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.)

Love Rat

lovable rat

I first heard Sally Barker some time around 1990 when she was touring in support of her second album, This Rhythm Is Mine. Guest musicians on that album included Mary MacMaster¹ and Patsy Seddon, harpists from Scotland, who subsequently joined Sally and accordionist Karen Tweed to form the all-woman folk band The Poozies. If my memory serves me correctly the concert I attended at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester, UK was billed as Sally Barker but all four of The Poozies were on stage.

I particularly remember that evening for a story told by Karen Tweed. The band had arranged to rehearse at Sally’s house out in the Leicestershire countryside, a place that Karen had never visited before. When she arrived Karen found a rambling house at the end of a long drive and surrounded by a large garden with lots of trees and bushes. She knew from the directions she had been given that this was the right place but, at first, it seemed deserted. Karen had to ring three times before anyone came to the door.

When the door opened a stranger stood there with an expression on her face that seemed to say “whoever you are, don’t bother me now”. Karen hesitantly explained who she was and why she was there and the woman at the door ushered her inside saying curtly, “Go and wait in the kitchen, we’re a bit busy right now”. Karen followed the pointing finger down the corridor and as she did so she noticed a flustered figure scurrying through the house. Some furtive words were exchanged in the next room but all Karen could make out was “we may have to call the police”.

Karen found the kitchen and waited. From time to time far off voices could be heard from the garden. They were calling out to each other and sounded worried. They were looking for something, something important or precious. No-one came to the kitchen. Karen could sense that some emergency had happened and might take some time to resolve. In the meantime she thought it best to stay out of the way and decided to make herself a cup of tea.

As Karen started to search for mugs and tea she thought she heard a scratching noise from one of the floor-level cupboards. The building was probably an old farmhouse and she imagined the kitchen might be home to mice or even rats. Nervously, Karen opened the cupboard and a little girl’s face peered up at her. “Hello”, said Karen, “what are you doing in there?”. But the girl said nothing. Karen explained that she plays the accordion and she had come for a rehearsal. “Shhsh”, whispered the girl, “they’ll hear us”.

Puzzled, Karen asked the little girl why she was whispering and if she knew what was going on – what were they looking for out in the garden? “Shhsh”, said the little girl again, “They’re looking for me!”.

Sally

It was an enjoyable concert. Sally Barker writes unusually original songs and she has a warm, distinctive, soulful voice. The other musicians were faultless – I was particularly impressed with Karen Tweed’s accordion playing. So, yes, readers, I bought the CD. Although I didn’t know it at the time guests on This Rhythm Is Mine include some of the most respected musicians on the folk circuit: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Danny Thompson to name but three. If that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.

From 1995 to 2006 Sally Barker put the music business on hold while she had two children and then cared for her husband who became ill with cancer and died in 2003. In 2007 Sally rejoined The Poozies and in 2013 she relaunched her solo career. The following year she became a contestant on the BBC talent show, The Voice, in which she finished in joint second place. As a result, according to her website, “Sally’s album ‘Another Train’ featured in the official indie charts and ‘ebayers’ were asking in excess of £100 for 2nd hand Barker LPs and CDs!”. That’s quite a comeback.

Sally Barker’s latest album, Ghost Girl, was released earlier this year but it’s not on Spotify² so I’ve chosen her Love Rat EP from 2015 as my Album of the Month. Here’s a live version of the title track. Listen to the words.

Did a chill run up your spine at the one minute mark? No? Then perhaps you’d prefer the studio version with drums, bass, organ and slide guitar supporting Sally’s vocals. (The link above is to the full band recording on Spotify.)

In addition to the title track the EP contains three original songs (Jealous Bones, Kissing a Stranger, Heart & the Shell) and two covers (Walk On By, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood). The covers are done in typical Sally Barker style; either you like them or you don’t. For me, nobody beats the original Dionne Warwick version of Walk On By, but Sally Barker’s take is pretty good, too. I do like Heart & the Shell, though. It’s one of those songs that has all the wrong characteristics for my taste: a folksy waltz, country-tinged slide guitar, not much of a tune. And yet, Sally Barker’s voice burrows under the skin and the poetry of the words sinks deep.

