Friday, August 25, 2017

Shadows: Shadows on a Dime

Ferron: Shadows on a Dime


Ferron (with Bitch): Shadows on a Dime


It is possible to be a lesbian from Canada and still enjoy major success in the global music industry. Think of k d lang. But Ferron had these two strikes against her from the start, and she has never had the fame she deserves as a result. Canadian artists must either relocate to the United States before they begin their recording careers, (think Joni Mitchell), or, like lang, have an initial success that it is so big that it can not be denied. And I can not think of anyone who started out recording for a lesbian record label and went on to much wider success. In the case of Ferron, that is a great shame. She needs neither the lesbian nor the Canadian artist label; she is simply one the finest songwriters far too few people have ever heard of, and her appeal should transcend nationality or genre.

Shadows on a Dime is a fine place to start. The song presents a series of vignettes framed by a long train ride. Like the titular shadows on the surface of a dime, they are small things by themselves that add up to something greater. They are a series of thoughts and experiences that define an identity when taken together. That description may sound like new age mumbo jumbo, but the song is wonderfully alive and human.

The album Shadows on a Dime came out in 1984, and I was lucky enough to see her on tour in support of it. She came to Princeton NJ, and I was gently dragged by a group of friends to the show. As with many of my friendships over the years, shared musical tastes were important, so I didn’t really need much persuading. (By the way, I have always lived close enough to Princeton to listen to WPRB, and I was happily listening to our own J David’s show on the station at this time, but he was not part of this. Even now, we have never met in the flesh.) Ferron’s show was great, and I was immediately a fan. I still am, and all of the music I have heard from her in the subsequent 33 years is up to the high standard she was setting then.

Bitch might seem to be an unlikely champion for Ferron’s music. Hailing from Brooklyn NY, Bitch is an in your face songwriter whose songs are confrontational at times. She does possess a rich musical imagination, ranging from variants of folk to rock, club music, and funk, and always making whatever she does very much her own. Yet, when she met Ferron, there was reportedly an instant connection. The album Boulder is an attempt to introduce the music of Ferron to a new generation. Bitch recorded solo performances of some of Ferron’s best songs, and then traveled the country, asking musician friends to add backing tracks to fill out the sound. These included Ani DiFranco and members of the Indigo Girls and the Be Good Tanyas. On the new version of Shadows on a Dime, we hear Ferron in an intimate setting, with Bitch adding fiddle and gentle vocal harmonies. For Ferron, this album was intended to be her musical swan song. It was recorded in 2008, and she intended to do only occasional shows and no more recording. However, there was to be one additional album in 2013, Lighten-ing. This one was made to accompany a documentary about Ferron that used the Boulder album as a soundtrack and starting point. Lighten-ing is, I believe, a collection of new songs. Bitch was once again very involved in the recording, and helped put the band together. For the first time on Lighten-ing, Ferron’s voice sounds like that of a woman who has been doing this for close to forty years. Even so, this is a project that is well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Shadows: Shadows Of


I’ve written about Gong before, a couple of times, and mentioned them in passing. They are a band that I really enjoy, and nevertheless remain pretty obscure. You could probably get a doctorate in the band’s history—it has formed, splintered, reformed, renamed, and changed members more times than one can count. Nevertheless, there’s a website that tries to chronicle Gong's various changes and permutations (as well as other bands from the Canterbury Scene).

I got into Gong through its late 1970s-early 1980s incarnation as a fusion band led by Pierre Moerlen, featuring lots of mallet percussion. The original, spacy, psychedelic version of the band was less interesting to me—although there was brilliance, there was also lots of weird, hard to listen to stuff to wade through. For the most part, the Moerlen-led band was tight, had interesting songs with an unusual amount of percussion and, maybe most importantly, featured incredible musicians, including Allan Holdsworth on guitar. If you don’t know who Allan Holdsworth was (he passed away earlier this year), find his music on the Internet. Days before his death, a 12 CD box set of his solo albums from 1982-2003, entitled The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever, was released. The title was taken from a proclamation on the cover of an issue of Guitar Player in 2008, and it isn’t an overstatement. That’s not to say that there aren’t other guitarists who changed the way guitar was played, but he’s certainly one of them. He was the favorite guitarist of Eddie van Halen; Tom Morello and Frank Zappa, among others, have cited him as an influence.

But the main reason that I’m going back to the Gong well for this theme, which has many possible topics, is that I recently had a chance to meet another of the musicians who played on this song, percussionist Mino Cinélu. Cinélu later played drums for Holdsworth, was in Weather Report, played with, among others, Pat Metheny, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Sting, Kate Bush, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis, and led his  own bands. Mino participated in a panel that I attended recently about copyright law and music, which was led and organized by my friend Heather--who makes her second appearance in SMM--and also featured prominent lawyers and a musicologist who have been involved in some of the most well-known music copyright cases in recent years. Although I’m a lawyer, that’s not my field, and it was fascinating.

