135. PLUSH – MORE YOU BECOMES YOU (1998)

Chamber Pop, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

TNPC speaks to Liam Hayes about the making of Plush’s More You Becomes You…

Around 70 seconds or so into the third song on More You Becomes You, comes a moment which betrays the album’s sly masquerade. Liam Hayes, who had switched on the microphone to say “Hi” at the beginning of the record, suddenly buckles with laughter, his delivery cracking under the strain of reaching for a high note, before his voice miraculously recovers to soar through the remainder of the line, now carried on the wings of angels. It is a moment whose significance is unlikely to register with many upon first listen, but which reveals to the diligent listener the album’s little secret. Before the penny drops, one could be forgiven for believing they were listening to a live recording of someone settling down at the piano to knock out a few songs and then walking out of the room again. “I did my job well if you hear it that way” confesses Hayes. “I didn’t want the listener to be hearing all the work that went into it, because there was a lot of that. The irony of it is that the album was very carefully edited, I mean a lot of time went into it, lots of studio sessions, a lot of editing on tape, so to get it to the point where it sounded like that really took a lot of work. I recorded it in a lot of studios, on different pianos with different engineers, but we stitched it all together and that’s what you hear.”

More You Becomes You became Hayes’ debut album in 1998, released like most of his work under the nom de plume Plush (a name suggestive of a band, borrowed Hayes adds, “from an amplifier of that name”). Even then there were signs that here was a pop perfectionist. It had taken him three years to follow his extraordinary first 45 (‘Three Quarter Blind Eyes’ b/w ‘Found A Little Baby’) – to these ears possibly the greatest pop single of the 1990s – with anything at all. A second 45 (‘No Education’ b/w ‘Soaring And Boring’) finally surfaced in 1997. The music press had been swift and virtually unanimous in its acclaim for the first single, which contained all the maturity and composure of the great singer-songwriters of the late ’60s / early ‘70s – the sweeping fingerprints of Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb, the maudlin drift of Randy Newman, with the gnawing guitar jabs of Steve Cropper. It was so good Hayes agonised at length over his next move. “I wasn’t expecting the response we got. I was delighted, really encouraged. But the flipside of that was that it made me put myself under quite a bit of pressure to follow it up with something equally good. So I had to really think about how to do that.”

He succeeded by making his first album a perfect one, a record so intimate and immersive as to make it the listener’s own possession. At a little under half an hour in length, there was not a moment wasted, he couldn’t afford for there to be. The songs with Hayes’ deft production, segue together so inconspicuously that listeners might find themselves frequently double-taking at the track-listing, wondering which song is which. One was tempted to suspect that the album collected together little fragments of ideas for songs with no beginnings or endings and nowhere else to go. Was it initially envisaged as a suite of songs or did each track have a history of its own before the recording? “It sometimes happens like that” continues Hayes. “As I recall, when the album was really coming together it had its own identity, and was pulling ideas into its orbit. I felt like I was hearing things relating to each other in some kind of sequence, though I wasn’t sure at first what it was really about. I really was immersed in its world as the songs were beginning to evolve. It wasn’t part of another group of songs. They were only ever going to be on this album.”

From conception to realisation it would become for Hayes a painstaking labour of love, and yet despite its at times overwhelming melancholy, it is suffused with good humour and a little mischief too. On the title track for instance the subject appears to be “Virginia” – a little bewilderingly so, as that is the title of the preceding track, the album’s opener – which itself sounded as solemn as one of Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’. Then there’s the little matter of having a track entitled ‘The Instrumental’ which isn’t an instrumental at all, while other ‘songs’ are of such brevity they barely even exist. ‘The Party I’ and ‘The Party 2’ clock in at a mere thirty seconds apiece, the latter containing lines delivered with such achingly fragile earnestness they always make me smile: “I saw the party look at me / They told me that I wasn’t free / I showed them my soul power”. Hayes’ impassioned performances mean the songs somehow manage to communicate something immediately personal to each listener, who may shed a tear or two without really understanding why. “Everything that I’m looking at and putting into my music is personal to me, but I hope that everybody else can take something from that. With every record that I’ve done – some more than others – I really tried to have there be a beginning middle and end. As far as a concept or theme, with More You Becomes You it was obviously a very inner thing. I think that you can enjoy it without it really telling you what’s happening. I’m happy there’s room for other people to make it more personal to them.”

Some have called More You Becomes You ‘chamber pop’, others might file it under ‘singer-songwriter’, and it is somehow both of those things and yet neither. Hayes is reticent to discuss specific reference points as influences: “I’m probably not going to be able to pick out individual things too easily, but just generally what it has always been for me is just popular song. Not really songs that were happening contemporaneously, but songs that I was aware of from earlier on in my life. Some people might put it into a singer-songwriter category I suppose – and I like a lot of those artists, but that was not my direct inspiration – it was more pop in general. Maybe because the tempo of the record is slow and intimate it’s easy to cast it in that light, but what I was hearing in my head was something that was a bit broader in scope.” There is certainly a freedom and looseness to the composition which might recall the spontaneity of Todd Rundgren or even Laura Nyro’s oscillating explorations of melody and timbre, but ultimately this is simply a collection of sublime songs, written by Liam Hayes.

