Richard Thompson – You? Me? Us? (Capitol – 1996)

In the same way The Beatles have never been new to many, Richard Thompson has never been new to me.  My first explicit memory of him being the inner sleeve of Amnesia which showed Thompson holding a chainsaw like a guitar he was about to strike, my father convincing me to pay attention to the music because, “Look, it’s Sooty’s dad!”.  A household love for (and I must qualify this) a certain era Fairport had manifested itself in Thompson albums being picked up as they were released.  As a result his work and style has become a bench mark for much of what I hear, I find myself seeking the same levels of skill deftly delivered, the same emotional commitment, the same ability to build on the familiar, the feeling that this should be a standard by which all others are judged.

Even when done so loosely Thompson’s acoustic and electric folk have never been aptly titled.  Fairport were too new and electric to be ‘proper’ folk and his electric work is best categorized loosely as Adult Orientated Rock, mixed with the descriptor singer/song-writer and most should know exactly what to expect and probably avoid e.g. Mark Knofler and Sting, but with RT it is slightly skewered in comparison to his peers.  This is in no small part to his uniquely low vocal timbre and inventive and technical guitar work (Thompson is one of the few ‘players’ of whom a guitar solo is worth listening to and often uses fills of such ingenuity they make me laugh out loud like Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes).  This album seemed to drive any existing schism yet further, spread over two shorts discs titled ‘Voltage Enhanced’ and ‘Nude’, one of electric and one acoustic.  Each disc sees him firmly entrenched in the forms of his albeit not too dissimilar chosen areas, they also stand out as some of his angrier works, as if he’d finally caught up with my house in wondering how he could be this good yet Springsteen is the one playing arenas, he was showing off, “I can do all this and it’s easy”.

‘Voltage Enhanced’ is a warm fuzz of tones, bass is in that nice area where pitch almost becomes obsolete, drums a little fizzed and driven from that compression, the ambience is genuinely of a band in a room, a similar feel that of Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire.  Guitars are as expected, by now you trust Thompson is fully at ease with his instruments and their paraphernalia, they are tasteful yet twisted both in sound and style.  This instills his playing with a confidence matched in his vocals.  ‘She Steers By Lightning’ sees his vocals twinned with the heavily fuzzed guitar lead line, large tonal leaps make a ploy previously used by Hendrix all the more radical coming from this 40 something beret wearing singer/song writer folkie, it erupts into the solo that never was before returning to the familiar yet no more comfortable verse. ‘Business on You’ sees him toy with his folk past; imagine Cake with a mandolin player.  ‘No’s Not a Word’ is this disc’s spun out centre point, a twist on the unrequited love song, each one-sided vow of the verses are followed by convulsing guitar lick of dissonant passion, calling to mind ‘Paranoid Android’ era Greenwood.

‘Razor Dance’ and ‘Hide It Away’ share the honour of featuring on both discs.  While the ascending/descending bass line is the focal point of both versions of ‘Razor Dance’ the guitar is swung more in the acoustic version, losing its intense push pull catch up, instead revealing a tender inevitability in post-romantic rumour, ‘After the death of a thousand kisses/ comes the catacomb of tongues’, while the electric version is delivered in such a way that he is intent to correct the account of events while the acoustic version seems to predict them occurring.  ‘Hide It Away’ is simply a good song sang two ways.  Many a b-side has been filled with a straight acoustic version recorded for nowt as a favour to cover a lack of songs this appearing on both sides of this album stands as evidence of either RT’s ability as a songsmith or as a recording artist, or more likely, both.

