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Song of the Day – Kate Bush: “Wild Man”

After 12 years between The Red Shoes and Aerial, and five-and-a-half between Aerial and Director’s Cut, Kate Bush is acting like it’s 1978 all over again and releasing two albums in one year. Next month sees the release of 50 Words for Snow, Bush’s first album of all-new material in six years (this spring’s Director’s Cut was an album of reworkings of previous songs.) The lead single, “Wild Man,” premiered yesterday and marries the lush layered style and synth hooks of her ’80s peak with the low-key, mellow harmonies and instrumentation of her 2000s work. The result is a serious grower: where Bush’s spoken verses initially seem underwhelming, repeated listening reveals it to be another rich, alluring release from a true original.

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PJ Harvey’s deserving Mercury triumph

PJ Harvey has garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention and critical acclaim for her eighth LP, Let England Shake – most recently she has been awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for a second time. Such has been the scale of Harvey’s achievement that the widespread coverage is bound to attract some new curious fans to the fold. So what makes Let England Shake so good, and is it representative of Harvey’s work as a whole?

The answer to the latter question is both yes and no. Each new LP Harvey delivers is different in some way, a progression from the work before – in other words, taking what she’s learned from one project and refashioning it into something new on the next. The raw, lo-fi blues rock of her 1992 debut Dry was succeeded by 1993’s even more raw, blistering punk-blues Rid of Me. Two years later, Harvey heightened the blues elements but in a much more sonically sophisticated, diverse framework on 1995’s To Bring You My Love before taking the hint of burbling electronics and uneasy effects to a new level on 1998’s Is This Desire?.

Keen to move away from such a dark sound, Harvey moved into a more straightforward rock territory on the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which shared the power of her earlier records but married them to more refined melodies. Faced with how to follow such a commercial and critical high, Harvey deconstructed and turned in a self-produced, largely self-played “scrapbook” type of record on the scratchy lo-fi rock of Uh Huh Her (2004), which also introduced a more folk-inspired element to her work.

As strong as it may have been, Uh Huh Her signalled something of a creative dead-end for Harvey; her next move was inspired. Abandoning her trusty guitar, she composed on piano for the first time – some 15 years into her career – and the result was the spectral, spooky White Chalk, her most intimate record. Ever since, Harvey has been riding a creative wave and seems to be in the midst of a real purple patch. Her recent collaboration album with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, brought back a scratchy blues-folk quality and Let England Shake seems to take some cues from there.

The biggest change is in the lyrical style; before, Harvey often used intriguing imagery, often visceral and sometimes Biblical, but since White Chalk there has definitely been a sense of the words having paramount importance. This is lyrically one of her strongest albums, cohesive and full of imagery of war and conflict. Rather than being a straightforward political album, Harvey imagines herself as a “war song correspondent,” delivering news from the front lines. Thus, there’s no political bias, more observations of war’s effects on humankind in general. Harvey has said that she read widely, from the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot to contemporary eyewitness accounts from people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the lyrics rarely go into specifics, there’s definitely the sense that Harvey has done her research and approaches such thorny topics with confidence and without a preachy tone.

The main reason the evocative lyrics have such resonance is in the way Harvey marries them to some of her most upbeat melodies and shimmering production. Largely eschewing the piano of White Chalk in favour of walls of guitars and, significantly, the autoharp, the instrumentation gives the album a unique, vaguely folk-tinged feel that feels both timeless and extremely fresh all at once. The music is full of vitality and energy and movement, and Harvey is backed by a sterling band that includes long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey on a variety of instruments and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, recording the album together over a five-week period in a Dorset church in the spring of 2010. The percussion is one of the most impressive parts of the album; it’s very rarely straightforward drum beats – Butty is incredibly inventive in how he provides the underpinning for these songs, which often feel very light and floaty thanks to the effects on the guitars (in prior work, Harvey’s guitar playing has mostly been very raw, very bluesy, very powerful; here it’s almost weightless, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, and it’s a unique new flavour.)

