Moondance

Image result for moondance albumMoondance trumps Astral Weeks. If the rockists choose Astral Weeks as Van’s best then the poptimists will then choose Moondance. It is not merely a more ‘accessible’ or ‘palatable’ record, but also matches (or possibly outdoes) what seem to Astral Weeks’ main draws and objects of acclaim: the emotional, streamy-dreamy spirituality and sense of place. But because the Moondance’s songs are framed within an approachable jazz-soul context (as opposed to Astral Weeks’ more obviously suitable ethereal folk), its passion, depth and emotional profundity are not commented on as much and are lost on many.

Van’s greatest skill is his impressionist evocation of a time, place or reminiscence. This manifests itself in many of his greatest songs, where he captures the time and essence of an experience from childhood. His first great attempt at this was Cyprus Avenue: a slow mesmeric, repetitive arrangement bathed in his stream-of-consciousness lyrics in which he allows the past to merge with the present in a calm exorcism of profound memories. Moondance’s equivalent was And it Stoned Me. He describes the song in an interview:

”I suppose I was about twelve years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension’. That’s what the song is about.

This is all very mystical and Proustian. And so is Cyprus Avenue. But where And it Stoned Me wins is, through the aforementioned tangibility and accessibility of his arrangement (it has a certain bounce to it), he makes that ‘quasi-mystical’ experience even more relatable; it has both the immediacy of a great pop song and the lasting meaning and power of, well, Astral Weeks. And I do relate to it deeply.

So: to the learned poptimist, Moondance is the golden mean – the moment Van realized that he could be both commercially successful, further his artistry and retain without restraint his emotions and passions at the same time in perfect tandem. For this, it is not only Van’s greatest but one of the greatest albums ever constructed. And in this piece I have only written about one of the things that makes it great.

Here is Caravan, featuring the best use of vocal multi-tracking ever committed to tape at the end.

John Prine (1971)

Image result for john prine albumA Recent Revelation

Bob Dylan once called John Prine ‘pure Proustian existentialism’. He’s actually like a more modest Hank Williams with a major in Philosophy, but Dylan is essentially right. I first bought this album and never gave it a proper listen and, while deeming his tunes funny, uncommonly mature, and satisfying, I never fully realised the depth of those meaningful waters beneath the whistleable surface until further listens.

Loudon Wainrwight, in ‘Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues’, chooses Prine as one of the people (along with himself) listed and categorised in their era as Dylan-ites (his ‘dumbass kid brothers’). Unlike Dylan, however, Prine’s modesty is the reason he’s not afraid to frame himself as the bigoted and flawed American narrator; and more-so than Dylan, he finds the redemption in those characters. Though complex in his own, unassuming way, he identifies with the simple man. When talking about political issues, he is never conceitedly overwrought (see Dylan’s Masters of War) but is instead hilariously funny and therefore more insightful. But he’s a poet and he sure dun’ know it.

Maybe we can thus conclude: Whilst writers like Dylan flourished in the rapidly changing, hopeful colours of the 1960’s, Prine flourishes in the 70s’ dull beige-browns of ironic, but cheerful acceptance. This country-ish debut, though, finds him still with flecks of those hopeful colours in his eyes as he sits on his hay bale throne, before he took his Sweet Revenge.

Buckets of Rain

IMG_3557 (1)Blood on the Tracks

Bob Dylan’s 15th studio album is one of great emotional weight. The beauty of this record is its offhand, shaky musical attitude: at roughly the 4:02 second mark in Tangled up in Blue, either the bassist or guitarist hits a wrong note. I always listen out for this moment, as to me it is one of the great affirmations of one of my essential rules of truly great popular music: Sometimes imperfections can create the greatest perfection of all. As the song gradually becomes more frantic and desperate, this accidental wrong note (spurred by that general attitude of despondent musical indiscriminacy that permeated the album’s recording) ends up carrying the greatest meaning.

