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.

I Promise

hands

Radiohead have always had many influences. A band that tips its hat to Pink Floyd, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Miles Davis, Aphex Twin, krautrock bands and 20th century classical music (among others) is bound to have developed a somewhat idiosyncratic style. And they are always experimenting. That gives their album catalogue something of a patchy feel. It’s not that their style has been changing, it’s more that Radiohead is a chimeric beast with a coat of many colours, like a tortoiseshell cat.

The end result is always interesting and often surprising but sometimes it misses the bullseye of that direct connection to the soul that some more conventional bands seem to be able to hit unerringly time after time. Yes, sometimes they’re a little off-target. And then they give us I Promise.

My Track of the Week is a single taken from Radiohead‘s latest album, OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017, the 20th anniversary edition of their seminal album OK Computer. The new release contains remastered versions of the tracks on the original album, some B-sides and three previously unreleased tracks: I Promise, Lift and Man of War. The 2017 album was released on digital channels just two days ago.

I Promise is the simplest of songs. A strummed acoustic guitar, a snare drum ticking out a 3-3-2 beat like a tipsy metronome and a sweet male voice singing a delicate tune. A bass guitar adds depth and a light veneer of strings provides the finishing touch. For almost four minutes there is no change of key or rhythm or tempo, just a subtle crescendo and an instrumental break that repeats the verse. And every line of the lyrics ends “I promise”. But so deliciously sweet is the song that those four minutes pass in an instant. There is no time to get bored. This time Radiohead have really hit the bullseye.

I won’t run away no more. I promise.

Even when you lock me out. I promise.

Even when the ship is wrecked. I promise.

Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke of Radiohead

If you still haven’t heard this track, listen now. You will find it is absolutely lovely. I promise.

Oczy Mlody

eyes

The title of this post is not quite gibberish. The words are Polish. Individually they mean ‘eyes’ and ‘young’. Unfortunately, ‘oczy’ is feminine plural and ‘mlody’ is masculine singular. And, to make matters worse, the words are in the wrong order for the phrase ‘young eyes’. Not that this bothers The Flaming Lips who chose this as the title of their latest album more for the sound of the words than their meaning. Whether they had an English or Polish pronunciation in mind, though, I cannot say.¹

The Crotchety brain cells contain very little information on The Flaming Lips; all factual statements here are taken from their Wikipedia page. (You have been warned.) The Old Man’s ears, though, have met one or two of The Flaming Lips‘ tracks on the BBC 6 Music radio station and the Music Appreciation Meter has swung over into the light green section: pleasing, interesting, different.

A quick exploration of the band’s recent body of work looked very promising and caused the oxytocin² level in old Crotchety’s blood to rise far enough to trigger the purchase of Oczy Mlody, my Album of the Month for June 2017.

band

So who, then, are The Flaming Lips? They were formed in Oklahoma in 1983. Wikipedia doesn’t say what kind of music they played in those days, just that they were Wayne Coyne (guitar), his brother Mark (lead vocals), Michael Ivins (bass) and Dave Kotska (drums). That seems all very ordinary but there was probably more to it than that. By the time of their fourth album, In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1989), Wikipedia notes that “their previous experiments in tape loops and effects were given a more prominent role”.

Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins have remained with the band since its inception but on Oczy Mlody keyboards and electronic effects dominate the sound. Coyne himself is credited with contributing vocals, keyboards, theremin and guitar; Ivins has added keyboards and vocals to his bass playing; Stephen Drozd, who joined in 1991, supplies guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals. Recent albums also feature Derek Brown, Jake Ingalls and Matt Duckworth who all tickle the mock ivory keys from time to time. And Nick Ley provides percussion and samples. If you’ve been counting that means that six of the seven band members play keyboards and the seventh augments the mix with sampled sounds.

lips aflame

And that’s not all that’s weird about The Flaming Lips. You may have noticed already a certain tongue-tingling piquancy in the album titles. Of their fourteen main studio albums only Embryonic has a fairly predictable title. The others include things like Hit To Death In The Future Head and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Then there are collaborations that have produced The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon, which is a cover of the famous Pink Floyd album.

