Corner Painter

in a corner

Q: What’s small, female, Australian and brilliant?

A: Tal Wilkenfeld.

No, it’s not a joke. It’s what I asked Mrs. Crotchety the other day after reading a blog post by CirdecSongs. The article was a personal appreciation of Jeff Beck and it just happened to mention Beck’s bass player on his Live At Ronnie Scott’s album. In Cedric’s words:

The tiny Australian bassist had jaws scraping the floor as she played with style and soul well beyond her years.

As a diminutive ex-bass player myself I’m well aware that small hands are a handicap you really don’t need for that instrument. Being small, young, female and still good enough to draw that sort of remark is, well, remarkable. Hell, touring with Jeff Beck would be the apex of most musicians’ careers and in 2007, aged 20, Tal was just starting out on hers. Crotchety Man instantly developed an itch he just had to scratch.

Who is this woman with a strange name? How did she come to be in Jeff Beck’s band? What else has she done? Tell me Wikipedia, please.

Tal

The cyberspace oracle does provide a few details about Tal Wilkenfeld’s life and career to date. I won’t try to summarise them here. What strikes you most is that Tal was playing bass with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Prince, The Who (as support act), Chick Corea and, of course, Jeff Beck at a relatively tender age. Her Wikipedia page lists collaborations with another couple of dozen big name artists, too. That’s a C.V. to be mighty proud of.

And that’s not all. In 2007, when she was still virtually unknown, Ms. Wilkenfeld formed her own band, recorded some of her own compositions and released the album, Transformation. The tunes on that record fall squarely into the jazz fusion category and Tal’s bass playing sounds a lot like Jeff Berlin on some of Bill Bruford’s albums. (That’s a Crotchety Man 5-star recommendation, by the way.)

More recently, Wilkenfeld has ventured into song writing. On what Wikipedia describes as her ‘upcoming’ second album she sings her own songs as well as playing guitar and bass. But that seems to be old news. Corner Painter, the album’s title track, was released as a single over a year ago, on 3rd March 2016. Tomorrow a live version of Corner Painter is due to be released on the Tal Wilkenfeld YouTube channel. But I can find no evidence that the album will be out any time soon.

I did, however, find this YouTube video that fits the description for tomorrow’s video release perfectly. Is it the same one? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

After the exciting sounds of Wilkenfeld’s bass playing I find this latest single rather less convincing. It’s a perfectly good song, Tal’s voice is pleasant enough and there’s nothing wrong with the performance. It just doesn’t rise far enough above the bar set by myriads of singer/songwriters out there to get the pulse racing. Tal Wilkenfeld is no competition for Taylor Swift. Then again, Taylor Swift doesn’t play bass guitars like Tal Wilkenfeld.

Postscript, 17 October 2017

The video that was released yesterday is different. It’s from her set opening for The Who and it’s rather good.

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Hotel California

hotel

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

Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!