Archive for the ‘Fairportiana’ Category

Review backlog: Richard Thompson, Alice Cooper, Fleet Foxes

October 23rd, 2010 by Reinder

Lately I've been reading more music blogging, both from my perennial favourite Popular and the now defunct but fully archived The War Against Silence. Popular is of course Tom Ewing's rundown of every UK number 1 since the charts started. The War Against Silence was a deeply engaged, deeply subjective run-down of all the albums and singles glenn mcdonald bought and found worth writing about - and boy did he buy a lot! TWAS comes very close to my ideal of how to write about music, and indeed has already helped form that idea within weeks of me plunging into the archives: glenn's writing is passionate, informed, based on a catholic taste with few genre-related biases, and most of all explicitly rejects the Robert Christgau model of music reviewing as consumer advice, a model of which the limitations become painfully obvious from diving into Christgau's own online archives or checking his reviews of older albums that have since become foundational records for entire genres of music.

Reading TWAS has made me more interested in writing more music reviews myself, and writing them in a manner that is more similar to his approach, hopefully without copying it wholesale. So I've decided to go back to where I mostly stopped writing about music and review the records I've bought since, in more or less chronological order based on when I bought them. I rarely actually buy music the year it comes out and am often happy to get to know an artist more than a decade after I've become aware of them. This is why I don't do End-Of-Year-Lists: they'd all be full of albums released ten years before the year under review.

Richard Thompson: Daring Adventures
1986, purchased in Nashville, Tennessee, November 2009
Of course, the first problem I run into is that I might as well copy wholesale what glenn mcdonald wrote about Thompson's Amnesia, swap out the album title and call it my review of Daring Adventures:

I love [Daring Adventures]. I rarely see anybody else cite it as one of Richard Thompson's finest moments, and if I had to weigh in on that subject in front of a critical audience I suppose even I'd probably chicken out and side predictably with I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out the Lights. Those are important albums. [Daring Adventures] is not important. But it is, I've discovered, [a] Richard Thompson album I [enjoy a lot], even more than Watching the Dark for all its stunning live recordings. I pull out a whole row of them, and look over their track listings, and even though there are dozens of great Richard Thompson songs that [Daring Adventures] doesn't have, I remember what listening to those ten songs in that order feels like.

And so on. See? That works quite well. The individual songs don't have exact analogues like that, but they do have "Jerry Scheff's gruff bass and Thompson's berserk solos". I don't quite see eye to eye with mcdonald about the other albums, mainly because I don't think the rest of Thompson's Mitchell Froom-produced work was on quite as bad a downward trajectory as he thinks it was (though as someone who got on the Thompson train with Mock Tudor - in the year it came out, no less - I was glad that he changed producers and approaches). But there is a freshness to both Daring Adventures and Amnesia that the albums from Rumor and Sigh on did not have. Some of the songwriting sounds like a repeat of earlier work: "Baby Talk" for instance has a clear ancestor in "Tear-Stained Letter" from Hands of Kindness, but is still enjoyable on its own terms. Daring Adventures is not a great album, but it is a very good one that fulfilled my need for Richard Thompson music between November 2009 and the day I bought Dream Attic.

Alice Cooper: Trash
Alice Cooper: Hey Stoopid
Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation of Alice
1989, 1990, 1994. 3-pack of CDs, bought in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in December, 2009

