Weeping Willow

winter tree

A few days ago the Crotchety ears were tuned to their favourite radio station. The brain between the ears was only half listening when an unfamiliar but rather pleasant song came on. It turned out to be something called Weeping Willow by The Verve. That reminded me that I’d heard a few Verve songs in the past and liked them but I knew nothing about the band and had never explored their work. Vowing to put that right Weeping Willow was entered into the increasingly heavy ledger listing future Track of the Week blog posts.

There were a few surprises for Old Man Crotchety as he delved into The Verve. If you want to follow his journey of discovery he suggests you listen to the track that piqued his interest before reading what he has to say. As there doesn’t seem to be a decent YouTube video of this song as performed by The Verve here’s the Spotify link (again).

Looking up Weeping Willow on Spotify Crotchety Man found himself in an album called Urban Hymns and was startled to find two exceptional songs sitting there cheek by jowl with the target track. Until then if you had asked this old gentleman “who recorded Bitter Sweet Symphony?” he would have been at a loss. It’s such a well-known song that the artist should have been instantaneously brought to mind and yet it’s so unusual that the Crotchety Filing System had classified it as by “some one-hit wonder”. A similar failure of the mental archival process had left The Drugs Don’t Work as “artist unknown”.

“So they were by The Verve“, the Old Man thought, “I’m impressed”. This revelation clearly warranted listening to the whole album. An hour and nine minutes later (can you fit that much on a vinyl record?)¹ Crotchety Man was a little older and marginally wiser. His verdict: Bitter Sweet Symphony and The Drugs Don’t Work are the stand-out tracks; overall rating for the album around 4 out of 5 (good but not that special). Weeping Willow and This Time are certainly worth listening to but that might not be enough to justify a Track of the Week rosette.

Continuing with his research Crotchety Man called up The Verve‘s Wikipedia page. Surprise number two was that the band’s singer and main songwriter was Richard Ashcroft. Richard also features quite often on the radio as a solo artist and scores well on the Crotchety song-o-meter. Like a jigsaw puzzle a picture of The Verve was beginning to fall into place.

the verve press shoot for big life /emi nov 07 tour

 

The wonderful Wikipedia went on to explain that The Verve‘s music has been described as alternative rock, psychedelic rock and (most appropriately, I think) Britpop. The Old Man can certainly hear Oasis and Coldplay in Weeping Willow. And, like those bands, The Verve achieved stardom status. In 1997, according to critic Mike Gee of iZINE, “The Verve … had become the greatest band in the world.”² Even allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration that threatened to blow the Crotchety mind. Surely they were never that big. Were they? No, Crotchety Man couldn’t have been so out of touch, not even in those days of largely unexciting music.

At this point The Verve had done more than enough to book a place in these pages but should it be Weeping Willow or another of their songs? Bitter Sweet Symphony is too well-known and a little too long. The Drugs Don’t Work is well-known, too, and a headline picture would be a bit grim. This Time doesn’t suggest a picture at all. And there’s no time left to explore their other albums. So, Weeping Willow it had to be.

The best way to understand Weeping Willow is to listen to Richard Ashcroft’s solo performance. Here’s an “audio only” YouTube video:

The solo version is a simple three-chord song with a lilting Coldplay-style melody. It’s a staple of the singer/songwriter genre and, as such, relies heavily on the words to evoke feelings in the listener. Unfortunately, the message in the lyrics isn’t very clear. It could be a love song or a warning about drug addiction. Or a bit of both.

For me the song only really comes to life in the band version with its atmospheric electric guitar, doleful bass, spritely drum beat and multi-tracked vocals. But then it fully deserves its Track of the Week spot.

Footnotes

  1. I doubt it. The vinyl version was released as a double album and is actually longer than the digital version because the vinyl ends with a ‘hidden track’ separated by several minutes of silence making it almost 1 hour and 16 minutes long in total.
  2. The Verve won two Brit Awards in 1998. The Drugs Don’t Work reached number one on the UK singles chart in 1997 and the Urban Hymns album was number one on the UK album chart for 12 weeks, knocking OasisBe Here Now off the top spot.