With his ecstatic broken falsetto on ‘Soaring And Boring’ (“Like this love I’m ignoring/ Imploring, adoring / It’s mine, all the time / All the time, all the time / See it shine…”) and those minor chords which envelop one in a blissful haze, he gives a studiously understated performance throughout, and even when the ‘production’ becomes more noticeable – the vocal overdubs that rescue the falter on the aforementioned third track ‘I Didn’t Know (I Was Asleep)’, or the horn which suddenly emerges from nowhere on ‘Save The People’ or even the floating gorgeous coda to the album’s glorious finale The Sailor’ – the treatments are sufficiently cushioned so as not to break the spell.

More You Becomes You was released on Drag City / Domino in September 1998, and has developed a bit of a cult following over the years. Despite its ‘indie’ credentials, Hayes has never felt comfortable being positioned in that bracket with the limitations that might suggest. “All of my records are produced. They were not done in the way a lot of people might consider indie records are done. A lot of time and attention went into them. This was before everybody had a recording studio in their bedroom! If you go back in time and think about the way some of those records were being made 20 years ago, how cheaply they were being made, I mean that was what was being presented to me as an alternative. You can go into a studio and spend thousands of dollars or you can use this latest digital portable recording technology. Go back and listen to some of those records now! Hear how they sound. I took the decision. It was more expensive, more time consuming, more financially burdensome, but in the end what I was paying attention to, was making the best record I could. The production should support the songs, and on this album the minimal approach really worked.”

Another indicator of Hayes’ meticulous attention to detail was the original artwork which featured his own childlike drawing on a gatefold CD enclosed in a paper bag. “I’ve done all the designs for all of my records. I’ve been very involved at every level. It’s really about that balance between art and commerce. As an artist you are always going to see something that people from the commercial side of things will be oblivious to. You’re going to spot the defect in the layout or hear the part of the song where the mix turned left when it needed to turn right. I don’t do this just for myself – some people will say that won’t they ‘you know I just make art for myself’ – but if that were really the case, then I wouldn’t be talking to you just now. My effort is always to make it everything that it should be, but it also has to set to sail on the seas of commerce.”

The album hasn’t been available for some time, but thankfully Hayes has plans to reissue it in the near future. “It was a happy coincidence that we talked because I am looking to reissue it within the next two or three years, do a proper reissue of it and remaster it – if I can find anyone with the right old and original technology to really bring out what’s there on the tapes.” (JJ)

134. SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN (1967)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

When I started out buying records, it was a fairly lonely process. There were a few books and greatest albums lists I used as reference points but for the first year or so, I didn’t speak to anyone at all. Any friends I had listened to U2, Simple Minds and that was about it. I spent virtually every penny I had accumulating vinyl, the ritual absorbing me completely, then just lay on my bed secretly enjoying the discoveries I’d made.

I got talking to someone I recognised from school at a football match one Saturday, and was invited round to his house the following week to borrow some LPs. I thought he had perhaps exaggerated, but when I got there, I met with an Aladdin’s Cave of delights. I recall my heart racing as I headed home with a bundle of LPs tucked under my arm, including albums by The Electric Prunes, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Jonathan Richman, Buffalo Springfield, Wire and Orange Juice. It was a life-changing moment. That there were other people who appreciated the kind of music I loved was reassuring, but now suddenly I would have access to all these wonderful sounds I had only read about.

A few years down the line, my friend and I were gradually finding we had less in common than we had at first, and when he began to extol the virtues of the latest Deacon Blue album I knew the small batch of albums I was returning to him would be the last. By then I had other friends whose discernment of all things musical I trusted more, yet I remain eternally grateful to him for being an important part of my musical education.

At the bottom of that original pile of borrowed records had been the first Leonard Cohen album. It was probably the last one I took out of its sleeve. It didn’t look psychedelic, punk or sufficiently interesting enough to bother with, but there was something mysterious about the sepia-tinted portrait on the sleeve. The photograph looked like it could have been taken in 1902. I had never heard of Cohen before and my first thought was that he looked like a young Al Pacino. Upon first listen its cryptic poetry, set to some largely uninspiring folk guitar, completely failed to register. Nevertheless, like everything else I borrowed at the time, it was quickly copied onto one side of a C90 cassette, for which I made a little cover with a Canadian maple leaf on it before shelving it (After The Gold Rush took up the 45 minutes on the other side). As autumn began, in a moment of boredom I played the album again. By the time winter had arrived I was playing little else.

To this day, it remains one of my all-time favourite records and so I am always mystified by Cohen’s absence from greatest albums lists. I tend to attribute this oversight to the steadfast unrock’n’roll-ness of his stage persona, and the fact he was in his mid-thirties before he recorded his first album. To paraphrase Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane, he “was always too old.” Perhaps others simply find him too depressing or pretentious. But as a wordsmith Cohen was incomparable. In fact using that expression seems wholly inadequate. After all by 1967, he was a well established author of two novels and several volumes of poetry before deciding that the best vehicle for its expression was through music.

