Monday, March 14, 2011

Ecstatic Melancholy Showbag #1

Here is the first of my Ecstatic Melancholy showbags, a series of playlists highlighting songs that I dearly wish were better known and able to be enjoyed by more people. They might be neglected and overlooked tracks from well known artists or albums or great songs from 'cult' musicians who should be more widely appreciated and better known, full stop. In each showbag will be 13 songs, a baker's dozens, for just that little bit extra.

Grizzly Bear 'Alligator'(Choir Version) ('Friend' EP - 2008)

Daniel Rosen's very welcome fingerprints are all over this 'choir version' of an originally much shorter piece from their first album 'Horn Of Plenty'. Uneasy, buzzing synth noodling leads into the muted, chilly vocal warning; 'It's a fear, it is near, the shape becomes ever clear'. Conspiratorial interplay of shimmering guitars and restless percussion morphs into a grinding lumber as the rhythmic hook kicks in and we discover the nature of the danger; 'you are my alligator'. The tension drops a little as the song settles briefly into hooky groove, but only briefly, as the grind intensifies again through cutting guitars and crashing cymbals. The cacophany then drops away to leave simmering cymbal rattle, thick piano reverb groan and a sinister trickle of treble notes underneath more bleak lyrical fatalism. The glorious harmonies spike and a sudden skyful of trumpets and horns herald an ecstatic, shivering resolve. After a few breaths, piano keeping the pulse, the unsettled rhythmic heartbeat returns and fades into the distance with the 'alligator' refrain. A breathtaking study in dynamics and restrained suggestion with extraordinary sonic range; a melodic horror story that moves from sinister, black and white celluloid contrast and crackle, to widescreen technicolour bloodfest and back again in 5 minutes. It deserves to be the centre-piece of an album, but sadly remains only available on their 'Friend' EP. My choice for their greatest achievement to date.

2) Emitt Rhodes 'Better Side Of Life' ('Mirror' - 1971)

With it's 'White Album' stylings, cleverly wrong-footing 'oompah' rhythm and staccato piano chord strikes, Paul McCartney would be proud to have written this one. Rhodes is obviously a McCartney fan and fellow whizz with an 8 track machine (he played and sang EVERYTHING on this track) but the 'Son of Beatle' comparisons that everyone (including me obviously) who writes about him make do him something of a disservice. Emitt penned several great songs in a burst of youthful creativity that lasted through his earliest work with Merry-Go-Round in the late 60's and a couple of lovely solo albums in the early 70's. These songs stand on their own, this one in particular, and demonstrate an enviable off-handed ease in performance and true melodic flair. His lyrics have a fair whack of insight and pathos that can go unnoticed due their often strident and sunny sounding melodic clothes, 'You don't have to be alone to feel alone, you can have someone, and still be alone'. Indeed Emitt. Indeed. Truth be told,'-esque' wise, this is probably as much Lennon as it is McCartney, and maybe that's why it stands out. It's the perfect marriage played out by someone who knows their strengths intimately and how to make John & Paul-isms play together nicely rather than grizzle and tussle.

3) Bob Dylan 'Blind Willie McTell' ('Infidels' out-take - 1983)

A mythic song in which Bob wends his way through the poverty and misery, magic and mystique of the Deep South early last century and stands eternal witness to the greatness of blues musician Blind Willie McTell; 'I know that no one can sing the blues like...' All of this to devastating effect. I'd love to single out a lyric, but it's Bob so it's all highlight and every line is loaded with meaning and worthy of mention. This track is the golden child of a time of relative creative poverty for Bob. Consider much of Bob's other output of the early 80's; freeze dried production, bad synths and Dylan often sounding smug, cursory and disinterested. Where did this vocal come from? It's rich, committed, passionate and nuanced. The simple piano, acoustic guitar (courtesy Mark Knopfler) and vocal arrangement was a good call; hard to get wrong and hard to date, and it may have saved this precious miracle from the sad sonic fate of its contemporaries. But it's more than the arrangement that lifts this song above its brothers, it is simply one of the very greatest songs of all time. Dylan seems to be singing for his soul and writing poetry for the ages; clever because it's great, not great because it's clever, where the inverse has often been the case with Bob. The melody aches like little else. In two words, Absolutely stunning.