While his vocal deliver is never anything but the centre of the ‘Voltage Enhanced’ side, ‘Nude’ sees them dressed completely differently.  Lyrically this disc shines, while in the context of his singing Thompson’s choice of words is always nothing less than exactly what was meant to be said, they can sometimes lack the satisfaction in quotation when bereft of music that you do with say, your regular neighbourhood Morrissey, this disc contains its fair share of worthy contenders, ‘She Cut Off Her Long Silken Hair’ draws attention to itself with “By the light of the moon Her dress slipped to the ground Then she knelt like Saint Joan And invisible armies attended her there”.  Obviously a simple guitar and voice based album will see the f-word bandied about with ease, but this obviously is, (‘Woods of Darney’ definitely is, a [seemingly] 31 verse period tale of romance, betrayal, war and ultimately death) but it is folk in the same way as its heavier electric sibling is rock, there’s simply not another title broad enough.  It is folk, he is a singer/songwriter, but it is brilliant for succeeding in the space where every other folk singer/songwriter normally safely curls up with a tale only as hackneyed as their chord progression.

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Alasdair Roberts – No Earthly Man (Drag City – 2005)

In 2011 a book was published which claimed that the story of Greyfriars’ Bobby, the faithful dog that had sat by his master’s grave until he too passed away, was a fallacy created to attract tourists to the church and graveyard. There was a dog that lived in the cemetery but there was never any master. Indeed it was claimed that there was more than one dog, the original Bobby being replaced by a newer more aesthetically pleasing model on his death. This struck me as rather strange at the time as it had never crossed my mind that any grown adult (save perhaps the odd gullible tourist) would accept such a story as fact. Presumably the author of the book also enjoys presenting scientific evidence to small children around Christmas that categorically proves Santa Claus has never existed. Lately, however, Jan Bondeson’s claims have stirred feelings of anger within me. The story of the little dog in Greyfriars Kirkyard is exactly that… a story; and a great one at that. Claiming that it was made up serves no other purpose than to belittle the myth at the risk of seeing it disappear completely in future if no-one is willing to peddle it.

It is a rather unpleasant character trait of our more scientifically grounded secular society to disprove and pour scorn on old world ideas. It is surely only a matter of time before Richard Dawkins starts turning up to the funerals of complete strangers to tell family members of the deceased that they’re wasting their time and that poor old Granddad is now naught but worm food. The same is perhaps true of modern folk songs with the likes of Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons furrowing a rich vein in terms of the musical qualities of the genre without exploring the dark and mystical lyrical content of their predecessors. Enter No Earthly Man by Alasdair Roberts, a collection of traditional, mainly Scottish folk songs that tell of murder, ghosts and revenge.

The album opens with Lord Ronald a song that recalls the conversation of a dying, poisoned noble man and his mother with Robert’s fragile, boyish, almost asexual vocals accompanied only, for the most part, by a single continuous note from a keyboard. The tempo is painfully slow, exaggerated by the lack of any percussion, making listening an almost uneasy experience. But as the song reaches its denouement, Roberts’ vocals soar and there is reward for persevering with such a difficult start as the titular character outs his sweetheart as his killer and bequeaths her “the rope, and the high gallows tree.”

The record is produced by Will Oldham, whose influence is clear especially in the string arrangements, and there is a clear motive throughout to bring the vocals and stories woven within each song to the fore, the background instrumentation almost an afterthought. The tempo never really picks up as the record goes on, nor the dour subject matter. Lord Ronald is followed by Molly Bawn an adaptation of an Irish folk song that spins the warning tale of a young man who shoots his lover by accident, mistaking her for a swan. That in turn is followed by The Cruel Mother a version of an ancient ballad about infanticide (and people claim violence in music is a modern phenomenon). Will Oldham and Isobel Campbell provide some minimal whispered vocal accompaniment at times, often to suggest the voice of a character within the song. There are other neat narrative tricks perhaps most obvious in On The Banks of Red Roses where Roberts switches perspective halfway through from the point of view of a murdered maiden to that of her lover and murderer who sees her image in the face of every person he passes as he flees the scene of his crime. Only as the album reaches its conclusion are we treated to a more upbeat sea shanty in Admiral Cole which deceives with jaunty fiddle as Roberts is joined by a chorus of voices that sing of a sunken ship and its drowned crew.