But there’s yet more weirdness. In 2011 The Flaming Lips announced that they would be releasing a new song every month of the year. The first of these was released that February as 12 separate YouTube clips that had to be played simultaneously; it was called Two Blobs Fucking. In March they released the Gummy Song Skull EP, “a seven-pound skull made of gummy bear material with a gummy brain, which contained a flashdrive with 4 songs on them”. They went one better in June by releasing “a live-in-studio recording of the band’s 1999 album The Soft Bulletin which was on a flash drive embedded in a marijuana-flavored brain inside a strawberry flavored gummy skull”. Then, in September, they released a six-hour song in a special package and at midnight on the last day of October a 24-hour song, 7 Skies H3, was made available on a special website.

That’s enough weirdness to fry the internal organs of the more squeamish listeners out there. 7 Skies H3 exists as a standard-length album on Spotify but I haven’t listened to it and I have no intention of hunting down those flash-drive packages. So I can’t offer much comfort if you’ve been subjected to any of those and you’re feeling a little nauseous now. But there is comfort in the more conventional Oczy Mlody.

album banner

There are twelve tracks on the Oczy Mlody album:

  1. Oczy Mlody
  2. How??
  3. There Should Be Unicorns
  4. Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)
  5. Nigdy Nie (Never No)
  6. Galaxy I Sink
  7. One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill
  8. Do Glowy
  9. Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes
  10. The Castle
  11. Almost Home (Blisko Domu)
  12. We A Family

Several of those titles were inspired by a Polish translation of Erskine Caldwell’s Close to Home, titled Blisko Domu. Track 4 suggests that the album title was intended to mean “Eyes of the Young” (which Wikipedia says would be “Oczy młodych” in grammatically correct Polish). For completeness, track 8’s title translates back to English as “To Head”.

We can see in those track titles a playfulness bordering on the psychotic but fear not – if there is a theme it is one of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. Yes, there really should be unicorns, ones with purple eyes … if you’re a child. And who hasn’t been out hunting for faeries and witches and wizards to kill in the dark woods where you played as a small boy?³

unicorn

The title track is an instrumental that takes us into the play den with a simple melody and the deep rumbling sounds of quaking hills. A strange beast lets out a cry but it is far away and we are safe in here for now.

Then comes a remembered warning, a warning that came too late or wasn’t listened to. How could I make you see what was happening? How could I make you understand? I was just a kid with a toy gun.

Back when we were young,
we killed everyone
if they fucked with us.

We were young with a ray gun.

I tried to tell you but I don’t know how.

Look! There’s a unicorn. I told you they exist. It has purple eyes just like I said, not green eyes. Mama says they shit everywhere. And the moon. The moon is in a very red orange state. Let’s leave it like that for at least three hours hovering just above the horizon. Oh, but I’m so sleepy now …

Sunrise brings a light and joyful tune shot through with deep ripples of sadness. “The sun rises and sets on a world full of gladness, but how can I be glad when my father is dead?”, the singer asks. How? Just look at the sun on the water, look at the pretty flowers, look at all those people having fun. No matter how bad things get the sunshine will soon wash away your tears. That’s what the music says. And the singer wants to believe it.

It’s time for a break. Nigdy Nie is an 80’s-style synthesiser, fuzzy bass and drum machine instrumental with caramel vocals. It sounds a little dated but a change of atmosphere helps the lungs to breathe and refreshes us before a scheduled trip to a galaxy far far away.

The journey is accompanied by disembodied voices singing to a bolero beat. Some slack strings pling unmusically. An orchestral interlude brings relief from the tedium for a while before sinking away down a black hole, leaving us moving tunelessly onward again through the vastness of space. The galaxy called I Sink is a god-forsaken place.

