Archive | July, 2010

A Song Revisited: “Dreams” by Grace Slick

31 Jul
“Dreams”: a video very much of its time, but what a great song

Dreams: Grace Slick's 1980 album, with a title track that's come hurtling back into my life

What makes a song come hurtling back up from the depths of the memory? Just occasionally, something that defined a time in your life – a few hours, a week, a month – but that you haven’t given a second thought to for years, decades, rears up from the past with all its old power. The response, the feelings, the connection you made with that particular piece of music, with its potent combination of voice, lyric, melody – above all, the ‘sound’ it made in your life – clout you with all of their original force. It’s extraordinary, like travelling in time.

I don’t know what made me search for Grace Slick’s “Dreams” on YouTube the other day. It was a random, almost unthinking act. A bit of displacement therapy to postpone some mundane task. But the great thing is that I did it. And ever since, the song has been playing on a continuous loop in my head. I was astonished and touched by its familiarity, the words returning effortlessly to mind after three decades, those epic cadences just as thrilling, and Slick’s fascinating, textured, contralto resonating through an apocolyptic yet compelling vision of the terrors of the night.

“Dreams” was the title track of Slick’s 1980 solo album. I remember the first time I heard it on BBC Radio 1 – how much more adventurous its playlist was in those days! – and how completely enthralled I was by its symphonic qualities, and by Slick’s blistering vocal attack. At that stage – and for a long time afterwards – I knew nothing about her, that pedigree steeped in the legendary psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane in its various guises. I just knew that this was a voice that commanded attention, that was hypnotic in the way it charged on with something that sounded like controlled rage, almost fighting with the majestic beauty of the song’s arrangement. At least, looking back, I think that’s what I thought. Only probably less specifically. I was only 18, after all. I just knew what I liked, and there wasn’t a lot of it about in those days.

Fortunately, “Dreams” got a plenty of airplay, none of which helped to make the song a hit, although it meant I got to hear it a lot. I suppose that gives it cult status today, because it obviously has a lot of fans out there. Sean Delaney’s lyrics paint a wonderfully lurid picture of the sinister parade that storms, tantalises, disturbs and ravages sleep. I now understand, of course, that the album was at heart a concept project that explored the AA 12-step programmes, Slick having recently emerged from a prolonged stay in rehab.

“To be honest, doing solo albums scared the shit out of me; making music was no longer fun, it was nerve-wracking pressure,” she wrote in her absorbing 1998 autobiography, Somebody to Love? “For someone who couldn’t handle a quarter cup of coffee without wondering where the quaaludes were, working solo was just a couple of steps short of flinging myself off a 150-foot diving board.”

The really odd thing is that I’ve only heard the rest of the album in the last few days. The song “Dreams” was always enough in the completeness of the story, the vision it rolled out. But when I found the video on YouTube (a word about that: it’s very much of its time! Slick looks hard and big-haired, her eyes demonic in a Myra Hindley-ish way, but she is still riveting, a performance artist through and through. The Dolly Parton wig is a stroke of genius) and found myself transported back – not to an actual experience but to a sense of my teenaged self – I wanted to know more about the album. A search for MP3 downloads was fruitless. So it was off to Amazon.

In her book, Slick points out that her solo albums didn’t sell. That she didn’t tour on the back of them, which was a mistake. Well, Grace, thanks to a Japanese import and a rather silly amount of money, Dreams just notched up another royalty and I hope you get it. Because it’s a marvellous album, an explosion of musical references that’s surely overdue for a release. It’s gone straight onto my smartphone and I’m just letting the stories it tells play out on the commute, building a complex picture around a song that’s come back into my life like an old friend.

I know that there was much more to Slick’s music than this, and I’ve since discovered the wonders of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, and the unique contribution that arresting voice made to a seminal period in rock history. And even the commercial hits of Starship – Slick has since made no secret of her lack of interest in them –  have the ability to generate a nostalgia for the 1980s, powered by her unmistakable vocals.

Grace Slick at 70: a successful artist with the presence of a tribal elder

She stopped performing at 49, believing that rock stars over 50 should stop inflicting their ageing presence on an audience. That’s a shame because from the sound of it, she could still knock seven bells out of her iconic numbers – including “Dreams”. Today, she is a successful artist, renowned for her work in acrylic, particularly studies of her rock star contemporaries, many of whom didn’t have her resilience and instinct for self-preservation. In interviews she appears a wise elder of the global tribe: fiercely intelligent, plain-spoken, as uncompromising as ever, warm, compassionate and very funny, a mane of white hair pulled tightly back so that her interrogator gets the full benefit of that frank, experience-laden gaze. More power to her. And huge thanks for “Dreams”.

CD Review – Monica Mancini: I’ve Loved These Days

25 Jul

Monica Mancini proves her musical pedigree at the Montreux Jazz Festival

I've Loved These Days: a cherry-picked playlist of rare quality

It isn’t often that I’m tempted to call an album “flawless”. There is usually a track or two that misses the mark, doesn’t connect with the whole, has a slight hint of beating the deadline about it – good enough but not quite in the zone. But Monica Mancini’s I’ve Loved These Days has such a calm sense of completeness about it that I’ve found myself staring at the Bose in astonishment. During the first listen, round about an absorbing reinvention of “How Can I Be Sure” – a number I’ve only ever associated with Dusty Springfield, despite David Cassidy’s best efforts – I actually caught myself thinking, “They really don’t make records like this any more.”