Thight Lines …

… and Screaming Reels

black marlin

No, I haven’t spelled that wrongly¹. My Track of the Week really is called Thight Lines and Screaming Reels. Then again, it must be a spelling mistake. Somewhere between Colin Hodgkinson’s pen and the record company an extra ‘h’ must have crept in. Perhaps it was a communication problem between an English man and a German music publisher (in-akustik GmbH & Co. KG). Or perhaps someone just had a fubar moment. Whatever the explanation, the spurious ‘h’ is present in every reference I can find.

Colin Hodgkinson is one of the finest bass players around. And he’s been around for quite a while². Colin is the only bass player I know who plays the instrument as if it was an over-sized six-string electric guitar with the top two strings missing. He plays it sometimes with a plectrum, sometimes with his fingers; he plays chords; he plays blues licks; he bends the strings. He is almost a one man band. (He sings a bit, too.)

colin hodgkinson

Colin Hodgkinson – Ten Years After concert, 21st May 2016, Paris

Thight Lines is an instrumental from Colin’s solo album The Bottom Line. The album consists mostly of bass solos but this track features drums and some rather nice keyboards, too. In stark contrast to the screaming reels of the title the feel is one of relaxed anticipation.

Hey, Colin, I called round but you weren’t home. Looks like you’ve gone fishin’ (there’s a sign upon your door). I see the boat has left the shore (you ain’t workin’ any more) and the engine is humming as it glides over the water. Soon it will be time to unpack your tackle and start fishin’ (instead of just a-wishin’). If you’re lucky you’ll catch a big one, a marlin perhaps, that will strain the rod and set the reel a-spinnin’. But for now you can just sit back, enjoy the sun on your skin and listen to the swell of the keyboards and those crisp tight bass lines as they mix with the sound of the waves lazily lapping on the hull.

Half way out into the channel the skipper cuts the engine. You’ve arrived and it looks as though the big fish are feeding. The clatter of a drum solo marks the tethering of the rods and the opening of the bait boxes as you settle down to wait for the first bite. The bass and keyboards return, echoing the gentle thrum of the bilge pump and, with your hat shading your eyes, your thoughts start to drift away. Then, suddenly, the line tautens, the sport begins and, as you play the fish the music fades slowly away. This is going to be a beautiful day.

Notes

  1. Note the adverbial form, here. To have written ‘wrong’ would have been unforgivably wrong.
  2. According to Colin’s website he played in a British band called The Dynatones from 1959 to 1964 and turned professional in 1966. He was a founding member of Back Door (my review of their debut album is here) and has played with all sorts of well-known bands (Alexis Korner, Spencer Davis, Zoot Money and others). In 2014 he became the bassist with Ten Years After and is still gigging. He is now 71 years old.
  3. There doesn’t seem to be a video for Thight Lines although there are clips of other performances by Colin Hodgkinson, both solo and in bands, on YouTube. There’s a nice one of Back Door from the Montreux Jazz Festival here, recorded, I think, in 1974.

Anthology – June Tabor

Anthology - close up

Some time in the early 90s I went to see a band called Perfect Houseplants. They were a four-piece modern jazz band: saxophones, keyboards, bass and drums. As often happens with jazz bands each musician had a solo slot early in the performance and another member of the band would announce the soloist to the audience. After Martin France on the drums and Dudley Phillips on bass came the keyboard player. As the piano notes faded away the saxophonist, Mark Lockheart, came to the microphone and, clearly at a loss for words, said simply, “The amazing Huw Warren”.

Huw’s excursion on the keyboard had, indeed, been amazing. In the space of just two or three minutes he had given us an improvisation that had wandered from modern jazz through classical to up-tempo folk and back again. But what struck me most was that a fellow musician who knew him well was so blown away by this performance that he couldn’t find adequate words to express his admiration. At that moment, in the Crotchety Hall of Memory, a shiny brass plaque bearing the name Huw Warren was screwed to the  wall and the curator still polishes it lovingly from time to time in recognition of that day.

