Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bob Lind

Bob Lind was an American singer song writer who briefly appeared on the scene in 1966 who in certain limited respects sounded like a precursor to Don Mc Lean. He had the ability to write very interesting pop tunes with poetic - and sometimes - baffling lyrics. The best of these were often to be found on the B sides of his singles e.g. "Cheryl's Goin' Home", "Truly Julies's Blues" and "We May Have Touched". Another outstanding song and performance is "Spilling Over" (where his voice does indeed sound like Don McLean!)

However it is "Elusive Butterfly" for which he will always be known. This is simply a wonderful song - and still one of my favourites - with a truly magical lyric of poetic reverie. This for me perfectly "encapsulates" the truly fleeting nature of romantic love. Sadly for Bob his own encounter with fame was to resemble the elusive butterfly of his song as he quickly became consigned to that unenviable group of "one-hit wonders".

I must confess that I did go out and buy his follow-up single in 1966 for its B side. The A side "Remember the Rain" seemed like an upbeat reworking of the previous hit (and not particularly notable). However at the time I liked its B side "Truly Julie's Blues" even more than "Elusive Butterfly". Though I still like this track very much, on listening now I cannot honestly say that it exercises quite the same appeal. Again there is a connection with Don McLean in that one of his songs "Crossroads" subsequently was to replace for me in a more satisfying manner the sentiments initially evoked by the earlier song.

It may be said that Bob Lind does not deserve to be remembered as a true great (though admittedly producing a few great moments). Some of his material - though always interesting - does come across as a bit lightweight with the songs sounding too similar. However on second thoughts this assessment is maybe too harsh. For example "Spilling Over" is a truly wonderful song (though almost completely unknown) representing perhaps the most convincing of all Bob's performances.

So he certainly deserves a much higher place in the pantheon of pop music than his current largely forgotten position.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Carpenters

The Carpenters (more correctly, Carpenters) surely deserve a unique place in the annals of pop music. The group comprised the brother and sister duo, Karen and Richard Carpenter who both were gifted with very special talents.

Of course Karen is the one we nearly always hear on record with that pure, clear wonderful singing voice that perhaps remains unmatched by any other female performer. Though not especially gifted singing wise Richard was a bit of a musical genius who wrote (with John Bettis) some of their best songs and was chiefly responsible for the truly superb production values of their recorded albums.

Their first album - initially titled "Offering" - contained their cover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride". Though sung in a slow tempo not really in keeping with the original, it displays well the remarkable quality of young Karen's voice. Though this was their first single release and proved a minor hit the album contains a few superb tracks that unfortunately have been overlooked. Chief among these - both co-written by Richard - are the sophisticated ballad "Someday" and the intriguing "Eve" which is a great song and quite unlike any other track subsequently recorded by Carpenters. It is given a remarkably mature vocal performance by Karen and deserves to be included in any "Best of Carpenters" selection.

However it was the next single "Close to You" that was to prove their real breakthrough and a worldwide massive hit. Though this Bacharach/David composition had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick and Dr. Kildare himself, Richard Chamberlain, Carpenters injected it with fresh appeal especially through the hypnotic strains of the chorus.

Then it hit single following hit single and hit album following hit album. Among the greatest hits were "Top of the World " Goodbye to Love" and "Yesterday Once More" (which Richard wrote with John Bettis), "Rainy Days and Mondays", "For All we Know" "Sing and their revival of the Marvelletes hit "Please Mr. Postman". However as is so often the case this was eventually to undermine Carpenters. Great success can in fact prove a significant trap with all energy necessarily devoted to the next performance, tour, interview, studio session etc. And as world wide frame grows it becomes harder and harder to get off the constant treadmill.

It seems to me that problem was compounded by the fact that both Richard and Karen had perfectionist personalities. While this was of considerable value in getting them established, it was to prove a growing hindrance as they sought in different ways to cope with the demands of continuing success. While Richard developed a drug habit, Karen showed worrying signs of severe anorexia. Strangely however right up to the end there was no diminishment in the quality of her performances (which perhaps detracted attention from the seriousness of her condition). However it was apparent from the mid 70's onwards that the material and production values on their recordings had dipped somewhat (reflecting Richard's loss of direction). Having said this many of these still sound wonderful due to Karen's marvellous voice. Indeed some of the later material carry a refined sensual quality which I especially like. Chief among these are "Slow Dance", "Touch Me When I'm Dancing" (which was her last top 20 hit in the US) and "Make Believe it's your First Time".