Afterwards, we, of course, repaired to the bar for drinks, and I had a chance to chat with Mino, mentioning that I was a huge fan of Gong (particularly the one album of theirs that he appeared on), and Holdsworth, and had participated in an interview with Pierre Moerlen when he, and another formation of Gong, played at Princeton when I was a student. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy, and we’ve been in contact a few times since, most recently to confirm that he, in fact, performed in the live version of “Shadows Of” from the video above, because the Internet shockingly had conflicting information.

It was recorded at the Reading Festival in 1976, and featured Pierre Moerlen and his brother Benoit, also a percussionist, Holdsworth, bass player Francis Moze, percussionist Mirelle Bauer, woodwind player Didier Malherbe and Cinélu. Although the sound quality isn’t great, the performance is, despite the fact that it lacks the amazing acoustic guitar solo of the original, which was a rarity for Holdsworth (or, for that matter, Malherbe's great flute solo).

The Reading Festival that year was a prog-fest, although not exclusively. Other performers included Camel, Phil Manzanera/801, and Brand X. Other non-prog acts included AC/DC (listed in very small type), Black Oak Arkansas, Rory Gallagher (both in very big type), Ted Nugent, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. And, as they say, many, many more.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Shadows: Optikler

No longer available!

I succumbed to the initial "The Shadows" options. Granted, there are fewer and fewer people who would make that association, but I am one of them.

It's not that I actually followed/listened to the Shadows. Mostly, that was just a little before "my time" (but not by much), but I knew their sound.

When I was about 12, there was a band at the local college on the next hill over from where I lived and they had a rock band that practiced loud and long every day. We could hear their noise at that distance, and at least once I trekked to see the source: tangles of cords, amps, mic stands ... all well beyond my experience as someone who played Mozart on an alto recorder.
Little did I know that they were practicing for the "nationals"; that year, they won the most prestigious Pop Music award in the country. Their style - if not their influence, was clearly "The Shadows". Well, maybe not. For the most part, the sound that an electric guitar produced (and they would not have had the latest equipment) sounded like The Shadows. (Even early Beatles have that raw sound)

This past week, I was even more surprised to see that the two songs I recall them playing are actually available on YouTube: who would have imagined that songs from a long defunct, short-lived school band from Turkey would be posted on YouTube - my sense of what is YouTube-worthy is clearly not so accurate. That said, it does allow me to share something you would likely never have heard.
And it sounds a lot like The Shadows - even when they play Peter, Paul and Mary.

Check it out.

The second clip appears to be an original: The song title, translated is "Village Girl", but the style is still predominantly Shadows, and it is the "B" side of the Peter Paul and Mary hit that won them the national pop music championships back in 1967.

For comparison: the Shadows

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shadows: Shadow and Jimmy

Was (Not Was): Shadow and Jimmy


What lurks in the shadows? For the next two weeks, we will be shadowing musicians as they explore that question. Taken literally, a shadow as an image created when a solid object blocks light from a small area. It is when the word is considered as a metaphor that things get interesting, and songwriters get inspired. A shadow can be an image of a person, and it can become distorted by the angle of the light or the contours of the surface on which it is cast. So it is not the same as the person who cast it, merely a memory or a distorted impression. “Shadow” is also a term that may be used to describe a ghost or apparition, a supernatural after image if you will. We will be exploring how songwriters work with these ideas over the course of our theme. But first, here is a much simpler explanation. In Shadow and Jimmy, Shadow just a man’s name.

Shadow and Jimmy comes from Was (Not Was)’s 1988 album What Up, Dog?. The album represented the pinnacle of the band’s success, spawning six singles, but somehow Shadow and Jimmy was never even a flip side. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I am at a loss to explain it. The song features a great lead vocal by Sweet Pea Atkinson over a backing track that has the classic feel of songs like Spanish Harlem. The song was a cowrite by David Was and Elvis Costello. David and Don Was would often bring in unexpected artists on their Was (Not Was) projects, and Don especially would later parlay the resulting connections into a very successful career as a producer. The song itself presents a portrait of two men who never finished growing up. As the lyric says, they were “always yesterday’s news”, which, in a sense, makes them both shadows. To me, they represent the parts of maleness that most of us outgrew once we left high school. They never make the leap in their thinking from the idea of girls to that of women. But they are never quite alone as a result, because they have each other. So ultimately, the song is a celebration of a friendship. It may be that some listeners didn’t know what to make of the relationship described in the song. You could dismiss the characters as losers, but Costello and Was don’t do that. Neither character has any success with the opposite sex, and it is not for lack of wanting it. But the songwriters do not want us to pity them; we are asked instead to find beauty in their loyalty to each other. Maybe the song was not a single because not enough listeners could make that leap, but Was, Costello, Atkinson, and the backing band do everything you could ask to make it possible.