4) Gillian Welch 'Caleb Meyer' ('Hell Among The Yearlings' - 1998)

This track has a chilling inevitability about it from the first. The frantic guitars drag you like a pack of startled sled dogs, like it or not, to the nasty encounter late in the song. Gillian Welch takes her craft to another level with this performance. In her other work, of which I've heard enough but not half, the care and craft is evident and she plays her protagonists very well, but this one stands higher in the pack. She absolutely inhabits this part. The proverbial role of a lifetime probably. Her slightly pinched, acidic tone and sinewy phrasing are perfect. The tale of the wife left alone in the house in the woods while her husband's away on business, and the opportunist monster coming by to try to have his way with her, is superbly drawn and unfurled. The conclusion is poetically graphic rather than sadistically so. It has weight and gets the point across without trying too hard to shock; 'Then feeling with my finger tips, a bottle neck I found, I drew that glass across his neck, fine as any blade, then I felt his blood pour fast and hot, around me where I lay'. A superb deathly dark example of that wily beast alt. country.

5) Nick Lowe 'Cupid Must Be Angry' ('The Convincer' - 2001)

At once wry, playful, yearning and sadly poignant lyrics spill forth from Mr Lowe with a rare voice. It has refined and peaked with advancing age; there's more weight and authority to the modern version; kind of a smoky, dry honey these days. Intimate and insinuating. His vocal chords and tonsils resonate and rattle with knowing echoes of Orbison, Cooke and King Cole. Brilliantly captured too. The lean and minimalist production is supremely tasteful with no overplaying or excess notes; lots of atmospheric space with beautiful and excitingly subtle details within. An organ stab here, an unexpected synth shiver there, a trumpet pokes through for a few seconds never to appear again, it doesn't need to - don't have it noodling just because you've got one in the studio! The melody is that of a relaxed master, not revelatory, just the product of someone who instinctively knows how to pull and dig and lift and cut in all the right places without sweaty over-thinking or arch cleverness. It kind of sounds like surgery, it sort of is. They only let experts do that too. Mr Lowe is one. The greatest living 'classic' songwriter (hummable melodies, story songs - see Nelson, Cash, Orbison, Young, Wilson yadda yadda) who is still at the top of his game IMHO. Who else is likely to make a new album that can stand alongside his greatest work from 30 years ago with all his powers intact; honed even. Richard Thompson maybe? A duo album chaps please.

6) Matt Walker & Ashley Davies 'Evil Feelings' ('Soul Witness' - 1999)

This song is both the clear standout and the brilliant oddity on a what is otherwise a well crafted but not life changing blues jam album filled with tasteful and skilled dueling between Walker's guitar and Davies drums. This track is a very different creature despite still having plenty of guitar and cavernous, propelling drums. The difference is that this was a co-write with one David McComb, whose influence is writ huge! The melody is more textured and the lyrics more arresting than its album fellows; 'take the black road, by the beach, drive north all night, 'til the car breaks down, get out strip, walk into the water, keep on walking 'til you like what you've found.' Jesus. 'Evil feelings, melt in your mouth like snow in spring.' Fantastic, creepy stuff. Prominent piano is by subtle turns pretty and bone chilling. Walker also sparks a few spinal shivers with some thrilling vibrato notes on the acoustic, particularly on the foreboding intro. Walker's voice deserves praise too, it has assured confidence and gravity, yet it also manages a floating fragility. What frustrates me though is this song was the exception on the album. I'd like to hear an album from Walker where the likes of this is the rule. Maybe he's done one since. I should have a look.

