Sunday, 29 March 2020

Locked Down - Dr John

Provenance: One hundred percent sure that my brother got me into Dr John, although how and when he did remains a mystery. One moment there was no Dr John in the house and then suddenly a 'best of' CD appeared in my brother's room. Anyway, it was very cool.

Happy to say that my brother and I got to see the late Mac Rebennack together at the Barbican Centre, as part of the 2014 London Jazz Festival in a special performance paying tribute to that other favoured son of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong.

Review: There are loads of Dr John albums out there, and I own about four. Why this one? Well, having been stuck in a rut bumping out easy-rollin' rhythm 'n' blues alongside a slew of guest musicians, some bright spark decided that the good doctor needed a bit of lead in his pencil. Enter Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys as producer to stoke the boiler a bit, yet could also be relied upon to be sympathetic towards his subject. Interestingly, Auerbach encouraged Dr John to step away from the piano and onto a range of rather grungy sounding keyboards, whilst he handled guitar duties. Crucially, every song on Locked Down is an original, co-written by Dr John, Auerbach and the band assembled for the album.

As a consequence, Dr John's final studio album of original material sounds fresh, organic, loose and live. Auerbach also gets the production spot on - dusty like the first Wu Tang long player, reverb turned all the way up to spooky, and there's a supreme indifference as to whether instrumental tracks bleed into each other. The end result can only be summed up as sounding downright mean; this is a platter that sounds like it'd beat your granny up for her pension and kick the dog for a laugh. Rather cleverly, it also harks bark to the grimy, indistinct stew (must - not - write - gumbo) of Gris-Gris, the Nite Tripper's very first outing under his own steam.

Whilst this doesn't contain anything quite as weird or demented as 'I Walk On Guiled Splinters' (one of the more disturbing cuts ever committed to tape), Locked Down is dark, swampy and sinister. Dr John spits some surprisingly downbeat, even paranoid, lyrics to the likes of 'Ice Age' (where he compares the CIA to the KKK - nice) and 'Kingdom of Izzness'. I love these songs, with their janky guitars and slightly queasy timekeeping in some quarters, which manage to sound both ramshackle and powerful at the same time.

This sickly, feverish mood persists throughout until the final cut, 'God's Sure Good', at which point the McCrary Sisters come to the fore. On such a necromantic album, it's almost a relief to hear the affirmative, joyous wallop of traditional black gospel, which the sisters provide with gusto at each chorus. Even here, on what should be the most straightforwardly positive song, the denouement morphs into a wild, abandoned jam. Despite the protestations of affinity towards a nominally Abrahamic God, darker forces always seem closer to hand.

In summation, Locked Down is a superb Dr John album - greasy, ugly and shorn of the tameness that had crept into some of his latter-day output. Credit must go to Dan Auerbach. By shutting the door on pipe-and-slippers guest spots and woodshedding a crack band, he managed to coax a set of performances more fiery and vital than anything had sounded in years. Is this Dr John's best album since Goin' Back to New Orleans? Is this Dr John's best since City Lights? You be the judge. Meanwhile, I'm going to skip back to 'Eleggua', which hitches marble-mouthed Nawlins hokum onto a tumbling woodwind riff and rides it all the way home.

Dr John was a big loss. Like his hero Professor Longhair, you knew it was him within seconds; those trilling triplets on the high keys, that entirely unmusical, strangulated rasp that nonetheless sounded perfect atop the jazzy, funky rhythm and blues that was his trademark. I saw him perform twice, and he was spectacular on both occasions. Now all I can do is cue up 'Iko Iko' and daydream about the time I spent back in the Crescent City ten years ago. That's not a bad consolation prize, though, is it?

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Texas Flood - Stevie Ray Vaughan

Provenance: Back in the mists of time, long before your Facebooks and Tweet-O-Grams, people did things like collect stuff, get drunk, and attempt to master an instrument. Yes, your humble scribe did some of the former (Panini football stickers, matchboxes) and much of the latter (guitar, a bit of mandolin). As for the drinking? I couldn't possibly say! [Insert winking emoji here.]

