Tuesday, 19 March 2013

One Day Like This

One Day Like This - Elbow

Sport and music do mix, though sometimes not quite in the way that people like me who love both things to the core of their being would like. I've despaired at the number of utterly admirable athletes who have been asked their playlist/inspirational music and said the key to their magnificent gold-medal winning performance was either 'Eye of the Tiger' or ''You Raise Me Up'. Just as one will tend to discover sportspeople's political beliefs, such as they are, usually veer in the direction you'd hope they wouldn't, and when you think about it, that's entirely logical, so it is with their musical taste. You might get the odd Leighton Baines or Pat Nevin, kings of footballing indie cool, but generally, let's keep it uplifting, let's keep it inspirational, shall we?

So you want uplifting, inspirational? Elbow seem to be the band. Elbow seem to be a sports band, initially through thousands of sporting montages (I mean thousands ... I watch A LOT of sport, and I know), and latterly through their coronation as "band of the people" in 2012, when they performed two songs at the Olympic Opening Ceremony and composed the BBC's Olympic theme song.

And it was 'One Day Like This' that made it so - the second last song on their Mercury-winning 2008 album 'The Seldom Seen Kid' - this big, positive anthemic hymn of a song, which drew so many hundreds of thousands of people to Elbow that I'm sure they couldn't give a monkeys that its grandiosity and obviousness and Coldplavity put it beyond the pale for a small enclave of music fans.

Well, I like it. I still like it. I've always liked Elbow. Ironically, when I first heard them in 2000/2001, being mentioned in the same breath as Coldplay, I was turned off them a little because they weren't anthemic/obvious enough. 'Any Day Now' was, I think, their first song to get radio play, and it seemed oddly static, oddly menacing, not warm and soaring. So I wasn't entirely sure about them at the start, though it didn't take me too long to be won over - there were several fine songs on that first Mercury-nominated album, my favourite being 'Scattered Black and Whites'.

Indeed, some people (i.e. me) might say that they haven't really topped that first album. Equally, the same people (yes, that's me) would say that none of their albums are much worse than it either. I'd say that may be the very thing about Elbow - startling consistency. All of their albums are very, very good, but perhaps none of them stand out as absolute classics. The fact that it's 'Seldom Seen Kid' that has the Mercury Prize is pure twist of fate, I think.

Consistency is not be sniffed at (watch me not mention Ryan Giggs now, though how many Ryan Giggs compilations do you think there are on youtube soundtracked by 'One Day Like This'). Elbow work painstakingly over each album and have as yet not failed to produce the goods. And they are not, altogether not, a band to be defined by the huge sentiment of 'One Day Like This'.

I've seen them close a festival set to 20,000ish people with 'One Day Like This' and it certainly is a song for huge crowds - that's its point. And I suppose what might be objected to about it. This wasn't Elbow's first "big crowd" song. 'Grace Under Pressure' from their second album 'Cast of Thousands' involves a recording of their Glastonbury crowd singing "We still believe in love, so fuck you" and perhaps this was the germ of 'One Day Like This', how Elbow became a BIG band - festivals give bands who oughtn't really be playing for vast numbers the opportunity to do so, and why then, shouldn't they harness and embrace that power? There isn't that much great popular music which is actually best served by being played to tens of thousands (just ask the Beatles) but since some bands do end up playing to that many, shouldn't they develop their style so that it works for those kind of numbers (just ask the Rolling Stones). Surely this is U2's only conceivable excuse.

So, Elbow wrote a big song, and it got as big as they hoped. And since then they've written one or two more big songs, but, you know, not that many. 'One Day Like This' lacks what a lot of other Elbow songs have - whether its space, sharpness or surprise. If you know Elbow's back catalogue, you know that they have a lot more of those things than you might think.

Elbow have a few secret, or not at all secret weapons 1. they're a really good band. They've been playing together for about 20 years. They're as expert in the studio as on stage 2. Guy Garvey has a really nice voice. Doesn't he? 3. Guy Garvey writes really good lyrics. I think so. He constructs some lovely lines. He's spare and subtle usually. 'One Day Like This' is not typical. 4. Guy Garvey has an endearing personality which has made him an alternative personality and heartthrob. Good for him. So, Elbow have got rather massive, but impressively, the album that followed 'The Seldom Seen Kid', 'Build a Rocket Boys' in no way stepped up the anthem factor, indeed was probably sparer and quieter in general.

I thought I'd do a little Elbow playlist to lure you in, though actually they're so consistent, that picking ten standouts was rather tricky.

Scattered Black and Whites
Lippy Kids

Asleep in the Back
Switching Off
Fugitive Motel

Leaders of the Free World
The Everthere

I might go for that if it was just 10, though there are at least another 10. I've tended towards the quieter, sadder songs. If you really want a standout, try 'Switching Off', which John Cale named as one of his Desert Island Discs.

So, Elbow, they've become a sport band, but if any band is to be played over montages to inspire us to deeds of derring-do, I'd rather it was this bunch of sensitive skilled souls than plenty others I can think of.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

In California

In California - Joanna Newsom
News just in that Joanna Newsom is engaged to her long term boyfriend Andy Samberg. Andy Samberg has also done quite a few songs I've enjoyed enormously. Here are a couple of them.

Jack Sparrow

Dick in a Box

So, a somewhat different style from his paramour, but not without merit. If you're a fan of the show 'Girls' you'll have noticed that another member of Samberg's comedy singing troupe The Lonely Island plays the tremendously named Booth Jonathan in the show.

