morrison, who certainly belied his reputation by playing the hits and even giving some banter (though the banter did involve his critics being hung, drawn and quartered).

Anyway, I wish there was more pointedly Celtic soul - there is lots of soulful Celtic music, lots of Irish troubadours bearing their souls and Scottish indie stars crooning to tug the heartstrings.
So, using a fairly broad definition, here's a Celtic soul compilation for the ages:

 The Way Young Lovers Do - Van Morrison
Jackie Wilson Said - Van Morrison
Jackie Wilson Said - Dexys Midnight Runners
Geno - Dexys Midnight Runners
Letter from America - The Proclaimers
The Whole of the Moon - The Waterboys
Galileo - Declan O'Rourke
Falling Slowly - Glen Hansard
There's Too Much Love - Belle and Sebastian
A Girl Like You - Edwyn Collins
I Want To Be a Christian- The Proclaimers
I Couldn't Help If I Tried - Dexys Midnight Runners
Into the Mystic - Van Morrison

Friday, 5 October 2012

It's Not the Singer, It's the Song

The above title is a line from The Walkmen song 'Heartbreaker' (though admittedly it's a phrase you'll hear versions of all over the place). Which is ironic, because with The Walkmen, it's, more than most top bands, very much the singer.

Nevertheless, it's a sentiment which probably does guide my view of popular music, that the singer is always in the service of the song, rather than vice versa.

That's why 'The X-Factor' etc will always get it wrong and be unsatisfactory and empty for me, for all its occasional delights - the contestants are always encouraged to see the song as a vehicle for their talents, so they happily wreak all kind of self-indulgent havoc on standards (ancient and modern), never giving the slightest impression they understand the words, rather than just singing them.

Still, there are singers, singers who make a difference, for good or bad, and sometimes they probably have more of an effect on us than we realise.

I did a list on facebook about five years ago of my favourite and least favourite singers. It's a bit mean to talk about least favourite singers, but there are definitely singers who, though they may be popular with others, are a barrier to my enjoyment of a band - I'd include Mick Jagger in that, though I do enjoy his voice and love the Rolling Stones, it is pretty distracting on certain songs. But you know, Bono, Anthony Kiedis, Brandon Flowers, Simon Le Bon, Jarvis Cocker actually, Ian Curtis, Chris Martin - these are all singers who stand in the way of my not disliking their bands. Particularly as they're voices other people seem to like a lot.
I don't know that there are obvious types of voices I like - I don't mind a bit of polish, I sometimes like a baritone, men, women, all fine, sometimes a falsetto, sometimes a show-off, sometimes someone who keeps it simple. It's entirely personal of course who you think makes a nice noise - I always hated Celine Dion's voice for example, found it unlistenable, whereas Whitney Houston's I thought was pretty great - I just thought a lot of the songs a bit naff.
Anyhow, my favourite voice of recent years is definitely the lead singer of The Walkmen, Hamilton Leithauser - I've watched the Walkmen play early evening at a lot of fairly disinterested festivals and seen the kind of effect he has  - people go crazy for single notes he sings. He's not a show-off, he's a straightforward rock singer but, for me, he's got it all.
My favourite of all time is probably, rather boringly Jeff Buckley - he may be a bit much for some people, but honestly, has there ever been anything like it? Hear him singing Grace live, it's from another planet, possessed and beyond belief. And he could sing anything.
My other favourites are Marvin Gaye, Shelby Lynne, Bob Dylan, Karen Carpenter, Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), The Wilsons, Sandy Denny, Jenny Lewis, James Yorkston, Diana Ross (funnily enough), John Grant, Nick Drake, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Emmylou Harris, Andy Williams, Guy Garvey, Kurt Wagner, Laura Marling, Paul Westerberg, Ryan Adams, I could go on I suppose, but those twenty i think have voices which really elevate what they do and get into the very heart of me - they're top of their fields i suppose.
And a double album, highlighting these vocal talents

What's Going On - Marvin Gaye
You Don't Have to Syy You Love Me - Shelby Lynne
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right - Bob Dylan
Trying To Get The Feeling Again - The Carpenters
Is There a Ghost - Band of Horses
God Only Knows - The Beach Boys
Who Know Where The Time Goes - Fairport Convention
I Never - Rilo Kiley
When the Haar Rolls In - James Yorkston
Love Child - The Supremes
Queen of Denmark - John Grant
Things Behind the Sun - Nick Drake
Mahgeetah - My Morning Jacket
Boulder to Birmingham - Emmylou Harris
The Impossible Dream - Andy Williams
Lippy Kids - Elbow
Grumpus - Lambchop
Sophia - Laura Marling
Baby Learns to Crawl - Paul Westerberg
Avalanche - Ryan Adams