But by December of that same year, after months of buying no music because I was stashing all my disposable income into my savings account, I needed a larger music fix. At that point, it would not even have to be music I loved - I was quite happy to get some music I knew I would kinda sorta like, knowing it is cheese. So when I saw a rack full of cheaper-than-iTunes, 3-in-one CD packages and noticed that one of the items on sale was an Alice Cooper three-pack, I told Aggie: "I know this is cheese, but I'm buying it anyway."
At the time, that might not have been entirely fair on Alice Cooper. I knew the singles that came from these albums, "Poison", "Trash", "Bed of Nails" and "Hey Stoopid", but not much else. I knew that Trash was the third album after Alice had come out of rehab, and that the post-rehab albums tended to alternate between commercial (Constrictor, Poison) and heavy rock-oriented (Raise Your Fist And Yell, Hey Stoopid, but I had more or less lost interest by the time The Last Temptation came out, even though it was cross-marketed with a comic written by Neil Gaiman.
But even with that in mind, I realised that the only way I'd be able to handle three Alice Cooper albums at once was by sticking them in the random iTunes rotation. So I did, and a year later, each of the tracks on the albums has only been played six or seven times. And they're wearing out their welcome. There are a few standouts, mostly "Hey Stoopid" the single, but the songs from Trash in particular have started getting on my nerves. Back in 1988, I thought the combination of Alice Cooper's gruff voice and the writing/production of Bon Jovi producer Desmond Child was a brilliant idea, a good contrast artistically as well as a way to bring Cooper's ideas to market. Now, it sounds like Child has tamed Alice Cooper more than Cooper managed to adrenalize Child. The backing vocals grate, the drums reverberate to simulate power rather than projecting it, and the songs just plod along. Listening to the album on headphones is even more uncomfortable - Steven Thompson and Michael Barbiero's mix sounds anemic and unassured when listened to that closely. I am sure the album was exactly what Cooper needed and intended, and the formula worked as it was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. But to say it has aged poorly is putting it mildly. It's not so much cheese as sludge. I do like the guitar playing on this record, when it's audible, so it's not a complete loss. Those arpeggios in "Poison" never get old.
Hey Stoopid is a big improvement. The sound is leaner, with the backing vocals in particular taking a step back, and the guest appearances on the opening title track by Slash and Ozzy Osbourne manage to catch my attention every time, and while nothing else on the album is quite as good, the songwriting, including the songs co-written by Child, is more varied and interesting. There are nice details in the intros and at the ends of the songs that reward listening on headphones, and I loved that moment when my oldest stepson walked by just as "Wind-Up-Toy" ended. "That is WRONG!" he said, clearly spooked. And it is. On the downside, there's a little too much reliance on epic ballads, particularly "Might As Well Be On Mars", which seems to go on forever, but I do like this one a whole lot better. Still, it's not much to get passionate about, which is unfortunate for the type of review I want to learn to write. Maybe it's simply not a good idea to buy records you expect will be cheesy, because you may end up being right?
The Last Temptation also has the nice productional touches, decent songs, a guest appearance by Chris Cornell and slightly more time for ballads than it should have. It's a little closer to the sort of album Bob Ezrin would produce than to a real hard rock record, but that's not a bad thing. It lacks stand-out tracks but hangs together well and is easily the least cheesy one of the three albums. It's nice. Just right now, I don't want to hear any more Alice Cooper. Three albums in a row really is more than I can handle.

Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant
2008, purchased in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

So let's talk about Fleet Foxes instead! I first heard them in 2008 when my then driving instructor, of all people, played them in his car. He thought they sounded like the Byrds, I thought they sounded like Fairport Convention. I loved them right away. I bought their debut album on iTunes, loved it some more, but did not investigate them any further. The five-song EP Sun Giant was more or less contemporaneous with the debut album; Wikipedia says it was even recorded before the debut album. I like it every bit as much, but both records do have the same problem: the songs are very nice and pleasant to listen to, but don't really stick in my head afterwards. In this case, I don't think this is such a bad thing; I get enough of a kick out of the shimmering, stately, post-folk-rock sound they make not to mind that these songs are for living in for as long as they last, rather than for recalling afterwards. Both Fleet Foxes records remind me of the air vibrating off a hot pavement on a warm summer's day. Even without memorable songwriting, they have quite enough to offer.

Some neat music stuff I found on Youtube

March 6th, 2009 by Reinder

Loudon Wainwright III singing White Winos on a 2004 Dutch documentary in the Het Uur van de Wolf series.

I watched this when it was broadcast. Then, as now, I loved the fact that the producers cared enough to have the song subtitled. When I showed the clip to DFG, she thought LWIII's head movements and slurred speech were the result of him having had a little too much too drink before the interview, but as far as I can tell, that's just how he is.

LWIII gets misrepresented as a jokey songwriter a lot, especially by journalists who want to talk up his (significantly less talented) offspring at his expense. In his best songs, the humour is in the service of something deeper, and occasionally disturbing.

That said, the jokey, clownish part of him is there, and here's a clip of him on the BBC's Jasper Carrot show in the 1980s - the trousers are not part of the clown act as people really dressed like that at the time - singing I Don't Think Your Wife Likes Me and hamming it up for the camera.

And...one more, singing Cardboard Boxes on Wogan, at around the same time.

British television in those days was a goldmine! Below are three clips from BBC Pebble Mill ca. 1982, featuring Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick from Fairport Convention playing as a duo. I love Swarb's violin style, but what stands out is how good Simon Nicol could sound as a guitarist and a vocalist. His voice is limited in power and range and tends to drown out in a larger band, but in the first one of these duo performances it sounds impassioned, raw and much more powerful. And of course, the only reason he never got much credit as a guitarist is that he spent years performing with Richard Thompson next to him.
Time to Ring Some Changes:

The Hen's March Through the Midden/The Four-Poster Bed - two instrumentals that Swarb had played since the 1960s. Not quite as good as the recording he did with Martin Carthy, but fun nonetheless.