It is not always easy to deconstruct the meaning of his songs – they are so richly nuanced and highly personal – it can somehow seem a disservice to try at all. Take ‘Suzanne’ for instance, a remarkable piece whose lyric Cohen laboured over for four to five months in order to ensure each word ended up in its proper place. “I’m really in the middle of writing a wonderful song and I never said that before or since to anybody” he told Sam Gesser, a Montreal producer in 1966. Composed after he had first met Suzanne Verdal, a dancer he had already written poems about, and inspired by a visit he made to her loft apartment near the St. Lawrence river in Montreal, the language is unabashedly poetic, precise yet oblique, mysterious and arresting, and the voice so quietly hypnotic that it draws you inexorably into the unbearable beauty of his verse. He first played the song tentatively to Mary Martin who would go on to become his manager, after which he visited Judy Collins whose approval he sought, singing for her several of his compositions, amongst them ‘Suzanne’. Collins was instantly smitten with it and recorded the song for her ’66 outing In My Life. Leonard was thrilled and it provided him with the confidence to perform his songs in public for the first time (30th April ’67. He froze during the first song and walked off stage)

Collins would record three more of Cohen’s songs on her next album, by which time Mary Martin has secured for him a deal with Columbia Records, whose A&R chief executive John Hammond was immediately won over. “Leonard had his own rules and was an original” he said. Cohen entered Columbia’s Studio E on 52nd Street before the ink on the contract had had time to dry. He had never set foot in a recording studio before and – conscious of his own technical shortcomings – was overawed by the proficiency of the session musicians hired to accompany him. He burned candles and incense to build the appropriate atmosphere for the songs, then requested a mirror be placed between himself and the other musicians, so that he could watch himself as he played. The bass player Willie Ruff had an innate understanding of the songs and Cohen was able to struggle through the recordings with Ruff’s gentle encouragement providing the spur, recording ‘Suzanne’, ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ and ‘Master Song’ during the very first session.

https://youtu.be/VT9k5NHCdvQ

Leonard was determined to avoid overworking the material, a task which became harder when Hammond fell ill and John Simon took over as producer. He and Cohen had sharply contrasting ideas about how the songs should be arranged. Simon added strings and horns to them and on ‘Suzanne’, even piano and drums. These were later removed by the singer who alluded to the tension in the note on the lyric sheet: “The songs and the arrangements were introduced. They felt some affection for one another but because of a blood feud, they were forbidden to marry. Nevertheless, the arrangements wished to throw a party. The songs preferred to retreat behind a veil of satire.” The melodies, deceptively simple on the surface, contained some fairly unorthodox key changes and timings such as on ‘Stories Of The Street’, where Cohen recalled the sense of dislocation he experienced during his early days in NYC (“I lean from my window sill / In this old hotel I chose / One hand on my suicide / One hand on the rose”) and ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ where the company provided him by two hitchhikers he allowed to stay in his Edmonton hotel room during a blizzard was mirrored here by the delightful addition of calliope and bells. This Simon got right, perhaps more so than the backing chorus on ‘So Long Marianne’, which nevertheless remains one of his most enduring songs. The recent BBC documentary about the love affair between Leonard and his muse (Marianne Ihlen) was a genuinely moving piece of filmmaking, which demonstrated great compassion for its subjects. Observing them drift in and out of one another’s lives, the intervals between growing in length, the distance apart expanding was heartbreaking to behold. But breathing in the atmosphere of Hydra in the early ’60s helped provide greater insight into the mind of the author and the world from which these songs were conceived. It’s a song of its time and yet for all time. In the ’70s Cohen sang it on stage under the influence of LSD, and a vision of Marianne materialised before him. He turned away from the audience sobbing to find each member of the band behind him also in tears. Think of that next time you listen to it.

Then there was the dark rolling lines of ‘The Stranger Song’, it’s confessional pessimism filled with such ‘stop you in your tracks’ verses as: “And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind / You find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter / Like any dealer, he was watching for the card / That is so high and wild
He’ll never need to deal another”, and then of course there’s the maniacal wail at the end of the closing track ‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong’. Individually the songs are masterful portraits, collectively a gallery of riches.

When the album appeared in it’s final form, Simon’s arrangements could not overwhelm the delicacy of the verse. Cohen’s final mix jettisoned much of what he deemed unnecessary. Bring the whole world inside and the house might fall down. Cohen knew his own songs and what they needed, but some of Simon’s embellishments could not be erased from the original four-track master tape. On his next album the arrangements would be stripped back even further. The reviews were not entirely positive with many accusing the singer of being self-absorbed, depressive or pseudo-intellectual – the kind of charges which were continually levelled at him throughout his career. But there’s nothing to fear with a little erudition when it comes to writing pop lyrics, and these songs are little miracles, and a match for anything written by Dylan, Lou Reed or Joni Mitchell. Oh, the treasures you find at the bottom of the pile. (JJ)

129. JOHN & BEVERLEY MARTYN – STORMBRINGER! (1970)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

I was three years old in 1970, so, unsurprisingly, I have little recollection of the time, although vividly etched in my memory are pictures of those Brazilian shirts from the Mexico World Cup which looked like they were about to burst into flames on our television screens. Perhaps the only other thing I remember watching on TV at the time is Mary Mungo & Midge, always at lunchtimes. But despite those tender memories, I usually think of 1970 as the bleakest of years. A more enduring image might be that of those beleaguered festival-goers trudging forlornly along the endless back roads of the Isle Of Wight, their mood darkening by the second. Most of all though I tend to think of long-haired yellow-fingered hippies rolling up on Astral Weeks album sleeves in gloomy bedsits, the curtains drawn tightly together. Perhaps that image has been perpetuated through repeated viewings of Bruce Robinson’s razor sharp study of the time Withnail & I (set in late ‘69), but there was certainly something more somber about the mood of 1970 – and the music often reflected that. The year would witness the disintegration of The Beatles, the emergence of doom-metal lords Black Sabbath, and the release of Bowie’s heaviest and most disturbing album, so that retrospectively, those twelve months feel like a solemn requiem for the optimism of the ‘60s. The Beatles’ split in April – though protracted and long expected – must in itself have procured an outpouring of national grief, soon to be compounded by Lennon hissing venomous derision upon their legacy, and upon the ‘60s as a whole.