The following year the same venue put on a concert by the English folk singer June Tabor¹. I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket for several reasons. First, I have always loved June Tabor’s deep, dark chocolate voice and her repertoire of English folk music. I feel some empathy with June, too, because we both went to the same university. When I was there my college won the University Challenge TV competition and June had captained her college team in that competition a few years earlier. It’s a tenuous connection but Oxford alumni do tend to stick together. The most compelling reason, though, for going to this particular June Tabor concert was that her accompanist was to be the pianist I still think of as “the amazing” Huw Warren.

I had hoped that the June Tabor/Huw Warren collaboration would create a folk/jazz fusion to rival the fabulous Pentangle. In that I was disappointed. Where Pentangle created music with elements of both folk and jazz, at first, June Tabor’s songs seemed to lie outside both those styles. Soon, though, I realised that it was just the unusual arrangements, the distinctive voice and my unwarranted expectations that had fooled me into thinking we had left the standard orbit of folk music. With my expectations re-adjusted I was able to sit back and enjoy the evening. I enjoyed it enough to feel the musophile’s irresistible itch for a permanent record of the songs I had heard and came away with June Tabor’s Anthology CD.

Anthology - CD

Anthology is not available on Spotify as an album, presumably because it’s a compilation  and all the tracks can be found on earlier albums released between 1976 and 1992. The link given above is to a playlist that reconstructs the album from the individual songs.

There are 16 songs on Anthology, all of them folk songs, most of them dark and sombre. There are songs about the tragedy of war that leave a lasting bitter taste in the mouth (The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, No Man’s Land). There are songs about life and love and death that bring a salty dampness to the eyes (She Moves Among MenStrange Affair, Hard Love). And June Tabor’s deep passionate voice makes those songs sound all the bleaker. But it’s not entirely dark and gloomy. There are up-tempo, almost jolly tunes (Dark Eyed Sailor, Heather Down the Moor) and then there’s a wonderfully uplifting story about a pigeon that’s more recited than sung (The King of Rome).

The songs on Anthology are best appreciated from your most comfortable easy chair, free from the distractions of modern living. Shut the door on the kids, turn off the phone, let your eyelids close and allow Ms Tabor’s singing to conjure up mental images of scenes your eyes could never see. But, if you must have something to watch while you listen, here’s a YouTube video of my favourite song from AnthologyHard Love². Note, however, that the visuals are entirely static. (I guess the video maker agrees with me that the imagination makes more vibrant pictures than any movie camera.)

Over the sixteen year period covered by this compilation June Tabor worked with a number of accomplished musicians from both folk and jazz fraternities. Special mention must go to the folk guitarist, Martin Simpson, and (of course) that immensely versatile pianist, Huw Warren. Together with a few guest musicians they created highly distinctive arrangements to complement June’s voice. And the effect can be stunning.

“She can stop time and draw tears from the stoniest heart. She sings with compassion, honesty, stoicism and a painfully acute sense of life’s transitory hold”. (Sam Saunders)

There is one more aspect of June Tabor’s material in general and of Anthology in particular that I’d like to mention. The song selection seems to have been guided as much by the words as the music. Even in the light-hearted songs the lyrics are never trite and the words of the sad songs have the pathos and profundity of some of the finest modern day poets. As her appearance on University Challenge attests, June is a highly intelligent woman and her choice of material reflects that. Chris Jones, writing on the BBC’s music website, put it like this:

“… the sense of scholarship that she brings to her work never lets you forget that you are listening to, perhaps, the greatest interpreter and curator of indigenous British music”.

