Sunday, 25 February 2018

Helen's favourite songs - part one

I imagine that we've all been asked for our top five - or ten - favourite songs at one point or another. It's a fun, twisty little question that allows you to reveal something about yourself by degrees. It's also one that I associate with my younger days, simply because I haven't been asked that question for years. That is, until my friend Helen put it to me this week.

Although we have convergent tastes in the realm of rock 'n' roll and 1960s pop, Helen and I seemingly differ on a whole lot. So, in order to really dig into what tickles each other's vental tegmental areas we swapped our favourite five (soon expanded to ten) songs and agreed to listen to them critically. Now, we all know that ten 'favourite' songs is an impossibility, as environment, mindset and memory all come to bear on making one's choices. Nevertheless, a selection of ten or so well-regarded songs is, in my estimation, more than a glimpse through the window to a person's soul - so without further ado, here are the first five tracks Helen chose, and my commentary.

Smile - Nat King Cole

I was more familiar with this song's backstory - that the music was written by Charlie Chaplin, and it was one of Michael Jackson's favourites - than the tune itself. The first thing to say is that it is the perfect match for Nat King Cole's effortless crooning, his warm, sad voice perfectly matching the bittersweet lyrics. In that sense, 'Smile' is a triumph - the concept being matched exquisitely by its execution.

To modern ears the instrumentation might sound a bit slushy, but to me it evokes a golden age where it was commonplace for three-minute pop to be treated with the utmost care and respect. So strings swell, woodwinds trill and swoon and a drummer brushes away unobtrusively in the back, providing Cole with a lush backdrop for his inimitable baritone. Sumptuous.

You Don't Know Me - Ray Charles

On to the second song of Helen's selection, and there are similarities with 'Smile' inasmuch as it features yet more baroque orchestration, this time with the addition of a mixed-voice choir. An unhurried torch song, 'You Don't Know Me' is distinguished from Cole's song by the vocal delivery. Where Cole's voice, untutored as it was, nevertheless came from the jazz clubs, Charles' vocals went to church (NB: it's never that simple though, is it? Cole's father was a Baptist minister).

As with much of Charles' oeuvre, that standout element of 'You Don't Know Me' is the barely restrained passion in the delivery of the lyrics. Despite being written by outside writers, the way Charles is able to get inside the viscera of the song is a minor marvel in itself.

George On My Mind - Ray Charles

Wow - even better than the other Ray Charles song in this list. It's one of those tracks, like those cut by Brooke Benton, Glenn Campbell and latterly Tony Joe White, that feel so big and widescreen that you're surprised to find it's only three or four minutes long.

That easy roll of the piano, the way he switches moves between major and relative minor keys, the vocals cracking with emotion - let's just say this is how the big boys do it. The string arrangement in 'George On My Mind' is something else too, intricate without being fussy, blossoming in peaks of high emotion one moment, dying down to allow the piano to breathe in the next. Pop music has rarely sounded this sophisticated since.

Runaround Sue - Dion

If your hearing faculuties are fine and you don't like this crackerjack my suspicions are that you don't possess a pulse. It's got all the stuff I like - five fucking chords, saxophone squalling away in the background, backing vocals that take a cue from doo-wop and a guy that knows how to belt it out. Helen called this a 'slut-shaming classic' half-jokingly, and I imagine if it were released today there'd be an article on within five minutes decrying it as 'problematic'.

I don't care. Songs like 'Runaround Sue' form one of the main arterial routes away from the beating heart of rock 'n' roll; the smoother, citified version hustled away from its southron birthplace by a bunch of inner-city punk Italian kids. It's an absolute gas. The opening lines speak of a story "sad but true", but nothing sounds further from the truth, given the sheer, giddy ecstasy of its delivery. 'Runaround Sue' is scintillating. 

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - Neil Sedaka

Oh, I know this one! Yeah, this is cool. 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do' adheres to a template for a certain kind of song produced during this era - speed it up and there's 'The Night Has a Thousand Eyes' by Bobby Vee, slow it down and beef up the strings and there's Gene Pitney's 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart'. Like 'Runaround Sue', 'Breaking Up...' glories in a doo-wop schooled backing vocal that's every bit as irresistible as it is moronic. The handclaps that accentuate the rhythm are delicious, and herald the latter-day self-conscious bubblegum of a song like 'Sugar, Sugar' by the Archies.

For all the crushing heaviness of Electric Wizard or Sleep, I'm never not going to be a sucker for the unadulterated head-rush of 1960s pop music. I can see why 'Breaking Up...' would be on a list of favourites - it does nothing particularly brilliantly, and does it brilliantly. There's a strange kind of virtuosity in turning out a song so simple and yet so addictive. If this is the musical equivalent of junk food, I want to gorge until I get a coronary.

Well, that's the first five! I'll probably do another album review or two before I tackle the second half of Helen's selections. I've enjoyed this so far, and I look forward to - let me just get my phone out - New Found Glory and, er, McFly, amongst others! 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Get The Knack - The Knack

Provenance: It's got 'My Sharona' on it.

Review: Hmmm.


On the one hand, Get The Knack is a wonderfully hooky power-pop gem, redolent of Cheap Trick, the Raspberries and the first Big Star album. Gorgeous melodies and swooning harmonies wrap around jangly guitar and muscular drumming to superb effect. It's a joy from front to back.

However, it's also incredibly sexist and sleazy. Even the most generous of devil's advocates would struggle to justify the fetishisation of pubescent girls that runs through Get The Knack. I suppose The Knack should be congratulated for their singular ability to take the concept of the male gaze and rendering it in the form of a catchy rock album. It's an uncomfortable listen, and that's coming from someone who owns an album by an artist who calls themselves Mr Yellow Discipline (NSFW, quite obviously).

