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.)

Pain Killer (Summer Rain)

umbrella

It’s been a typical British summer this year. Anchored in the Atlantic Ocean just off the western edge of mainland Europe these islands get weather that is politely called ‘changeable’. In Ireland they have a saying: if you can see the hills, rain is coming; if not … it’s raining already.

A little farther east, in England, we tend to be plagued with showers. No matter how bright and sunny it is when you wake up in the morning by the time you’ve got dressed, had breakfast and stepped outside your front door the clouds are gathering. And if you are fool enough to pack a picnic and drive out into the countryside you can be sure the heavens will open just as you take the first bite of Mama’s delicious home-baked pork pie. Nothing dampens the spirits quite like eating soggy pastry and limp lettuce in the back seat of the car while peering through rain-spattered, steamed up windows, believe me.

Of course, to experience the full horror of the British weather you need to go camping. Just booking for a three-day music festival puts cloudy skies in the calendar and packing the tent guarantees a downpour on day one. The Glastonbury festival is renowned for muddy fields, but the show does (usually) go on¹. The recent Y Not festival, however, was curtailed for safety reasons because of what the organisers termed “exceptionally bad weather” – as if heavy rain is unusual in that part of the country².

While Crotchety Man waits for the increasingly rare warm, dry summer day he is reminded that Turin Brakes found the answer to inclement weather back in 2003.

Take the pain killer, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind.

Quite how they thought getting on a bike would let you outrun the storm clouds I’m not sure but at least a large dose of analgesic pills would counteract the ache in the legs as you struggle up those endless English hills.

Pain Killer (Summer Rain) was a single from Turin Brakes‘ 2003 album Ether Song. The single reached number 5 on the UK chart and the album was certified gold four days after its release.

band

Turin Brakes – Olly, Gale, Rob, Eddie

Turin Brakes was founded in 1999 by two guitarists whose names have quintessential English connotations. Oliver (Olly) Knights’ name takes us into the world of Arthur King of Camelot, Merlin the wizard, and a band of noble swordsmen pledged to fight for the king³. His partner in song has Iranian/Armenian ancestry, which accounts for the very un-English surname of Paridjanian, but his first name is perfect for a music festival in the green and pleasant lands of England: it is (hang on to your hats) Gale.

These days Turin Brakes has four members: in addition to Olly and Gale there’s Rob Allum (drums) and Eddie Myer (bass). They play a kind of folk/rock/indie blend that falls easy on the ear. It’s not the most exciting of sounds but it’s pleasant enough to engage casual listeners right across the popular music spectrum. Try it. Take the pain killer they offer and enjoy the summer. And, remember, you can go dri-cycling even in the rain.

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Notes

  1. As far as I know Glastonbury has never been cancelled because of rain. It does have fallow years, though, when no festival is organised.
  2. It isn’t.
  3. What’s the collective noun for a group of knights? A round? A table? A Keira?

Doctor Who

12 Doctors

The First Doctor has been characterised as a crotchety old man but he was so much more, displaying childish delight, great charm, enormous warmth and a wonderful sense of mischief during his many adventures through time and space.

– A quote from the BBC website

It seems my secret identity has been revealed. Yes, Crotchety Man is The Doctor and he returned to his Earthly home, Cardiff (Caerdydd), last week for a few days. Well, when I say ‘returned’ it’s actually the first time I’ve been to Cardiff but, because time isn’t linear, I was able to see lots of artefacts from my future visits. It’s always nice to see a little of your own future – it’s one of the perks of being a Time Lord.

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Back home in the Tardis it struck me that the best TV programs always have good theme tunes and the time had come to feature the Doctor Who theme on my music blog. But that presented a dilemma. Many versions of the track have been recorded and used in the TV broadcasts – Spotify has at least 5. There’s the original 1963 version, composed by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire using analogue electronics and tape recorders. Then there are versions from 1967, 1980, 1986 and 1987 just from the album Doctor Who – The 50th Anniversary Collection (Original Television Soundtrack). The Internet also mentions later arrangements by Murray Gold from 2005, 2007 and 2010. Then there have been a number of cover versions, including one by Pink Floyd¹, apparently.