On the whole Sally Barker is an acquired taste. She’s no rocker and her mix of folk with a little bit of country and a soupçon of jazz will never appeal to everyone. She has a really good voice, though, and I’ll leave you with another live video that I think illustrates her talent. Anyone who can do justice to a song made famous by Sandy Denny must have something to blog about.

Notes

  1. Mary MacMaster was also mentioned in my earlier blog about the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra, a very different sort of music.
  2. There is a video of the title track on YouTube performed live as a solo piece but I don’t know if that’s representative of the album.

Hall of Fame

museum

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio

Delving blindfold into the laundry basket of titles earmarked for Track of the Week today the hand of fate picked out Hall of Fame by The Script. Sometimes choosing a song is the difficult bit; this time it’s what to write. You see, there’s not much to say about this single except that it’s a straightforward pop/rock song with a catchy tune, a lively beat and a light seasoning of rap. So let’s just listen …

Here’s the official video:

The message, of course, is that anyone and everyone can be great if they want it enough. Dedication and hard work will, eventually, get you to the top. That’s an inspiring idea, but (spoiler alert) it’s a lie. How many names are there in the Hall of Fame? Only a few. And there are many, many more wannabes out there. The numbers don’t lie. It’s not just lack of ambition that keeps us from becoming the greatest, it’s a weakness of mind or body that no amount of blood, sweat and tears can fix.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Crotchety Man will never play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Segovia, nor will he ever find words as moving and poetic as Shakespeare no matter how many blog posts he writes. But we can all make our own contributions to this world and, if we keep working at it, we can almost always get better at whatever we choose to do.

Sometimes the guitarist’s fingers stumble on the frets or the writer’s well of words runs dry. That’s when a song like Hall of Fame becomes invaluable. It lifts the spirits, injects fresh energy into the limbs and provides a new impetus for living life. We may not all have a place in a Hall of Fame but there is always something worth doing. So let’s do it!

the band

The Script – Mark Sheehan, Danny O’Donoghue, Glen Power

A Few Dry Facts

  • The Script are an Irish band, formed in 2001. They are: Danny O’Donoghue (vocals, keyboards), Mark Sheehan (guitar) and Glen Power (drums).
  • Hall of Fame is a single taken from their third album, #3, released in 2012. It reached no. 1 on the pop charts in Ireland, in the UK and on the Billboard Euro Digital Songs chart in the US.
  • The latest album by The Script is No Sound Without Silence (2014).

Oh Woman, Oh Man

tryptich

Dan Rothman, Hannah Reid, Dominic Major

Inspiration comes from many places, some familiar, others less so. It lurks in bushes where it can’t be seen and it hides in plain sight among the ordinary, every day objects of our humdrum lives. We may have passed this way many times before but our blinkered eyes missed the beauty of the city park and gazed past the crowd of jostling commuters never seeing the grace in their movements or the kindness in their faces. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, we see it and it brings joy to our hearts.

So it was on Tuesday, 2nd May as the Crotchety Couple sat watching the TV show Later… With Jools Holland. We had watched his live show many times before. It is the very definition of eclectic, featuring bands and solo artists from right across the modern music spectrum. Indeed, its span is so broad that you’d think no viewer could possibly like more than one or two of the songs in any given episode. And yet almost every performance has something to offer: a beautiful voice, perhaps, or stunning instrumental skills. That, of course, is why we and many other music fans watch it.