7) Richard Thompson 'The Ghost Of You Walks' ('Action Packed' compilation - 2001)

Oh Richard! how I love your spooky guitar work, it's those tiny permutations that get me all excited and despite their tini-ness make the huge differences in mood. This track is masterful and he could have just gone with a lazy fade out, and no one would have felt short changed, yet he throws in THAT guitar scale right in the dying seconds. The last run of notes is just exquisite. That's artistry when not a second gets wasted and every second can be part of something special. The scale I'm harping on about is a brilliantly uncomfortable run of notes that evinces perhaps better even than the superb lyrics precisely where the protagonist is at; alone, miserable, confused and with things hopelessly unresolved in the relationship that he's mulling over. You don't know where the scale is heading from one mili-second to the next; will it end hopeful, no it won't, oooh, maybe? it flips through minors and majors giving no obvious clues to where it might settle. Brilliant. I have gone on about that scale haven't I, it deserves it. More generally though, I love it when this charming and nervy chap picks at the emotional sores and turns his torch on to the ugly bits. He's a true master at laying bare the murky bits of the heart and soul.

8) John Jacob Niles 'Go Way From My Window' (live, circa early 60's)

I first came across a snippet of this song on the Martin Scorcese doco about Bob Dylan, 'No Direction Home', and couldn't believe my eyes and ears. A strikingly singular and elastic tenor that could give you vertigo as it catapults into choirboy-who-just-saw-the-devil territory; spilling from a gaunt, pale, bone white-haired old man strumming a lap harp. He dramatically emotes 'go way way way from miiiy bed-siiiide and both-ther me no mo-or-ore, bother me no mo-ore'. Breathily fey and starkly mannered yes, but utterly compelling due to the absolute conviction and complete lack of irony and self consciousness. Some people who I thought would embrace Mr Niles after hearing this song (Antony and Joanna Newsom fans mind) find this to be "too much" (compared to those two??) and "kind of creepy". Well, Jacob's appearance does sort of remind me of the tall, spindly 'evil incarnate' old man with the walking cane from the 'Poltergeist' films, but despite long being terrified of those films, I love this song and and I like John Jacob. Bob D really likes him too. I'll side with Bob. That validates my argument for him better than anything I can argue probably. The spoken introduction to this performance is great as well, "I wrote this song in nineteen hundred and eight", among other smile inducing pre-vocal gems.

9) Robert Wyatt 'The Last Straw' ('Rock Bottom' - 1974)

This track hails from Robert Wyatt's first album after being paralysed from the waist down due to an enebriated fall from a third story bathroom window; it may be informed by that tragedy to a greater or lesser degree. His voice sounds part 'ballad head' Neil Young (as opposed to 'angry lumberjack' head), part Elmer Fudd's Cockney cousin, part cheeky chimney sweep; actually, the last two could be one and the same. Anyway, in other words, it's great. His voice has a natural (under)watery quality, so at the rocky bottom of an emotional ocean, where he situates himself in this song, is perfect territory for him; 'Seaweed tangled in our home from home, reminds me of your rocky bottom.' The lyrics are few and concise yet cryptic and wonderfully enigmatic. I was going to try, but I won't. Just listen, and more importantly, feel. The fact he spends a fair amount of his vocal time wailing beyond words says a lot. He sings painfully prettily and vocalises a liberating and soul spilling trumpet line through the woozy, glistening wash of piano, synths, slippery sonic bass pulsations and rattling cymbals. It's odd and it's unconventional and lots of people don't and won't get this kind of song and performance; it's a sad thing. I say it's lovely and bittersweet true soul from one of the greatest soul vocalists.

