Zigzag Wandering
Recent Listening, May 2001

So, Alistair suggests we loop out, and back to, a core of music. He doesn't make clear whether that's a personal core, assembled over the years, or a communally agreed broad area of important albums? A group of songs or of musicians/bands? Or what? It seems to me an interesting theory, but one that doesn't quite work. This central core - whether personal or communally agreed - moves around if you continue to listen to new music [new to you, that is] and get beyond the affection and nostalgia we all have for the music we grew up with [can I just mention Yes and Van de Graaf Generator again here Alistair?]. I certainly don't seem to always loop back; I'm too busy chasing back catalogues, people who worked wih someone else, different versions of great songs, new albums by personal favourites, review copies that arrive in the mail, and listening to albums I've forgotten I had. I'm even investigating early Dylan again, thanks to Tangents and Clinton Heylin's newly revised Dylan biography. So my musical journey recently has been an erratic zigzag wander all over the place, without a map. There's certainly no obvious theme and I confess to feeling a bit lost... See what you think.

I've raved about Over the Rhine before, and they have recently released Films for Radio on Back Porch/Virgin. Their last CD was one of my favourites, but was basically a rereleased set of demo recordings; this one is much more produced, and it took me a while to get into it. It was partly recorded in one of the first ever mobile recording studios, a fabulous airstream aluminium trailer, which resides in a Nashville backyard; so the CD still sounds fresh and 'live', but it lacks some of the simplicity and sparseness I've previously enjoyed. It also lacks the vocals of Linford Detweiler, which I miss; whilst Karin Bergquist's vocals are as gorgeous as ever [and this album has been talked of as a showcase for her singing], the funky edge and half-spoken gruff contributions Linford offered, would be a welcome contrast from the pop on offer here. Having said that, the CD has grown on me, and includes the usual oblique quirky lyrical takes on life that on one level seem to offer intimate confessions but on the other are so bewildering one wonders what on earth the writers are on about! There's also an interesting hint of the effects of dance music filtering in - with a couple of tracks featuring loops and keyboards as the main backing under guitar and voice.

Over the Rhine have befriended and toured with The Cowboy Junkies over the last few years, and Linford and Karin are guest musicians on Open, the Junkies' new CD. This is a real change of direction it seems to me, with the frail acoustic sound of yore replaced by bursts of feedback, wall of sound and at times an almost psychedelic sound. In fact I've reminded in many places of the Jefferson Airplane, which I'm not sure is really a good thing...

Another change of direction has taken place in Mark Eitzel's camp. He has gone and bought himself a home studio where he can fully indulge his workaholic tendencies; The Invisible Man is the first fruit of that studio. Reviewed as 'Eitzel with loops' I was expecting [well, hoping actually] for something like Rickie Lee Jones' neglected Ghostyhead CD, or perhaps something featuring strong songs over beats of some sort. But so far all I can here is effects, not beats or loops, and muddy songs. Where is the miserable genius of American Music Club's California? Where the strummed guitars and growled heart-rending confessions? Eitzel will, I predict, remain invisible to the public at large with this disappointing CD.

Laura Nyro and Tim Buckley were both categorised as confessional singer-songwriters; both dabbled in jazz and experimental music; both are dead; both have new CDs posthumously released. Angel in the Dark is a beautiful album of the final songs Nyro recorded three years ago before succumbing to cancer. It mixes brand new tunes with a few classics she loved like 'Walk On By' and 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow', and whilst all are good, it's the new stuff that intrigues. With a great set of New York session musicians on hand - including the Becker Brothers - its classy, quirky stuff. I've always had Nyro down as a slightly strange, offbeat character who changed key and often tunes all over the place, but here - and on a recently purchased live concert CD, Seasons of Light - she seems more of a singer soaring above long shifting patterns and riffs. Rather than New York Soul, I hear 60s freeform music, and I like it a lot. In fact I hear a female Tim Buckley, but one carefully recorded and arranged, which Buckley certainly isn't on The Dream Belongs to Me. To be fair, one wouldn't expect it, as the CD is subtitled 'Rare and Unreleased recordings 1968/1973', and compiles various studio recordings from a couple of important periods of Buckley's career. The album starts with a beautiful, simply arrangement of 'Song to the Siren', moves through some more folk-jazz titles into the 1973: the sex-funk era of Sefronia and Greetings from LA, two of the most underrated albums Buckley produced. Sure, they're a shock to the system after the angelic hippy music of earlier albums, or the hallucinogenic vocal freak out of Starsailor, but listen without prejudice and they're some of the sexiest, funkiest albums around; they drip sweat and lust and desire. But these versions are earlier versions, without the brass [in either sense]; and whilst it's interesting to hear this stuff done in this way, they're not a patch on the final product - and don't let anyone else tell you so.