The least of the three clips, but still worth a look if you made it this far: Three Drunken Maidens - cheesy but fun, both in content and presentation. Swarb's annoying habit of humming along to his playing is unfortunately very much in evidence.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Swarb's then latest album Swarbrick Plays Swarbrick and mentioned his health troubles. Not long later, he had a lung transplant and within a few months he was back on stage. Below is a clip (with unfortunately poor sound quality) representing what he sounds like today, accompanied by guitarists Kevin Dempsey and Martin Allcock, another much-underrated guitarist. Swarb looks rough (but not as rough as before the transplant) but his playing is as energetic as ever.

Now that I am Dead

May 16th, 2007 by Reinder

Because Adam heard this song while he was in Groningen and asked about it:

Richard Thompson - Now That I Am Dead. The sound is a bit low, but once you've turned up the volume it turns out to be decent quality.

And because you can always have some more Richard Thompson:

The Ghost Of You Walks, with Danny Thompson, performed on Jools Holland's show fairly recently, judging from how D.T. looks.


1952 Vincent Black Lightning, unsourced solo performance, probably 2004-2006.

Finally, some Fairport:

Now Be Thankful, performed by the Full House line-up in 1970, with Dave Swarbrick on vocals. Richard was a funny-looking young man, wasn't he?

New Free Richard Thompson song, plus Earth Day Footprint questionnaire

February 17th, 2007 by Reinder

I missed this at Making Light's Sidelights, but managed to catch it at Avedon Carol's Sideshow: Richard Thompson has a new song up on his website, called Dad's Gonna Kill Me. First impression: pretty energetic delivery with his usual strong guitar work. Dunno if it's the best writing he's ever done, yet, but I'll know when I've listened to it more.

Another quick catch: the Earth Day Footprint Quiz tells me that if everyone lived like me, we'd need 2.1 planets. This in spite of me not owning a car and living in a very modest apartment. My footprint is well below the average for a person living in the Netherlands, but, like my cellphone, it's not small enough.

Richard Thompson – Front Parlour Ballads

October 4th, 2005 by Reinder

Speaking of banging on about my favourite performers, I've still got several albums in the review pool. Sometimes, a bit of a delay in reviewing a record is a good thing: when I first heard Richard Thompson's Front Parlour Ballads, I didn't like it that much, at least compared to other Richard Thompson albums. I initially felt that the changes on the surface – Thompson's continuing stripping down of his sound since 1996's You? Me? Us? were beginning to mask a lack of real development in Thompson's songwriting. There's a lot on Front Parlour Ballads that I'd already heard on previous records. Also, unlike his last studio album, The Old Kit Bag, which highlighted the growth in Thompson's vocal abilities, the new one, with its rough and ready production approach, revealed his limitations.

Since then, though, I'm glad to say that the album has grown on me a lot. The faults are still there, but the songwriting and the guitar playing, on repeated listening, are great as always. In fact, the album reminds me a lot of Thompson's very first solo album Henry the Human Fly, one of my favourite Thompson albums, reissued last year. Ballads has the same kind of lyrical storytelling, the same kind of character vignettes painted in broad strokes. Ballads is more sophisticated and less alcohol-fueled than Henry and has a greater musical range despite being recorded with little in the way of acccompaniment apart from Thompson's guitar.

"Miss Patsy" with its jaunty 3/4 rhythm, could easily have been a track from Henry, as could the youth gang fun of "Mutton Street" and the wonderfully sinister closing song "When We Were Boys At School" – about a boy who was bullied and ridiculed at school and is now a sinister, unseen presence in the corridors of power. I didn't know Thompson went to school with Tom Riddle!

Since Henry, Thompson has developed a much greater insight into human relationships, and that reveals itself in "Should I Betray" in which the viewpoint character agonises over breaking his female friend's already very brittle illusions concerning her husband. Another favorite of mine is the opening track, "Let it Blow", a gleeful tale of a cad (and possibly also a bounder) who has made one last catch. That one has some percussion and some lovely melodic electric guitar overdubbed on the basic track, making it almost a band performance. A few more tracks like that and the record would have been more balanced and accessible. As it is, it's really very good; it just takes a few listens to get into.