Vocally too, she’s developing new phrasing techniques. The characterless voice she employed on White Chalk, pitched higher, is retained but has a much throatier quality; it’s still recognisably PJ Harvey singing, but a fresh new approach (and listen to the piercingly high soprano notes she reaches on “On Battleship Hill.”) Melodically, many songs have a very simple, sing-song quality that communicates the lyrics effectively and, especially when Harvey is singing some quite horrific lyrics, only adds to the impact. Thus, the devastating “Hanging in the Wire” is musically one of the softest and most beautiful songs in her catalogue, while “Let England Shake” has an almost jangly, hypnotic, skeletal Tom Waits-style autoharp/xylophone arrangement. “England” features a Kurdish folk song sample but the exoticism is in the melody alone, for the song is largely delivered solo on acoustic guitar, while “Written on the Forehead” is the album’s most shimmering number and features a surprising but wonderfully effective reggae sample.

Other highlights include the galloping urgency of “The Glorious Land,” which features dissonant bugle calls, the haunting, solemn “All and Everyone,” which features an inspired dirge-like coda that features some mournful saxophone, and the fast-rocking “Bitter Branches.” Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” features one of the album’s catchiest melodies and autoharp parts, also making use of handclaps and male vocals, while the immediately accessible “The Last Living Rose” ranks among Harvey’s most beautiful, simple songs. “The Colour of the Earth” ends the album on a communal, sing-song, anthemic tone.

Let England Shake is a landmark work. It’s not far and away Harvey’s best; she’s incredibly consistent and each of her records brings something exciting to the table, but Let England Shake has a cohesion and assurance – and originality – that really marks it out as something special. On first listen, some of the more unusual songs (such as “England” and the dissonant bugle calls in “The Glorious Land”) may be slightly off-putting, but repeated listening reveals this to be one of Harvey’s strongest and most unusual but beautiful albums. It slots nicely within her catalogue yet simultaneously feels like a real bold new step, and it is exciting to ponder quite where she will go next.

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The hit that should have been: Rickie Lee Jones’ “Woody and Dutch”

Rickie Lee Jones followed her eponymous 1979 debut a little over two years later with Pirates, an altogether darker and more ambitious affair that, three decades on, still sounds utterly glorious. It’s not a single-heavy kind of record but “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” was as good a choice as any, a sort of good-time bebop/R&B/jazz hybrid complete with invented percussion, handclaps, horns, and male backing vocals (alongside a suitably kittenish vocal from Jones) that’s almost like a logical step forward from the first album’s saucy “Danny’s All-Star Joint.”

The b-side, “Skeletons,” pares things back significantly to shine the spotlight on Jones’ spare, plaintive vocal/piano delivery (with some subtle, well-placed support from a string section.) Jones gives one of her most emotive vocal performances on this sad lullaby of love, life, and loss; it’s a complete mood change from the A-side but only serves to highlight Jones’ versatility and ability within various styles. Naturally, both these songs fit best on their parent album, which really is a stone cold classic, but as singles go it’s up there with Jones’ best.

Unfortunately it didn’t catch on in the same way that “Chuck E.’s in Love” did, and Jones would never again scale the commercial heights of the first record. But, as joyous and naughty and vibrant three decades later, “Woody and Dutch” still stands as one of Jones’ neglected classics.

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Song of the Day – Nerina Pallot: “Seventeen”

Nerina Pallot’s excellent new Bernard Butler-produced album Year of the Wolf was released last week, and finds Pallot’s expertly-crafted pop songs given a sophisticated, elegant, sumptuous vintage singer-songwriter pop sheen by the Suede guitarist. Imagine a more ’70s-minded update of his work on Duffy’s Rockferry LP and you’d be close.

But one of the surprises is that one of the best, and most inventive, of the songs can only be found on a deluxe edition offered on iTunes. “Seventeen” finds Pallot, ever the pop fanatic, channelling late ’70s slow disco with a gloriously languid groove and appropriately glossy production job that resembles ABBA’s Voulez-Vous, Steely Dan’s Gaucho, and songs like “Live It Up” and “Do the Dark” from Blondie’s Autoamerican, which all emerged on the cusp of the move from the ’70s into the ’80s.

It’s a very good, and very clever, pop song and here it is:

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Song of the Day – Blondie: “Fan Mail”

Blondie are, to my mind, one of the more underrated of the internationally successful groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Certainly, everyone knows “Heart of Glass” or “Call Me” or “Atomic” or “The Tide is High,” but I have often felt that the full extent of their experimentation, innovation, and originality has never been truly appreciated on a wider scale. A listen to any of their earlier records yields often surprising rewards. A favourite of mine is “Fan Mail,” the opener of 1977’s Plastic Letters, a spiky pop song with strange synth flourishes, stop-start rhythms, and of course Clem Burke’s crazy drumming.

