Sunday, 28 July 2019

(Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Provenance: As a young guitar player I wanted to play 'Free Bird'.

Review: I almost decided to go with something by Electric Wizard or Lee Dorsey this week, as I couldn't be arsed with this album title. Even the band's name gives me a minor headache. So, henceforth, (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) will be Pronounced..., and I may well just stick to 'Skynyrd' for the band.

It's my belief that Lynyrd Skynyrd are one of the more unfairly maligned bands out there. Certainly, their current incarnation does them little favours, having seemingly succumbed to the temptations of the Nuge crowd a decade ago with a wretched platter called God & Guns. In all probability it was a savvy move; it resonates both with the classic rock crowd (a conservative old bunch) and the fans who didn't quite get them the first time around. A victim of their own success, one might say, as Skynyrd are often portrayed as the archetypal white trash favourite, their semi-idiot fans drunkenly braying for 'Free Bird' a whole two songs into their shows.

At least in the early days, before little brother took over as the frontman, Skynyrd were a more nuanced operation. 'Saturday Night Special' was as anti-handgun as anything out there; 'Tuesday's Gone' and 'I Need You' are wonderful slices of balladry, teetering just about on this side of maudlin; 'Sweet Home Alabama' is much more ambiguous than its title suggests; and of course, they beat the Sex Pistols to the punch by slagging off their own record label with the incredible riff-monster 'Workin' For MCA'.

So, here's where it all began - with some wonderfully greasy drumming that kicks off both Pronounced... and 'I Ain't The One', a tough blues-rocker that serves as the template for a raft of Skynyrd tunes. They would get a little more complex on subsequent releases, but it's really all here; swaggering riffs interpolated by wiry, slippery blues soloing and Billy Powell's honky-tonk piano. The cherry on top is Ronnie Van Zandt's vocal; he has no real range, aside from a switch-up to a country falsetto holler, and one imagines his speaking voice wasn't too far from his singing voice. But that's the charm! His voice is no more or less 'honest' or 'authentic' than Jobriath's, or Gladys Knight's or Ian Curtis', but here it feels entirely at a piece with the style, context and ideas behind the music.

It is this unpretentious and plaintive delivery that entirely elevates the otherwise slightly pedestrian 'Tuesday's Gone' - a big ol' ballad about leaving your woman in the 'By The Time I Get to Memphis' mould - into a real heartwrencher, and good enough for Metallica to cover. It's also an effective deadpan, as on the comic-buffo 'Gimme Three Steps' (about approaching the wrong guy's woman in a bar); you can almost picture the raised eyebrow as he intones "ah said, excuuuuse me" just before a lead break. If I am going to bring authenticity into play, it's that as a native son of Alabama Van Zandt totally gets away with the couplet "Hey there fella / With the hair coloured yella". And by 'gets away', I mean it's a real kicky little moment in an already knockabout number.

Now, I know that 'Free Bird' is part of the gilded iconography of southron rock, alongside 'Whippin' Post' by the Allman Brothers, the band's very own 'Sweet Home Alabama' and Charlie Daniels' deranged Twitter feed, but for my money the better song is 'Simple Man'. It's in the same vein of cornpone balladry as 'Tuesday's Gone', but features some satisfyingly crunchy choruses and a sentimental lyric that's atypical in classic rock which recounts the advice the singer received from his mama about living a good life. Nothing here to rival Montaigne in terms of profundity you understand, but it's direct and sincere.

It's about this time that Pronounced... sags into a rhythm that approaches the formulaic, but there's nuggets of gold strewn throughout the back end, such as Powell's Dr John impression on 'Things Goin' On'. Of this little bunch of tracks that lead up to 'Free Bird', 'Poison Whiskey' is probably the most interesting for Skynyrd fans as it most obviously points towards the sound on their next album, Second Helping. There's a muscularity and aggression in the attack, and it introduces the knotty turnarounds that festoon Second Helping, which incidentally make some of the best Skynyrd songs deceptively tricksy to play.

I feel like it's a hopeless task writing about 'Free Bird', thanks to its ubiquity and notoriety. I'll say this, then; the verses, underscored by Hammond organ, are Skynyrd doing their best Allmans impersonation, and I like 'em best when they're sounding like Skynyrd. It's not bad, but on an album with two slower-paced numbers already in the mix, it drags a little. The lengthy coda, however, consisting of a galloping guitar dual, remains a treat. What impresses are not the pyrotechnics on display - it's not actually a particularly difficult solo in technical terms - but how it's constructed. The different motifs locking together, weaving in and out of each other, building both momentum and tension - and then the final release (albeit slightly anticlimactic) are what makes 'Free Bird' a perennial. You want proof? Here's some proof.

