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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.

Filed under: Art, Culture, Music, Pop, , , , ,

Nerina Pallot – “Skeleton Key” EP (2010)

Nerina Pallot seems to have learnt the Art of the EP. Since her February 2009 live jaunt, the Jersey-born singer-songwriter has crafted a trio of tour-only EPs that, as EPs are often wont to do, feature some of her finest (and rarest) material. But while Buckminster Fuller and Junebug were strong affairs in their own right, Skeleton Key achieves something different altogether.

After her third LP, 2009’s The Graduate, wore its pop influences unabashedly on its sleeve, Pallot has achieved recognition not just as a songwriter of intensely beautiful ballads but a real crafty pop tunesmith. So much so that Kylie Minogue has named her forthcoming new album Aphrodite after a Pallot/Andy Chatterley original and performed Pallot’s infectious “Better Than Today” on her last tour. But when Pallot does pop, it’s a classy Elton John kind of pop, or even reminiscent a more immediately palatable Steely Dan. Indeed, in her chord progressions and sometime-jazz leanings, the Dan influence is palpable.

Radio listeners and the public at large probably know her best from (the not entirely representative) “Everybody’s Gone To War,” but as the years go on and each new release appears, Pallot reveals herself to be a songwriter and performer of significant worth. Now recording at a home studio with husband Andy Chatterley, she has free rein to indulge her flights of fancy and, on the evidence of this new EP, that is something to rejoice. Recorded in March 2010 and released the following month at Pallot’s live UK gigs, the Skeleton Key EP is the most delightfully unexpected entry into the Nerina Pallot catalogue to date. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these 20 minutes are some of Pallot’s best on record yet.

Opener “Wolf and I” boasts perhaps Pallot’s most elaborate and imaginative arrangement on record to date; what is ostensibly a strange mid-tempo piano ballad is elevated into a studio piece of supreme sophistication with Pallot’s twisting background vocals, hypnotic drum beats, and various electronic squalls and effects. ‘Spooky’ is the word. The more conventional “And So It Should” begins on acoustic guitar but the arrangement grows to incorporate piano, vibes, haunting background vocals, handclaps, and electric guitar. A wonderful vocal performance wraps itself around chords that recall some of Joni Mitchell’s more sinister songs; it’s one of the more immediate songs on the EP and quietly powerful and intense.

The EP takes a turn for the more upbeat with “Break Up at the Disco.” Here, the pop smarts Pallot displayed so openly on The Graduate make a return, but with an added darkness and edge. This is unusual mutant singer-songwriter melodrama meets vintage disco pop; it’s like Elton John meets Donna Summer at an ABBA concert in 1979. But, as ever, Pallot’s lyrics are a cut above and the arrangement, which even incorporates saxophone, is pleasingly sophisticated and knowing. When Pallot goes all-out pop, she always manages to attain a certain intelligence and class and it’s just as much a part of her sound now as such emotional piano ballads as “Sophia” or “It Was Me.”

Meanwhile, “Is This A Low?” takes the title of the most un-Nerina Pallot song to date and for that we should commend her. Experimental and unusual, the title is perhaps a nod to Blur’s “This Is A Low,” and its moody, bass-heavy guitar-driven sound isn’t a million miles away from Blur. By some distance the dirtiest, moodiest, bluesiest song Pallot has committed to record, it’s also one of her sexiest and most sensual. Her gorgeous, feminine vocals lend the song an appropriately spooky, haunting quality, and towards its climax it recalls some of the trippier moments of Rickie Lee Jones’ Ghostyhead. Which is maybe not a coincidence, as it leads into a beautiful version of Jones’ “Skeletons,” a piano ballad of particularly delicate intensity. Pallot has credited the song with inspiring the whole EP; it’s a testament to Pallot’s own talents as a writer and vocalist that her own songs are the drawing point here.

Far and away the most interesting and unusual artistic statement of her career so far, the Skeleton Key EP is currently on sale on a tour-only basis but is expected to appear at Pallot’s online store soon. When it does appear, snap it up. Pallot’s two previous EPs, 2009’s Buckminster Fuller and Junebug, both feature their share of fine material, but Skeleton Key is a significant step forward. The most cohesive and thematically-linked work of her career to date, it features some exciting new experiments for Pallot and, especially coming after The Graduate, only highlights her sense of diversity and variety. If Pallot can craft something similar over the course of a full-length LP, her next record should be one to treasure.