Do I need to say anything about the tune itself? Its first incarnation was, of course, one of the very first successful examples of electronic music. It pulses and whoops like a time machine spinning out of control, cascading through the universe as it heads for an unknown, but inevitably perilous, destination. In the eighties the tune was given a digital synthesiser makeover that to my (admittedly alien) mind sounds mechanical and colourless. Its regenerations in the 21st century introduced orchestral sounds, while keeping the electronic swoosh as the little blue police box rips through time and space.

The primordial life force of the original had returned but I was still unsure whether to select the analogue electronica of the first series or the orchestral grandeur of the post-millennium runs. The solution, when it came to me, was simple.

While swirling absentmindedly across the fabric of space/time the Tardis stalled on a video that stitches together some 16 different versions of the Doctor Who theme dating from 1963 to the present day. I don’t need to choose; you can have them all. Here they are – over 37 minutes of a short composition that originally ran for 2:21, with details of the composer/arranger and dates of the TV episodes that used it. A bit repetitive for the average music lover, perhaps, but a treasure for Whovians across the galaxies.

Notes

  1. I can only find a 33 second YouTube clip to verify that. It’s from a live show; as far as I know Pink Floyd never released it.
  2. There are some photos from the Cardiff trip here.

Magic

cards

I shall be away from the temptations of the blogging machine this weekend so, this week, the Crotchety notes will be published in advance of the usual Sunday date and may be somewhat staccato.

—–

For my Track of the Week I’ve chosen Magic by Bruce Springsteen. There’s no particular reason for this; it just struck me that an appreciation of “The Boss” is long overdue. Then again, I’m not the greatest Springsteen fan on this Earth. Although I’ve never heard a Springsteen track I didn’t like, his songs rarely ignite the flames of passion in me.

If the songs are not really that special what is it that makes Bruce Springsteen so popular? Well, for a start, he has gathered some fine musicians around him. He works hard, too. He has been writing songs, recording and gigging for more than 50 years. And a man who gives 4-hour concerts deserves our considerable respect. But, above all, he has an unparalleled rapport with his fans. He didn’t like being called The Boss at first; he was, and still is, just an ordinary Joe like you and me. What could be more endearing than that?

Springsteen’s success has given him many opportunities to influence public opinion and he has used them to promote a liberal political agenda both in his lyrics and in his ad hoc comments on stage. On the tour promoting the Magic album he introduced the title track like this:

We’re living in a sort of Orwellian time when what’s true can be made to seem like a lie and what’s a lie can be made to seem true. So the song’s really not about magic, it’s about tricks.”¹

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Magic has a simple folk song feel that appeals right across the spectrum of musical tastes. In the album version a violin and a mandolin add a bit of sparkle, too. There’s a subtle kind of magic in this song that grows on you the more you hear it. To the Crotchety ears it’s just as good as the singles on the album, Radio Nowhere and Girls In Their Summer Clothes. And that’s, surely, reason enough to air it here.

Notes

  1. You can hear that introduction in this YouTube video. That clip has some lovely violin playing but it ends far too abruptly.

Light Flight …

Light Flight - mosque

I have always felt that the five members of Pentangle were pulled together by a mysterious force. It must have been some kind of benign sorcery to be capable of making such a sublime creation. Perhaps somewhere in a small town in England a macabre ritual took place.

Welcome, sisters, to the White Witch (Tewkesbury) Temple of Apollo.
Light the scented candles.
Put on the ram’s horn masks.
Remove the cloak of Widdecombe and stand naked within the holy circle.
Bring in the virgin goat.

Hail, Apollo, God of Truth and Music.