The apex, or perhaps nadir, of this objectification comes on a jaunty little number titled '(She's So) Selfish.' It's hard to sum up quite how nasty the track is in terms of both a projected fantasy and attitudes towards women, but the lyrics can give you an idea. I've long held an unease at what seems to be a specifically 1970s strain of misogyny in rock music (though not limited to that decade, or the genre for that matter - 1957's 'Boom Boom, Out Go The Lights' by Little Walter is particularly grim) but I can acknowledge that lust is a legitimate and very human feeling, and one which informs a considerable amount of music, art and literature.

My issues here are twofold; one, that this sweaty, glandular lust is so unreflectingly unrelenting. Not only does it never stop, but it never stops to ponder the other side of the coin or to gaze into the mirror. It's wonderfully crafted power-pop, but three-minute cherry bombs are rarely executed with the degree of genius necessary to provide nuance. As I said, this wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that a good three-quarters of Get The Knack wasn't knuckle-dragging objectification. Whilst the sublime 'Oh Tara' shimmers with a rare gentleness, 'Good Girls Don't', 'Frustrated' and 'That's What The Little Girls Do', er, don't.

The other issue is that, even if one attempts to be aware of the anachronism of grafting modern attitudes towards gender relations onto albums from 1979, Get The Knack still fails the sniff test. It is worth bearing in mind that this souffle of sweaty-palmed teenage frottage was written and performed by a band of men all in their mid- or late-twenties. I didn't let Faster Pussycat off the hook for 'Smash Alley', and though I made a glib reference to Lolita it's worth mentioning that Nabokov's work was a sophisticated serio-comic masterpiece in the 'unreliable narrator' vein of writing. For all its merits, and they are legion (in case this review seems overly damning), Get The Knack never aims for anything beyond a pose of arrested development.

Of course, I may well have just tied myself in knots through my inability to engage with Get The Knack through anything other than a contemporary prism of what could be considered 'problematic'. However, I have certainly enjoyed - and continue to enjoy - books, television and film that certainly wouldn't fit anyone's definition of 'woke'. Furthermore, I do so unapologetically. With that in mind, could it be that Get The Knack is, was, and will continue to be merely a squalid little paean to misogyny, albeit one that from a formal point of view sounds absolutely delicious?

What a shame. There's so much good music on Get The Knack that it's entirely deserving of its platinum status on that criterion alone. And viewed in isolation, 'My Sharona' is dangerously close to being the perfect rock song. It's an angsty, propulsive earworm that features one of the catchiest guitar solos committed to magnetic tape. I love it and it still makes me happy, albeit this is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that Quentin Tarantino wanted to use it for the 'gimp' scene in Pulp Fiction. But you know what? Thank goodness, I say, that my aesthetic tastes align with a great cinematic auteur like Tarantino, and not with some sordid, woman-hating trash-purveyor, eh?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Devaju Retro Gold Collection - Django Reinhardt

Provenance: Back when I was first learning how to play guitar I heard tell of a man who, despite a partially paralysed left hand, could play incredible stuff. This was a time when Napster was in its infancy, so I happily shelled out for this cheap two-disc compilation when I spotted it in HMV one day.

The guitarist, of course, was the Belgian-born Romany jazz legend Django Reinhardt. As such, this is probably the first jazz album I ever purchased.

Review: Bear in mind that at the time of buying this my musical diet was a steady intake of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and other 'eavy bands of the classic rock era. Through picking up the guitar I was starting to learn about blues through the gateway of Stevie Ray Vaughan, albeit one could probably make the case that SRV was only half a step away from classic 1970s blues rock and thus more palatable to my ears than the likes of Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Despite being a cloth-eared pithecanthropoid, even back then I knew I was listening to something quite sensational. I was one of those guitarists that went through a phase of equating technical brilliance to musical competence, and I saw Reinhardt through the same lens as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Almost twenty years later I barely ever whack Satch on the stereo, and can't recall the last time I gave Vai an outing. Reinhardt endures, however. Why?

For one, he was an incredible musician - not just in a technical sense (but let's not forget he was essentially playing with half the regular number of fingers on his left hand for almost his entire recording career) but also as an improviser. You can hear him lean into a song, strike up the melody and then run with it into new and exciting territories. Blazing virtuosity can work when it's in service to something greater than a demonstration of itself.

Secondly - once where I was fixated on the guitar, now I give equal attention to the other master to feature on these recordings, the violinist Stephane Grappelli. The grace and fluidity of his execution is the perfect complement to Reinhardt's quicksilver trickiness; imagine the bluegrass duels you might have heard between banjo and fiddle players, transplant that to a jazz idiom and you're not far off what's going on here. Although the liner notes don't say as much, I'm quite sure that all the tracks here are from their fruitful time together in the Quintette du Hot Club de France string ensemble.

The third thing to mention is that as I've grown older my sensibilities have changed and evolved. My criteria have expanded from 'heavy riffage' and 'cool fingertapping solos', which I suppose can be a sign of maturation. Anyway, when I was a teenager I didn't have an instinctive feeling for jazz, or more specifically swing. Now I've digested a lot more, I can appreciate just how hard some of this stuff swung, even more remarkable as it was achieved without the aid of brass or percussion. The boys playing rhythm (including Django's brother, Joseph) certainly knew their task but Reinhardt also provides some amazing moment of push-pull, throwing in half-bends and double-stops to add variation and spice.

Two CDs in a row is a bit wearying, as the tracks all possess a similar feel, but played sparingly this Django Reinhardt collection still has the ability to wow over eighty years later. The Quintette's output is still the gold standard by which gypsy jazz and string band swing is held to, and rightly so.