10) The Czars 'Little Pink House' ('Goodbye' - 2004)

John Grant, last year's 'Mojo Magazine' 'Album of the Year' winner for 'Queen Of Denmark', led this underrated group before that first solo album and this song recalls/imagines an attempt to come of age with a prostitute? and finding out that he's not a lady's man?; 'I learned what I was and what I was not, supposed to be.' The opaque and cryptic bridge from his 'teacher' is a thing of wonder, 'bleeding heart, lily-of-the-valley, snapdragon, rambling rose, you'll never make it in this world, if you're not one of those'. It seems she's telling/ warning him there's only a few ways to be, and reading between the lines now, you better be sure because there's consequences for each one. Is he any of them? He says he chose her from several options; 'you were the one I chose.' I have always thought Grant was implying with this character (or is it him) that this visit taught him he was gay, but I'm not so sure now I've read the lyrics as I'm typing. Ah, who gives a! It's a fascinating song with a restrained, sultry simmer; gorgeously sung and played, and it deserves your ponderance.

11) Bruce Springsteen 'Meeting Across The River' ('Born To Run' - 1975)

Apparently Bruce's producer didn't want Bruce doing more of this kind of piano ballad material; what a short-sighted f*^kwit! This remains a glorious oddity in his canon and it minds its own business near the tail end of 'Born To Run'; overshadowed in public consciousness by the brilliant bluster of the panoramic title track and 'Thunder Road', among others. This track, with it's modesty and fragility, is worth nursing in your soul like an fallen baby bird. A gorgeous piano refrain and yearning, muted trumpet underpin the sad tale of the luckless petty criminal who tries to seal 'just one more deal' to turn his rotten luck around, despite the protestation of his little lady; 'Jerry says she's gonna walk, cause she found I took her radio and hocked it, but Eddie man, she don't understand, that two grands practically sitting in here in my pocket, tonight's gonna be everything that I say, and when I walk through that door, I'm just gonna throw that money on the bed, she'll see this time I wasn't just talking, them I'm gonna go out walking.' The all consuming but painfully naive hope is extraordinarily poignant. As Bruce tries to convince himself the intensity ramps up then finally releases, with his plan to just 'go out walking' when the deals done, just beautifully. This is a gritty little character driven indie film waiting to happen. Grainy black and white with lots of grey buidlings, shadows and cigarette smoke. Someone should make it happen.

12) 'Million Dollar Baby' Richard Swift ('Dressed Up For The Letdown" - 2007)

These are a few of my favourite things; bittersweet harmonies right out of 70's radio fantasy-land, soaring but melancholic choruses, a diverting turn at a pretty bridge, a beautiful minor drop or two, such as on 'pulling my car to the side of the road, to watch you let go', a supremely tasteful solo by a guitar player serving the song, not his ego, who has clearly listened close to George on later era Beatles and lots of early Steely Dan. All these things are in this song, resplendently. It is classic songwriting and it is the kind of song I like to try to write myself and (bleedingly obviously) to listen to a lot. It moves me no end. Mr Swift, who in another song on the same album details how he's too chubby, plain and bald for big record companies to get behind him, shoulda and woulda 'made it big' 30 years ago with tunes like this. Sadly, today's music scene is criminally blind to genuine talent unless you play its plastic games, compromise your work with buckets of blanding polish and are lucky enough to be very pretty too, in which case, you should know I'm bitter and I probably hate you.

13) Stevie Wonder 'I Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer' ('Where I'm Coming From' - 1971)

A heartbreaking piano led lament that tracks the seasons of a doomed relationship. It was revived by Stevie as a stunning solo piano piece for the Michael Jackson funeral tribute, which is where I first heard it. I was left slack jawed by the song and Stevie's paralysing performance and went hunting for the original. It has a beautifully mournful orch pop arrangement and a revelatory vocal range that foreshadows his extraordinary vocal on 'Lately' 8 or 9 years later. His lungs are simply mythic, can he hold a note or what? For one of the funkiest men on the plant, I just love Stevie sitting behind a piano singing tragic ballads. He's not wasted that way at all. I love the haunting coronet? is it? or french horn? and cliff falling piano notes of defeat as reality hits brutally hard after each desperately hopeful verse. Such beautiful elements; very much 'ecstatic melancholy' and hence a perfect place to end the first 'EM showbag'. Thanks for reading, now, good listening!

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