My parents very kindly paid for a guitar teacher to do things like point out the wiry bits were called strings, and that it would help if I used both hands. Once basics had been raised to a level of competence, he was keen that I learn to improvise - in essence, to hold enough theory in my head that I was able to react and adapt lead playing, in real-time, to musical structures. A good foundation for this is blues music, which uses the minor pentatonic scale extensively (the bedrock for most rock music) and which often relies on familiar chord progressions.

So, how do you engage a teenage classic rock and metal fanatic with the blues? Give him something suitably rocky and pyrotechnic to aspire towards - and thus, the first blues I ever played was Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'Pride and Joy', which appears on today's album, Texas Flood. I loved it, even the tricksy turnarounds and unfamiliar shuffle feel. Plus it proved to be a watershed moment, as I am now a fully-fledged blues fan; my favourite players are people like Mississippi Fred McDowell and especially the merciless Lightnin' Hopkins, but I'll always retain a soft spot for SRV for providing me with the gateway drug.

Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan came to prominence during the 'blues boom' of the 1980s, which saw the emergence of artists like Robert Cray and the resurrection of others like John Lee Hooker, whose star-studded 1989 album The Healer won a Grammy award. So what was SRV's contribution to the genre? One could argue, nothing new. There are parallels to be drawn between Vaughan and the British guitarist Alvin Lee, who was similarly lionised for his hyperkinetic rhythm 'n' blues playing. An argument could be made that Vaughan was an improvement - defter, more accurate, a better songwriter and, crucially, in possession of a genuine grit 'n' diesel Texas drawl, as opposed to the dorky facsimile that Lee (and, in fairness, many others) tried to conjure up. Unlike Lee, Vaughan didn't stray far from the blues either; yes, he made a cameo on a Bowie album, but his own material was locked down, and when he did interpret the music of others, it was to emphasise its bluesiest elements (his take on Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing' being a prime example). There was no meandering into psychedelia with Vaughan, which cannot be said for Alvin Lee and his band Ten Years After.

Let's start off with my own personal bone that requires picking with regards to Texas Flood; 'Pride and Joy' and 'I'm Cryin'' are the same freaking song. I get that the first is celebratory and the latter strikes a more consolatory tone, but dude, write some new music. It's a ten track album that doesn't even top forty minutes and yet here are a couple of 'companion pieces', I guess. A bit of a 'fuck you' to the blues buying public, but I must admit a sneaking respect for this approach. It's like writing a song for your girlfriend, and when she dumps you trying to fit the name of the new squeeze into the melody. Writing the same song for when you're both happy and sad about your partner is, upon reflection, quite an alpha move.

Duplication issues aside, this is a quality slice of 1980s rock-influenced blues. The clean production sound works when recording what is a small combo - Vaughan is backed by bass and drum-mongers Double Trouble throughout - as it brings his ultra-precise lead playing to the fore. Remarkably, for such a polished product I was later to learn that the entirety of Texas Flood was recorded in two days and features no overdubs. Give or take some messing around with the levels, what you're hearing is the live band, it's extraordinarily tight. The vocal performances are fantastic too, and it's boggling to try and comprehend how SRV managed to wring such impassioned performances from both hands and larynx without any need to go back and fix anything.

All the hallmarks of Vaughan's playing are there from the get-go, too; heavy vibrato on bent notes, daggerish little single-fret slides and almost percussive use of double stops. The latter is especially evident on 'Love Struck Baby', a twitchy, fidgety shuffle blues that begins more like the commencement of a boxing bout than a blues song. The most comprehensive displays of SRV's guitar trick-bag are to be found on the instrumentals 'Testify' and Stray-Cats-on-amphetamines rockabilly whirlwind 'Rude Mood', although the dizzying 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' runs them close; and that aforementioned deftness comes to the fore on the closer 'Lenny', another instrumental, in this instance an glimmering, iridescent tribute to Vaughan's partner Lenora Bailey (she thought 'Pride and Joy' had been written for another woman, so SRV wrote her a brand new song - wise man).

