A Lady of a Certain Age

judy dench

Judy Dench, ageing gracefully

We are in classic Track of the Week territory today. A Lady of a Certain Age is a song by The Divine Comedy, a band that wouldn’t normally qualify for inclusion in these pages. But this track manages to avoid the flimsy fluff of the Comedy‘s pure pop songs and gives us what The Guardian’s reviewer described as a “quietly devastating” comment on womanhood, class and growing old.

Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon

Musically, A Lady of a Certain Age, has a simple charm. It is a song for a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, embellished with gently pulsing accordion and urgent, rippling strings. But the brightest jewels this lady wears are in Neil Hannon’s sharp-edged lyrics.

Scaling the dizzy heights of high society,
Armed only with a cheque book and a family tree.

The story has only just begun but already we can see it will end in tragedy. Behind the lady’s back Peter Sarstedt is asking Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? and Bob Dylan is composing Like A Rolling Stone.

You chased the sun around the Côte d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscure
And left you on your own and in the shade,
An English lady of a certain age.

That chorus leaves us with a feeling of sad inevitability but little sympathy for a woman who made the most of her beauty and wealth while she could, never thinking about what the future might bring. But the loss of her youthful looks was only the start of her misfortune.

Your husband’s heart gave out one Christmas Day,
He left the villa to his mistress in Marseilles

Life can be cruel, sometimes. To the ageing lady this must have felt as though her diamond necklace had tightened around her throat, the sparkling ice turning to sharp saw blade tips tearing at her skin and ripping her last vestiges of dignity to shreds. We can but pity her now.

Background Notes

  1. Outside music circles “The Divine Comedy” refers to a long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri written between 1308 and 1320. It tells the story of Dante’s journey up through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, and is regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature.
  2. The band, The Divine Comedy, was formed in 1989 as a three-piece: Neil Hannon, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor. A fourth member, John Allen, joined in 1991 but the band split in 1993. Hannon revived the name later that year using a fluid mix of permanent band members, collaborators and session musicians. In effect, The Divine Comedy is Neil Hannon’s musical persona.
  3. Hannon writes the songs, sings and plays guitar, bass and keyboards. I read somewhere that, on one of his albums, he played all the instruments apart from the drums and the orchestral instruments. Unfortunately, I can’t find the reference now. 😦
  4. Hannon composed the theme tunes for the TV programmes Father Ted and The IT Crowd. He also sang on the soundtrack for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and on a Doctor Who CD.
  5. A Lady of a Certain Age is from The Divine Comedy‘s ninth studio album, Victory for the Comic Muse. The title is a quote from the book, A Room With A View, but it harks back to the band’s first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse.
  6. Victory for the Comic Muse was unusual in that it was recorded in just 2 weeks, using a minimum of overdubs. Hannon had a cold for some of this time, which perhaps accounts for him sounding uncannily like John Grant on A Lady of a Certain Age. (And all the better for it, I think.)

Living, Breathing

babe in arms

The winner of the Mercury Music Prize for 2017 was announced in a live BBC TV broadcast on Thursday evening. At Crotchety Mansions the TV was tuned in and the Crotchety Couple watched with a mixture of hope and trepidation. The shortlist was promising, with a high proportion of deserving acts, but last year the judges took the insane decision to award the prize to a wholly unmusical assault on the senses by a rapper called Skepta. Would they disappoint us again? Or would we enjoy the live performances and respect the opinion of the judging panel?

To give you some perspective, here are the shortlisted artists and their albums:

  • Alt J, Relaxer
  • Blossoms, Blossoms
  • Dinosaur, Together, As One
  • Ed Sheeran, Divide
  • Glass Animals, How to be a Human Being
  • J Hus, Common Sense
  • Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
  • Loyle Carner, Yesterday’s Gone
  • Sampha, Process
  • Stormzy, Gang Signs and Prayer
  • The Big Moon, Love in the 4th Dimension
  • The XX, I See You

Everyone on the planet knows who Ed Sheeran is. I don’t need to say anything about him other than that Crotchety Man regards him as a genuinely great artist and his Divide album had to be a contender for the title of Best UK Album of 2017. Alt J and Kate Tempest have both featured in these pages before; I have a soft spot for both artists and was very happy to see them in the running. Tracks by Blossoms, Glass Animals and The XX come up on the BBC 6 Music radio station from time to time and have earned a place in the Crotchety heart. If any of those artists’ albums should win that would be OK with me.