All the same, 1970 yielded an abundance of terrific LPs, even if the mood was decidedly more despondent: Bryter Layter, After The Gold Rush, Fun House, Bitches Brew, Watertown, Loaded, The Madcap Laughs to name a few. But two of the very best albums of the year were made by Glasgow folkie John Martyn and his wife Beverley. By the end of the ‘60s Martyn’s reputation had been growing steadily, and his music evolving from traditional folk to incorporate a more distinctive jazzy experimental style. In ‘69 he got himself hitched to singer-songwriter Beverley Kutner and together the pair immediately relocated to Woodstock to begin recording the songs that would make up Stormbringer! and its follow up, the equally impressive Road To Ruin.

I’ve always found Stormbringer! a terribly sad record, riddled with an aching melancholia, a perfect mirror image of the painful comedown from the ‘60s. And while the Martyns would have yet been in the honeymoon period of their relationship, the songs struggle to communicate any marital bliss. One might have expected the first fruits of their creative partnership to be populated with odes to Eros and hymns to nature, but although the songs are richly textured, the lyrics betray their authors’ own fragility and uncertainty. A sign of things to come – there would be an intensity to their relationship which made it a tempestuous, at times even violent one, and the wheels would come off spectacularly, but grey clouds were already gathering at the beginning.

It is hard not to imagine Nick Drake being the subject of ‘Go Out And Get It’, the album’s blistering opening track. Martyn would later pen ‘Solid Air’ about his doomed friend, but the lyrics here (“I know a man, six feet tall…educated well / And he keeps his mind within a padded shell / Behind the curtain, upon the shelf / Lives a man living with himself / Behind his eyes, behind his smile / What is going on, nobody in the world can tell”) seem to tell Drake’s story equally well, and it certainly sets a solemn tone for the album. Musically however, it represents a huge leap forward, the fuller band sound bolstered by Mother of Invention Billy Mundi on the sticks with Martyn’s shrieking slide oscillating through the rhythm.

Back in Blighty, there had been tension between Martyn and Witchseason’s Joe Boyd (“he didn’t really like me, thought I was vulgar”, Martyn claimed), and Boyd sent the pair across the Atlantic where they teamed up with several seasoned players such as Levon Helm, Harvey Brooks and John Simon. It is unclear how much of the production credit should lie with Boyd or keyboard player Paul Harris. But whatever the case, the new album was a significantly different proposition from The Tumbler, Martyn’s preceding album from ‘68. The title track and the closer ‘Would You Believe’ offer the best illustration of that transformation, with newly expansive playing and exquisite embellishments, the former’s descending string sequence towards the end and the latter’s hypnotic shimmering reverb the equal of anything in Martyn’s canon, whilst pointing the way forward to his more celebrated mid-‘70s work. Despite the musical progression, ‘Stormbringer!’ (“She never looked around to see me / She never looked around at all / All I saw was shadows on the wall”) and ‘Would You Believe’ (“Would you believe me if I told you / That I didn’t want to lose you? / That’s why I had to bruise you so sadly…”) reflect the prevailing sense of unease. Under record company pressure, Martyn would soon be recording solo once again, but perhaps there was an inevitability about this development. There are some lighter moments – the pretty paean to ‘Woodstock’ for instance – but these are pushed aside by more sinister rumblings. Even the more explicitly romantic lyrics have a darker underbellly (“I’m John the Baptist and this is my friend Salome / And you can bet it’s my head she wants and not my heart only.”)

Meanwhile Beverley’s compositions possess an almost purgatorial character – elusive almost painful melodies, always on the verge of some ecstatic moment, the euphoria stifled by sone maudlin huskily delivered line or a slightly off-kilter note on the piano. On ‘Can’t Get The One I Want’ she laments “I can’t get the one I want to love / So I’m just biding my time / Drunk is drunk / The wine is just fine”. In contrast she comes over like a narcoticized Julie Driscoll on ‘Sweet Honesty’ – its seven minutes of sultry funk perhaps outstays its welcome a little; but it does feature some strong harmonica playing. Beverley’s songs are the equal of John’s throughout and one regrets their collaboration wasn’t to stretch beyond the end of the year. But that makes the music even more evocative of time and place.

The further removed we become from a particular moment in time, the more we allow our consciousness – our memories, our imagination – to bottle it like a commodity to be recalled and, once savoured, returned – untainted – to the shelf of history. The filtering of memories can be a peculiar thing, but often with hindsight we seem somehow better able to understand the past, and our own place in it. Stormbringer! – despite its almost timeless production – makes me think 1970 in a way no other record does. It’s the sort of record that is best appreciated during an intense bout of nostalgia, but that’s what makes it so special. And tonight, as I observe grey clouds gathering outside, it may just be the time to draw those curtains once again. (JJ)

120. GENE CLARK – WHITE LIGHT (1971)

Country Rock, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

The Perfect Collection was crammed full of records by The Byrds. Hardly surprising – if ever there was a total Byrds nut it was the book’s author, Tom Hibbert. Their first five studio albums all featured in its pages and Hibbert singled out Fifth Dimension as possibly his favourite album of all time. He even found room in the ‘U.S. Seventies’ section of the book for Gene Clark’s ’74 solo masterpiece No Other, which at the time (1982) had been virtually forgotten by everyone else.