Then when it was already too late, Karen in a desperate bid to find some self identity of her own, left for a solo recording with Phil Ramone as producer. Sadly - though interesting in it's own right - it falls below the earlier standard with most of the material not released for some time. Perhaps the best from this session is the catchy uptempo number "Making Love in the Afternoon".

Certainly the most revealing recording - and Karen's own declared personal favourite - is "I Need to be in Love" with the words especially fitting her personality (and unfortunately I suspect the root of her tragic illness).
"I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
and fool enough to think that's what I'll find."

Best Track

Surprisingly perhaps I would opt for "Only Yesterday" (another song written by Richard and John Bettis).

The more I listen to this, the more I realise how superb it is with Karen's beautiful singing of a lovely uptempo number and Richard's brilliant production (masterfully combining layers of sound in the chorus). I never saw him so animated as when he was interviewed once in a programme on Les Paul where he marvelled at his (i.e. Paul's) multitracking techniques on the songs he recorded with Mary Ford back in the 50's. Well he learnt well because "Only Yesterday" matches and perhaps surpasses the earlier Paul material (as regards production).


Favourite Track

However there is one clear favourite for me of all their recordings which is We've Only Just Begun" and released as their follow-up to "Close to You" in late 1970.
Again there is a special reason why it resonates so strongly with me as this was a unique time in my life when I was briefly filled with a pure form of spiritual joy. In no small measure the purity and clarity of Karen's voice together with the sentiments in the lyrics corresponded to my mood at the time. Bathed in this light, I felt that life indeed had really just begun and the future seemed very bright. In truth this mood was to pass very quickly giving way to lengthy periods of darkness and despondency. However whenever I hear this song it magically transports me back to that time restoring in some measure that original joy and the hope that it so powerfully enshrined.

There is one other song that I especially like called "When He Smiles" which is perhaps the most infectious they have ever performed. Though tipped at one stage as a future single release, this never in fact happened. Though a version with limited release was eventually made available some time after Karen's death, it never has received the attention that I - for one - believe it deserves.


Like so many others, I always remember Carpenters with particular fondness for their very special contribution to pop music.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joan Baez

There was an interesting programme featuring Joan Baez on BBC TV last night.

It was fascinating to watch again her early appearances in Club 47 in Cambridge, her collaborations with a young Bob Dylan, and her very public stance as a political activist (esp. as supporter and friend of Martin Luther King).

Looking at the concert footage is compelling as one sees a truly beautiful young woman with a unique guitar style and singing voice flawlessly presenting a large repertoire of the "old" folk songs. However on the critical side, perhaps these performances were just a little too perfect leading to the material acquiring a certain off-putting similarity. Ironically though her meeting with Dylan is credited with inspiring her with wonderful "new" songs, somehow even these started to sound like the "old" when given the familiar Baez treatment.

I instinctively felt this reservation about her performances - even back in the early 60's - which prevented me from becoming a true fan. It seemed to me that she was adapting too closely to her own idealised image of what a folk singer was supposed to represent. Indeed there was perhaps an interesting hint of this in her admission - that unknown to the wider public - she suffered greatly from stage fright at this time (suggesting an unconscious fear of failure). This also came out in her account of the dissolution of her romantic involvement with Dylan (where he did not conform to her preconceived role for him as a fellow political activist). Likewise even here - though I greatly admire the genuine courage and commitment that she steadfastly displayed - to a degree she seems to be conforming to a perfect image, always serene and smiling and cheerfully dismissing every setback.

In fairness Joan had clearly obtained much greater insight over the years into the true nature of her personality. Indeed she honestly admitted at one stage that she had always found it very difficult to come to terms with loss (as for example when her younger sister, Mimi, died of cancer). All in all she came across as an attractive engaging personality who still looked remarkably beautiful despite the passage of so many years.