At the other end of the spectrum, Stormzy was already sitting dejectedly in the rejected pile of rubbish rap and J Hus, a name I’ve never heard of before, had been tentatively assigned the same fate based on a description on the Mercury Prize website. That left Dinosaur, Loyle Carner, Sampha and The Big Moon as unknown quantities. So we watched their live performances with particular interest.

dinosaur

Dinosaur – Corrie Dick, Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Conor Chaplin

As I’ve said before, the nice thing about the Mercury Prize is that it has a habit of throwing up artists paddling their canoes a little way away from the mainstream but coming up fast. In this case, though, The Big Moon‘s performance of Cupid was disappointingly ordinary and we dismissed them as just another unexceptional all-girl guitar band.

Loyle Carner gave us a song called Isle of Arran. It was sung by a nice gospel choir but spoiled by his tuneless rapping and we reluctantly consigned him to the ‘mediocre’ bin. Sat at an upright piano, looking like Stevie Wonder (without the glasses), Sampha sang (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. That’s a good title and his piano playing showed a glimmer of promise but, in the end, neither the song nor the performance warranted more than a ‘not bad’ rating.

Dinosaur, though, did hold our attention. They are a modern jazz quartet led by Laura Jurd (trumpet, synthesiser, composition) with contributions from Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums and percussion). They played Living, Breathing from their one and only album, Together, As One. The clip here is the official video; their live session for the Mercury Prize is also available on YouTube.

It was immediately obvious that these musicians could play. Whether you like their material, though, may well be a different matter. I chose Living, Breathing as a Track of the Week because I think it is the most accessible of their works. It is bright, bold, complex modern jazz and most people just won’t ‘get’ it. Sitting there in our living room Crotchety Man confidently predicted that Dinosaur would not be on the winner’s podium at the end of the programme. But they do have the mark of a Mercury Prize nominee: their canoe is well off the mainstream and they deserve greater recognition, especially outside jazz circles.

All in all the Crotchety Couple enjoyed the Mercury Prize award show. Unlike last year I didn’t spout invective when they announced Sampha‘s Process as the winner. The likes of Ed Sheeran, Alt J and Kate Tempest would have been better choices, but they don’t need the cash or the publicity. I would have put Blossoms, Glass Animals and The XX above Sampha, but at least the rappers lost out. Sampha wasn’t the best choice but I can live with the disappointment this year. Introducing me to a living, breathing Dinosaur is all the compensation I need.

Strange Angels

Crotchety Man has been on holiday – one week in Devon with the missus and a tottery old man I call Dad. The weekly blog for 3rd September was written in advance, the draft was called up on the phone as we sat in the holiday cottage watching the rain stream down the windows and the Publish button was clicked there. It must have worked because something on Hotel California appeared in these pages that very day.

Returning home, the usual schedule was resumed for a San Francisco Drive last Sunday. And then, as I welcomed the start of a new working week on Monday, my thoughts turned to the Album of the Month for September. It’s good to know there are people out there tapping frantically on computer keyboards, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting things from one side of the globe to the other, thus keeping the economy going so that I can spend my state-provided pension being frivolous and enjoying myself.

But, I digress. The self-appointed Crotchety Boss wanted an Album of the Month blog on his desk by close of business Thursday. What was I going to write? That stifling black cloud of blogger’s block descended ominously for a moment and then, suddenly, it evaporated. I had already decided on the album; I had made a note of it before going away. Sure enough, my list of candidate albums had an entry for this month, but reading it just filled me with dismay. “Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels”, it said. And a thoroughly confused inner voice replied, “Huh?, Who? What?”.

portrait

Laurie Anderson

The Crotchety mind felt as though it had fallen into a swollen, swirling river but, after a few seconds of intense effort, it found an overhead branch and grabbed it with both hands. Before going away I had been reading an article in The Telegraph newspaper entitled “50 amazing albums you’ve probably never heard“; the album on my list must have been one of those. Sure enough, album number 19 in that newspaper article was Strange Angels by Laurie Anderson.

So I had the album but I still had no idea who Laurie Anderson is/was or what Strange Angels sounds like. I had pulled myself out of the River of Confusion but I was not yet out of the Woods of Ignorance.

Sitting on the river bank the ignoramus made a plan: step 1, listen again to the music, for it must have had some remarkable quality to be on the list; step 2, search for Laurie Anderson online and see what comes up; step 3, write down a few pertinent facts and try to describe what it is that makes Strange Angels worthy of the Crotchety Readers’ time. It was a good plan. Following it my Mind and I would force a path through the Woods to the scrubland of Superficial Knowledge and there the travellers would erect a marker, a post that will show others the way.

album cover

So I listened. At first there seemed to be nothing at all remarkable about the music. The album opens with the title track, which is a fairly ordinary pop song – pleasant enough but certainly not something that warrants The Telegraph‘s ‘amazing’ tag. Then again, there’s an unusual selection of instruments – you don’t hear castanets very often in pop songs – and there’s an intriguing quality to Laurie Anderson’s voice that makes you wonder what the rest of the album has in store.