And yet.

I can't claim to hold too many original opinions on music; I think my takes on most of these albums resonate with the critic pool at large, albeit not as well written. I do adhere to the odd heresy, like my belief that Neil Young's Trans is misunderstood and ZZ Top's Recycler is not devoid of merit, but by and large I'm reasonably vanilla. Thus, here's my lukewarm take on Texas Flood that anyone familiar with SRV has probably seen ambling over the horizon for a while now - it sacrifices soul at the altar of technical ecstasy.

The problem is probably me and my relation to blues music. When I interrogate my own feelings about Stevie Ray Vaughan and the blues I feel a bit queasy, to say the least; am I like the martinet Ewan MacColl, insistent on "authenticity" above all else? Would I have pulled the plug on Dylan? I've been a good boy, I read Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta and feel clued up enough not to fall into the authenticity trap (I've written about this before now), so why do I have such a problem with Texas Flood? Is it merely because this is tagged as a blues album, and so I'm bringing a whole mess of expectations to the table that really shouldn't be there? How come I can enjoy the 'newgrass' movement begun in the 1970s (which sought to fuse bluegrass to styles such as jazz - and this has just reminded me to go and listen to some David Grisman Quintet) without my appreciation of bluegrass colouring the experience? Perhaps because my knowledge of bluegrass is dwarfed by what I (think I) know about blues music, and is unencumbered by those strange gatekeeper tendencies that can sometimes evolve alongside a burgeoning personal passion.

Sadly, I must conclude that I'm simply too smart to properly appreciate Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Genuinely, though, I really must stop sorting things into boxes and weighing up their merits accordingly. Because taken at face value, Texas Flood is a rollicking good time. It's an album full of good singing, good playing and lots of whizzy guitar licks, and so in the future I'm going to endeavour to meet the album on these terms alone. Even if 'Pride and Joy' and 'I'm Cryin'' are the same freaking song, goddamn.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Bella Donna - Stevie Nicks

Provenance: Last Sunday (8 March 2020) was International Women's Day - and with Sundays being the day of the week I generally reserve to update this blog, it would've been fitting to have written about a female artist. Believe me, I am acutely aware how much this blog skews towards the XY chromosomal combination.

However, I was enjoying a long weekend in Poland at the time, so have had to defer this review. Please, feel free to interpret this review as metonymical of my entire approach to IWD2020 - late, half-assed and woefully insufficient.

Anyway, I bought Bella Donna because I realise it contained the two Stevie Nicks solo songs I was familiar with (I like both), plus the album art is top notch. I don't know what the fuck that sad thing in the bottom left-hand corner is, but it wouldn't be out of place in an abode with a 'live, laugh, love' wall sticker. Also, I had just assumed that Nicks was riffing on a witchy vibe by holding a snowy owl, or maybe a dove, given the lyrics to 'Edge of Seventeen'; I'd never really looked too closely, and I register a mild jolt of glee and surprise every time I squint at the cockatoo perched on her hand.

Review: My version of Bella Donna is a three-CD set, containing the original album on one disc, a whole mess of bonus tracks on a second, and a third containing a 1981 live show. For the purpose of this review I'll only be looking at Bella Donna itself, but the live set is rather wunderbar, and the extras include Nicks' contribution to bonkers Canadian animated feature Heavy Metal. To those of you who are not part of the cognoscenti where Heavy Metal is concerned, it's a sci-fi anthology film featuring music by Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, Donald Fagen and Sammy Hagar (amongst a raft of others), plus vocal performances by Harold Ramis and Jim's dad from the American Pie franchise. Go see it now if you've yet to do so.