We five call on you to smite those artists, managers and record companies that put commercial gain before artistic endeavour and bring forth a new era of wondrous sounds, both live and recorded.
For this we offer you this sacrifice …

Or am I letting my imagination run away with me? Did the God of Music forge folk and jazz into a whole new genre at the behest of a witches coven or was it just a happy coincidence that three musicians from the folk circuit and two from jazz circles came together in London in 1967?

Light Flight - on lawn

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were both well-known folk guitarists having made several solo albums each and one as a duo. When Jansch moved from Edinburgh to London he and Renbourn shared a house there. They met singer, Jacqui McShee, when they performed at her folk club outside the capital city and all three performed at Les Cousins, a folk and blues club in the Soho district of London. As a trio they performed modern folk influenced by early music and the blues.

Bass player Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox came from a rather different background. Both had been members of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a blues and R&B band, and both had leanings towards jazz. Wikipedia notes that Thompson gigged at Les Cousins and worked with John Renbourn on a project for television, although it leaves further details unspecified.

So it seems that Jansch, Renbourn, McShee, Thompson and Cox were a folk band woven together by a secondary interest in the blues and its more flamboyant offshoot, jazz. Was this a prosaic serendipity or the mystical power of a five-pointed star? No mortal man can ever be sure. But Pentangle’s compilation album, Light Flight – Anthology, is an excellent place to start if you want to engage in a personal search for the truth.

Light Flight - in colour

Light Flight is a double album containing 31 tracks from the period 1968 – 1971 when Pentangle were at their scintillating best. It is the top-rated Pentangle compilation album on AllMusic and, appropriately perhaps, the only one with a full five-star rating. On the first disc the emphasis is on mainstream folk songs with characteristically intricate arrangements; disc 2 has rather more of a jazzy feel. Both discs also have two or three instrumentals.

There are traditional folk songs arranged by Pentangle (Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, The Trees They Do Grow High², Cruel Sister), more modern folk songs (Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Sally Go Round The Roses), original songs in the folk tradition (Light FlightWay Behind The Sun, Sweet Child), instrumentals (Waltz, Three Part Thing, Pentangling) and a cover of a jazz standard (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat). This is an album of folk songs shot through with veins of sparkling jazzy licks, musical nuggets that no other band has ever been able to match.

My Mum told me long, long ago that folk music has lovely melodies and jazz requires a high standard of musicianship. I believed her then and on Light Flight you will find proof of mother’s wise words. It has some of the most beautiful songs played by some of the most accomplished musicians of their time, all making full use of their talents. It is a five-star album if ever there was one.

Notes

  1. The text for the witches’ ritual was inspired by a radio advertisement for the Toyota Avensis that aired in the UK a few years ago. In the original a woman with a Brummy accent half whispers, “Welcome, sisters, to the Dudley Devil Worshippers …”. Now, Dudley is a nondescript town in the West Midlands region of England with a castle, a zoo and nothing else of note. The idea that it could be the headquarters of an occultist coven is laughable enough but the reference to the “cloak of Widdecombe” is a stroke of comic genius. It may refer to Widdecombe Fair but radio listeners would immediately think of Anne Widdecombe, a former politician and an unlikely media personality. Anne’s most endearing characteristic is her ability to laugh at herself and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me saying that her appearance could, with some justification, be described as ‘scary’. In the advertisement the divination ceremony is interrupted by the sound of a door slamming and a cheerful male voice calling out, “Hi, honey. I’m home”. The stunned voice of the high priestess replies, “Brian! I thought you was in Norwich!!”. And the smooth voice of a Toyota salesman warns us to be careful because, with the Avensis’ electronic traffic avoidance system, you might get there too early.
  2. The Trees They Do Grow High was a Track of the Week in January 2015.

The Seldom Seen Kid

Seldom Seen Kid - CD

The five members of Elbow played their first gig together in 1990 at the Corner Pin pub in Ramsbottom, a market town on the northern edge of Greater Manchester. At the time they were called Mr Soft (or just Soft); it wasn’t until 1997 that they changed the name of the band to Elbow (“the loveliest word in the English language”). That year they signed to Island Records and recorded their first album. Island was then bought by the Universal Music Group and during the subsequent restructuring the band was dropped. Sadly, after seven years of writing and performing their particular brand of alternative rock music, Elbow‘s first recording was destined never to be released.