Anthology - warren, tabor, ballamy

Quercus – Huw Warren, June Tabor, Iain Ballamy

Since around 2005 June has been working with Huw Warren and the jazz saxophonist, Iain Ballamy. The trio is known as Quercus and they released an album (also called Quercus) in 2013. I’ve only heard a snippet from that album but, from what I’ve read, it follows the general theme of Anthology in that it presents folk songs, ancient and modern, arranged for a jazz group. Like Anthology, Quercus is not available on Spotify although June Tabor’s artist page there shows a picture of the Quercus trio. (Spotify does list a different artist called Quercus, though. As far as I can see the two are unrelated.)

The June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren incarnation of Quercus has a short tour in the UK next year (2017). Dates and venues can be found here. Crotchety Man would love to go but the logistics are problematic. The album is on my birthday wish list, though. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

Notes

  1. June Tabor won the BBC Folk Singer of the Year Award in 2004 and 2012.
  2. Hard Love was written by the American folk singer/songwriter, Bob Franke (rhymes with ‘Yankee’).

Local Boy …

Local Boy - title art

It’s funny, sometimes, how one thing leads to another.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

When I was a boy my dad became interested in photography. He had a Pentax single lens reflex camera that took 35mm film. There were no digital cameras then, of course. He would put a blackout curtain over the kitchen window to create a makeshift darkroom where he would develop and print his own black and white photographs.

It was a mysterious process. First, he placed the camera and a cylindrical black plastic canister called the developing tank into a thick black cloth bag. Inserting his hands through specially provided light-proof arm holes he performed some complex manipulation. At this stage he would sometimes mutter strange incantations like “Oops!”, “Damn!” or “Blast!”. Then, like a magician, he would remove his hands, open the bag and reveal an empty camera. The film had disappeared into the developing tank. It was magic!

But the trick was only just beginning. Next, the magician would pour a powerful potion called ‘developer’ into the developing tank, seal it and gently tip and turn it for exactly three minutes¹. Then the developer was tipped out and a ‘stopper’ solution poured in. Tip and turn a while. Replace the stopper solution with ‘fixer’. Tip and turn a while. And finally, wash thoroughly with water and hang up the strip of negatives to dry.

Once dry the negatives had to be printed. The strip of film was placed in an ‘enlarger’ which shone a strong white light down through a negative onto a sheet of photographic paper underneath. The enlarger was adjusted to illuminate an area about the size of a postcard, the photo-sensitive paper put in place and the lamp switched on for some 20 – 30 seconds or so. (The timing at this stage was usually done by guesswork but further attempts could be made if the first was either much too dark or much too light.) Then the exposed paper went through a four-stage process that mirrors that of the film: developer, stopper, fixer and washes. Take it from me, there’s something mesmerising about watching a picture slowly appear on a sheet of plain white paper.

Much later, when I was a grown up holiday snapper, I became frustrated with the small size and poor quality of the photos I was taking with my cheap point-and-shoot camera. So, in the Spring of 1980, on the strength of unanimous positive reviews in the photography magazines, I bought my first 35mm SLR camera, a Canon AE-1. I know it was 1980 because the lens cap proudly announced that it was the official camera of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

That camera gave me sterling service for more than 25 years but eventually, as digital cameras became popular, 35mm film became increasingly difficult to find². It was 2006 and time to enter the digital age. Sticking with the Canon brand I bought an EOS 350D, a model that was on offer because, as I soon discovered, it was about to be superseded. I think the old AE-1 is still in the loft and fully functional although the battery cover is cracked and the case is disintegrating.

The EOS 350D is also in perfect working order as far as I can tell. However, over the last six months there have been two cases of shots that are pure white and I was beginning to suspect that the memory card was failing. If you mention the Canon EOS 350D to a sales assistant in a camera shop these days they will go all misty eyed and start reminiscing about the great pioneers of the photographic age. Canon stopped producing that model more than a decade ago; to them it’s practically an antique. More importantly, though, it uses Compact Flash memory cards, a form that is still available online but no longer stocked by most camera retailers.