Discovering Clark’s post-Byrds solo output proved almost as thrilling as listening to those Byrds records themselves for the first time, and, of the original band members, his own solo work is by far the most accomplished. For those who had been paying attention, Clark had already proven that he wasn’t simply the ‘guy with the tambourine’ (see ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, ‘If You’re Gone’, ‘Set You Free This Time’ for starters) and for many, myself included, he remains the greatest Byrd of all.

After his initial departure from The Byrds in 1966, he hadn’t wasted any time in recording his debut album, Gene Clark with The Godsin Brothers, later repackaged as Echoes. It was a strong album, the songwriting mature and confident, although one clearly indebted to the sound of The Byrds, a comparison particularly difficult to ignore given that it hit the record stores in the same week as Younger Than Yesterday in February ‘67. As if resigned to the idea that the umbilical cord could not be entirely severed, Clark even rejoined the band, albeit very briefly, in late ’67. But the marriage wasn’t to last.
He found a truly authentic voice of his own on his brilliant forays into roots music with Doug Dillard, releasing two groundbreaking albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark and Through The Morning, Through The Night. Perhaps as much as any other album of the time, the former of those encapsulated the shift in American popular music away from psychedelic excess towards a ‘back to the country’ retreat (from Vietnam; from political assassinations; from inner city breakdown; from LSD overkill), in the process laying the foundations for the more laid back country rock of the early ‘70s.
At the dawn of the new decade Clark kept himself busy, contributing to albums by The Flying Burrito Bros, and also recording a few songs of his own, including the fabulous ‘She’s The Kind Of Girl’, originally intended as a single for A&M, but which, owing to record company problems, remained unreleased until Roadmaster surfaced in ’73.
Relocating to Albion California, Clark was sustaining himself on Byrds’ royalties (the Dillard & Clark albums didn’t sell), then after getting married (to Charlie Lynn McCummings), and fathering two children, he began work on White Light. It too would disappear almost without trace, but its reputation has steadily grown in stature since Clark’s tragically premature passing in 1991.
‘The Virgin’, upon first listen a solid if unspectacular beginning, reveals not only the great warmth of Clark’s homespun rootsy sound, but also the new depth to his lyricism. Dylan had long been the template for Clark’s wordsmithery, but by ‘71 the apprentice had arguably overtaken his master, although the influence was still too transparent for some: “From her dancing love and young soul/And the gypsies in her dream/To the pulse of stark acceptance/When the winds began to freeze/With no curfews left to hold her/And no walls to shield her pain/Finding out that facts were older/And that life forms are insane.”
The playing throughout the album is unfussy and economical, but everywhere the melodies niggle and ache, the spaces between those miraculous little chord changes growing ever more taut, nowhere more so than on ‘With Tomorrow’. Immediately afterwards the title track provides the album’s only noticeable change in tempo. Encompassed all around by delicate songs of rugged beauty, its buoyant country quickstep garners visions of cotton pickers holding on to their hats on the roof of a steam train hurtling to freedom across the prairie.
‘Because Of You’ boasts a denser arrangement, but retains that poignant mournful timbre, while the brooding ‘One In A Hundred’ re-recorded from the earlier A&M session in 1970, has since become one of his most celebrated songs. It’s barely whispered, the tone fragile, and he sounds like he needs those backing vocals to get him over the line.
‘For A Spanish Guitar’ on the other hand, may possess the most beautiful guitar line of his career, augmented by the most heartbreaking harmonica solo this side of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and some fairly impenetrable philosophical discourse which reads once more like Dylan’s great poetry of yesteryear: “And the laughter of children employed/By the fantasies not yet destroyed/By the dogmas of those they avoid/Knowing not what they are/And the right and the wrong and insane/And the answers they cannot explain/Pulsate from my soul through my brain/In a spanish guitar.” Dylan by then however, was churning out the worst music of his career, so Clark had to dig a little deeper for the obligatory cover version (‘Tears Of Rage’) which he carries off in fine style.
‘Where My Love Lies Asleep’ nicks the bottleneck guitar line from The Stones’ ‘No Expectations’ (played beautifully by Jesse Ed Davis, who also produced the album), but is nonetheless entirely gorgeous for all that, and the finale (‘1975’) pre-empts the spiralling chord sequence of Neil Young’s ‘Lookout Joe’, recorded two years later in ’73, and a key track on his classic Tonight’s The Night Set from ’75.
With White Light, Clark was halfway up the mountain. At the summit was the gilded karmic conquest of No Other, but in these sparse and humble love songs he created one other album you certainly ought to have in your collection. (JJ)

119. NICO – THE MARBLE INDEX (1969)

Experimental, Psychedelic Folk, Singer-Songwriter

I’d forgotten all about The Marble Index, such a crushingly pessimistic listen, that each and every remnant of its shimmering beauty seemed to have been catheterised by some dark unbearable grief. But recently I found my way back to it alongside it’s shining sister Desertshore, through an obsession with the last few Left Outsides albums, whose forest-spirit avant-folk seemed to rekindle some latent inclination towards the vaguely morbid. Or perhaps that was simply the onset of winter.