And to be honest, in the best possible way, there is a strong retro feel about the whole thing, not least because Mancini’s phrasing and diction are so effortlessly cool. You don’t miss a single lyric – and how often does that happen these days? Every word is considered, explored and offered up with an honesty that brings to mind female pop singers of the highest calibre: Karen Carpenter or Dionne Warwick at their instinctive best.

The choice of songs also adds to the sense of a time slip. Mancini has cherry-picked a 1960s playlist of rare quality – and in many cases enlisted the help of their originators: Jackson Browne plays guitar and sings backing vocals on “These Days”; Stevie Wonder’s unmistakable harmonica burnishes “Blame it on the Sun”; and Brian Wilson – vocally ageless – features on an intriguingly pared-down “God Only Knows”, giving Mancini the chance to show her mettle against a taste of those legendary Beach Boy harmonies.

These collaborations are testament to Mancini’s musical pedigree, as the daughter of Henry Mancini, the composer behind some of the most iconic film soundtracks of the 20th century. Many of the songwriters she honours here were her father’s peers and clearly exerted a profound influence on her own musical development. Indeed, she calls them her “musical heroes” and offers I’ve Loved These Days as a discovery of what their songs continue to reveal. In that sense, the album makes an interesting comparison with Barb Jungr’s The Men I Love. They both raise a musical toast to Paul Simon, for example: Jungr with “My Little Town” and Mancini with “American Tune”.

Although this album isn’t exclusively American in content – there is a poignant take on the Lennon/McCartney number “I’ll Follow the Sun” – an undercurrent of oblique commentary on the modern emotional landscape of her homeland occasionally ripples to the surface, particularly in the compassion of the Fran Landesman classic “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”, Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days”, and the flute-dusted beauty of Janice Ian’s “Joy”.

The arrangements are spare, acoustic and almost regal in their simplicity. Mancini clearly didn’t want to simply do an all-purpose album of cover versions. Instead, these are gleaming reinterpretations in which the lyrics take centre stage. Producer Phil Ramone – who had a hand in the original versions of many of these songs – has brought all his skill to the mixing desk, giving Mancini’s fluent, elegant vocal line all the air and space it needs to soar above the tasteful, sympathetic arrangements of Jorge Calandrelli. “I’ve Loved These Days” is a breath of fresh air in a musical climate that is so often hell-bent on over embellishment and extravagance. Perfect.

CD Review: Emilie Simon, The Big Machine

11 Jul

Rainbow: a track from Emilie Simon’s new album, The Big Machine

The Big Machine: a new musical vision of an iconic city

A few weeks ago I berated PRs who use the “New Kate Bush” tag to try and snatch a bit of space for the latest quirky singer in a niche that, despite the heralding of numerous would-bes, has only ever really been occupied by one talent. Here, for one night only, I’ll eat my words.

Emilie Simon, a French electro-pop singer and composer (or “sonic auteur” according to the slightly pretentious blurb) with a strong track record in her home country, is already a cult figure in her adopted hometown of New York. Her new album, The Big Machine, a conceptual tribute to the city, is about to hit the UK on a tide of gathering interest. And it doesn’t take more than a couple of spins for the aptness of the Bush comparison to make itself abundantly clear.

At times, the extraordinary swoops and intervals of Simon’s vocals are so reminiscent of Bush’s early work, the timbre so similar, that for a second, it’s like being transported back 30 years to a time when the idiosyncratic masterpieces of the UK’s most singular female singer-songwriter carved such a significant path through contemporary pop. But the comparison works – and is a tribute to both women – because once the frisson has passed, it’s quite clear that Simon is a formidable and unique talent in her own right.

Not for her the metaphysical expeditions across the inner landscape of Bush’s child-woman, with their obscure literary and philosophical references. Simon’s lyrics are emphatically 21st-centry urban, rooted in accomplished, synthesised beats.

She’s a one-woman electro-band, a pioneer of “The Arm” – a rather startling, customised sleeve that gives her complete control over her musical gadgets and voice manipulation technology and which, in live performance, allows her to replicate the complex, symphonic qualities of her recordings.

Brick by brick this Brooklyn resident constructs a musical picture of an iconic city that obviously has her firmly in its grasp. Simon’s is a different kind of skyline, far removed from the art deco canyons or concrete jungle conjured by the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein.

Emilie Simon: one-woman electro-band

The album is full of arresting juxtapositions: the near cacophony of the urgent brassy intro to “Rainbow” setting up the first appearance of Simon’s deceptively girlish voice; the retro electronica – almost Thompson Twin-like – of the hypnotic “Dreamland”; the brilliant, glittering vocals of “Nothing to do With You” (the most Bush-like of all the tracks, and for me, the album’s standout number, along with “Closer”); the brooding promise of adventure in “Chinatown”.

