Full Circle

Full Circle
In 1997 my partner and I moved from Leicester to York. On Tuesday we move back to a Leicestershire village just a few miles from where we used to live.

Appropriately, as we travel south I shall be accompanied by Half Moon Run singing Full Circle. It’s a catchy tune with a contemplative feel and one of the best indie songs I know. I have only one criticism – I don’t understand the lyrics.

Wish us bon voyage. And if you can explain the words, please let me know.

Leaders of the World

Leaders of the Free WorldNearly 10 years ago now a new song on the radio interrupted my idle thoughts. After a few quiet drum beats a gritty bass line cut in like a teacher’s voice. “Pay attention, children!”, it said. Dutifully, I sat up and listened. The authoritarian voice of the teacher started to sing – “I’m sick of working for a living” – and I wondered where this was going. Guitar chords came in as he intoned, “Your mum don’t sleep…”. The teacher’s words weren’t making much sense. Then, suddenly, as organ notes bubbled up, the message came over loud and clear:

The leaders of the free world are just little kids throwing stones

A later verse reinforced the point:

Passing the gun from father to feckless son

It was a lesson in politics. Guy Garvey, the teacher, was giving a pessimistic assessment of the western world; it’s a mess, the childish actions of the politicians are only making things worse and gun culture is fuelling violence.

I had been listening to the title track from Elbow‘s 2005 album Leaders of the Free World. It instantly propelled Elbow to the top of my list of favourite bands and I’ve been collecting their albums ever since. In recognition of that I’m making Leaders of the Free World my latest track of the week.

(YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlHGGKgzgzI)

Live in Dublin

One of the albums on my wish list for last Christmas was Leonard Cohen’s Live in Dublin. It wasn’t in my stocking then but I did get a generous helping of iTunes vouchers for my birthday at the end of January so I bought it as a download.
Leonard Cohen
It’s a live album recorded in September 2013 when Leonard was 79 and coming to the end of a world tour. I don’t usually like live albums – the sound is often poor and the audience noise detracts from the music – but this one is an exception. It manages to capture the atmosphere of a live performance without sacrificing sound quality or letting background noise become intrusive. And the whole band puts in a superb performance. From Leonard’s deep gravelly voice, to the guitars, keyboards and violin, the bass, drums and backing vocals, each musician is outstanding. This is a studio quality production with a live performance feel.

Leonard Cohen’s songs are poems set to music; each one has something to say about love, passion, religion or politics. I find his words far more evocative than any of the well-known poets that our English teachers used to enthuse about. His words have a bite and a wit that is, sometimes, astonishing. Democracy, for example, starts with a reference to Tiananmen Square. It doesn’t mention the massacre of the protesters but it seems to say that things will be all right in the end because democracy is coming. Then it turns the world upside down by saying

Democracy is coming…

… to the U.S.A.

The voice of reason in my head says, “That’s ridiculous! The U.S. is already a democracy.” And then the irony detector goes off and reminds me that, perhaps, the U.S. isn’t really the perfect embodiment of the democratic process that Americans like to think it is.

Live in Dublin is roughly three hours of music (3 CDs) and is good value at £14.99 for the download. It contains some of Leonard’s classic songs of the ’60s (Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Bird on a Wire) as well as material from the four decades since. Some of the early songs feel a little stale to me – perhaps that’s understandable, if you’ve been singing the same song for more than 40 years it must be difficult to keep it sounding fresh. Or I may be listening through rose-tinted spectacles (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor). Either way, I’m offering Live in Dublin as my album of the month for February 2015.

Incidentally, if you buy it you’ll find that democracy isn’t coming yet; that’s one song that’s not on the album.

Love Song #43

It will be Valentines Day on Saturday, so let’s have a love song as my track of the week. I’ve got plenty to choose from – most pop songs seem to be about romantic love – but I don’t want anything too sentimental. I think Made Up Love Song #43 by Guillemots fits the bill. As you can probably guess from the tongue-in-cheek title, it’s a light-hearted tune, but it captures the joyful surprise of falling in love rather well.

Guillemots

The track starts quietly with electric piano arpeggios and Fyfe Dangerfield’s wistful singing, building slowly with synthesised strings and the tapping of a drumstick. Then it bursts into life with guitars, acoustic bass and backing vocals. Fyfe sings another verse and his voice soars to a playful crescendo as if he’s dancing on air. Then he floats gently back down to earth, the music subsides, slows and fades away leaving just the memory of a blissful day.