Nico had already recorded her first solo album, an exquisite assemblage of chamber folk, Chelsea Girl – by the time she reunited with former VU companion John Cale. I know of at least two people who believe that album to be the greatest record ever made, period – and I must say I like it a lot myself – but Nico detested it, seething with frustration when she first heard its neutered production. Even so, few could have predicted what would emerge from the sessions at the recording studio on Cienega Boulevard in LA in September ‘68. After all, Christa Päffgen had a face made for superstardom – icy blonde, geometric cheekbones – but there had been signs on Chelsea Girl (in particular on ‘It Was A Pleasure Then’ where accompaniment was provided not by Jackson Browne, but by the Velvets’ core, so it came out howling and droning like a wrung out ‘Black Angels Death Song’) that she was striving to be taken seriously as an artist too.

To that end, she rejected her own beauty, dyed her hair dark red, wrapped herself in a shroud of death and like Scott Walker – a contemporary also at pains to prove he was more than simply a pretty face – reinvented herself as existential goth queen. I’ve always suspected an additional element of contrariness in this transformation which happened just as she moved from NYC to sunny California, but who knows? For certain the timing must have made the contrast in her appearance seem even sharper.

The album’s desperate bleakness resulted from a confluence of factors. Cale cultivated in its timbre a sound reflecting his interest in modern European classical music and Nico had been feeding off the mad ramblings of Jim Morrison who encouraged her to explore her inherently darker sensibilities, and gorge upon the opium-fuelled poetry of Coleridge. She had also acquired a harmonium and it’s droning wheeze perfectly captures the album’s dark spirit.

According to some accounts, Nico and Cale reputedly spent the whole time feuding whilst strung out on smack. All too much for in-house producer Frazier Mohawk, who could barely bring himself to put the finishing touches to the album, first of all consigning four of its bleakest compositions to the dustbin of history and then handing over the reins to Cale who became defacto producer. Cale claimed Nico’s harmonium was out of tune with everything but that didn’t matter, and in some ways it was entirely fitting. When after being left alone for two days, he played back his mix of the album to her, Nico reputedly wept with joy.

The album’s title is taken from a line in Wordsworth’s Prelude, which also lends its title to the short but incredibly beautiful opening instrumental. After that brief moment of transcendence darkness descends, beginning with ‘Lawns Of Dawns’ whose sonic refractions – like mirrors on the ocean, now glistening on the surface, now submerged beneath – parallel its author’s psychological disintegration. “Can you follow me?/Can you follow my distresses/My caresses, fiery guesses?/Swim and sink into/Early morning mercies”

There are dissonant chamber pieces (‘No-one Is There’) and ‘Ari’s Song’ (named after her son) which promises some relief but replete with droning pump organ entangled in some strange sonic barbed wire, was reckoned by Rolling Stone to be “the least comforting lullaby ever recorded”

On ‘Facing The Wind’, whose bizarre martial piano comes across like a discarded instrumental from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, Nico’s voice is electronically distorted giving it an even eerier more expressionistic quality: “It’s holding me against my will/And doesn’t leave me still/Amazons are riding out/To find a meaning for the name, my name.”

Cale’s fingerprints are everywhere in evidence but nowhere more so than on ‘Frozen Warnings’ whose bubbling ‘Baba O’Riley’ type pulse is underwritten by the insistent and unfluctuating drone of his viola.

And as far as apocalyptic finales go, the sinister spiralling ‘Evening Of Light’ takes some beating. “In the morning of my winter/When my eyes are still asleep/A dragonfly laying in a coat of snow/I’ll send to kiss your heart for me/Midnight winds are landing at the end of time/The children are jumping in the evening of light/A thousand sins are heavy in the evening of light.” It is ‘Tubular Bells’ turned inside out by Beelzebub, an agonising descent – as the last rays of light are slowly extinguished by the clattering noise and chaos of the welcome party for Hades.

The album clocks in at a mere half hour. Not everything about The Marble Index is black, but almost everything is. Its doomed unremitting litanies suggest catastrophe but it possesses an undeniable ‘slash your wrists’ nocturnal beauty and marks the moment Nico’s career as an artist truly began. (JJ)

90. MARY MARGARET O’HARA – MISS AMERICA (1988)

Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

  

The Agony & The Ecstasy

It is an album whose incubation is shrouded in mystery. Throughout its shifting moods and styles, one savours that voice: one moment floating upon starsailing crescendos, the next a crumbling interior avalanche, buckling breathlessly beneath a stream of consciousness deluge of jagged emotion. If the vocal performances sound raw and spontaneous, the instrumental arrangements by contrast, suggest a creative process of painstaking precision: clearly envisioned, perfectly measured.

Recorded in 1983-84, but not released until 1988, one might imagine Miss America to have drained Toronto’s Mary Margaret O’Hara both emotionally and physically. Certainly, the album had a complicated evolution. After being signed by Virgin, O’Hara was given creative carte blanche, but from the very beginning the problems mounted up. Andy Partridge of XTC had been tasked with its production, but it soon became clear that the pair could not work together. Partridge, unable to fit in with her modus operandi, reputedly lasted one day. Enter the formidable figure of Joe Boyd, producer of more classic folk roots albums than it is possible to count. Almost all of the songs you hear on the album date from the sessions he oversaw at Rockfield Studios in South Wales in 1984, but remarkably, by the time the album finally saw the light of day, Boyd was uncredited on the sleeve. He has spoken very candidly about this elsewhere (http://www.joeboyd.co.uk/rentree-letter)

