Saturday, September 23, 2017


Did Lindisfarne ever mean much in the U.S.? I have little idea and suspect not, but, for a brief window, early, early 70s, they were huge over here, contrarily atypical of anything else on the market at the time, too folk for prog, too ramshackle for folk, a glorious blend of mismatched voices and acoustic instruments, underpinned by a rock solid rhythm section, belting out tunes with all the measure of a McCartney. And those mismatched voices came together to give the uncanniest of ragged harmonies, the like of which would not be heard again until the heyday of the Jayhawks. Alan Hull, author and the main singer of most of the songs, had a knack to pierce through to your soul with his anguish and joy, his songwriting capable of both effortlessly crafted wordplay or of the tightest social comment, often in the same song. This song, the lead track from their 3rd record, 'Dingley Dell', is an example of the latter, a wistful lament to and of its times, the backing a beautiful blend of mandolins and a silver band.

The band, named after the almost-island off the Northumberland coast of England, were slow to meet overnight success, the first record, o so aptly entitled 'Nicely Out of Tune', almost slipping by unnoticed, until, ironically, their 2nd release, 'Fog on the Tyne' was released. This was, astonishingly, the surprise biggest UK selling album of 1972, its lead single, a song by bassist Rod Clements, 'Meet Me on the Corner', becoming a number 5 single success. 'Lady Eleanor', the earlier single from that first record was released a 2nd time, surpassing that and reaching number 3, buoying the parent LP up the charts behind it, the melancholic mandolin of Ray Jackson, also the harmonica player for meet 'Me on the Corner', no small part of the either songs attractiveness. The other 2 members of the band, Simon Cowe, on guitars and the biggest pigsty hairstyle ever, and Ray Laidlaw on no nonsense drums, each added to the whole. 'Dingley Dell' was a much more ambitious pice, and, in retrospect, was perhaps a step too far for their fanbase, that version of the band then breaking asunder, as their success faltered. I remember buying it, on the day of release, being both delighted and disappointed, variously, by the changes in and widening of direction. Two factions, Hull, Jackson and new members, lurched on as Lindisfarne, but it was never quite the same. The other 3 formed the rather more folk influenced 'Jack the Lad', with likewise limited favour, outside, at least, my ears. The original 5 reformed together in 1976, with a further hit single, 'Run For Home', but times had changed and their style was now out of vogue, hindered by the material promising, ultimately, more than it could deliver. More was to be gained from their famed yearly Christmas gigs at Newcastle City Hall, which were fuelled more on past glories than new. At least once a year, the fog on the tyne was, surely, theirs. Alan Hull had also a solo career alongside these later years, with greater acclaim, particularly in retrospect, than with his concomitant band work, ahead of a way too early demise, in 1995, aged 50, from a heart attack. In 2012 a plaque was unveiled in Newcastle to his memory.

Since then, as is seemingly now compulsory of bands from the last century, the band lurches on, various original members slipping in and out, often one replacing the other, as when Ray Jackson 'retiring' in 2015, to be 'replaced' by Rod Clements. Sadly Simon Cowe died in 2015.

Search further: this is the best of from their first 3 (and best 3) recordings, which were each on the quirky UK Charisma label, also an home to Genesis, the 2 completely different bands going out on tour together on one occasion, to the possible bemusement of the fans of each.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Down: Way Down In The Hole

Tom Waits: Way Down In The Hole
[purchase The Wire soundtrack, with 4 of the 5 versions used in the credits]

This year, it seems like I’m writing more about television related music. I watch an enormous amount of television, and I do think that there is so much great stuff to watch these days. In fact, there’s a ton of shows out there now that I would like to check out, but there are just so many hours in the day. In addition, there are a bunch of older shows, often considered to be among the medium’s best, that I have never seen. Some, I’m not interested in, like Game of Thrones, but mostly it is because I didn’t start watching them during their initial run, such as The Sopranos (80 episodes), or Mad Men (92 episodes), or Breaking Bad (62 episodes, plus I’d have to watch Better Call Saul), and their multi-season runs make binge watching difficult.