Was it worth getting a new CF card, I wondered, or should I move with the times and swap the 350D for a more up to date model? It’s silly, I know, but I felt I was being left behind by technology, an also-ran in the race to be faster, stronger, better. Anyway, the village show is coming up soon and I want to enter a really good picture in the photography category this time. (The judges were unimpressed last year.) The signs were auspicious; the time seemed right. So I am now the proud owner of a Canon 100D, entry level but bang up to date, 18 megapixel camera.

For the want of a memory card £363 was lost from the bank balance. But that’s progress, right?

Local Boy - stereophonics

As this is a music blog I suppose there ought to be something here about sound as well as vision. A quick search through Crotchety Man’s digital music collection threw up two tracks fitting the theme of photography. One was Nickelback’s Photograph and the other was Stereophonics’ Local Boy In The Photograph. I’ve chosen the latter as my Track of the Week.

Stereophonics is one of those bands that seem to make strong records without ever quite ringing the bell on the fairground strength-o-meter. On the Crotchety Man rating they reach the line marked “compilation album essential, further albums unnecessary”. Note the word ‘essential’; there are several songs on their 2008 Decade In The Sun compilation album that I wouldn’t be without.

Local Boy counts as essential. It’s a typical Stereophonics rock track with a good tune but it stands out because of the story behind it. The band’s singer and lead guitarist, Kelly Jones, saw a newspaper story about Paul David Boggis, a lad he once played football with. The article reported that Boggis’ died after being struck by a train and Kelly wrote the song in response to this tragedy.

He’ll always be twenty three
Yet the train runs on and on
Past the place they found his clothing.

There’s both sadness and a realisation that life must and does go on. Although we have no hard evidence it seems likely that Boggis’ death was suicide, which adds to the sense of loss for those who knew him and touches everyone who reads the story. When one thing leads to another sometimes a little good comes from the bad. In this case, an untimely death inspired a really good song.

Notes

  1. Actually I don’t remember how long the film was supposed to be in the developer  and, anyway, I think it depends on the temperature. Certainly, a thermometer was involved.
  2. Digital photography is also much cheaper and perfect copies come for free.

Believe

Believe - cher, coy

Cher was 70 on Friday and in recognition of her achievements as a singer I’ve chosen Believe as my Track of the Week. Cher, of course, is not just a singer. Among her many occupations Wikipedia lists actress, author, dancer, songwriter and record producer. She has won an Academy Award, a Grammy, an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and a Cannes Film Festival Award. She is the only artist to have had a number one single in the US in every decade from the 1960s to the 2010s.

Believe - typeface

Believe is the title track from Cher’s twenty-second album released in 1998. It’s a song for singing and dancing to, the second entry on the wedding disco playlist after ABBA’s Dancing Queen. It has a beat that defines ‘infectious’, a funky groove that will pull even the most reluctant shrinking violet onto the dance floor. Cher’s vocals deliver the mixture of pain and defiance of a break-up with such heartfelt passion that you reach out to comfort her and the warble of the auto-tune wrings sorrow from your own heart.

It’s so sa-a-ad that you’re leaving,
It takes ti-i-ime to believe it,
But after all is said and done
You’re gonna be the lonely one.

And then the beat kicks in again and suddenly you understand why something like 10 million physical copies of the single have been sold.

Believe - cossack hat

Crotchety Man wishes Cher a belated Happy Birthday and salutes her barely believable talent.

Red Right Hand

Red Right Hand - title

Crotchety Man is easily bored. Because of that he is always listening out for something different. Red Right Hand is deliciously different. The very first sound you hear is the Tang! of a tubular bell ringing out over a deep bass riff with punctuated organ chords and the soft swish of brushes sweeping taut snare drum skins. That’s an exceedingly rare combination in popular music and it conjures up a vivid mental picture.

Red Right Hand - face

The juju man is dancing slowly by an open fire shaking his rattle at the air and thrusting a hideous mask towards the heavens. His bare feet stomp across the dusty earth with a hypnotic rhythm. The fire crackles softly; smoke drifts before your eyes and perfumes your nostrils. Staring into scattered bones the half-god’s arms stretch up to the sky and a disembodied voice begins to chant.