So, to Bella Donna - which sounds pretty much exactly how you imagine a 1981 solo release by Stevie Nicks should sound. By which, I mean that it's sumptuously produced, tastefully arranged (ahh, is that a hint of 'congas in the night' I hear?) and leaning heavily on the most successful period of her career to date, the soft-rock behemoth that was late-1970s Fleetwood Mac. The title track itself has it all - the push-pull dynamics, woozy lead guitar and Nicks' oddly bleating vocals gliding atop the quiet storm. Congas are present. It should be dreck, but it's beguiling really, lulling the listener into a kind of drowsy acquiescence.

It's curious to hear the shift that occurs on track three, 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around', Nicks' collaboration with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, because we're suddenly snapped out of the soporific twilight conjured up early doors. It's a stretch to say that Petty and chums inject any sense of punky urgency - this is the Heartbreakers cruising at low altitude - but there's definitely a little more spit 'n' grit present. It also works splendidly, Nicks' gossamer (took me six paragraphs to use this word, gimme some credit) presence butting up against Petty's adenoidal wail agreeably.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Bella Donna is that it's entirely self-contained, its own universe of angst, loss, regret and heartache. Even when Petty and, later on, Don Henley get to share the spotlight it's always as guests in Nicks' world of pristine high drama. The only real misstep on the album, 'After the Glitter Fades', still inhabits this darkling soft-goth realm despite being a hokey cocaine-cowboy crack at country. No matter though, because straight afterwards comes the monumental 'Edge of Seventeen'.

For the record, 'Edge of Seventeen' is a song I can listen to again and again. It's pretty much perfect, right? From the juddering guitar riff to Nicks' tough, slightly strained vocal it sounds weird and arresting from the get-go; and the layered voices swooping in from all angles give proceedings a hint of hysteria, as if 'Edge of Seventeen' is about to break apart under the weight of its own foreboding and magnificence. All of this is underscored by an almost unbearable tension - the needle-point rat-a-tat guitar merciless, without any kind of drum break to provide a comfortable groove until it feels almost too late.

It's with absolutely no sense of denigration that I consider Bella Donna to be the stylistic companion piece to Christopher Cross' debut, seeing as I view that doozy as a yacht rock masterpiece. However, whilst Cross works with the pastel tones of a Malibu sunset, Nicks' post-meridian music is redolent of flickering candelabras and pregnant thunderheads. Interestingly, it's when the blokes get in on the act that Bella Donna sounds most earthbound, and Henley's otherwise likeably vulnerable crooning on 'Leather and Lace' is a little thumping compared to Nicks' glabrous keening. I haven't even found time or space to give tracks like 'Kind of Woman', 'Think About It' or 'How Still My Love' their due, each a little sparkling mote of glitter.

Bella Donna is a triumph, a swirling ocean of yearning and romance. Why are we listening to tinny, minor-key sadsack robo-pop when this exists, I wonder?

Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Captain And Me - The Doobie Brothers

Provenance: The Doobie Brothers had long been a shadowy presence in my musical consciousness prior to picking up The Captain and Me. I had vague notions that they were a big deal in the USA, and knew 'Long Train Running' (which is on Captain...) from a variety of dad-rock compilations. Everything else is a little hazy.

For example, did I know 'China Grove' before playing Grand Theft Auto? I certainly covered it in a band later on, but I can't say whether my virtual capers predated my purchase of this album or not. I knew the song 'Listen To The Music' long ago, but wasn't sure who did it (NB: the Doobie Brothers). Same deal for 'What A Fool Believes', and in any case it doesn't sound much like the Doobies; it's more akin to the unholy prospect of Captain and Tennille fronted by a walrus. No good, man.

So, at the point of buying this album I perhaps thought of the Doobs as a bit southern rocky, slightly funky ("but can you imagine Doobie in your funk? Whooo!") and maybe prone to the odd boogie number. And you know what? I was right.

Review: Everything on The Captain and Me is done tastefully and is in its place. The rocky bits rock out, the mellow bits are nice and serene, the quiet bits are quiet and the loud bits are also quiet. It's well-played, well-sung, goes down smoothly and is about as edgy as a damp cabbage. Keep this one on file for a sun-dappled day suited for ingesting soft drugs and makin' it with your old lady.