The next stop is a dramatic world with the sound of erupting volcanoes and bubbling mud geysers. This is our hunting ground. Faeries and witches and wizards beware! You can’t hide in these forests. Orion is coming for you. Alien sounds are all around but the hunter whistles nonchalantly as he prowls through the starlit night.

In a clearing a native girl dances. The moon is up now, glowing bright. A spider drops from a silver willow tree and the girl, still prancing, shakes it off her hair. A dozen eyes watch from the shadows. Bells chime. The dance ends and ghostly voices announce the approach of a burning dawn sun.

As the orange sun pumps heat into the land the plants begin to sweat, warm steam rising from their pores. A chorus of demon frogs croak at each other in the half-light. Why do their eyes bulge so alarmingly? Have they seen the shadow of death in the eyes of the hunted? Or is it their own peril that they fear?

The morning mist clears slowly to reveal a fairy castle floating like a ship in the low cloud. And above it flies a dragon carrying a beautiful princess. But the castle is in ruins and the princess mourns her love who is buried beneath the fallen stones.

Her eyes were butterflies.
Her smile was a rainbow.
Her hair was sunbeam waves.
Her face was a fairy tale.

Now, our journey is nearly at an end. We are almost home. We sing as our horse gallops across familiar meadows. The song is ancient, the words are mysterious, but the tune spurs us on. “The word has become the deed. The insect crawls out on the leaf. The leaf falls into the fire.” Perhaps a student of myths and legends can interpret those lyrics but that will keep for another day.

Finally, we are reunited with our loved ones. We are a family again and we gather round the open fire to drink a toast or two, swap stories and sing old songs. This is a neat and fitting end to the Oczy Mlody album.

dark side

Overall The Flaming Lips have given us an album notable more for its tones and textures than its melodies, harmonies or rhythms. They make good use of the electric and electronic instruments at their disposal and, seen through the eyes of the young, it works well. This old gentleman, though, may be a little harder to please. I’ll give it a rating of 3.9  out of 5 (worth buying but doesn’t quite deliver all that it could).

Notes

  1. Google translate will speak the Polish for you. To me it sounds like someone saying “orcher morder” with a mouthful of gobstoppers.
  2. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone”.
  3. Girls can join in, too. Just don’t get all soppy and sentimental, that’s all!

Little Fictions

album artwork

There has been a lot of talk recently about “fake news” and its equally alarming cousin, “alternative facts”. Some say those alternative facts are nothing to worry about; they are just white lies, little fictions that reveal a deeper truth.

Pictures of the crowd at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration may have shown fewer people than at Barack Obama’s but the new president is (obviously) more popular than his predecessor. News stories that suggest otherwise must be politically motivated and, clearly, constitute an attempt to stand in the way of the yellow mop-top’s urgently needed program of reforms that will make America great again. And that’s sad.

the quartet

I don’t know if Elbow were thinking of those sorts of alternative facts when they chose to call their latest album Little Fictions. The lyrics of the title track suggest otherwise because they are about the prickly words exchanged across the kitchen table between the “pair of boozy bowerbirds” that live together in what we must assume is an ordinary suburban house somewhere in the North West of England.

We protect our little fictions like it’s all we are

Arguments, it seems to say, can only burn while we deceive ourselves.

It’s you who’s being intransigent, not me. But while I cling to that violet falsehood my every utterance is a muffled battle cry that ricochets back to condemn me, to flay me until all I can do is hold on tight, waiting for the original miracle – the blood red miracle of life, the rose red miracle of love – to heal the wounds and soothe away the pain.

There is an aching truth in those verses, but there is salvation, too.

Little Fictions, the album, was released on the 3rd February 2017 and one week later it stood at number 1 on the UK album chart. It opens with Magnificent (She Says), a wonderfully uplifting song destined to become an Elbow classic and the first single to be taken from the album. This one song tells you all you need to know about the whole album. Even after Richard Jupp’s departure last year Elbow remain at the peak of their astonishing creativity.