All that being so, it's quite possible that Samberg (who also starred in the quite amusing BBC3 sitcom 'Cuckoo' with Greg Davies) is part of the inspiration for this song, because although an awful lot of Joanna Newsom's songs are story songs without much of a hint of autiobiography, this monumentally beautiful song has a tinge of truth about it.

Monumentally, you say? That's a big word. But yes, this song is a monument to the concept of beauty in music, and yes I have taken into account the fact that Joanna Newsom has a funny, squeaky voice.

That was also a hindrance to my enjoyment of her work for some time. I did not get the first album, and was having none of it - "Svetlana sucks lemons", this sucks ass, i thought.

But a couple of very positive reviews of her second album 'Ys' (which also said that her voice had got less squeaky, which was somewhat true) and then a freebie CD which contained 'Cosmia', persuaded me to purchase it, and I was partly converted. Even more so when I saw her live at ATP - that same festival where I saw Nick Cave walking along staring at the birds, I saw Newsom a couple of times, and thought it really quite mesmerically tremendous. I mean, the harp is a cool instrument.

'Ys' is really a fine, fine album, orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks, with the most fabulous arrangements on just the five long, long songs. You can tell that every word, every syllable has been pored over - it's rich and magical and really unlike anything you've heard before. My favourite song from that album is Emily but all five are little masterpieces in their own right.

Whether you prefer 'Ys' to its follow-up 'Have One on Me' is a question of what you're after. 'Have One On Me' is enormous - 18 tracks to Ys's 5, looser, less ornate, more varied, still with a few monster magna opera, but with a few more that could almost be considered pop songs.

I prefer 'Have One On Me'. Indeed, I went through a good year or two preferring Have One On Me to everything else there had ever been in music. Rather like Jacques Kallis has done in cricket in recent years, I felt 'Have One on Me' built up an indisputable weight of evidence for being considered the greatest album of all time. I really feel it's at a level of ambition and artistry which popular music has not seen before. And why do I prefer it to 'Ys'? Well, it's got soul. It sounds not like a precocious genius at the height of her inventive talent (like Ys), but like a genius at the height of her inventive talent who's lived a little, and wants to show it.

And 'In California' is the height of that. iTunes records that I have listened to it 101 times all the way through, which, considering it is 8 minutes and 44 seconds long, is a fair bit of time devoted to one song (especially since most of those listens were probably in a six-month period).

And yet I'm still not that much nearer the heart of it. I'm not a musician or a songwriter but, let's be honest, most songs aren't that difficult to understand how they've come about, even fabulous songs, even initially complex songs. Chords, tunes, words, piecing bits together, playing together, this and that, I kind of get it.

But I can't conceive of how Joanna Newsom came up with 'In California', where she started, whether she had the overall structure first, or whether there were a few lines here and there - it seems like an immense mystery. It actually gives me a little idea of why some people prefer classical music (though I'll always be a pop music man) - to have something which you know you'll forever be hearing new things in, which you'll never tire of. That's 'In California' for me.

It is possible to compare Joanna Newsom to Joni Mitchell, though they don't necessarily sound all that much alike, and one imagines Mitchell's best songs will always appeal more immediately (and she is, obviously, a much better singer), and this song, almost alone among Newsom songs, has the intimacy and rawness of the songs on 'Blue'.
Of course, one of the great songs on 'Blue' is 'California' so those are two very nice songs to listen to back to back. Searching for something to say about that has led me to this rather tremendous pitchfork review, which makes a lot of the points I've been trying to make about 'Have One On Me' but rather better. But so be it, I provided you with a link to 'Dick in a Box', so i win.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Heat Wave

Heat Wave - Martha and the Vandellas

Martha and the Vandellas were probably Motown's second biggest girl group behind the Supremes. There's a big difference between biggest and second biggest, which means Martha Reeves occasionally turns up to play gigs in places like Hull or at small London clubs, while Diana Ross is in the rarefied atmosphere of megastardom which means you probably can't even discuss getting her to do a gig for the money that Martha Reeves would do a whole tour for.

Don't get me wrong, I've come to fully understand the greatness of the Supremes and Diana Ross, having been quite sniffy for a long time - if they got, for the most part, the best of the great Motown production line, so be it.

But I don't think there's a better Motown song than 'Heat Wave', one of the great encapsulations of ecstacy and uncontrollable romance in the history of pop music, almost exactly 50 years old. Reeves had a wonderful voice, girlish, yet strong and bell-clear - in later years, it has had an odd tendency to shrillness whenever I've seen her on telly (I tried to get tickets to see her at the Jazz Cafe once but they were sold out). This song brings out the best in that voice but also makes great use of the other Vandellas, especially the brilliant call and response section at the end where she sings "yeah yeah" and they sing "go ahead girl", egging her on to follow her heart.

It's a full-on classic, though not quite a universal standard like 'Baby Love' or 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' - it's also lent itself very well to various covers, including The Who and a blistering version by The Jam. The Jam's love for Motown was barely concealed, to the extent that many people would wrongly say that 'A Town Called Malice' was stolen from 'You Can't Hurry Love'. Not the case. It was in fact a direct steal from a Martha and the Vandellas song called I'm Ready For Love.

I suppose the difference between Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes is roughly the difference between TLC and Destiny's Child, between stardom and megastardom. As well as 'Heat Wave' there's 'Jimmy Mack', 'Nowhere to Run' and 'Dancing in the Street' - a nice collection of classics, and a place beloved of afficionados.

Martha Reeves seems to be delightful character, ebullient and funny in interview, and even served as councilwoman in Detroit recently, which you can't imagine Diana Ross doing. My main thought about 'Heat Wave' is getting very excited about hearing it out and about a few times, and then dancing woefully badly, even by my own woeful standards, to it, as if. fittingly, I suppose, overexcited.