Pronounced... is a minor classic, albeit one that exists in the shadow of the monster it spawned. In this scribe's humble opinion Skynyrd actually get better on Second Helping, but that's all for another time. Yeah, this is really first-rate deep-fried southern rock, and not half as boneheaded as you may have been led to expect.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

J Geils Band - J Geils Band

Provenance: During Sixth Form I formed a group, to play at our school band bash, called Centerfold. The ostensible reason for doing so was to play stuff that wasn't punk or metal (the two flavours of music available at the band bash), but really it was so I could play the J Geils Band song 'Centerfold' to a large-ish audience.

In that respect it was a success, but in most others the performance was not just an abject failure, but a litany of failures. Nevertheless, today I am able to battle through the still-present fug of embarrassment to get back on the J Geils Band horse. Here's their first album, and won't you just look at these cool rockin' daddies - hotcha! Hotcha!

Review: Basically, I became mildly obsessed by the song 'Centerfold' after hearing it at a pub quiz. Not long after this revelation, I learned that the band once invited Lester Bangs onstage to play a typewriter solo. A band worth following up with, you'd think - and I duly did, a mere sixteen years later. Other stuff got in the way I guess. Anyway, I had come to be aware of the fact that early on, the J Geils Band were more a gritty R&B band than the slightly New Wavey 'Centerfold' would suggest. That's fine, as my tastes certainly skew towards gritty R&B, plus they had a harmonica player called Magic Dick, which frankly ticks a lot of boxes.

I'm partial to a spot of roughhouse blooz 'n' roll, and that's essentially what this is. Somewhere west of Dr Feelgood and north of Albert King circa his Born Under a Bad Sign Stax release, it's unpretentious, knockabout fun with not a little craft. I like the fact that vocalist Peter Wolf doesn't confuse histrionics with expression, and I'm delighted by Magic Dick's fluid, buzzy interpolations. He even gets his own showcase of his own called 'Ice Breaker', which has hints of Booker T & the MGs. It's a bit odd to sequence this in at track two, though. Was Magic Dick their big selling point? He certainly blows a good harp.

Despite J Geils Band scoring precisely nul points in the originality stakes, it's testament to the band's facility with a twelve-bar that their original compositions stack up well to their interpretations of others. The gear-jamming anthem 'Hard Drivin' Man' (gotta drop that 'g', baby) is the highlight of side one, and has a suitably top-down, open-highway feel to it. It is, however, run quite close by the crawlin' king snake strut of 'Serves You Right to Suffer', and it's nice to hear John Lee Hooker done well in a band setting. Part of JLH's charm was his looseness, which was often the first thing that bands covering his songs would discard. It's great to hear the J Geils Band have the confidence in the material to stretch out and keep proceedings simmering away at the right temperature.

However, having praised the songcraft evidently in existence within the J Geils Band, the true standout of the whole album is the cut that gets side two cooking. I already loved the Otis Rush original of 'Homework', but this hard-charging, snakey version is solid gold. To follow it up with a bippin' and boppin' version of 'First I Look at the Purse' (a hit in 1965 for The Contours) is pure filth. The start of side two of J Geils Band can go toe-to-toe with anything. Likewise, when you decide to round off proceedings with the Albert Collins instrumental cut 'Sno-Cone' (according to the liner notes here, co-written with The Big Bopper - helloooooo baaaaaaby!) you could've packed the intervening ten minutes like a sock of shit and I'll still be giving this disc a rave. Okay, so 'On Borrowed Time' might not be the greatest blue-light ballad ever written, but it's a welcome change of pace. I love everything else.

As I mentioned before, there is nothing new under the sun here, but when it's this muscular, unpretentious and tightly arranged (all words that can describe me, incidentally) there's nothing to do other than sit back and admire a job well done. The J Geils Band might sound like a bar band, but it's the best damn bar band west of the Danube. Buy this album.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Liege And Lief - Fairport Convention

Provenance: My memory is fuzzy on this, though I recall buying Liege and Lief for my dad at some point. That's how I first heard it; and it obviously left an impression, because I bought it for myself many years later.

Certainly, if it wasn't for dad I wouldn't have an inkling about the folk rock scene. The first band of that ilk I remember hearing were Steeleye Span, probably their Below the Salt album. I was less familiar with Fairport Convention but distinctly recall Babbacombe Lee being in my parents' vinyl collection. In a slightly odd twist, during my MA I would live a few yards from the prison where they tried to hang John "Babbacombe" Lee - three times, if I recall correctly - before a halt was called to proceedings.

But enough rambling about Babbacombe Lee, it says at the top of this article that I'm reviewing Liege and Lief, so I'd better start paying some attention.