A few years ago, when I started my own practice, there wasn’t much work right away. I decided to binge watch one of the shows that I had missed, and hit upon The Wire. It was only five seasons (and 60 episodes), it was supposed to be greatAlso, I was a big fan of Homicide: Life On The Streets, which shares significant creative DNA with The Wire.  And my wife wasn’t interested in it. Perfect. (I also watched the 24 episode British show The Thick of It, which was amazing, and easily the most profane program I have ever watched).

The Wire was, in fact, great, and harrowing, and depressing and brilliant. The way that it dissected the Baltimore of its era by focusing on the decay of its major institutions—the police, the unions, the government, the schools, the press, and even the street gangs—was remarkable. The narrative style was groundbreaking, and the performances, by actors who rarely, if ever, have reached the same level of quality since, were stunning. And there was Omar.

But, as I so often have to remind myself, this is a music blog. The credits for the first season ran over a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” recorded by the Blind Boys of Alabama. At the time, I didn’t know that it was a cover, because I’m not that big a Waits fan. The second season, they used the original. For season three, it was a Neville Brothers cover, and in season 4, they commissioned a version, credited to DoMaJe, sung by Baltimore middle schoolers, which related to the season’s focus on the public schools. The final year, they used a cover by Steve Earle, who also acted in the show. Here are all of the credit sequences, conveniently edited into one video:

If you’d like to read more about the credits, go here.

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, followed up that show with a number of well-received television projects.  Generation Kill, which I haven't seen, was about the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Tremé, which I loved, taught me an enormous amount about post-Katrina New Orleans, and that amazing city's culture, particularly its music. After that, he adapted my friend Lisa Belkin's book Show Me A Hero into a gripping miniseries about zoning (cheap joke--it was about race, and politics and ambition and much more).  A couple of weeks ago, his new show, The Deuce, focusing on the sex and pornography industry in New York in the 1970s, debuted to critical acclaim.  So far, I think it is good, but, and I bet Simon gets tired of hearing this phrase, it isn't The Wire (but is it more like that show than the other Simon projects?).

Down: Burning Down, by REM


Purchase Burning Down, by REM

REM’s “Burning Down” is an interesting song with a patchwork history, and it stands out for two reasons. One, it’s classic early REM: arpeggiated chords, an all-over the neck bass line that was melodious than rhythmic  and, most indicative of REM’s uniquely nascent sonic fabric, Michael Stipe’s unintelligible, mumbled, yet beautifully imagistic lyrics. Stipe’s vocal delivery was a turn-off for some back then—“I can’t understand what he’s saying!”—but was a badge of uniqueness and cause for devotion to REM’s earliest fans. Especially when the occasional intelligible phrase would break through the gauzy swirl of harmonies, and sit there, like some strange prophecy: “Running water on a sinking boat/Going under but they’ve got your goat…” A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it sounded amazing, so comprehension was secondary. 

As a front man, Stipe set the band apart, with his mop of grecian sculpture curls, and he set a tone for fashion, and a model for navel-gazers who wanted to shuffle and mumble and bury ourselves in our poetry and hide behind our notebooks, in our thrift store chic uniform of flannel cords and wingtips. I’ve written about this before, but when I was coming of age, music and the bands I listened to were a tribal signifier and part of an intricate rite of passage. To identify by a band or a genre of music isn’t unique in itself, but the music—the sound, the bands, the labels and social mores of the actual artistic movement—helped more to create identity than any other source of influence. 