What sets this album apart from other traditional renderings of such folk songs is the ethereal quality Roberts brings through his slow fragile delivery over the top of instrumental arrangements that, at times, sound like they’ve been taken straight from Aphex Twin’s drukqs album (which is no bad thing). What this does is move those songs forward, ripping them from the grasp of bearded men in real ale tshirts, peddling them to another audience, making them fresh, new and interesting. A bit like a replacement dog in a Victorian graveyard.

Cameron R. Black

Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man (Columbia 1977)

Schlepping round a recent Robert Breer retrospective it was impossible not to be struck by the both the breadth and narrowness of his work. Ranging from fast-paced, jerky animations to playful, moving sculptures, Breer clearly delighted in working in a range of mediums, but despite this it was hard to escape the feeling that in his later work a certain sense of perspective has been lost. The animations in particular feel repetitive and unfocused, not just on their own (as they are supposed to be) but also collectively, giving the impression he has lost sight of his overall aim and is instead concentrating on “perfecting the process”. It’s a trap that has snared many artists as they begin to micromanage their creativity in the hope of achieving perfection but succeed only echoing their past work, with each small change failing to have any significant impact on the finished piece.

It was perhaps a fear of such micromanagement which lead Leonard Cohen to form an unlikely partnership with producer Phil Spector, two men whose musical sensibilities were so far apart they must have both known the collaboration would be fraught before it began, but that it would also produce something very different from their past works. At this point in his career Cohen had released four largely acoustic albums, while Spector’s background lay in pop and it seems unlikely the pair could have ever come to agreement about how Death of Ladies’ Man should have sounded. The producer, perhaps sensing this took what Cohen regarded to be rough vocal takes of each track and then locked the singer-songwriter out of the studio while he added brass, strings, keyboards and, of course, drums with plenty of reverb. Cohen, meanwhile, was prevented from reworking his lyrics and, as such, there was no chance to self-censor, meaning the songs carry a sense of rawness and honesty that may have otherwise been lost.

The final result has many more good moments than bad. For the most part Spector’s arrangements complement Cohen’s singing, most noticeably on the opening track, True Love Leaves No Traces, where the lounge-style instrumentation mingles effortlessly with lyrics about just how complicated sexual intercourse can make life, even if you pretend it doesn’t – this subject being something of a theme across the album. Spector also successfully highlights Cohen’s often-overlooked humour. On Memories, an ode to adolescent lust, the deliberately-over-the-top backing track captures the mood and the bitter comedy of a desperate advance rejected. Tenderness isn’t an issue either, with I Left A Woman Waiting, one of many Cohen’s ballads dealing with the issue of a lover regretfully betrayed, treated with a lightness of touch that will surprise many who have dismissed the album out of hand.

For the most part, the Cohen/Spector collaboration works so well it’s even more jarring when it goes spectacularly wrong as happens towards the end. Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On is as childish and pointless as it sounds and no amount of production could have saved it, while Fingerprints, a jaunty country-esque, ditty is the only track on which Spector misses the mark. Given greater creative control, Cohen would have surely ditched or reworked both of these tracks, but then again given greater creative control Cohen may have ultimately scuppered the project entirely and that would have been a great shame.

Most Cohen aficionados, along with the artist himself, will always view the album with a sense of distain, but it would be churlish to dismiss it entirely, especially as it clearly took the Canadian out of his comfort zone and stopped him doing the same thing over and over again. The fuller sound of his later albums although never coming close to Spector’s excesses is clearly informed by them. An odd collaboration was inevitably going to produce an odd album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

Wm Stevens

David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic – 1971)

When Gene Clark’s troubled brilliance checked out of The Byrds in 1966, it left David Crosby’s syrupy baritone, which for all of the obvious guitar talents of Roger McGuinn, as the remaining great voice in one of groups who helped to define the close harmony sounds that emanated from the hazy glamour of Los Angeles at the end of that decade and into the next. While far from one of the primary songwriters in the early days of the band from which he would eventually be sacked the following year, his notable contributions to the joyously fractious Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut and then Deja Vu with notorious misanthrope Neil Young, hinted at not only the great singer and bon viveur, but a songwriter whose compositions could match his ego. The tracks penned for those albums are archetypes of what are presented as shorthand for the counter culture concerns of the period, from threats of nuclear war in ‘Wooden Ships’; cries of revolution in ‘Long Time Gone’; long hair as a thinly veiled metaphor of non-conformity in the face of ‘the man’ in ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and general wistful expressions of soul searching in the likes of ‘Guinnevere’ and ‘Deja Vu’. His solo debut expanded on these themes and with an assorted cast of the who’s who of the Laurel Canyon scene, it became an initially critically lambasted album which has become recognised as a curious minor classic of the period.