Track 2 is anything but ordinary. Called Monkey’s Paw it sounds as though it has been excised from Paul Simon’s Graceland and given a growling, half-spoken commentary warning that no good will come from our attempts to bend Mother Nature to our will.

Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw.

The instruments swing like a monkey in the trees; the words carry a profound and disturbing message. There is a depth to this album that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

As each song passes you become aware of ever more variety. Sometimes the singer’s voice swoops and trills, sometimes it grumbles. One song has Andean pipes, another features a harmonium; there are bongos, horns, drum machines and synthesisers. And the songs grow on you. By track 6, the funky Beautiful Red Dress, Crotchety Man’s ignorance was flowing away faster than the River of Confusion. There really is something precious glinting just beyond the thinning Wood.

As I listened I kept hearing echoes of other musicians: Liz Fraser’s passionate voice, the ominous atmosphere of a Nick Cave composition, words from a Sally Barker song. It struck me that Strange Angels is a collage of musical fragments, fragments assembled so artfully that they create a wholly different work in which the individual pieces lose their identity. It is, I think, as much a tribute to the session musicians and producers as it is to the songwriting and the headline artist.

The album ends with the hypnotic Hiawatha which ambles through the Old West, accompanied by Native Americans and the occasional howling wolf, for nearly seven minutes. It is a timeless, wandering piece that fades into the sunset much too soon leaving this old timer hankering for more. Here it is on YouTube where an early fade reduces it to 5:24:

The enlightened Crotchety Mind had left behind the Woods of Ignorance and it was time to take step 2, an expedition into the scrub of Superficial Knowledge.

Upon opening Laurie Anderson’s Wikipedia page it is immediately obvious that she is a complex and interesting character. She is described there as “an American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director whose work spans performance art, pop music, and multimedia projects”. The key word, here, is ‘artist’. Strange Angels is a work of art; that it is delivered through the medium of music is incidental. And music is only one string to Anderson’s bow¹. She has also worked as an illustrator, art critic, film maker and performance artist.

Our increasingly confident explorer made two surprising discoveries on this particular expedition. The first was that Laurie Anderson had a number two hit in the UK charts in 1981. Was the Crotchety Mind asleep that year? Or had it just forgotten the name of a one-hit wonder? Listening to O Superman, the track in question, quickly eliminated the latter possibility. It is one of the most distinctive, surprising and unforgettable songs ever to have graced the charts. Borrowing words from Le Cid, an opera by Jules Massenet, it is over eight minutes of multi-tracked, half-spoken, heavily processed chanting and electronic organ, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler’s idiosyncratic warblings. Here’s the official video:

The popularity of that single is inexplicable. I have seen reports that it was used as the introductory music for a program on Capital Radio and that many listeners contacted the radio station to ask what it was. I have also heard that John Peel promoted it on his radio show. That may all be true but the support of a local radio station and an off-piste show on national radio isn’t enough to explain its success to my satisfaction. Still, it provides a welcome stimulation for the ears and the intellect and it brought Laurie Anderson to the attention of those of us well outside the orbit of performance art.

The second surprise my exploring Mind discovered was that Laurie Anderson hooked up with Lou Reed in 1992 and they were married from 2008 until his death in 2013. Now that makes sense. Those two strong, creative characters would either clash violently or build an unbreakable bond. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, when the interviewer asked what it was like to be a widow, Anderson replied that she thought of Lou Reed as more of a partner than a husband (although he was that, too) and that he is always with her.

We paused then as we contemplated step 3 of the plan. Slowly we began to gather stones from the River of Confusion, building a cairn to mark the path. A fallen tree was dragged from the Woods of Ignorance and from it we fashioned a sturdy post, painted with arrows pointing to Laurie Anderson and her Strange Angels. And we have now committed these words to the blogosphere, providing another pointer to a road less travelled and music heard unjustifiably rarely.

Note

  1. Laurie Anderson was, initially, trained in violin and sculpture. She invented the tape-bow violin in which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair of a violin bow and sound is produced as the bow is drawn across a tape head in the bridge.

San Francisco Drive

skyline

Now that we have escaped from Hotel California let’s go on a San Francisco drive with Petteri Sariola. “Who’s that?”, you ask. Well I’d never heard of him either until Spotify dropped a track called The Clockwork into my Release Radar last week.