Blood on the Tracks, though I rather dislike the angry, rambling Idiot Wind and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, remains the most honest 51 minutes of Dylan on record. I must mention that the rest of the album is pure gold as well, and is music of unfathomably vivid, hypnotic and commanding lyrical and songwriting power. It is recorded and produced in such a way that gives a kind of murky, comforting background ambience: Listening to it on a rainy, winter evening in dim, warm light is among the most evocative experiences offered by any record.

Here’s Meet Me in the Morning; maybe the exemplar of this atmosphere I describe. Check out the magnificent solo of what I believe is a fuzzed-out pedal steel…

Bad Fog of Loneliness

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This concert recording from Massey Hall, Toronto 1971 shows Neil Young at his most contemplative and singer-songwriter-ish. Don’t let that put you off early Neil, as even at this stage he had the edge, darkness and wit to make James Taylor and Jackson Browne look like singing nuns.

Part of what’s special about this album is its early showcasing of songs from Harvest, which would later become popular classics; Old Man, Heart of Gold, etc. As an extended showcase of Young’s songwriting and acoustic guitar ability, this live record, to me, is unparalleled. The feint, shy backstories he gives about the origin of the songs and the beauty and depth of the songs themselves show that this man’s lyricism and songwriting capacity seems inexhaustible. Not even Dylan could approach the raw honesty and indecipherably complex flow of emotion in Young’s work, let alone sustain it almost without falter for some 50 years. Even his flops have meaning. ‘I know that some of you don’t understand’, he sings with despondent sorrow in The Needle and the Damage Done.

Live at Massey Hall shows us better than almost any album Neil Young’s modesty and humility towards his audience. He neither tries to desperately entertain them nor shuns them in uncaring gloom. He simply plays and lets his emotion flow directly from his voice and fingers, totally naked. He treats the performance not merely as a setlist but as a 67-minute travel through his mind in all its angst, happiness and obscurity. As the original review in the Toronto Star says: ‘There is, not to put too fine a point to it, no crap about him.’

But even Neil knows you should always end a show with a stompin’ hoedown…

And even his hoedowns are deeply personal.

On the video above, the song lasts around 2 minutes, and the raucous applause goes on almost ceaselessly for 3 minutes. Make of that what you will…

In the Light

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If someone asked me to sum up to define rock and roll in two albums – two albums that encapsulate the entire DNA, the power, the glory, the excess, the messy, vibrant artistry of rock and roll – I would choose Physical Graffiti and Exile on Main Street in an fingerclick. I’ve often said that Zeppelin are the greatest ‘albums band’ in rock for their unbroken string of near-perfect 6 albums from 1969’s Led Zeppelin to the LP in question. A string of giant, monolithic touchstones in the recorded album’s history. Forgive my constant glorification – they were the first band I ever seriously loved, and I still hold them in a sort of childlike, unquestioning revery. Don’t get me started about In Through the Out Door, though.

Physical Graffiti kicks off with Custard Pie; a mildly sexual punch to the stomach that rocks out with loose swagger, followed by the apocalyptic rocker The Rover, a showcase for Jimmy Page’s mastery of guitar production. Not a single track on this sprawling epic has the same guitar sound; further solidifying the fact that, while Page isn’t the greatest ‘feel guitarist’ that he is often lauded as, he was a genius at producing, layering and recording his instrument, and Physical Graffiti is packed with these chunky, chewy, alien, tones.

Robert Plant outside Headley Grange, with the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio to the left

The second disc is packed with overlooked classics: Down by the Seaside and Ten Years Gone have a bittersweet calm about them, and the beautiful Bron Yr-Aur instrumental which I will post below.

By 1975, Zeppelin were disintegrating. But as so many great rock ‘n’ roll albums have showed us (Big Star’s Radio City, Exile on Main Street, Tonight’s the Night), an artist in cynical excess and disintegration makes far more interesting records than one in youthful naivety. There are moments where the band sprawl themselves naked and apathetic, and it’s fascinating: In Boogie With Stu, distant intoxicated chuckles are heard as the band relax in the garden with Ian Stewart, recording an impromptu, raggedy blues stomp.