Someone else well in the groove was Fela Kuti, and there's a new batch of CD reissues out. Often with two albums on one CD, or at least an extra track or two, they're all well worth hearing and intriguing stuff. The tracks slowly build, subside and move around over monstrous layered percussion and bass, with political lyrics chanted and declaimed over the top. Personal favourites in this batch are Underground System, quite a late album, the earlier Shakara + London Scene, and Monkey Banana + Excuse O, which closes with the incomparably titled 'Mr. Grammaticalogylisationalism is the Boss'. Catchy, eh?

I see, before I snuck the Fela Kuti rereleases in, that actually there's quite an obvious link so far of course - they're all singer songwriters! So let me divert to secondhand LPs now. We've got a new secondhand music shop in Exeter, and the best bit is the bargain box tucked away on the floor under the racks which are usually full of nonsense like Queen and heavy metal albums with cartoon monsters or tattooed women on. But down below, behind the feet of rock-seeking punters, is a box with 95p albums in. Flip past the Phil Collins and suchlike and you'll recently have found what appears to be someone's mid-70s singer-songwriter collection from the West Coast. All gatefold card sleeves, heavyweight vinyl, many of them promotional copies. Elektra, ABC, Warners... the works. Well, they aren't there anymore. And before we get to the good bits, just so you're not all grunting 'how does he do it? swine!' and such like, let me assure you there is some total rubbish amongst the stuff I gambled on. Whatever others are saying elsewhere in the music press, Rodney Crowell is not a great neglected singer-songwriter, he is a crappy boogie-rock man with very bad dress sense. And whilst John Anderson may not share the same taste in clothes, his oversize stetson and fringed-jackets are possibly worse, and his albums are well beyond the yee-hah factor in country music: they are indescribably baaaad!

But, to better things: Kris Kristofferson in his early recording days turns out to be a grizzly bear of a singer, with some great tunes, all delivered over a simple, well-honed rock band. Me and Bobby McGee, The Silver Tongued Devil and I and Border Lord are all good; really you'd be hard put to classify them as country at all beyond the occasional steel guitar making its presence known. These are just classic, heartfelt songs. [But be warned: stay away from the Kris & Rita (Coolidge) collaborations...] Thomas Jefferson Kaye is another story altogether. His eponymous first album features the cream of the LA rock session world, with the addition of the Steely Dan boys themselves on a couple of tracks, and is funky, rocky stuff; carefully arranged and played. The second album, First Grade isn't so hot [the session guys are missing, though 'Skunk' Baxter's steel guitar turns up, as does Dusty Springfield on backing vocals], but it's still an enchanting mix of rock and softer songs, including a Loudon Wainwright and a couple of Becker & Fagen covers. Some of the same session players - Victor Feldman, Dean Parks, Larry Carlton - plus producer Gary Katz turn up on two albums by Dirk Hamilton. 1976's appallingly titled You Can Sing on the Left or Bark on the Right [well, thanks], is the better of the two though some [see further on] disagree. Hamilton is basically an acoustic guitarist and singer, here working with a band behind him. So the songs often start quite fey and light and then get kicked into another gear; like all these guys they seem towards MOR-rock at times. Hamilton's voice is a surprising mix of drawl and whine, but not unpleasant [no, really]; his music tinted with a wistful soulfulness. The only comparison I came up with was Brian Protheroe, and that's not even close. We're definitely at the end of the 60s run-on in this album, and by 1978's Meet Me at the Crux any feyness has gone - we're into that overproduced boogie-rock that plagued the late 70s and 80s. It's unbelievable that this was happening in 1978, when New York and London were so full of punk and new wave! Surprisingly, an internet search revealed that Dirk Hamilton is - and always was - big in Europe, particularly Italy, and that Meet Me at the Crux is regarded by many as his hard-edged masterpiece. Hard-edged my arse... I'll stick to You Can Sing... and dreams of love, peace and big brass sections; not to mention overflowing bargain bins.

Rupert Loydell 2001