Weirdly enough, given the above, I don't hate it. I hate bits of it, sure, but overall The Captain and Me coasts by on just enough charm and finesse that I can't bring myself to condemn it outright. There's a slickness to proceedings that, as a fan of Steely Dan and Christopher Cross, I view largely as a positive. Sure, I've got Crass and Stooges albums tucked away (yet to be reviewed, I remind myself) but the top-down, ease-the-seat-back coolness of American FM rock (always American, as the British flavour always seems a bit desperate) can work a strange magic on me. Take that old warhorse, 'Long Train Running' - a clumsy funker featuring prominent congas; yet it coasts by on a sublime vocal hook coasting over the top of attractively itchy guitar work.

That equally hoary slice of highway razzmatazz, 'China Grove', a strange paean about what sounds like an utterly ghastly commune in Texas, wins out with a guitar riff that is kissing cousin to Nazareth's 'Hair of the Dog', but it's infinitely smoother and less clay-footed in execution. I suppose a certain nimbleness and elasticity accounts for the appeal of the Doobie Brothers on this album; high mids, choked-off bass (for the most part) and guitars that cluck and peck, rather than sledgehammer you into acquiescence. Keep it light and airy, give the melodies a bit of breathing space, add a bit of diet bluegrass acoustic guitar and you're onto a winner, baby.

However, the eagle-eyed amongst you will probably gather from "I don't hate it" and "I hate bits of it" that I'm not entirely uncritical of The Captain and Me. And these aren't the small, easily surmountable bugbears such as the hamfisted stab at a multi-part song that makes 'Clear as the Driven Snow' sound like a bargain basement Kansas ft. Roy Harper track, because if I bitch about that I might as well throw out most of my 1970s rawk platters. No, we're back onto women getting a bum deal from these fucking hippies, again.

Thus we have 'Dark Eyed Cajun Woman', a track that hangs off a knotty, stuttering guitar riff which is great, great, great. What could be a witchy little swamp rocker instead gives one a bit of a chill with the lyric "You know, I took you for a small girl / Really not quite seventeen." Admittedly our serenade goes on to state, with some relief I should imagine, that he was wrong and that the object of his ardour was a grown woman. Phew! No need to join the ranks of the Rolling Stones and Faster Pussycat in my hall of shame.

The other lowlight comes in 'South City Midnight Lady', which has a title that makes me want to reflexively puke. It's actually sports one of the prettier melodies on Captain..., a gently yearning thing that the Eagles used to be able to conjure up before they dived into a hillock of fine Colombian. However, come the chorus and we're getting the following being dribbled out:

South city midnight lady
I'm much obliged indeed
You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need

At this point I'm scooping up the vomitus so I can swallow it back down and re-evacuate this shit out of the most fitting orifice. No name, no agency, no nothing about the person this song is addressed to aside from what she can do for the drunkard night owl she's unlucky enough to be lumbered with. Not especially egregious on its own, but as part of the wider Captain... context, women only serve as objects to be desired or discarded. The way this is simpered out pisses me off, and the cherry on top of the turd is that awful faux-Southern gentlemanly "much obliged indeed". I'd haul these guys in front of the Hague for that alone. Incidentally, the next song, on which the Doobies try (and fail) to sound tough, is called 'Evil Woman'. Of course it is. Of course.

(Which is not to say you can't do a song like that; ultimately it's the prerogative of the artist. But ELO can do an 'Evil Woman' with at least some degree of wit and accomplishment, and even Cliff Richard can pull off a 'Devil Woman' by making it a surreal end-of-the-pier chiller, one that he can never perform again because it's too spooky for his religious faith to handle.)

So, what the hell, go listen to The Captain and Me for an undemanding forty minutes or so. There's good singing, good playing and some sweet harmonies to be had. I personally prefer this rotating cast of vocalists than the era where Michael McDonald is thrown into the mix, but whatever. Best enjoyed with a cold beer and an empty brain.