In Magnificent we have Guy Garvey’s evocative lyrics showing us how a piece of sea-worn glass can be a sapphire in a small girl’s eye and how immensely important that sense of wonder and excitement is to every one of us. The instruments dance with that little girl on the sand as she throws her arms wide to embrace the shore, the sea, the sky and the whole wide world. Yes, this song is magnificent in every way.

firebrand angel

The lyrics of Firebrand and Angel are more difficult to interpret. It seems to be one of Guy’s love poems in which he tells of the “terror sublime” that comes from being in love with an unpredictable, headstrong woman – both firebrand and angel. More than that I can not say. Musically, though, this is another one of those songs with Elbow‘s inventive mix of rhythm and instrumentation – clapping, percussion and a stroll over the lower register of the piano lead on to the vocals and a mellifluent electric guitar before an ending with soothing backing vocals. It all adds up to a tone poem to rival anything the pop/rock world has to offer.

I’ve mentioned three of the ten tracks on Little Fictions so far. All I’m going to say about the others is that every one of them effortlessly reaches the exceptional standards of Elbow‘s other recent recordings. Individually they are a joy, collected on the album they are a treasure chest of pleasures. And, for once, the record-buying public agrees with old Crotchety Man. I hope that’s because they know the difference between alternative facts (which are bad) and Little Fictions (which is very, very good).

Little Fictions (Full Album) on YouTube

Laiks

calendar clock

Here’s a song for all my Latvian readers. Laiks is a track from the Tavs Stāsts album by the Latvian pop-rock band Sound Poets. Judging by the pictures on the band’s Facebook page Sound Poets are huge in Latvia and are building a following elsewhere in Europe, too. Reliable information is hard to come by because almost everything about them is written in their native language and I’m afraid I don’t know a word of Latvian. As far as I can tell, though, they have released four albums and several singles. Their latest single, Joprojām, was released just last week.

Google Translate tells me that ‘laiks’ means ‘time’ although it has also been translated as ‘weather’, ‘duration’, ‘season’ and several other words. The track is a slowish ballad with male voice harmonies over mellow guitars, a wandering bass and a soupçon of lush strings. In the early ’60s it might have been a chart hit, appealing to seasoned fans of Nana Mouskouri or Julio Iglesias almost as much as the younger, hipper generation that was getting excited about Elvis Presley.

But Laiks is the slowest and most melodious of the tracks on the album and judging Sound Poets by this one song paints a misleading portrait of the band. It would be more accurate to think of them as the Latvian ABBA, a pop group with enormously wide appeal. Even that is a poor caricature of the band, imprisoning them in a time long past and tarring them with connotations of fluff and mediocrity that they do not deserve. Perhaps the nearest modern equivalent would be Elbow, a band whose songs have strong melodies and are always thoughtfully constructed.

Laiks is not a track to accompany your early morning run or to prance and whirl to on the dance floor. In these days of pop songs with heavy beats and rapping vocals it wouldn’t trouble the charts. Unsurprisingly, it has not been released as a single. The album track can, of course, be streamed from Spotify (link given above) and, I assume, other streaming services. It is also available on Youtube but only as the fifth video in the Mix for the whole of the Tavs Stāsts album.

There’s an English translation of the lyrics here. I find the words quite poetic and they fit the sombre mood of the music rather well although it’s hard to know how much the sense of helplessness comes from the original text rather than the (possibly imperfect) translation.

Time is like an incomplete story which is eternally misunderstood

That first line carries echoes of the album title: Tavs Stāsts means Your Story and I guess ‘time’ is just one incomplete part of it. So, if you’re in a contemplative mood, take some time to listen to the aptly named Sound Poets as they muse on past, present and future. I think you’ll like it.

on stage

Oh, and if anyone is wondering how many Crotchety Man readers are located in Latvia, it’s that famously fat round number, zero. Come on Latvia, there’s a blog site here that welcomes readers from all over the world. Don’t miss out. Subscribe today!

Boo Boo Bird

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“It is up to you 
whether you read this…
my advice is just 
to ignore it.”

    Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler was the Scottish equivalent of Spike Milligan. He was an eccentric poet, songwriter and humourist. His fans included The Beatles, John Peel, KT Tunstall, John Lydon, Neil Innes and Robert Wyatt. He was the driver of the Magical Mystery Tour bus. He doesn’t need a ticket to ride on the Crotchety Man blog.

Ivor Cutler’s life and work were distinctly (and quite deliberately) bonkers. Matthew Lenton, director of the play The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, put it like this: “he didn’t live by the same rules as everybody else”. As my tribute to Ivor Cutler I give you one of his longer and more tuneful songs, Boo Boo Bird. In the video the song is introduced by Ivor himself; no further commentary is required here.

While constructing this post it occurred to me that the Boo Boo bird is rather like the creature described in the half-nonsense poem, What a Queer Bird the Frog Are, and curiosity took me to this delightful round on YouTube.

I’m sure Ivor Cutler would have appreciated both the poem and the music there. Oh, and if you’re wondering, you can tell the difference between a Boo Boo bird and a frog by their calls. The Boo Boo bird goes “boo, boo”; the frog goes “ribba, ribba”.

Annie, Let’s Not Wait

Annie, Let's Not Wait - wet platform

There’s a big difference between ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’. And that’s strange. Both words derive from ‘awe’, which originally just meant ‘fear’. So ‘awesome’ should mean ‘instils a certain trepidation’ while ‘awful’ should have the more emphatic meaning, ‘terrifying’.

The use of ‘awe’ in the Bible to describe the mortal response to God’s presence is thought to have imbued the word with its modern sense of wonder and veneration, and in recent times the fear element has faded away so that ‘awesome’ is now synonymous with ‘wondrous’ or ‘amazing’. ‘Awful’ has also been losing the ‘fear’ factor but, in contrast, it has acquired wholly negative connotations so that it now just means ‘very unpleasant’ or ‘disgusting’.

There have been some awful things happening recently. There are dreadful wars in Syria and Iraq. There have been devastating earthquakes in Italy and New Zealand. The British people voted to pull up the drawbridge and leave the European Union. And, most disturbing of all, America has decided that their next president will be Donald Trump, a loathsome man whose policies will likely increase social division, worsen global warming and have who knows what effect on the economies of the U.S. and the wider world.

I needed something to counter the dispiriting effect of these awful things. The best antidote to depression and despair that I know is a favourite old song and the most rejuvenating and life-affirming one that I can think of is the awesome Annie, Let’s Not Wait by Guillemots.

Annie was a track from Guillemots‘ first album, Through the Windowpane, that was later re-recorded and released as a single. The single version has some nice backing vocals but, for me, the album track is the more invigorating pick-me-up. It limbers up with a few electric piano chords as if a sprinter is running on the spot to relieve the tension before a big race. As we watch from the stadium the athletes are called to the start line by what sounds like a giant pigeon coo-cooing “on your marks” over the tannoy.

And then they’re off. Lean muscular legs strain out of the blocks and go scuttling down the track. But we are watching in slow motion and with each thud of a shoe on the pink running surface a string bass thumps a characteristic rising Boom! The piano tinkles rhythmically, drums and percussion synchronise a swaying beat with the athletes’ feet, synthesiser tones warble in and out, and Fyfe Dangerfield’s voice provides a melodious commentary.

The words do not describe the race; they tell, I imagine, of the motivation of the winning athlete. His soul was crying until he met Annie. His friends told him not to rush into another relationship but he was impatient. There was a new life waiting for them on the other side of the river if he could just prove himself as a runner and she had the courage to go with him.

Annie, let’s not wait. Let’s cross the river now.
We could sit for years staring at our fears.

The sound subsides as the competitors go through the half-way point and then picks up again with female backing singers and tinkling guitar adding to the unquenchable exuberance of the keyboards and electronic effects. As the winner crosses the line there is a startling change of rhythm and in that moment of triumph all gloom and despondency is dispelled.

Yes, Annie, you are just awesome!