If you’re planning a romantic evening this weekend Love Song #43 should remind you of that time when you first found love. And, when the time is right, you can steal a line from the song:

I can’t believe you care.

(YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EaAYi64Rpo)

King Crimson

They say, if you invent a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. I think there is some truth in that, but it has to be a much better mousetrap. Fortunately, there are a few examples of products that are so desirable that they hardly need to be promoted at all: the Morgan sports car, the Apple iPhone, the Gucci handbag. King Crimson performances are like that, especially their live concerts.
King Crimson Hydepark-69
I first heard King Crimson back in the days before Woodstock – about a month before, actually, at the free Hyde Park concert in July 1969. That was the one headlined by the Rolling Stones but, for me, King Crimson stole the show. The Stones’ performance was OK and the other bands played well enough, but only King Crimson filled the open-air arena with sound. When I went home that day three songs stayed with me: 21st Century Schizoid Man, In the Court of the Crimson King and Epitaph, all from the King Crimson set.

King Crimson is a difficult band to blog about. The band was formed in 1968 and is still going today. (They have just announced a UK tour starting on 31st August 2015.) There have been several distinct lineups over the years and with every change of personnel their musical style changed. The band’s history is complicated enough to warrant two charts on the King Crimson Wikipedia page: one showing the personnel changes and another showing who played which instruments on which albums. I won’t try to summarise that here.

For me there have been two King Crimsons: the band as it was from 1968 to 1974 when they released 7 albums before splitting up, and then the various lineups from when they re-formed in 1981 to the present day. In the early years King Crimson helped to define the progressive rock genre along with Genesis and Yes. Using guitars and keyboards the prog rock bands created big, expansive walls of sound reminiscent of classical works – a kind of intellectual rock music.
Larks Tongues
King Crimson
‘s music has always been complex. Yesterday I listened to an interview with Jakko Jakszyk, the second guitarist, in which he mentions playing Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, a track from the earlier period; he was playing alternate bars of 10 and 11 beats while the rest of the band were playing in a 7 time. That’s mind-blowingly complex!
Discipline Logo
The Crimsons’ compositions from 1981 onwards were, if anything, even more complex to my ear. At the same time each song was fairly short and improvisation was largely absent. Those tracks sound like rhythmically and harmonically complex pop songs rather than the grand orchestral synthesiser pieces characteristic of the prog rock era.

There’s more to King Crimson‘s music than I can describe here – much more. There really is no substitute for listening to them. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find anything online that we can play legally without buying it first. There are no King Crimson tracks on Spotify, presumably because the band’s management company (DGM) hasn’t done a deal with Spotify. There are a few cover versions of King Crimson tracks on Spotify and 30 second previews are available on the DGM web site. (You may have to register with DGM to hear those.)

Here are a few links to covers of early period Crimson to get you started:

If you are willing to spend a tenner to explore the King Crimson canon I recommend the 2 CD compilation The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson (1969-2003). And if you’ve ever wanted a sports car, a high-tech gadget, a fashion accessory or a better mousetrap something by King Crimson, my band of the year 1969, will fit beautifully with your aspirations.

Update, 28 May 2015: There are a large number of King Crimson tracks on myspace.

Side

This blog is the story of my journey through the hills and valleys of the land we call Music. On my travels I have already come across a shape with three sides (Alt-J, “the alternative triangle band”) and one with five sides (Pentangle, whose trees they do grow high). It’s hard to imagine a shape with less than two sides – there are even two sides to every story – but Travis say that a circle only has one side.

Side is a song about human nature. It’s about our restlessness, our one-upmanship, our desire to win. It’s about the flaws that bring us into conflict. It scolds us for our greed and our disregard for our fellow men. And it urges us to put aside our selfishness and love one another.Travis

The grass is always greener on the other side,
Neighbour’s got a new car that you wanna drive,
Time is running out, you wanna stay alive.

We all live under the same sky,
We all will live, we all will die,
There is no wrong, there is no right,
The circle only has one side.

This isn’t just a great song, it’s a perfect example of modern popular music. It has a tune that begs to be sung and a rhythm that grabs your attention; strummed guitars give it a pleasing, full sound; verse, chorus and bridge passages give it structure; it builds to crescendos that resolve to restful interludes; and the production balances instruments and vocals beautifully. And, unlike most pop songs, it even has meaningful lyrics.