She has continued to record new material, diversifying in the process well away from her original folk roots. And she still loves to perform (though now free of stage fright).


Some years ago I came across another song unknown to me by Jim Webb (remember "Postcard from Paris") with the intriguing title "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" . Though I found a couple of recorded versions - including one by Glen Campbell - I did not feel satisfied that I had heard a definitive treatment.

I had long forgotten about Joan Baez and was not even aware whether she was still recording. Then out of the blue I heard her version of this song one day on the radio and I was completely knocked out. For the first time - perhaps because of the change in context - I became aware of the truly superb quality of her voice. And, dare I say it, there is a certain passion evident in her performance, that somehow had eluded me on her earlier recordings.

No less than "Postcard from Paris" (as sung by John Denver) this unexpectedly has now become one of my all time favourite recordings.

So forget your diamonds and rust; for me this is just pure gold!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam as he is now called) appeared in the O2 in Dublin recently to receive a somewhat mixed reception.

I cannot say that I was ever a huge fan of his though I did respect the fact that he was - at his best - a superb songwriter.

When he burst on the scene in the late 60's with a somewhat overproduced sound he was hailed as a great new talent (in the singer/songwriter genre). The gimmicky - though hardly great - "I Love My Dog" was quickly followed by "Matthew and Son" and the rather similar sounding "I'm Gonna Get me a Gun". These were included on his 1st album (which not surprisingly was also a hit). Then he seemed to quickly fade from view releasing another overproduced album (like its predecessor) that attracted little notice. However this contained what perhaps was his best - and most commercial - recording "The First Cut is the Deepest" which oddly did not receive at the time the attention that it clearly warranted.

Then Stevens - who had been living at the time the life of the typical rock star - had his first brush with mortality when he developed a near fatal illness.

When he emerged again back to the recording world it was in a much more subdued and understated fashion.

I remember in the early 70's when I was doing some Summer construction work with a group of fellow students that we would put on the record player when dining together at the end of the day. The two albums that enjoyed pride of place were Cat Steven's "Mona Bone Jakon" and "Tea for the Tillerman" which were the first two that he released during his second coming. For me he was at his very best on these recordings. Indeed I would consider the former - which contains a number of superb reflective songs - such as "Lady D'Arbanville", "Fill My Eyes" (which is very much in the Paul Simon idiom) and "Trouble" as his best recording (though it did not enjoy great commercial success)! The latter for its part contains two of his best known songs "Wild World" and "Father and Son".

I would be the first to admit that our estimation of various songs inevitably contains a strong personal element. Certainly for me these enjoy a special place as they have become associated them with a certain period in my life (acting as catalysts therefore for a variety of different memories).

However, Stevens never seemed fully at home in the pop world and clearly was searching for his true identity. Then after a second brush with mortality when he nearly drowned while swimming, he began to strongly embrace Islam so much so that he eventually left the pop world altogether to pursue his new religious identity.

Unfortunately we now live in a celebrity culture that is really one full of idolatry. In other words, rather than striving to discover true spiritual meaning (in God) it is heavily projected on to people such as rock and movie stars, sports personalities and indeed anyone who happens to be in the public eye.

However this is all so shallow and superficial as this entails the elevation of mere image and appearance to a position that it cannot properly occupy. Then when - as so often - such celebrities demonstrate that they have feet of clay - we feel disappointed and betrayed.

It is to his great credit that Cat Stevens faced up clearly to the pitfalls of fame. Though his subsequent career as one of he best known converts to Islam has attracted much controversy and attention you have to admire him at least for his sincere commitment to finding spiritual truth.

Happily in more recent years he has found a way to combine his two identities i.e. as Cat Stevens (the pop star) and Yusuf Islam (the religious devotee).

However as the recent concert in the O2 demonstrated this is never going to be an easy marriage. For the fans who attend such concerts in the main want to just idolise the Cat Stevens (that had been removed from them for so long). And when they don't get exactly what they want, they are disappointed! So this is the same problem that Stevens (i.e. Yusuf) has tried so hard to avoid.

I wish him well. He always struck me as a truly intelligent, articulate and thoughtful person who now seems also to have found a substantial degree of peace. I hope for his sake that this will continue.