That track turned out to be an unbelievable guitar performance by Sariola from his fourth and latest album, Resolution. There’s too much going on for it to be a solo performance – low notes, fast licks, ringing harmonics and percussive beats – but it’s much too tight to be a band. In tone, the sound is neither nylon string acoustic nor solid body electric. Intrigued, Crotchety Man googled (small ‘g’ because the word is now an accepted part of the English language).

Petteri Sariola

Petteri Sariola, it turns out, is a Finnish guitarist, arranger and singer/songwriter. He plays an acoustic, steel-strung guitar fitted with a pickup. This allows him to play mainly by tapping the fretboard while his right hand taps the body of the instrument to provide his characteristic percussive style. This is up-beat classical guitar with funky overtones. And there’s not a lot of that about.

There are several tracks on the Resolution album worthy of a Track of the Week slot, including The Clockwork and Good Friend, but I’ve chosen San Francisco Drive because that is also a great track and there’s a YouTube video that shows off Sariola’s technique pretty well.

Impressive, isn’t it? More like a Chapman Stick than a guitar. As one reviewer remarked,

”There are many ways to play guitar nowadays, still you will be amazed by the way Petteri Sariola plays his instruments.” – Latina Magazine / Japan

Take a bow Petteri, you have earned it.

Hotel California

hotel

I love a good story. It might be an adventure story, a whodunnit or a sci-fi epic. Whatever the format there’s always the urge to read on because you never know what will happen next. It might be in a novel or on a movie screen or, sometimes, in a song. That’s what we have with Hotel California, the Eagles best known and most popular single from their 1976 album of the same name.

Eagles

After a gentle guitar introduction this tale starts, like all good stories do, with a wholly unremarkable scene. The narrator is driving down a road in the Californian desert. The light is fading and he is getting weary when he sees the welcoming lights of a hotel up ahead. We, the listeners, know he is going to stop at that hotel. We know something is going to happen there, something that will delight or horrify us, but we don’t know which.

The band slips into an easy groove as the driver pulls into the parking lot and walks a little stiffly into the lobby. There is no clue yet to what will befall him.

He is welcomed by a woman with an air of mystery about her. She has a lovely face but there is something in her eyes that sounds a warning bell, a reverberation from deep within our hero’s ancestral memory. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”, he thinks as he fills in the check-in form. But that would be an old and hackneyed story either way. As listeners, we expect something more subtle, more surprising, more thrilling.

The creature with an angel’s face and a devil’s eyes lights a candle and shows him to his room. A candle? Surely they must have electric lights in this modern, up-market hotel. Is the candle just to provide soft lighting for the guests or is the story teller hinting at occult ceremonies behind closed doors? The traveller is too tired to notice this anomaly but in the corridor ahead he hears voices that seem to say, “Welcome to the Hotel California”. “Such a lovely place”, murmur the odd numbered rooms on his left. “Such a lovely face”, whisper the even ones on the right.

The picture fades into another scene. It is a hot and sticky evening. The hotel lights are low, shadows flit across the courtyard where some of the guests are dancing languidly. It could be the next day or it could be that same night. The dancers look strangely insubstantial in the half-light. Perhaps they are ghosts, perhaps it’s all a dream. As the camera zooms in it becomes clear that the figures on the dance floor are all carrying old psychological burdens. Some dance to remember; some dance to forget.

Our lonesome traveller tosses and turns in the night. Above the backbeat groove the electric guitars are now crying with emotional pain. And there are those voices again. “Welcome to the Hotel California”, they sing. “Such a lovely place. Such a lovely face.”

Suddenly the focus sharpens and the surroundings become frighteningly real. There are mirrors on the ceiling, the glass bright and smooth. There’s pink champagne on ice in a shiny metal bucket on a side table. The trappings of luxury and wealth are everywhere. And the devil lady is explaining why everyone is here. “We are all prisoners”, she says, “of our own device”.

Just then the traveller catches a glimpse of a table set for a feast. A dozen stainless steel knives stab the meat but the diners just can’t kill the beast. How long has the once weary motorist been here? A day? A lifetime? He finds himself running for the door, desperate to escape from this life of excess and debauchery and get back to the world he came from. In the lobby the night man tells him to relax. “You can check out any time you like”, he says, “but you can never leave”.

And with that chilling message the guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh provide a two-part eulogy for lost innocence that doubles as a warning to those who believe that wealth is the only measure of success. That, they seem to say, is how you become trapped in an ever-tightening spiral of greed from which there is no escape.

Hotel California is a great story. It is also a great record. The single topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977 and has gone on to notch up sales in the U.S. earning it Gold certification for the 45 rpm single and Platinum for downloads. More significantly, I think, Hotel California makes it onto a number of Greatest Songs lists: it’s number 49 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, for example, and listed on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Even that undersells the song  in my opinion and that’s a rather sad story.