The juju is strong. The spirits are telling your future: where you will go, what will happen to you.

Take a little walk …
Like a bird of doom  …
Where secrets lie …
You know you’re never coming back.

On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man
In a dusty black coat with a red right hand.

Yes, you are going to meet a tall, dark stranger, and he is going to capture your heart.

The bass riff rolls on, the organ chords stab ominous sounds into your ears, and those brushes are still pattering along on that snare drum when the ground shudders to the boom of a kettle drum and the bell clangs loudly once more. It is the end of Act 1.

The juju man sways forward and the mesmerising voice picks up the story again.

He’ll wrap you in his arms, tell you that you’ve been a good boy.
He’ll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy.
He’ll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul,
But there won’t be a single thing that you can do.
He’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a ghost, he’s a guru.

Boom! goes the kettle drum. Clang! goes the bell. And, as Act 2 fades out, the organ wraps you in a cotton wool tune, soothes away your terror and caresses your trembling soul. Out in the African bush the familiar rasp of cicadas accompanies the beat of the dance and in the distance a wild dog howls at the dying sun.

The bass rolls relentlessly on, the organ punches out chords again and the prophecies spill once more from the behind the magic mask. There are no specific predictions – no places, no people, no dates to be avoided. You are being swept along to an uncertain but inevitable doom.

You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his red right hand
.

Red Right Hand - juju dancers

Red Right Hand is a single taken from the 1994 album Let Love In by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s unusual in many ways. A cradle rocking rhythm carries utterly incongruous words of menace and foreboding. There’s almost no tune – what melody there is is confined to the instrumental breaks – but this is no dance track. The lead instrument is an electronic organ; there is no synthesiser listed in the album credits. At first Red Right Hand might sound like a rough backing track plus vocals but there are delightfully subtle effects in abundance: the main three-chord theme contains a jarring dissonance, for example, and there’s that fire-engine clang from the tubular bell. All in all it has a sublime aural texture that both soothes and excites for the whole of its 6 minutes and 11 seconds.

Curious Postscript

According to Wikipedia somewhere on the album the drummer, Thomas Wydler, plays a fish.

All Flowers In Time

Sounddate: Tuesday, 26th January 2015

I heard All Flowers In Time for the first time yesterday on the RadMac afternoon show on BBC 6 Music. Curiously, it has never been released although, as you can see, it has escaped from the recording studio and is available on SoundCloud, YouTube and elsewhere.

All Flowers In Time Bend Towards the Sun, to give it it’s full title, was written by Jeff Buckley (around 1995 as far as I can tell). The version presented here is a demo recording; Jeff’s untimely death in a drowning accident in May 1997 meant that a finished version was never made.

The demo is a composition for two guitars and two voices. If it had been given a sparse arrangement it would be a simple folk song but, here, strummed acoustic and electric guitars provide a lush carpet of camomile and clover for us to walk upon. Liz Fraser’s dancing voice paints exotic flowers onto the bushes, and Jeff Buckley duets with her as she skips between the orchard trees. The two guitars pirouette around each other, butterflies in slow motion, while the voices mingle in exquisite harmony. For a rough cut this is an amazingly beautiful production.

Reliable information is hard to come by but it seems that Liz Fraser has always wanted the ‘unfinished’ All Flowers to remain unheard and Jeff Buckley’s mother, who manages his back catalogue, is of the opinion that Jeff and Elizabeth’s recording is “too personal” to be released. In spite of this there have been many calls from fans of both Buckley and Fraser to make it officially available.

As far as I can make out streaming and downloading this song is morally questionable and quite possibly unlawful. Yes, a polished version might have more light and shade but it’s hard to imagine another take with as much joy and spontaneity as this one. It shines like the sculpted face of Venus with laughter lines etched in. It deserves to be heard.

Crotchety Man has been naughty. He has downloaded All Flowers In Time but, if it is ever released, he hereby promises to pay for it.

Jazz coverhttps://open.spotify.com/track/53JnmsrMLoTzzqdWCZ8M0Y