Moods shift in the flicker of a neon light as Simon subtlely works the technology to give her voice a new resonance. It’s great to hear a genuinely different sound cutting through the increasingly homogenised legions of young female singer songwriters.

Concert Review – Barb Jungr, Jazz at the Fleece (Stoke-by-Nayland), 9th July 2010

10 Jul
The River”: Barb Jungr sings the Springsteen totem at the Carlyle, in cooler conditions than we enjoyed last night

Barb Jungr: a triumphant night for Jazz at the Fleece

In another triumph for Jazz at the Fleece last night, Barb Jungr took on the hottest evening of the year so far, and the throbbing beats of a corporate ball being held in the conference suite next door, and she beat them both into submission. Her key weapon was her sublime ability to conjure a succession of images from lyrics, letting them swirl and merge in the minimal space between the stage and an audience that was hooked, mesmerised, by every word. There can’t be a finer spinner of tales on the live music scene today.

Jungr has evolved a unique performance style that is at once uncompromising and vulnerable. In this intimate setting, she surrendered herself to tremendous risks, using her breadth and range in ways that only a singer who is utterly at ease with her craft could possibly do. And song after song, she pulled it off, through two sets based on her recent album, The Men I Love (conceived, originally, for a highly successful run at the legendary Carlyle Cafe in Manhattan), dusted here and there with a handful of surprises. Concluding the first set with a keening version of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” created an intriguing shift in mood after the gathering intensity of a sequence of songs descending step by step into the darker reaches of emotion.

The Men I Love: conceived for a run at the Carlyle Cafe

At the start, Jungr promised us a journey from fun through pain and loss – recurring themes in her work – to redemption. It was a route peppered with anecdotes and observations: Paul Simon’s grim face amidst the vibrant enthusiasm of a World Cup concert; the hilarious excitement when Micky Dolenz was nearly spotted in a Fulham greengrocer’s; the opposite trajectories of hope and expectation as life goes on (David Byrne’s “Once in a Lifetime”); a salutary encounter with Janet Street Porter during a Radio 4 panel discussion; an early acquaintance with Todd Rundgren’s ex-wife and her quest for a rock star replacement.

But everything came back to the songs. Jungr described how critics have been divided about her treatment of Springsteen’s “The River”, with the more proprietorial lamenting her audacity at tackling one of the Boss’s totem numbers. Her spare, searing exploration of his bittersweet take on a relationship that’s run into the ground had us enthralled and was ample riposte to the nay-sayers. Tears trickled unashamedly as during “Everything I Own”, each word a poignant nudge to a private memory, Jungr enveloped us in a collective recognition of grief and loss. “Red Red Wine” became a keening anthem to recovery – aided, perhaps, by a hint of belligerence. With wry references to the intruding bass thuds from next door, she set her chin high and simply outsung the competition. Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” became a torch-song: who else could achieve that with a Monkees number? The medley of “This Old Heart of Mine” and “Love Hurts” was almost unbearably moving. Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” revealed Jungr’s narrative brilliance at its best.

At the end, she thanked the audience for supporting live music. So a word of praise for the efforts of the team behind Jazz at the Fleece, which continues to be a beacon of live music in this corner of Suffolk. They manage to attract an extraordinary calibre of artist each Friday night, turning a bland hotel function room into a small arena of excellence, and each season features music for a huge variety of tastes. To see even a small number of empty seats is always a disappointment so if you find yourself out here for a weekend and love live music, do check out who’s playing or singing.

Who pays the songwriter?

2 Jul

Audra McDonald sings “Stars and the Moon” from Jason Robert Brown’s musical, Songs for a New World

Jason Robert Brown: taking on the sheet music file sharers

A singer is largely defined by her repertoire, whether she writes it herself or – as is the case for most people – digs into the great treasure chest of work produced, and constantly added to, by a myriad talented songwriters. Their product becomes a vital part of her currency, so forking out a very little for the sheet music that will allow her to study the song, learn the notes and words, come up with an arrangement that suits, give a professional-looking audition, sounds like a no-brainer. Just so the talent on which she is building her own gets a little payback.

Not quite, it would seem. Jason Robert Brown has been having  a fascinating and lively exchange of views on this subject with an ambitious young performer on his excellent blog.

Brown is one of the finest modern American writers of musicals. His complex, profoundly human, songs rightly feature in many an audition repertoire.

In what sounds almost like an idle moment of curiosity, he decided to investigate the extent to which the sheet music for his own songs were being ‘shared’ online, and as the scale of the situation became clear, he began politely requesting on file sharers’ posts that they didn’t do it with his songs any more. After all, $3.99 isn’t a whole lot to spend on something so important to your progress and if you really can’t afford it, the library will help. Either way, the songwriter gets his or her (modest) royalty, and that seems like a good deal.

Many responded respectfully, although with sometimes staggering naivete that they were doing anything dubious. But one feisty correspondent took him on. His patience and reasoning are as impressive as her articulate but way-off-the-mark argument is staggering. This is a hitherto overlooked but very important element of the whole music file sharing debate – and one which all aspiring singers should study.