These moments sum up exactly what the double album should be: an artist pouring every single strand of their musical DNA into an inconsistent, glorious mess of a record; it’s the unfocused spilling of one’s artistic guts out onto two plates of black plastic. That’s why so many artists have never made it out alive: Marvin Gaye never made another good album after the naked, raw emotion of Here, My Dear; the Stones never created anything of true merit album-wise after Exile on Main Street; Prince could never after live up to the majestic disorder of Sign O’ the Times. This is the case with Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin’s last stand, and arguably their most representative work.

The Old Cricketer Returns

So I haven’t been on here for a while (ages). Busy. I’m back, though! Here’s a recent discovery that is simply refusing to leave the speakers: HQ by Roy Harper (1975):

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You’ll really understand Roy Harper if you’re British. He seems to encapsulate something unexplainable about the country; his own little slither-slice of the intangible aura of England. In the most famous track on HQ, When an ‘Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’, he captures a village cricket match as the sun sets and the brass band fades, his voice full of painfully bittersweet nostalgia for times passed. The legendary John Peel asked for this song to played in the event of his death.

HQ kicks off with a 13-minute rocker, ‘The Game’, which features Dave Gilmour, John Paul Jones and Bill Bruford. Angry rock turns to pastoral grandeur, which is then swiftly followed by ‘The Spirit Lives’, a track in which Harper takes on his ‘only true enemy’: religion. It’s refreshing to hear some angry atheism in a rock world of blues-preach (note the blasphemous tongue-in-cheek ‘walking on water’ cover art by Hipgnosis). Then follows the heavy Referendum where Roy flamboyantly displays his chops in the field of folk-metal. HQ then takes a breather for the second side for some olde quaint singer-songwritery that achieves the lush, spacey hypnotism that I consider the hallmark of good folk music.

While Stormcock remains the most quietly raved about album in our music press, HQ is an overlooked delight of folk-hard-rock-prog and wacky English prose; hard beats and soft Keats with a little Guthrie mundane mysticism.

I really need to get back into the swing of writing, so forgive the feeble length of this post. Here’s the lovely nugget Forget Me Not from said album. Enjoy:

Solid Mental Grace

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Another one of those album experiences that are permanently imprinted in the memory. It was a cosy winter’s evening. I had just bought Yes’ Fragile and Close to the Edge and was already roughly familiar with the former. I stick on Close to the Edge and let myself be washed away with the distant utopian sounds, until the jarring polyrythmic sections come clinging and clanging in. Stunned, amazed, I ask myself: ‘What is this crap?!”.

So, I stay with it for its sublime 18-minute lifetime and the piece of grandiose progressive rock reveals itself as a kind of masterpiece. Further listens and I still deem it one of the most transcendent uses of the studio since the inception of recording. Close to the Edge ultimately transcends the stigma of its genre to become something quite momentous.

To those who dismiss prog as utter pretentious tosh (and god knows some of it definitely is), just give this an objective listen. I can think of only a IMG_2307handful of records of this era that use the synthesizer and still sound fresh today without a hint of cheesiness. Of course, the lyrics sometimes smell of stoned teenage poetry, but also make perfect phonetic sense when played with the music. Sort of?…

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace

Deep, man. As for the gatefold on the right, note its careful design – engineered for equal parts philosophical contemplation and herb-rolling. And You and I follows the title track with a gentler, acoustic tone…

Ah. I give up. I just can’t explain it. Maybe that’s why it is so brilliant. You know music has entered the realm of the ineffable when trying to describe it makes you sound like a blubbering idiot, desperately throwing superlatives at it. How about this: when I play it really loud, it boggles my mind that a group of human beings and some reels of tape made it. In other words; good prog.

100,000 Siberian Khatrus out of 10

I leave you in typicaly ostentatious style with John Martin’s The Plains of Heaven:

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