The album was recorded with a large ensemble cast preposterously nicknamed the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ and in addition to Nash and Young making appearances, it also featured members of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and CSN&Y muse Joni Mitchell. Album opener ‘Music Is Love’ simultaneously showcases the album’s strengths and weaknesses, with the chiming open-tuned guitars of Crosby, Nash and Young singing ‘Everybody’s saying that music is love’ in a round that is both gorgeous, but retrospectively hamstrung by wishy-washy hippy sentiments and therefore the cynical listener is left wondering whether they can suspend their disbelief and embrace the innocence of the author. The song that follows, ‘Cowboy Movie’, is far from innocent, using the extended metaphor that the title suggests to explore a tale of deceit and betrayal over the love of a woman, in this case strongly suggested by most biographers to be former Crosby, and later Graham Nash partner Joni Mitchell, to the backdrop of an extended groove in the vein of the previous year’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, and the sound that characterised much of the notable moments of Neil Young’s 1969 album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’ While hardly aggressive, it’s the only one moment of even threatening to explore conventional rock music on an album which uses tonal shifts rather than bludgeoning with sheer force.

The aforementioned Mitchell casts a shadow over much of the album, whether it the aforementioned autobiographical impact or in adding her distinctive vocals to what are the more conventional elements of the album. Certainly, her soprano harmonies at the end of the luxurious ‘Laughing’ add enjoyable counterpoint to the deeper bass rumblings of Crosby’s voice, while she also makes her mark on the somewhat impotent anger of ‘What Are Their Names.’ Powered by some startling guitar interplay between Neil Young and Jerry Garcia which would put Tortoise, Slint et al to shame, the choir which dramatically, but somewhat ludicrously demands to know who the men are ‘that really run this land’, so that they can ‘give them a piece of my mind, about peace for mankind’, is earnest and heartfelt, but does conjure up images of railing against ‘the man’ for ‘the war’, while vanishing in a cloud of paranoia. A little like eating sausages, it is perhaps best to simply enjoy, rather than look too closely at what is actually there and how it was produced.

It’s perhaps the instrumental, or at least less conventional pieces on the album which make it stand out from its contemporaries. ‘Tamalpais High (At About 3)’ is all jazzy tones and bebopping along like the sound of a lazy musical researcher aiming to convey the sensation of a smoky beat cafe. The album’s final two songs ‘Orleans’, takes the fifteenth century French nursery rhyme ‘Le Carillon De Vendôme’ and multi-tracks Crosby’s voice into barely recognisable shifts in tone like a proto-Sigur Ros, while album closer ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ takes this to its logical conclusion; shorn as it is of any instrumentation and, without wishing to unduly evoke memories of Spinal Tap, takes wordless forms in Raga-like fashion to present something which is almost choric in sound. This was a far cry from the man who started his career adding harmonies to covers of folk hits from Dylan or Seeger.

Albums with various permutations of CSN&Y would follow, but this flawed but ambitious album, which came before the druggy excesses that would plague Crosby in the decades that followed, marked the end of his most lucid and engaging period which started with The Byrds ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ and ended here. It may well slip into many of the clichés of the period, but few singers of the time matched the ambition of the album. While it rarely makes many top 100 lists, it did come second in a top 10 list of The Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’s’ best albums of all time, only losing out to The Beatles ‘Revolver’. For a self-styled iconoclast who once wrote a song about an acid trip in Winchester Cathedral and fathered a child for a lesbian couple, this is a result of sorts and shows that at least ‘the man’ can’t have been that offended.

James Tiernan