Undeterrred, Elbow switched to the independent Ugly Man Records label and released three EPs: NoiseboxNewborn and Any Day Now. By 2001 the band had come to the attention of V2 Records who issued Elbow‘s first full album, Asleep in the Back, which contained most of the tracks from the earlier EPs together with some new material. More than 10 years after the band was formed Elbow were beginning to make a name for themselves. Asleep in the Back was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize that year and, ironically, the band was nominated in the Best New British Band category at the BRIT Awards.

Elbow made another two albums on V2 Records: Cast of Thousands and Leaders of the Free World. The latter reached number 12 on the UK album chart when it was released in 2005. Puzzlingly, though, Elbow parted company with V2 Records after that. Their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was released by Fiction Records in 2008. It immediately entered the UK album chart at number 5; it won the Mercury Music Prize; by 2011 it had sold over 860,000 copies; and it has been in the top 100 on the UK albums chart for a total of 144 weeks spanning a period from March 2008 to November 2012.

Seldom Seen Kid - elbow

The success of The Seldom Seen Kid surprised a lot of people. The music wasn’t radically different from Elbow‘s earlier albums and it hadn’t been heavily promoted. Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian speculated that Elbow‘s appearance at the Glastonbury Festival just as the sun came out from behind the clouds for the first time might have been a factor. Or it could be that Guy Garvey’s warmth and charm as a radio presenter had brought the band to the attention of many more of BBC 6 Music’s listeners. Or, perhaps, it was just that Elbow‘s time for recognition had finally come.

What Dorian doesn’t mention is that The Seldom Seen Kid carries the unmistakable stamp of a songwriter who has just fallen in love. The first track, Starlings, is as poetic a love song as you could ever hope to hear. Guy Garvey’s lyrics are not stolen from Shakespeare nor do they rely on tired old clichés. Where most of us would say “I’m head over heels” Starlings ends like this:

The violets explode inside me when I meet your eyes.
Them I’m spinning and I’m diving like a cloud of starlings.
Darling is this love?

Five of the eleven tracks on the album are unashamed love poems. I would gladly quote them all here but this isn’t a poetry blog and, anyway, the music behind the words makes an even bigger contribution to the album’s appeal.

The very first thing we hear is a rapid dull chiming as if a child is repeatedly running his hand along the railings in the park. It is an unmistakable statement of intent. This is a band that will not be confined to any particular style, a band that refuses to pander to fashion. The tuneful rattling of the railings is soon joined by the hollow sound of loosely stretched skins over a big kettle drum, or (more likely) its electronic equivalent, and then a dreamy voice sings, “Ah ah, Ah ah, Ah ah”. Electric piano chords answer the voice inviting the vocalist to continue, which he does with the first line of an ode to his new love. Everything about this song says that the world is a perfect place – a place where the sun always shines and a small boy can have endless fun just by running his hand along some railings.

Tracks 2, 3, 5 and 10 are all songs that, like the opener, could only have been written by a lyricist in love. And, to complement the words, there’s an undeniable exuberance in the tunes, the textures and the arrangements. Elbow delight in variety. Soft, loud; sparse, full; mellow, harsh; steady, off-beat. And they use it to full effect on all these tracks.

Of the remaining songs there’s one that seems to be a tribute to a friend who died (the seldom seen kid that gives the album its title), another that pokes fun at the unquenchable optimism of gamblers (The Fix), and four slower pieces. As the album plays the joy of the first few tracks gradually subsides to be replaced by more contemplative songs and even a touch of sadness. Every composition is lovingly assembled from the individual contributions of the members of the band, each one essential to the whole. One or two of the slow pieces wouldn’t stand up on their own but, in the context of the album, they make perfect sense.