Eventually, the production credits would go to Michael Brook, who had already worked with Eno, David Sylvian and the late Pakistani superstar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a devotional singer of such strength and singularity who could attain similarly feverish trancelike states. However, a more obvious touchstone would be Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. In their mutual search for spiritual ecstasy, the parallels between O’Hara and Morrison are obvious. Compare “the loves to love the love’s to love the love that loves…” of Morrison’s ‘Madame George’ to O’Hara’s “Joy is aim-eh, joy is the aim-eh, joy…” from ‘Year In Song’, the oldest tune here, written on the cusp of the 1980s. Or again with virtually all of the incomparable ‘Body’s In Trouble’, where an inscrutably awkward carnal tangle is enlightened by the most sublime fadeout. Just as well perhaps, as O’Hara sounds like she’s being recorded having a psychological breakdown live in the studio. Graeme Thomson wrote that Miss America contains “an aura of exorcism. She has talked about inner and outer voices and believes in unseen powers” and a mystical web weaves itself through the album’s rich tapestry.

From the aching Patsy Cline inspired C&W of ‘Dear Darling’, through the angelic (go on, listen, it is not a lazy adjective) lounge jazz of ‘Keeping You In Mind’, to the gulping funk hiccup of ‘Not Be Alright’, it is clear we are hearing something quite extraordinary.“When your heart is sick with wonder/at a long and lonely way/walk in brightness/cause its anew day”, she purrs effortlessly as if she were a hundred years old on the masterfully crafted gladsome swing of ‘Anew Day’, which must have had the likes of Nanci Griffith weeping with envy. The most perfectly executed performance of all is on ‘Help Me Lift You Up’ where that voice surreptitiously reaches acrophobic heights over a languid rhythm redolent of Tim Buckley’s godlike ‘Morning Glory’. And with only double bass for accompaniment, she closes out with the most fragile finale imaginable – virtually singing herself to sleep on ‘You Will Be Loved Again’

Morrissey adored it, prompting him to requisition her services for ‘November Spawned A Monster’, but 28 years on from its release, O’Hara remains something of a recluse, defiantly at odds with… well… with the way things ought to be. “Just because I have an idea, I don’t have to make something of it” she quipped some time later with characteristic contrariety. Frustratingly, she has barely exercised her tonsils since, contributing only sporadically to others’ music, whilst producing virtually nothing of her own: a Christmas EP in 1991 and the soundtrack to the film Apartment Hunting a decade later (although tantalisingly, one new song emerged earlier this year). And so, she remains a puzzling enigma. The songs presented to Virgin for her second album we very well may never hear. The label apparently found them too obtuse. Like those critics at the time who labelled her ditsy and kooky or those who heard only a coffee table companion, the public failed to appreciate O’Hara’s unconventional, blessed genius, or recognise a soul possessed by strange angels. (JJ)

 

 