Review: Iconoclastic. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of Liege and Lief, it's worth noting a bit of context. I would direct any reader with the slightest interest in the British folk scene to pick up a copy of JP Bean's oral history called Singing From the Floor. This book both manages to dispel and enhance the perception that folk is an austere, scholarly pursuit riven by purists and gatekeepers of the worst kind. I say enhance, because a few major figures certainly fit the bill. Ewan MacColl in particular comes across as something of a martinet, obsessed by the technicalities of folksong and running the rule over which songs were 'acceptable' to be performed at his clubs. I should say that despite his stated orthodoxies and the faintly ridiculous 'finger-in-the-ear' style of singing that entered popular culture, MacColl and others like Bert Lloyd did much to preserve a dying tradition, and in MacColl's case to contribute some fine songs of his own.

Where Singing From the Floor dispels the notion of folk as altogether too stuffy is in its depiction of the Soho scene. Here, young British performers mingled with American counterparts such as Paul Simon and Jackson C Frank; ideas around tradition and authenticity were a little looser, and I don't think its surprising that the more innovative musicians in folk - Bert Jansch, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Roy Harper et al - emerged from this crowd. This is also the crowd that gave birth, in stuttering form, to Fairport Convention.

Liege and Lief is Fairport Convention's fourth album. Founding members Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson were here joined by fiddler Dave Swarbrick, singer Sandy Denny and drummer Dave Mattacks, the replacement for Martin Lamble after his death in a road accident in which every member of the band at the time except Denny were involved. Whilst coming to terms with loss and injury, bassist Hutchings buried himself in researching traditional music archives housed in Cecil Sharp House. Denny was already familiar with much traditional music, and Swarbrick had a knowledge of folk that Thompson would describe as 'encyclopaedic'. What they subsequently did - take music that stretched back centuries in origin and electrify it - would prove to be a game changer.

From the perspective of 2019, where it feels like every genre has been run through the electro-wringer (though electro-swing definitely shouldn't be a thing), Liege and Lief might be considered quaint. Certainly, some early rock 'n' roll sounds a bit tame to my ears, even as I strain to discern its importance in the development of popular music. Given that folk already has a somewhat unthreatening patina to it, I was worried that a reappraisal of Liege and Lief would be full of caveats. I'm happy to say that they're not necessary.

In some ways, this record is wilder than anything floating around at the moment, even in the edgier 'hard folk' circles. Firstly, the electric backing to songs that already sound unearthly transport Liege and Lief into the realms of psychedelia. This weirdness is heightened by the fantastical nature of some of the lyrics - 'Reynardine' and 'Tam Lin' being standout examples of songs that read like trippy, twisted fairy tales. The playing is exemplary - Mattacks' backing to 'Reynardine', for example, which consists of little else than slow swells on the cymbal, is breathtaking in its simplicity and ability to create a sense of otherworldliness. The truly mindbending element in the mix is Swarbrick's electric fiddle, which at times drones away like John Cale's viola in the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs'; at other times, it simply kicks free from gravity and takes flight. The mid-album medley of 'The Lark in the Morning / Rakish Paddy / Foxhunter's Jig / Toss The Feathers' is a blistering showcase of Swarbrick's enormous talent, but the band behind him is no less facile with the shifting tempos and time signatures.

And yet, in my opinion Swarbrick's incandescent talent is eclipsed by that of Sandy Denny. Hands down, Denny is my favourite female vocalist. My dad might argue for Maddy Prior's powerhouse vocals, others might highlight Annie Briggs' almost bell-like purity. Both excellent singers, but neither could inhabit a song with the same expressiveness as Denny does on Liege and Lief. Tender, strident, doleful, commanding, playful - whatever the song - hell, whatever that particular lyric demands, Denny delivers. The most dazzling example is the murder ballad 'Matty Groves', which Denny tackles as if it's a play and she's somehow wound up acting as every character.

Furthermore, just in case you weren't convinced, she repeats the trick on 'Tam Lin', a 16th century ballad that's transformed here into a spiky, ominous, lysergic rocker. There comes, at around two minutes, the moment where Swarbrick's violin opens up in delicate counterpoint to Denny's vocal melody and the feeling it engenders can only be described as blissful. The constantly changing dynamics of 'Tam Lin' means that the song seems to morph around Denny's moods, making it the most sophisticated track on Liege and Lief and the one that, for my money, packs the most wallop. I don't think that I've ever heard anything quite like it anywhere else.

Have I convinced you? Do you still automatically associate folk with fustiness, beards and real ale? Or can you begin to imagine it - at least in the guise of Liege and Lief - as a gateway to that which is inherently and indigenously strange about British folk ways? Folk can sometimes seem hobbled by its homeliness and rather old-fashioned insistence on telling stories; Liege and Lief serves as a startling reminder as to the power, vitality, violence and peculiarity of British traditional song. Hell, it should be on the National Curriculum. A peerless, important work.