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Joni Mitchell slates Bob Dylan: Is she right?

It’s no secret that Joni Mitchell is a little cranky in interview. Once famously described as “about as humble as Mussolini” by David Crosby, Mitchell is never abundant in her praise of other artists and has, quite pertinently, decried “false modesty.” She’s good, she knows she’s good, and she’s got no problems saying she’s good. While uneducated pop critics would align her in a “folk” school with Judy Collins or Joan Baez, Mitchell says she’s more in tune with the Miles Davises and Mozarts of this world. Well, no. In fact, Mitchell puts herself above Mozart – from a January 2010 interview in The Vancouver Sun: “[My music] is too complicated for some people, certainly it’s too complicated for pop music. It’s more complicated than Mozart, his stuff is more orderly. There’s a lot of counter-patterns and stuff that painters can enjoy, because it’s more like painters’ layering, the movement, the counter-rhythms and so on in the piece.”

Pretentious? A little. Or a lot, you might say. Her comments have always attracted quite a bit of press coverage; back in 2002, a W Magazine interview carried quotes along the lines of the music business being a “repugnant cesspool” and Madonna having “knocked the importance of talent out of the arena”; Madonna’s spokeswoman was moved to comment that the remarks had been “disappointing,” since Madonna had told of Mitchell’s 1974 LP Court and Spark being a favourite of hers.

In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times, with the singer and also with Mitchell drag impersonator John Kelly, Madonna comes under fire again, as do Grace Slick and Janis Joplin basically for being drunken sluts (Mitchell’s quote is “Grace [Slick] and Janis Joplin were [sleeping with] their whole bands and falling down drunk, and nobody came after them!” but you get the subtext.) But it’s the Bob Dylan quote that has received the most attention.

According to Mitchell, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

Now, that’s a comment that is sure to rankle with Dylan fans. But is it so off the mark? Dylan started out as something of a Woody Guthrie mimic; he found his own voice and there’s no disputing that he is a masterful lyricist, but whether he’s a plagiarist or a fake is rather a matter for debate.

Musically, certainly, Joni Mitchell is more sophisticated than Dylan both in her melodic structures and her use of chords. She has a healthy (or some would say unhealthy) sense of her own importance, but you can’t say that she wasn’t an innovative, highly accomplished pop composer. Songs like “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi” and “River” appear to be canonised now, but really it’s her run of records from 1972’s For the Roses to 1979’s maligned Mingus that find Mitchell revelling in an experimentalism and musical sophistication that Dylan simply never achieved. I happen to be a Dylan fan, but I can recognise that Mitchell was the far superior writer and singer. Dylan’s voice was revolutionary, yes, but in terms of technical ability, prowess, and emotional impact, there’s no contest.

But what of Dylan’s supposed fakery? I for one am not sure quite what to make of that. Mitchell is more known certainly for writing about the self and writing about her personal life, but I think you could quite equally say that her Third World posturing on the ambitious Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter or her feet-first (and not entirely successful) foray into jazz on Mingus were personae, trying on a different dress so to speak, being somewhat deceptive. As much as those records, particularly Don Juan, still wow with their scope and depth, it’s still somewhat odd to hear something like “The Tenth World” and then read a comment slamming someone else for being inauthentic.

But, ultimately, Mitchell’s career has been built on authenticity and honesty. An album like 1976’s Hejira is clear evidence; even her unfairly maligned ’80s records often feature songs of searing honesty and power amid the preaching. But it’s odd that she would say “everything about” Dylan is a deception, when there are other much clearer targets. Perhaps she’s tired of Dylan getting all the recognition ahead of her. But it’s not like Mitchell has been unfairly dismissed. She has had her fair share of plaudits and notices. Someone like Rickie Lee Jones, whose writing is of a similarly sublime and interesting, sophisticated standard as Mitchell’s (and has maintained a strong level of consistency for three decades), but has never been awarded the same kind of widespread recognition, has more right to rail against such perceived injustices.

Ultimately, I’d have to take what Joni Mitchell says with a pinch of salt. In interview, yes she’s arrogant and prickly and cranky at the same time as being genuinely insightful and funny, and one has a lot of respect for an artist as significant to the landscape of 20th century pop music as she is, but the Dylan accusations are still a little puzzling. Anyone else have any ideas? Answers on a postcard.

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