For me, REM was the antithesis and antidote to the goofy, spandex-laden, hair-sprayed excess of 80s metal that we were all listening to. There was something indefinably cool and mysterious about REM and the “progressive” music of that era, and as I got older and finally accepted that I couldn’t grow my hair long, REM provided the kind of musical medicine I needed to help me nail down some kind of understanding of my ever-elusive teenage identity. I’m still looking, I know, but like any true devotee of music, I formed my coherence of self through music and identified as a fan, with a a capital F. In this case, REM was my first true badge, and I felt like some kind of indie legend walking the halls of my high school in my Document Work tour t-shirt. If you have your timelines in order, you might say: Hey, Document rang in the end of REM’s indie cult-status. And you’re right—sadly, I came to them slightly late, but I will say I was the first—the first!—to have Document and I had a personal mission to turn everyone on to a little song called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” 

Going further back, to classic REM,Burning Down” was actually born as a different track, “Ages of You”, and both songs can be found on REM’s B-sides collection Dead Letter Office. “Ages of You”, though meant to originally be released on the EP Chronic Town, was left off. Later, continuing its life-cycle as an unwanted stepchild, it was left off the full length Reckoning, as well.  As quoted in the liner notes of Dead Letter Office, Peter Buck describes the strange duality of the song’s history: “When we got tired of ['Burning Down'], we kept the two pieces that we liked and rewrote the rest to come up with 'Ages of You'. We got tired of that one, also.” 

Burning Down finally saw life as a European only B-side on the 7” and 12” for “Wendell Gee”, from Fables of the Reconstruction. A decidedly different musical contrast exists here, juxtaposing “Wendell Gee’s” maudlin, piano and banjo balladry to “Burning’s” earnest, chiming, sing-along anthemic drive.

Give both tracks a listen. Peter Buck refers to “Burning Down” as a “companion piece” to “Ages of You.” And for that distinction alone it deserves a critical listen. And if you haven’t listened to REM (classic REM) in a while, the track will remind you immediately of what was so great about the band, when you were still a kid, with goofy hair but cool shoes, and a whole world of disappointing disillusions yet to come. (That would be REM's Out of Time, not life in general...)

That t-shirt...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Down: All That You Dream

purchase [The Last Record Album]

I hadn't intentionally pre-planned continuity from my last post to this one, but - as the "responsible" for this theme, I do wonder if my eventual theme choice wasn't at least subliminal (I think that applies). I mean, going from Little Feat's Can't Stand the Rain >> Little Feat's All That You Dream. <Entre paranthese> I have to give a tip of the hat to the comment from Dead_Elvis, Inc for the correction in the comments [right side]. But beyond, the theme offers up the possibility of pursuing Little Feat's <Down on the Farm>, notable for little except being the final album to which Lowell George contributed [a little because he was giving his time to <Thanks, I'll Eat It Here> as referenced by Dead_Elvis, Inc.]

There's something similar about the way that Little Feat's (and Steely Dan's- [RIP Walter Becker]) music affects me. Technically, I think I've got it right if I say they both incorporate somewhat complex structures that combine "California pop" with jazz. I'm talking catchy/pop-ish tunes with a twist away from the standard R&B I-IV-V chord structure. Add in lyrics that generally go a little beyond "She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah.." and you've got me on board. (Spyro Gyra and even into a lot of the ECM music from the mid 70s)

Yes, I confess, I am stuck back in the past. There isn't a lot from the present that I listen to. Most everything that comes to mind for a <Down> theme goes back to before the 90s. Heck, most everything I have ever posted here goes back to before the 90s. Not all. Most.

It seems to me that this is a song that sings about a better future, or at least the hope for better. Certainly regret and acknowledgement that things aren't what we wished they would be, but also a desire to improve:

All of the good times were ours ...
Rainy days turn to sunny ones ...
Can't be 'round this kind of show no more

Worth considering that the song isn't credited to Lowell George, but it is among the last that he was here for. Possible premonition because he wasn't around for too many more shows? Online sources say it is he doing the vocals (sounds right).

Also worth considering -from my perspective- is that the song doesn't bring me down. There are songs that do, but the tempo and harmony here aren't sad despite the lyric word choices (clouds, rain, wash away ...)

While you are here, also see Darius' long ago related