Fairport Convention – Nine, Live Convention, Rising For the Moon

August 28th, 2005 by Reinder

In my last review of the then-newest batch of Fairport Convention reissues, I mentioned that by the time of Rosie, the band were stuck without any original members and putting together an album consisting in part of left-over Fotheringay tracks. The result was a directionless album, and one wonders why any band would bother to go on after that experience. But go on they did, and being hard workers, it took them less than a year to come up with a much stronger follow-up, Nine. By then the five-piece line-up of Donahue, Lucas, Mattacks, Pegg and Swarbrick had settled in quite nicely, with Donahue in particular contributing some great musical ideas. The record starts off with Swarbrick singing over a hand-held drum in "The Hexhamshire Lass" which gradually goes crazy in its 2 1/2 minutes. Contrasting very strongly with that at first is Trevor Lucas's croak in "Polly on the Shore", a traditional lyric set to new music by Dave Pegg, which is in turn followed by a fast Donahue instrumental and the gentle ballad "To Althea From Prison". But although the album is rich in contrasts, it's at all times recognisably the work of one band, recording mostly live in the studio. The strongest aspect of the album throughout is the unison playing between the guitar, fiddle and occasionally the bass guitar. In the album's other instrumental "Tokyo" Pegg's bass keeps up with the fast, long melody introduced by the lead guitar, picked up by an overdubbed guitar recorded at half speed, and taken over by the fiddle which is joined by Pegg's perfectly articulated rumble.
After that track, the album begins to flounder a little. "Bring'Em Down" by Lucas is a decent Dylanish protesty kind of thing, but with "Big William" and "Pleasure and Pain" the songwriting begins to lose me. The original album at least closes with a good, country-esque song, "Possibly Parson's Green" but by then it has forfeited its claim to being anywhere near as good as the earlier Fairport albums. It's still in my personal Fairport top ten though.
The new edition has four bonus tracks, one of which is actually interesting: a frenzied version of the instrumental "Fiddlestix" recorded live with an orchestra. The orchestral arrangement is a good one, adding to the dynamics of this fast, furious piece.

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Next litter of Fairport remasters

July 26th, 2005 by Reinder

Speaking of Amazon UK, they're listing reissues of Fairport Convention Nine, Live Convention and Rising for the Moon for August 1. I've been waiting for these records to arrive, going to the record store more often in the past few weeks. Nine in particular comes highly recommended, featuring some of Dave Pegg's finest bass work including some of the fast unison playing that was 1970s Fairport trademark style for instrumentals. Jerry Donahue plays guitar on all three records, and he's a fantastic musician as well. The latter two records feature Sandy Denny on vocals. I'm not all that familiar with Rising, but I'll review the remastered editions as soon as I can get my grubby little mitts on them.

Swarb walks!

March 21st, 2005 by Reinder

Following up on my post on Swarbrick Plays Swarbrick, I just found out that Swarb has finally had his lung transplant and has appeared on stage with Fairport Convention on March 12. He was able to walk and even sing along on the choruses of one song!
I couldn't look at those pictures with dry eyes. He may not look too great to people who don't know about him, but for a man who was bedridden before the transplant, it's a huge difference. Long may he continue, and may he return to active performance soon!

Bones of All Men

October 6th, 2004 by Reinder

Last one in the big catchup that began last week:

Combining renaissance music and rock has been tried by quite a few artists over the years, from Gentle Giant and Renaissance in the 1970s to Blackmore's Night and In Extremo in the nineties and aughties. It's... hard work. Underuse the rock instruments and you end up with kitchy renaissance-muzak-with-a-drumbeat, over-use them and you get bombast tarted up with crumhorns. The Bones Of All Men (and of several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of Davnces, Pavannes, Steps and such, played this time), by Mr. Phillip Pickett with Mr. Richard Thompson & the Fairport Rhythm Section, gets it right nearly all of the time. I suppose it helps that Mr. Pickett is one of the leading early music woodwind players, Mr. Thompson is a genius on the guitar, and Messrs. Nicol, Pegg and Mattacks form one of the most seasoned rhythm sections in the Western world. Together, aided by keyboardist Sharona Joshua and medieval violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk (on one track only), they create stomping, dynamic versions of mostly 16th century keyboard compositions.

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Fotheringay

October 2nd, 2004 by Reinder

I'll bet you thought I was done reviewing CDs after Thursday's barrage? Think again. This one has been in the queue since August, even before my review of Henry the Human Fly. In the comments, I mentioned another important reissue by Fledgling records.

Fotheringay is the band Sandy Denny formed after she left Fairport Convention for the first time. Within months, they had this self-titled debut album out. It sounds remarkably like Fairport Convention, except it is more singer-songwriter oriented (while still being a true band record) and has no fiddle on it. What it does have is mostly great songs sung by Denny and Australian-born singer-songwriter Trevor Lucas who would soon marry Denny. Only one of the songs, "Banks of the Nile", is traditional.

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