The set list for that early May broadcast went like this: Blondie (still making good pop/rock songs), Future Islands (distinctive indie pop from Baltimore), Mabel (Londoner singing RnB-tinged pop), Orchestra Baobab (Afro-Cuban band from Senegal), London Grammar (indie pop trio), Binker and Moses (sax and drums jazz duo). As usual every one of those acts was worth listening to but the one that crept out from behind the bushes to surprise us and, ultimately, inspired this post was London Grammar‘s. Here is their live rendition of Big Picture from their new album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing which is due for release on 9th June.

London Grammar may be new to Crotchety Man readers. They are Hannah Reid (vocals), Dan Rothman (guitar) and Dominic “Dot” Major (keyboards, drums).

Hannah and Dan met at Nottingham university in 2009; the following year Dot joined them and the band was christened “London Grammar”. After completing their university courses in 2011 the trio moved to London and started playing in local bars. It wasn’t long before they came to the attention of the record companies and by the end of 2012 they were ready to launch their careers as professional musicians. They posted their song Hey Now on YouTube in December 2012, released the EP Metal & Dust in February 2013 and followed it with their first full album, If You Wait, in September that same year. The album reached no. 2 on both the UK and Aussie album charts.

London Grammar‘s music is ethereal, melancholy, beguiling indie pop. Hannah’s voice has been accurately described as ‘brooding’, ’emotive’ and ‘folky’. Or, as one reviewer put it, “as if she honed her craft singing amidst the gardens of Lothlorien”. Dan’s guitar and Dot’s keyboards & drums build a foundation of understated electronic sounds that both complement Hannah’s voice and add subtle decorative features in a way that only modern electronic instruments can. To see what I mean listen to my Track of the Week, Oh Woman, Oh Man, another song from Truth Is A Beautiful Thing.

For those of you in the UK the episode of Jools’ TV programme featuring London Grammar is available on the BBC’s iPlayer service for another 18 days. You might like to root around in it for your own inspiration. And if your good lady steals the remote and switches over to the Eurovision Song Contest I’ll forgive you for an exasperated, “Oh Woman! Oh, Man!”.

Fine Time

time expired

A song from 1988 appeared again on the Crotchety Early Warning Station’s radar screen a few days ago and it reminded me of the 7″ singles I used to have. Although I spent my formative years in the days when sales of singles far outstripped those of albums I only accumulated about a dozen of them. I preferred albums for two reasons: if I liked one song by a particular artist I probably liked their other material, too, and with albums you get more boom-bang-a-bang for your buck. So my singles were exceptional songs by artists sitting somewhere outside Crotchety Man’s fuzzy comfort zone.

To give you an idea of what I mean here’s a list of the 7″ singles I can remember buying:

  • Goin’ Back by Dusty Springfield
  • Maggie May by Rod Stewart
  • Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel
  • Time of the Season by The Zombies
  • Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones
  • Wherever I Lay My Hat by Paul Young
  • Down River by David Ackles
  • Fernando by ABBA
  • Wheels of Fire by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity

In those days of boyhood and adolescence the coppers in my pocket were reserved for the paradigm shift of prog rock from bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and Soft Machine. I did have one Stones compilation LP and in my adult years I added Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to the collection but those other artists couldn’t generate the level of excitement necessary for the Crotchety Lad to stump up the cash for an album.

And then, as you must have guessed by now, there was also Fine Time by Yazz. That’s Yazz the female English pop singer, not Yazz the male American rapper (about whom I know only that Google can’t distinguish him from her). To call Yazz a pop singer is, perhaps, a little misleading. She had four top twenty singles in the UK in the very late eighties but they owed more to the dance music of the period than to traditional pop. It was, in fact, the UK variant of the ‘house’ music that originated at the Warehouse disco/dance club in Chicago. And that explains why Crotchety Man was never likely to buy a Yazz album.

No, there was never going to be any ‘house’ in the Crotchety house. And yet there’s something utterly fascinating about Fine Time. It kicks off with the rattle of a snare drum, a slow, deep, funky bass line and some sweet soulful vocalisations. Even before any proper words have been sung your ears are hooked on the textures and the reggae-like beat from an electronic organ. There’s a story to be told and you wait eagerly for it to start.

