Friday, 25 June 2010

Lesley Duncan (slight return)

‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be’, so say a host of waggish graffiti artists and they could be right as nostalgia only really works in certain circumstances. Music has long been known to be the conduit by which we can revisit the past and relive past glories (or not). Songs that we remember from specific events can sometimes trigger memories buried for decades but the effect isn’t very consistent.

My theory has always been that in order for this effect to work with any certainty, the song in question must be linked directly to a specific point in time and then forgotten until rediscovered long after the event. This must be so otherwise all my favourite songs, and there are many, would all transport me back to their point of origin – but they don’t. And they don’t because they are not fixed to a specific point in time but many points in time, that is, all the times I’ve played them since. The only real memory joggers tend to be those songs that either I don’t own or don’t play much.

Which is why I’ve been wallowing in a warm pool of nostalgia over Lesley Duncan’s ‘Sing Children Sing’. You will recall that I posted about her a few days after her death in April this year and subsequently dug out my tatty copy of her debut album which, in all honesty, I have not played since about 1973. But that’s the point. Because it has not been a regular on ye olde turntable, it is still firmly fixed to the person I was and the circumstances that applied nearly 40 years ago.

In 1971, my music collection only numbered about 6 LPs so this was a time when I was starting out in the music buying business and every purchase held huge meaning. It reminds me of a time when the somewhat earnest young me still lived at home and spent too much time in my room listening to records and trying to learn the guitar. Playing this album now has a strange effect on me as it tries its best to reconfigure my brain into the way it was during that time with all the thoughts, images and sounds that are associated with it. For some reason it is summer and the sound of my Dad mowing the lawn is infiltrating my window. I can see the sun drenched street from my window and wonder why my own room is so cold.

The album itself is very sparsely arranged with just guitar or piano on most tracks and a basic band on others in a way that music is not recorded today. Its simple nature harks back to simpler times but has a sort of honest truth about it that today’s sophisticated recording techniques don’t really convey. It is both a little sad and very uplifting at the same time and to me that is what nostalgia is all about.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Doris Brendel - 'Sorry'

It’s been one of those weeks. Just when you think that music has lost its interest and nothing has happened to pique your jaded palette, three interesting things come along at once.

First, a mysterious package arrives from Canada and rather than placing it carefully in a bucket of water and calling the bomb squad which was probably the safest thing to do, I decided to open it and lo and behold, it contained a CD entitled ‘Spiral’, the latest release from Allison Crowe kindly sent by Allison’s personable manager Adrian! So, thank you Adrian – I shall be listening to this over the next few weeks and you can expect some comments in a future post.

Second, I have been rather bowled over by another artist previously mentioned in this blog, Doris Brendel, ex-singer with The Violet Hour and now a solo artist. Well, not her personally, but a song of hers called ‘Sorry’. I haven’t been emotionally connected to a song like this for…ooh…at least a few weeks, but this is magical. Taken from her album, ‘Driving’, it is a classic torch song just crying out for waving lighters and last song of the night status. The melody is beautifully structured with a stunning chorus, the lyrics are intelligent, the singing is gut-wrenchingly soulful (see ‘third’ below) and the whole thing is packaged up by a classically simple arrangement for guitar, drums and bass with just a soupcon of keyboards in a way that you rarely hear these days when computers fill every microsecond of available space.

Why don’t people make music like this anymore? Perhaps they do, but it’s a bugger to find it amongst the sheer dross splurging out of every record company after a quick buck. There is nothing quite like listening to an arrangement where you can hear exactly what the bass player, drummer and guitarist are doing at any point and it adds so much to the listening pleasure.

Third, is one of those odd connections that occur to me every now and then which make me feel that perhaps there is a divine purpose in rock. Listening to Doris’s vocal on ‘Sorry’ makes me think, and this is the oddest of links, about the young Rod Stewart, around the time of Python Lee Jackson and his early solo career, a time when I feel his singing was at its emotional best. There is an eerie similarity between their abrasive vocal quality and in the way they phrase their vocals which binds them together across the years. I can’t help thinking that Rod, around 1969, could’ve made a fabulous cover of this song.

There is a cute video to go with the song which I present below. If you love music give yourself a treat and invest 4 minutes of your life in listening to ‘Sorry’. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Covers and the Amateur Musician

In a previous post (Enjoy the Silence), I asked the question: why do musicians like to cover this song? Having re-read the text, it appears that I didn’t really answer the question! A career in politics beckons, clearly.