For your pleasure, here’s a live version recorded for German TV

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Song of the Day – Nerina Pallot: “Put Your Hands Up”

The lead single from Nerina Pallot’s upcoming fourth LP Year of the Wolf is a classy pop confection produced by former Suede band member and current producer du jour Bernard Butler. The original, debuted live in concert last year, was faster paced and suggested more of a camp Eurodisco anthem but this studio version is pleasingly classy and elegant. In an ideal world, a sophisticated pop song like this would become a deserving hit. We’ll have to wait until its official release later this month to find out.

In the meantime, here is the video

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If you were wondering what Kate Bush looks like these days…

… Then look no further.

Kate Bush is back this spring with Director’s Cut, an unusual package that brings together new versions of songs that appeared on her albums The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993), keeping the “best” elements of the existing tracks while re-imagining others. So far, so mysterious – that is until Amazon jumped the gun a little and posted a 30-second preview clip of the new “Deeper Understanding,” originally from The Sensual World. What emerged was a sultry-sounding new vocal from Bush singing the “I press execute” line followed by a jarring and, frankly, terrifying computerised voice in place of the original angelic chorus of Bush and the Trio Bulgarka. It is a mark of her artistic fearlessness that a 30-second clip of a six-and-a-half minute song (around two minutes’ extension from 1989’s original) can provoke the mostly negative reactions it has among Bush fans so far, but really it makes sense for a song about computers to have a digitised voice in there somewhere. It remains to be seen (or rather, heard) how the other six minutes follow.

It’s an odd project, definitely, but both of these records that Bush is revisiting came at difficult points in her life. With The Sensual World, Bush was struggling with studio fatigue, having rarely been out of the confinement of the recording atmosphere for the best part of a decade, and had the problem of following two landmark artistic triumphs in The Dreaming (1982) and, commercially as well, Hounds of Love (1985). Then, The Red Shoes was beset by personal issues as Bush split from her long-time partner Del Palmer and suffered through the death of her mother Hannah, contributing to one of her less focused records. Still, she has expressed the opinion that these records contain some of her best work – so it makes sense for her now, with the benefit of two decades’ hindsight, to return to tinker with them with a fresh new approach. Whether Bush stretches even further back and undertakes a similar project with her other records remains to be seen, but the very arrival of any new Bush release is cause for celebration, giving her propensity for large gaps between records.

And for those who are disappointed at the lack of new new material, the official word is that Bush is working on brand new material. It’s on its way, people! In the meantime, let’s look forward to this fascinating new project, due for release in mid-May.

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PJ Harvey on The Culture Show 2011

PJ Harvey’s appearance on BBC2’s The Culture Show, on February 10, 2011

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Song of the Day – PJ Harvey: “The Last Living Rose”

Premiere of the short film for “The Last Living Rose,” from PJ Harvey’s forthcoming new album Let England Shake.

It’s marvellous.

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Laura Nyro’s “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” at 40

November 25, 2010 – the 40th anniversary of the release of Laura Nyro’s fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Recorded in New York City in the spring of 1970, the album was released that November and soon rose to #51 on the American Billboard album chart. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a holiday-themed record; it’s not, and her label bosses did try to explain that including “Christmas” in the title would be misleading, but Nyro, who had bowed to the wishes of her “superiors” during her early recording sessions in 1966, was not going to let the same thing happen and remained resolute.

 

 

Nyro completed her “holy trinity” of albums with the release of Christmas and the Beads of Sweat; it seemed to complete an artistic arc that she had begun with 1968’s cosmopolitan Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and continued on 1969’s dramatic, noir New York Tendaberry; indeed, it was Nyro’s last album of new material for more than five years.

Somewhat strangely, Christmas ranks as the most neglected album of Nyro’s early career – more so, even, than 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle, the acclaimed collection of soul and R&B covers recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff on production duties and vocal trio Labelle on harmonies. It is also seen by some as the weak link of the trilogy of deeply intense, original works Nyro fashioned at the peak of her creativity in her early twenties. In reality, there is no such ‘weak link’ – Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is home to several extraordinary Nyro originals. But, granted, it may not possess quite the breathtaking originality of Eli or Tendaberry.

The reason for this is perhaps because it does not really bring many new elements to the table – by now, Nyro’s trademarks, such as her tempo and rhythmic changes, her distinctive piano lines, her multi-octave vocal swoops, had become familiar. That doesn’t mean they somehow worsened or became tiresome, but there is not the monumental leap between predecessor New York Tendaberry and Christmas that there was between 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery and Eli, and then between Eli and Tendaberry.

