Saturday, October 5, 2019


I suppose there is some assumption that strange and weird are the same. Perhaps the easiest way to dispel that is with a substitution. The idea of the comfort of strangers is a long held balm, having companionship without any knowledge or judgement of your back story. The comfort of weirdos is just wrong, I think. Usually, anyway.

Beth Orton has had a long career, only fleetingly making her way into these pages. Probably a bigger name on this side of the pond, she has had quite a game with the avoidance of genre typecasting, making her idiosyncratic way between electronica, folk and, even, a brief dabble with neo-soul.

Don't Wanna Know (About Evil)

Early work was almost exclusively in dance/electronica, collaborating first with William Ørbit ('Ray of Light'), and later with Andrew Weatherall ('Screamadelica'). However, her future direction was defined possibly more by the Japan only single she made with Ørbit, released under the name Spill, and shown in the clip above, a cover of one of John Martyn's better known songs. Her first work under her own name came 4 years later, in 1996, with Trailer Park, led ahead by the single, another cover, this time, demonstrating an eclecticism of source material, of the Ronettes. However, it was her own songs that were the more noticed, a heady mix of plaintive and faltering vocals, underpinned by thoughtful electronic sounds and beats. First featured in her superpinkymandy album, collaborating still with Ørbit, see how the song below has shifted from its initial sound, to how it reappeared on Trailer Park, with Weatherall now at the controls.

She Cries Your Name

Touring the U.S. with the near all female festival collective, Lilith Fair, brought her into contact with american audiences for the first time, as she made influential links with soul man Terry Callier and with country stateswoman, Emmylou Harris, who appeared on her 2nd album, Central Reservation, and 3rd album, Daybreaker, respectively. Gradually she was making an imprint, with Daybreaker selling north of 150k in the states.

Comfort of Strangers

And so to 2006 and the album that heads this piece, it finding her forsaking, largely, the electronica aspects for a more organic sound. Perhaps the title is apt, as, yet again she has another producer, Jim Rourke, both Ben Watt (EBTG) who produced much of the earlier two albums, having been ditched, along with her record company. Likewise, in the same way as Johnny Marr and Ryan Adams had writing co-credits on earlier albums, this time M.Ward just happened to be on hand for a share of the title track.


A prolonged delay then followed, as she was preoccupied both with parenthood and the ravages of auto-immune gut affectation, Crohn's disease. Nonetheless, having spent some of the intervening time picking up guitar techniques from no less than Bert Jansch, 2012's Sugaring Season, was heralded as her best, and features contributions from Laura Veirs and, by now, her husband, Sam Amidon. Again, this is predominantly espousing her earlier style, more folk than 'tronica. So quite why she went back full circle for her next outing is anyone's guess. Whilst lauded at the time, Kidsticks I found lacklustre in songs and glib in the simplicity of the synthesised backing tracks. It made more waves by upsetting Joshua Tree lovers, the original video for song, 1973 having to be withdrawn. Thankfully, when I caught her live, in 2018, she was back to the simpler relative acousticity, herself, a battered six-string and solitary additional backing from (electric) guitar. I wrote about it, she getting but a fleeting mention. I await with interest as to her next magpie step and to which strangers will give her comfort.

Don't let her be a stranger.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Strange/Weird: Stranger In The House

Elvis Costello: Stranger In The House
[purchase the expanded My Aim Is True]
[purchase My Very Special Guests]

I’m still being influenced by watching the 16 plus hours of Ken Burns’ Country Music, so here’s another post that sort of ties into it. One of the ways that Burns breaks up the flow of narration over still pictures or showing snippets of films and videos is through brief commentary by a number of different talking heads. And while seeing Marty Stuart, or Rosanne Cash, or Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard discussing the music—or even lesser known figures such as Ray Benson or Jeannie Seely—didn’t seem strange because they were from the country world, it was initially a surprise when Elvis Costello popped up. Until I quickly remembered the Costello had long been a country music fan.

Despite the fact that Costello was, from the start, marketed as an “Angry Young Man,” and as part of Stiff Records new wave sound, his debut, My Aim is True had some very country-ish sounds—starting with the fact that the backing band was made up of members of country-rock band Clover, including future Doobie Brother John McFee playing lead and pedal steel guitar. But they decided to keep the two most country sounding songs off the album—“Radio Sweetheart” (which was the b-side to the “Less Than Zero” single and “Stranger in the House,” which was included as a bonus single in the early pressings of Costello’s second, and much less country sounding, album, This Year’s Model.

Only a few years later, Costello released “Almost Blue,” a collection of country covers which seemed shocking at the time, but has probably aged better than anyone thought.

“Stranger in the House” could pass for a classic country song—it has all of the right themes, and it was written by Costello with George Jones in mind. Jones is someone who I was aware of, understood that his voice was legendary, and knew that he had a serious alcohol problem. But watching Country Music, it became clear that Jones was country music incarnate. Born in Texas, he started playing guitar as a child, and fell in love with country music listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and he left home at 16 to be a musician.

Married four times, his third wife was country superstar Tammy Wynette, who had her own issues, and their relationship, while commercially successful, was “stormy,” as Jones’ alcohol and drug use spiraled out of control and led to mental illness. And yet, his talent was such that as bad as he got, he kept making comebacks—sometimes even with Wynette, even after they D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D.

Jones recorded “Stranger in the House” as a duet with Costello for a 1978 album, My Very Special Guests” which featured duets with singers from country and other genres.

It set the stage for another #1 hit in 1980, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and more recordings, despite continuing substance abuse issues. But in 1981, Jones met the woman who would become his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, and she helped him (mostly) clean up his act. He continued to record and perform (and complain about the state of country music), until his death in 2013.

When you listen to the duet version of the song, it is striking how good a song it is, while Costello tries mightily, it is clear that vocally, Jones was at a completely different level.