The first verse tells us that Yazz loves her man and then, without skipping a beat, we hear an aching pain in the chorus:

Oh, this is a fine time to change your mind … I can’t go on without your love.

Her voice is clear and expressive. The notes are true, the intonation controlled. She doesn’t scream, she doesn’t curse, she just sings her heart out. And all the while there’s that slow funky bass and the insistent organ stabbing chords into the air. There’s another verse and a lovely little sax break; the mix is perfect. Yazz uses the full range of her voice to give vent to her feelings: sadness, regret, a little guilt, perhaps. It may qualify as ‘house’ music but it is still an essential item for the Crotchety singles collection.

I don’t remember what reminded me of Fine Time. I might have heard it on the radio or it might have come up on a website or playlist. It can be no coincidence, though, that Yazz songs are in the media again now.

After 1989 Yazz only recorded sporadically. In the 90s several singles were released and two albums were recorded but never released. After re-evaluating her life at the end of that decade she decided to “turn her life over to Christ”. Yazz now lives in Spain and uses her music to spread the Christian message in prisons, clubs, churches and schools. Her official website announced a new project just a week ago. She is working on her first “worship tracks” CD, which will be released in the autumn. A free download of one of the new tracks is available from http://www.yazzmusic.co.uk/index.php; I haven’t taken up the offer.

Brass In Pocket

money

There’s been a deliberate focus on new songs recently on Crotchety Man so I think it’s now time to remember an old favourite. Brass In Pocket was the first big hit for The Pretenders in January 1980. Chrissie Hynde never liked the song but the public loved it and she still plays it when she’s touring with the current line-up of the band. Here’s a live version from 2009:

This is a rock song for the pop/rock charts but The Pretenders have always been influenced by a wide variety of styles. Their Wikipedia page mentions connections with all the following artists/bands: The Clash, The Damned, Motörhead, Big Country, P-Funk, Eurythmics, Haircut 100, The Smiths, The The, Simple Minds, Sonny and Cher, UB40, Katydids, Blondie, Damon Albarn, Tom Jones, Emmylou Harris and Stevie Nicks¹. Admittedly some of those connections are distinctly tenuous but it illustrates why it would be wrong to confine The Pretenders to a single pigeonhole in the dovecote of musical styles.

Chrissie Hynde came from Akron, Ohio, moved to the UK in 1973 and formed The Pretenders in 1978. They were always Chrissie’s band. She wrote the songs (sometimes collaborating with other band members), provided the distinctive lead vocals and, most importantly, gave the band their striking, macho image. She was a young, attractive and stylish woman, but she had ‘balls’ and the guys couldn’t resist her.

Strangely, though, Brass In Pocket betrays an unlikely diffidence. The song starts confidently enough. The singer has everything she needs: there’s money in her pocket, there’s courage in her heart and she’s feeling inventive today. Tonight she will use her arms, her style, her imagination to make the boy she fancies notice her. But why is she saying this to herself? Is it because she has tried before only for him to look right through her? Or is it because this is false courage and she needs those words to calm her nerves and give her the confidence she is still trying to find?² The song doesn’t say.

the pretenders

Two of the original members of The Pretenders died in the early eighties³ leaving only Chrissie Hynde herself and the drummer, Martin Chambers, to carry the name through to the present day. The latest Pretenders album, Alone, was released last year and it’s pretty good. The tone has mellowed since the early days of the band but don’t let that put you off. If you like Brass In Pocket the recent album is well worth a spin.

Notes

  1. There are several more artist/band connections on Chrissie Hynde’s own Wikipedia page, including: Frank Sinatra, The Sex Pistols, Curved Air, The Specials, Ringo Starr and The Kinks.
  2. The official video suggests the brave words will be in vain.
  3. In both cases the deaths were drug related.

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!