Instead, Christmas can perhaps be described as an amalgam of Eli and Tendaberry in that it is divided between joyous, uplifting soulful pop songs and more expansive, experimental, piano-driven epics. Christmas has its own distinctive flavour in that it is more exotic and Oriental-sounding than its predecessors; there are subtle Latin inflections in the rhythms and arrangement of “Blackpatch,” and of course the Oriental arrangement and melodic structure of “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp” and aquatic harp lines in “Map to the Treasure.” This softer and more exotic sound would resurface on 1976’s Smile; if there is a new element added to Nyro’s sound on this album, then this is it – an Oriental bent, a gospel mellowness. It’s a subtle addition but definitely gives the record its own distinct sound.

The original album was split with two bands playing on the different sides. This was not pre-arranged but, as producers Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin explained, just happened that way. The first side features the accompaniment of the Swampers band from Muscle Shoals, lending the songs an easygoing feel, while the second side features an array of musicians including Duane Allman on electric guitar on “Beads of Sweat” and Alice Coltrane on harp. As a result, the album as a whole is perhaps not as unified as Eli or Tendaberry, and maybe suffers for that reason, but the individual songs are first-rate. (And the semi-conceptual ‘four seasons’ arc to Side B is a four-song wonder.)

“Brown Earth” is a gloriously uplifting gospel-soul number that doesn’t really sound like any other Laura Nyro original; it rises from almost whispered verses to a rousing hook of “white dove’s gonna come today / oh what a morning / it feels so good / oh what a morning / of brotherhood,” with a multi-tracked choir of soulful, impassioned Nyros singing on the “white dove” and “oh what a morning” lines. If anything, the gospel soul sound is almost a precursor to her next project, the covers album Gonna Take a Miracle. In any case, it’s a glorious, effective opener, with beautifully conventional yet effective piano lines.

The following “When I Was A Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” is more upbeat and features the return of Nyro’s familiar syncopated piano lines; it also displays her oft-missed sense of humour. An album like New York Tendaberry was more intent on dramatics and theatrics than humour, so “Freeport” is a welcome change of tone for Nyro; it’s also a bolder, sassier, feistier Nyro on this song than the “delicate romantic” some seem to perceive her to be. The song is incredibly melodic and, in its effervescent abandon, catchy as hell and among her best in this up-tempo, jaunty category, featuring such jewel lines as “I got a lot of patience baby / that’s a lot of patience to lose.”

The laidback, easygoing feel continues into the Latin-accented “Blackpatch,” a joyous mid-tempo snapshot of a day in the life of a city woman, maybe Nyro herself. Only Nyro could make such everyday events as sending out party invitations and hanging out the washing sound beautiful and energised, but she ends the song with a knowing lyric, “womanchild on a sidestreet / flashing in blackpatch / lipstick on her reefer / waiting for a match.” Nyro’s poetry is incredibly evocative and unique, but the words fit remarkably into ultra-catchy pop melodies, which is one of her finest skills. “Blackpatch” boasts one of the most effortless and sophisticated pop-soul melodies on the album, and its arrangement, incorporating horns and congas, is tasteful and imaginative.

The tone of the album changes drastically on the six-minute piano epic “Been on a Train,” Nyro’s second “train” song about hard drugs, following from “Poverty Train,” which she debuted at June 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. “Been on a Train” is looser than its predecessor, moodier and more intense. Nyro’s detached vocal delivery on the verses is chilling, while her piano lines are much simpler than normal, putting the spotlight onto her lyrics. The song unexpectedly but dramatically changes gears when Nyro’s voice rises to a gospel soar – “you got more tracks on you baby, than the tracks of this train” – before she screams out, “No! No! Damn you mister!” in her inimitable theatrical New York Tendaberry style, before leaping into a feverish tempo change, only to settle back into the moodiness of the verses again. Its placement amid the uplifting, soulful pop songs of side one is all the more effective and for that reason, “Been on a Train” is a standout. But as a song in its own right, it remains peerlessly effective (and four decades on, harrowing and hard-hitting) as a portrait of a heroin addict, possibly influenced by the death of Nyro’s cousin from a heroin overdose in October 1969.