So what is the answer? Well…I can’t really give a definitive answer but I can give you my own experience of choosing cover versions, such as it is. As an amateur musician, it’s fun to play songs written by others and shelf-loads of music books and bits of paper with chord progressions jotted on them attest to this assumption. I have many favourite songs but not all of them are fun to sing/play – and that’s the nub of this question.

For some reason not all songs lend themselves to being played by others, especially if you are not a particularly proficient musician. Whilst I have played the guitar for 35 years I’m not Eric Clapton, or anything like. Anyone who plays the guitar will know that chords in some keys are easier to play than those in other keys. Generally the ‘sharp’ keys are easier (C, G, D, A & E). In fact much guitar music in written in the key of E major as the open strings are tuned to notes that fit well.

So it is a bit of a bugger to have to play songs that have been written in ‘flat’ keys and especially those with loads of flats (ARE YOU LISTENING, KATE BUSH? D♭ MAJOR, INDEED!). Of course, you can transpose songs into easier keys but then somehow the original voicing is lost and it never quite sounds the same. So for a song to be fun to play it has to be written in a key that suits the player’s ability and feels comfortable.

The next point is all to do with vocal range. Assuming that no-one else is in the house and the windows are shut, I’ll have a go at singing my song of choice and here we encounter further possible pitfalls. Is the melody suited to your (usually limited) range? Is it too low/high, or does the melody have awkward intervals? (KATE BUSH AGAIN –EXHIBIT B ‘DECEMBER WILL BE MAGIC’). Don’t even attempt ‘December will be magic’ as in the very first phrase there is an interval jump of 12 whole tones, that is, an octave plus 4 tones. There can only be about 4 people in the entire world who can manage this leap and I’m not one of them.

Having dispensed with the technicalities, there are other parameters to consider. Is it boring? Playing one chord for 16 bars is not going to get you interested. On the other hand, a magical chord progression that sets off the melody can make the hairs on your neck stand up. Are the lyrics easy to sing? You’d be surprised how many aren’t. Too many syllables per note, tongue twister sentences and sheer nonsense ‘street-speak’ can ruin the enjoyment.

So my guess is that ‘Enjoy The Silence’ has an easy to sing melody with comfortable lyrics, a harmonic progression which is technically interesting yet easy to play and a general feeling of artistic creation. Am I getting close?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Eurovision - Another Dismal Display

So another year, another Eurovision Song Competition…and another humiliation for the UK as they trail in last…again. We scored a measly 10 points against Germany’s winning 246 points despite the best efforts of 80s hit-makers, Mike Stock and Pete Waterman, all voted for by the great European public.

It’s the third time the UK have come bottom of the competition in the last eight years, a place usually reserved for Norway and I think it is now abundantly clear that we have no business entering this competition. Italy, another great musical nation, realised this years ago and has steadfastly refused to participate ever since.

The fact is that this event has not been a ‘Song Contest’, as advertised by its title, for some time and has become a gruesome parody of its former self where national interests prevail over any appreciation of musical prowess. The fact that we have been churning out substandard songs performed by inexperienced singers doesn’t help, but there is more at work here.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old Communist Bloc has splintered into numerous independent countries, all of whom now claim the right to enter the competition in their own right. This has moved the centre of gravity of Eurovision culture eastwards and it has become clear that the cultural divide between the UK and the rest of the ‘new’ Europe has widened significantly. Not that it wasn’t wide to start with, after all Britain has been at war with France on and off for centuries, has crossed swords with Germany twice in the last hundred years and spent the cold war eyeing Russia and the Eastern Bloc warily – rivalries that continue into the various sports arenas to this day.

Traditionally, the UK has tended to align itself culturally not with Europe, but with the USA and North America generally both in lifestyle and music. We have more in common with US popular music than Romanian folk tunes so it is inevitable that our style does not always go down well with a European audience, even if we could come up with a half decent tune.

So, we have two choices. Either we adopt the Italian solution and drop out of the contest completely or we go for bust and devise songs based around eastern European folk tunes with a bit of grafted on hip-hop and silly costumes. Even then, as the UK has few political allies in continental Europe, there really is no hope so I guess the former is the best option. It seems we have more in common with the Italians than I thought.