71. RANDY NEWMAN – RANDY NEWMAN (1968)

Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

RANDY NEWMAN – RANDY NEWMAN (1968) 
My introduction to Randy Newman came even earlier than I realised. It was 1974, I was five and I was a few green months into primary school. Before the ruthlessly efficient, stripped-and-stranded TV scheduling of today, unforseen gaps would on occasion appear between programmes, in the grand interlude tradition of the potter’s wheel and the kitten frolicking.
One such hole was plugged by a cartoon accompanying a song which told the commonplace story of a couple travelling through life. I hardly knew anything of such matters at the time but it appeared straightforward enough: meeting; marrying; having children. Only the last line of the song stuck but it haunted me for years: as I recalled, it was a female voice singing: “We’ll play checkers all day/until we pass away,” as the now elderly couple vanish from either side of the board. It may well have been the first time I gave any thought to mortality, so strange and sad did I find it.
Scene fades…it’s now 14 February 1988. Without the remotest prospect of getting a card, it’s just another day for 19-year-old me but, it being a Sunday, Annie Nightingale is on and she’s doing a Valentine’s Day special, in which every song played includes the word ‘love’ in  the title and is one more display of the sheer unpredictability of her show which reached its apogee the night she played Duran Duran and immediately followed  them with Bogshed . I hear what are by now the familiar tones of Randy Newman – droll, drawling, dry – clothed in sumptuous orchestration which gives way to a similarly lush  chorus echoing Spector with precision. Hints of Dixie jazz, hints of minstrel tunes – and then that lifelong  game of draughts again. Love Story by Randy Newman – first part of the mystery solved.
It would take the internet’s reduction of total mysteries to double figures before the puzzle would be complete. The first version I heard, complete with animation, turned out to be by Sonny and Cher – they’d performed it for their own show, even as it was rapidly losing autobiographical status for them.
And Love Story turned out to be the opener of Newman’s debut album. Even in 1968, its subtitle – Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun – must have seemed a shade brazen. Though decades would pass before all the possibilities of Popular Music were finally exhausted, there was already an end-of-history mood prevailing. Psychedelia and its attendant adventures far from rock ‘n’ roll’s roots were already being dismissed by many – and still are to this day – as an aberration. Practically every leading figure released something that year which, while ranking among their best, was again holding fast to Earth rather than exploring further into space, even as the first lunar footfalls approached fast (years later, in his soundtrack for Apollo documentary For All Mankind, Brian Eno would explore the paradox of astronauts listening to country – one of the most Earthbound of all genres – as they ploughed through the vastness).
But like The Band, and to some extent Bob Dylan, Newman was digging back further still. Not quite as far as The Band’s evocations of the Civil War but to the first third of the 20th century,  a superficially genteel land of barbershop quartets, rocking chairs on antebellum porches and straw boaters tipped to every passing parasol-twirling dame, all the stranger for being well within living memory yet utterly bygone. He was steeped in this stuff, with with three composer uncles whose credits stretched from Modern Times, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Best Years Of Our Lives to Cleopatra and Alien. Characteristically, he embraced his heritage but with more than enough guile, bile and style to find favour with the burgeoning Serious Rock audience. As a practitioner of the now thoroughly debased (with a few exceptions, trite, wheedling and spectacularly point-missing in the 21st century) singer-songwriter genre, Dylan comparisons came like death and taxes…but listen to him singing “so hard” on Living Without You and then Boaby’s “so bad” and “so sad” on One Of Us Must Know and it’s valid for a moment at least.
And they’re both controversial voices. Add them to a long list – Ray Davies, Neil Young, Bryan Ferry, Robert Wyatt, Joanna Newsom, Anthony Hegarty; in fact, the oft-told story about Newman’s debut is that Reprise felt compelled to advertise the album with the somewhat backhanded  tag  “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something” but in vain  – low sales followed. True, Newman does usually  sound like he’s never more than a few seconds away from making a wisecrack about your choice of shirt but he sounds genuinely wounded on the aforementioned Living Without You, while the sauntering melodic nonchalance of Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad belies what seems to be real sorrow – or is it one of the double bluffs which Newman tosses up to keep us on our toes? (see also: Rednecks, which satirises not only the racists but also the smug superiority that wealthy, educated types feel towards them; Mr Sheep, which mocks not the office drone but the arrogant rock star sneering at the office drone, and, most notoriously, Short People, which was proven to be a masterclass in genuine irony by its mass misinterpretation). Maybe they can just be taken at face value after all – I’m not aware of  him having done his own version of I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore but Dusty Springfield’s interpretation reaches Great Pumpkin levels of sincerity. When Newman sings, though, he just keeps you guessing; the son in So Long Dad seems as devoted as he needs to be but is still impatient and in a hurry (“Just drop by when it’s convenient to/Be sure and call before you do”) yet its mirror image, Old Man (on 1972’s Sail Away) ends with as devastating a line as you’ll find anywhere – “Don’t cry old man, don’t cry/Everybody dies.”
Another likely consequence of the divisiveness of Newman’s voice is that
many of his songs have become  better known through versions by others but few of these have improved on his. One of the best known covers is Three Dog Night’s version of Mama Told Me Not To Come, from 1970’s 12 Songs. Newman is said to have observed that they gave it a chorus he never did but I’ve always found their attempt pretty awful – I’m usually a sucker for electric piano but theirs is a smarmy burble and that chorus is in the type of hammy, overwrought voices which were all too prevalent at the time. They also had a stab at Cowboy, which is on Newman’s first album – it’s more tolerable but again, he triumphs easily – the verses are sotto voce but the arrival of the orchestra for the chorus is truly startling,  batwing doors not so much flung open as  breached with a battering ram.
With Newman’s own arrangement and the deft production of stalwarts Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, it’s the sort of thing John Ford might have commissioned (commanded?) for one last bold sweep of Monument Valley before the credits roll. The lyrics, though, reflect more a Sam Peckinpah vision of a landscape changing too rapidly for its inhabitants to keep up with (“Cold grey buildings where a hill should be/Steel and concrete closing in on me.”) It was a reality for many as alleged progress rode roughshod over communities – Family offered a British perspective on the same theme later the same year with Hometown.
I Think He’s Hiding is one of Newman’s numerous meditations on the nature, attitude and, ultimately, existence of God. Here, he offers the view of those who believe in both a merciful (“There’ll be no more teardrops/There’ll be no more sorrow”) and a vengeful (“When the Big Boy brings his fiery furnace/Will He like what He sees/Or will He strike the fire and burn us?”) deity before hedging his own bets to a hushed and subdued accompaniment. Even more minimal is I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, which has become possibly Newman’s most covered song – maybe because it’s so spare that there’s a widely felt need to embellish it. There’d be a decent album to be had from compiling the best versions but Newman’s would have to be among them – you strain to hear him whisper (even Leonard Cohen took 20 years to reach this depth of register) and when you catch what he says, it still seems densely enigmatic (“Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles/ With frozen smiles to chase love away). In its strange invocation of solitude in a sparse landscape, like many songs here it’s unequivocally American but deals in universal themes, in style as finely etched as a Whistler and in content as acutely observed as an Edward Hopper – and the whole album packed with these brilliantly crafted miniatures is over in under 28 minutes.
Newman seems so unassuming on the cover; in houndstooth jacket and yellow turtleneck, and minus the curls and glasses which would later be his visual trademark, he could almost be mistaken for Neil Sedaka. There’s no more sign of him as the unofficial biographer of human foibles than there is in some of his more recent, far better known activities. To many, he is just Toy Story Guy, and that’s fine – there aren’t many films that offer more sheer joy (though for what it’s worth, I actually prefer Toy Story 2) but there’s a further frisson to be gained from the knowledge that he could also write (from Laughing Boy): “Find a clown and grind him down/He may just be laughing at you/An unprincipled and uncommitted clown/Can hardly be permitted to/Sit around and laugh at what/The decent people try to do.” (PG)