Seldom Seen Kid - DVD

Elbow was a five-piece band – guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals – but The Seldom Seen Kid also makes extensive use of strings, brass and a choir. It is ideally suited to an orchestral treatment; and that’s exactly what Elbow did in 2009. A live performance of the album with the BBC Concert Orchestra was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and released as a limited edition CD+DVD package. This is, of course, a collector’s special but it’s a brilliant example of the art.

The DVD is a straightforward film of the concert and the CD is just the audio from it. The sound is excellent; if it wasn’t for the applause (and occasional whoop) from the audience between songs it might have been a conventional studio recording. Sometimes an orchestral instrument draws your attention – a piccolo here or a French horn there – reminding you that the original mix was slightly different. The cameras move unobtrusively around the musicians, picking out moments of concentration or enjoyment on their faces, adding a little seasoning to the overall experience. It’s very much a piece of aural art with visual embellishments, rather than a film with incidental music.

As a rule Crotchety Man prefers studio albums to live ones but when it comes to The Seldom Seen Kid he is glad to have both. And the DVD.

There have been two more studio albums from Elbow with completely new material (Build a Rocket Boys and The Take Off And Landing Of Everything) and one compilation containing tracks previously only released on singles (Dead In The Boot). Excluding the compilation, the Crotchety Collection contains five of the six studio albums in Elbow‘s discography. Of those, The Seldom Seen Kid is still my favourite. It’s my favourite, I think, because it oozes the frabjous joy of life seen through the eyes of love.

I sat you down and told you how the truest love that’s ever found is for oneself.
You pulled apart my theory with a weary and disinterested sigh.

Darling is this love?

Wicked Soul

Wicked Soul - chessboard

Wickedness, Lesson 3 – Seduction

Seduction is a game. It has rules, like chess. And, like chess, you’re more likely to win if you have studied the game and developed your technique. The key thing is to judge the pace. If you dither too much you will be beaten by the clock; if you are too eager you will make mistakes. So, take it slowly, but keep the moves coming. In chess you focus on the board; in the game of seduction you must give all your attention to your partner. Remember,  seduction is a mind game; it has nothing to do with the physical.

A Case Study

We are going to listen to a track called Wicked Soul by Kubb. As we shall see, the songwriter is inexperienced in the ignoble art of seduction but we can learn a lot from his mistakes. For the sake of this exercise we can assume that the singer and his girl have met once or twice but this is the first time they have been alone together. She likes him but she’s an old-fashioned girl with no plans for anything more than some TV, a chat and a friendly kiss on the cheek when he leaves.

The song starts well. The opening piano chords and subtle synths establish a nice easy pace; there is purpose in our steps but no hurry. Then, a little too abruptly, drums, bass and guitar crash in; this guy means business (but it’s not clear where he’s taking us). If we were startled, the easy rhythm soon calms and comforts us again. When the vocals come in the tone is reassuring but the words betray an unforgivable impatience.

I don’t wanna watch The Street on TV,
I don’t wanna hear about your day.

While the Kubb man keeps these thoughts to himself no damage has been done, but if he makes the mistake of saying them out loud he will almost certainly have blown it. Let’s listen to some more of the song and see how he gets on.

The relaxed beat rolls gently on through the verse and into the chorus. As it does so, the voice rises high over the instruments, the vocalist imagining the conquest to come.

Tonight’s the night I shed my wicked soul,
I take it out on you and watch you lose control.

And still the beat goes on, insistent and comforting at the same time. The voice revels in anticipation of the end game.

Tonight’s the night I shed my,
Tonight’s the night I shed my,
Tonight’s the night I shed my wicked soul…
My wicked soul…
My wicked soul.

The song keeps moving forward, which is good, but as a plan it lacks finesse. Sometimes the direct approach will work but it’s a risky strategy. Can you do better?

Your Assignment

For your assignment this week I want you to think about how you could improve on Mr. Kubb’s approach. Essays should be with me, as usual, by 18:00 hrs one week from today. In the meantime, keep practicing, and good luck!

Old Nick (wickedness tutor)