The mood switches back from the darkness and despair of “Been on a Train” to a sense of easygoing, romantic uplift for “Up on the Roof” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King – at that time, the very first cover version Nyro had recorded. It fits right into the mood, though, and it’s not a stretch to think of it as a Nyro original. More conventional, perhaps, but melodically it has something in common with Nyro originals. It’s a great performance with a beautiful arrangement, and was selected as the album’s single in the autumn of 1970. Ironically, this cover version became Nyro’s biggest hit in her own right, Nyro being famed as a successful songwriter for other artists.

Side two is more expansive and exotic. It begins with the superb “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp,” one of Nyro’s finest songs. It is musically sophisticated, with a beautiful Oriental-inspired arrangement and one of Nyro’s most haunting and evocative piano melodies. Her vocal performance is also top-notch, as are the poetic lyrics, which detail a “sleepy woman by the window / dreaming in the morning air / of the man who takes her sweetness / by a Chinese lamp upstairs.” It’s gorgeous, romantic, and sensual, and an album highlight. It then segues into an eight-minute epic, “Map to the Treasure,” which opens with Alice Coltrane’s watery, exotic harp, which resurfaces at some points throughout the song. “Map to the Treasure” is a mood piece, really, with wispy verses that give way to an extended and memorable piano solo that gradually increases in speed and intensity, before Nyro comes back with the vocal hook, “in the treasure of love,” only to fade away again. It is sensual, as with “Chinese Lamp,” but sexual too (“for you I bear down / soft and burning”), and the music mirrors the excitement of sex.

“Beads of Sweat” is next; it starts in much the same way as “Map to the Treasure,” with a cooing Nyro intoning over a barely-there piano, “cold jade wind…” but then surges into the most driving, hard-rocking song Nyro ever recorded. Its closest relative is “Eli’s Comin’,” which shares much of the same lyrical conceit and same musical urgency, but “Beads of Sweat,” featuring Duane Allman on guitar, is probably harder-rocking and just as intense. It’s an unexpected change of pace for Nyro but is another strong composition with several hooks. It has a kind of gospel fervour that marks it out as one of Nyro’s most inspired and original efforts.

The album closes with another epic, the seven-minute “Christmas In My Soul,” a poem Nyro set to music. It is unfortunate that Nyro ended the album on a disappointingly earnest note; it is the first real place where Nyro explores political matters – she sings of “the sins of politics, the politics of sin” – and her specific detailing of the Chicago Seven and “Black Panther brothers” dates the song and forces it into a corner, so to speak. It has little in common with the evocative, imaginative, successful poetic lyrics Nyro was writing in other songs at the time. Musically, too, it is rather overbearing, with some misplaced bells and military drums overstating the point. The melody is not one of Nyro’s most illuminating, and her vocal is pitched firmly in the upper register throughout, which makes the song a little hard work. It retains a sense of drama and ambition that is pleasing to see, but other songs on the album are also dramatic and ambitious – “Been on a Train” and “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp”/”Map to the Treasure,” for instance – but are also wholly successful. “Christmas In My Soul” is a suitably epic end to the album, but it’s actually one of the weaker and less successful songs here.

Laura Nyro probably did not intend to “retire” from the music business after this album. In concerts in 1970-72, she was performing some new songs that had not yet been recorded – “I Am the Blues,” “American Dove,” “Children of the Junks,” “Mother Earth” – that suggest she was still thinking of making a record of new songs. Instead, she did a record of oldies in 1971 before marrying and leaving the spotlight for four years. But in truth, the extraordinary twin peaks of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry represent a level of intense creativity that probably left Nyro understandably exhausted. At 22, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is probably the sound of a woman relaxing just a little, cooling off after two or three years of intense, passionate music. That’s not to say that Christmas does not fit that category – you would be hard-pressed to find songs as intense or passionate as “Been on a Train,” “Map to the Treasure,” or “Beads of Sweat” – but there is a certain softening in the sound here that suggests Nyro’s artistry was subtly changing. Indeed, “Christmas In My Soul” looks outward for largely the first time, and when Nyro returned in 1976, she was writing more about political and social concerns as well as writing about her personal life. So, in a sense, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat represents a crucial turning point in Laura Nyro’s music – it closes the chapter on her first period of original songs (and what a purple patch it was), and at the same time hints at her artistic evolution to come. As an album in its own right, it deserves more praise as being one of Nyro’s finest and most enduring efforts and is a worthy final act of an extraordinary trilogy. And 40 years later, it still shines bright.

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