Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ecstatic Melancholy Showbag #2


The 2nd showbag, 13 more songs you need to hear!


1) Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks 'News From Up The Street'

From the opening minor chord pulse of bass and acoustic, there's no mistaking that all's not well in town, but with a seductive longing playing brilliantly against the simmering trouble, this song is a special creature indeed. An unexpected mixture of western swing, folk-country and barbershop torch ballad heading way over in left field. The harmonies are creepy creamy and Hicks' voice has a simply gorgeous ethereal quality, not unlike Gerry Rafferty, from the first words "ride your pony in, take a letter to.." I'm hooked. The lead guitar and violin both take the song behind the barn at various times and have their way with it, gently, mind. A saucy and sinister sweet shiver of a song.

2) Beth Orton (feat Terry Callier) 'Pass In Time'

Heartbreaking mothers and daughters business laid plain and bare; memories that weigh and regrets that sting. So much feeling and meaning packed into a few economical verses. Orton & Callier weave wonderful moans and sighs around each others voices, their pitches wander unsettlingly at times in the long fadeout, but it's just so, you wouldn't change it for the loss of truth. The vibes and bass throb are sonic delight with prickles of acoustic cutting through. The strings swell, sting and sob, as they should. A painfully simple but profound meditation for the ages. "Come on now, come on now child, you're here just a while". Take note folks.

3)  Phoebe Snow 'Poetry Man' 

One of the most sensual and thrilling evocations of the male of the species committed to tape. The spooky guitar chord permutations are tiny little seduction refinements as Phoebe tries to sneak her way into her muses psyche with this bewitching spell of a song. The chiming bells, the snaky trumpet, the strings up in the stratosphere, the insistent shakers; "you're hiding something sweet, please give it to me"; the spell is cast! There is a palpable unfulfilled desire, but there also seems the ability to entrap and bewitch because she sounds like a savvy woman of the world, her voice can't help it, but it's almost like Phoebe doesn't want to use her powers this time, she wants this connection to unfold naturally because he sounds special; "I get a giggling teenage crush". She's just loving feeling like a smitten teenage girl again. This is delightful and single minded desire has rarely sounded so intoxicating and gorgeous.

4) Eric Matthews 'Poisons Will Pass Me'

A funereal organ leads the procession, with first a lone violin then a black hearse full of exquisite strings swooping down behind mournful Mr Matthews. Whatever the poisons are, seemingly a doomed relationship, it does seem terminal. Not even the slightest shard of sunlight in the enveloping gloom. Oddly, though, the final moments of the string arrangment indicate a release at the end, not the release of death, more like a unlikely lucky escape. Perhaps Eric had one. Stunning orch-pop from Sub Pop, where Eric was a pleasing anomoly.

5) Split Enz 'Semi-Detached'

'Stalking shark' piano reverb rumble sets the uneasy tone. Trouble is surely afoot. Slightly fuzzy sonics set a sound palette that is at once cavernous and claustrophobic. Synth scales and sharp guitar weave in an out of each others reverb wake. Tim Finn beautifully and tragically describes his mental torment; "bodies frozen and in my head the pain is here to stay, panic seems to close for comfort, save me", he then asks "who's gonna be there when the going gets rough, who I wonder?" in weary despair. Tim's striking tenor then u-turns into the stratosphere leaving the aching pit of your stomach lagging behind. A little later he confides "I think I heard a neighbour say, he'll amount to nothing, he's pathetic". Absolutely heartbreaking stuff, beautifully capturing the tragic but time-honoured tale of artist who suffers from (insert mental health issue(s) here) on top of (or below?) having to deal with the cruel, unthinking judgements of other as they valiantly try to turn their passion into sustaining career. A thunderous, squalling instrumental section leaves Tim hanging alone from a cliff with a trickle of slowing piano notes, some wordless moans, a synth wash and the death rattle of a cymbal. Hard to say where he ended up, but no change I think. In some ways a forerunner to 'Dirty Creature' and Tim's honest and evocative heart on fingertips musings are a gift to those who know within this unweildy, admirably brave and angular beauty.

6) Joni Mitchell 'Song For Sharon'

Like the snake around on her arm in the song, the guitar motif intro coils around your interest and grabs quickly with the help of a cymbal rattle.  In an open letter to an old friend reflecting on the past and on their divergent paths, Joni covers so much ground in what surely must be one of her finest achievements. She runs her musical fingers over dense and cross-cutting textures of love, lust, loss, suicide, hope, despair, faith, desire and regret through its multitude of deeply involving verses. Her singular and stunning vocal shifts assuredly through doubting and downcast fragility to tortured ecstasy and shades between. The backing vocals are a revelation too, sounding for all the world like a skyfull of banshee archangels when they burst in at key moments. The backing is just so, with the band providing a sumptuous sonic bed for Joni, only sparingly rising above a delectable simmer and with greater effect for it. There is variation enough in the playing though that it never feels stale depsite the epic length. 'Song For Sharon' is truly cinematic in scope and extraordinarily evocative, the subtle changes in light and season, age and outlook are masterful. Genius.

7) Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane 'Street In The City' 

A humble introduction with a guitar scale warm up and hum of a wakening string section give little indication of the Off-West End musical that is about to unfold. Pete Towshend unfurls his morning in the city, gradually filling it with character strokes and delicious little details. Backdrop after backdrop lifts and the stage curtains spread ever wider to reveal more of his city in a masterful and involving manner, matched perfectly by the widening scope of the backing and arrangement. Like a cheeky paper boy, Pete delivers his quirky observations of the little nothing moments of daily life quite matter of factly, but with the swooping strings and dramatic stop-starts, everything seems so deeply significant and painfully melancholy. Some of the lyrics seem like overheard gossip (the woman with the bun in her hair, the man charged with telling lies) especially when Pete has a go at Fleet Street machinations in the next verse, but they could just as well be his own observations or inner voice that can't stop judging. Who knows. The uncertainty is a plus. The vocal is a revelation for one unlikely to win any great vocalist laurels, one of his finest and most tender; "what a shame, whose to blame, for the pain with his sin". Pete does love his musicals and it all works a treat here in this condensed form, perhaps better at times than some of his sprawling rock operas. This is probably his crack at a Penny Lane too, but typically for him it is a crankier, seedier and more subversive place. There are more back alleys, grimy windows and falling knickers; no 'Cambridge Rapers' in the papers of Beatle McCartney's Lane. The acoustic playing is strident and crisp as a chill sunny morn. An unexpected diversion mid-song into Dan Hicks style western swing is like an intermission between Acts; you feel as it might lead to another verse or two, but doesn't, just a brief lyric reprise. Perhaps Act 2 is a whole other song. Pete's dramatic gasp towards the end is a lovely touch too, perhaps in ecstasy at the bewitching magic of his song.

8) Fleetwood Mac 'That's All For Everyone'

An intoxicating meditation of a song, more a melodic chant or incantation really, that fondly recalls The Beach Boys 'Ti I Die' with its weary fatalism and 'cork on the ocean' like gentle lurch of piano, soft percussion and dreamy vibes. Lindsay, Christine and Stevie moan, coo and weave together beautifully through the gorgeous melody. I'm not sure if the protagonist is planning on leaving town or leaving life, but it sounds like calm and complete surrender; "must be just exactly what I need". Brief and bleak but strangely reassuring and absolutely gorgeous.


More to come...stay tuned

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