Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nick Drake

I must admit that the music of Nick Drake largely passed me by when he first appeared on the scene in the late 60's. Only recently when invited by a friend to give an opinion on his work have I returned to his earlier recordings to realise that "River Man" and "Northern Sky" were already to a degree familiar.

Some things immediately tweaked my interest when I did a little research on Nick. I found for example that we were born in the same year in June (within a few days of each other). Also I could easily identify with a certain aspect of his personality which I believe is essential to understanding his music.
He possessed - what I would term - an existential personality (i.e. where deeper questioning regarding the meaning of existence tends to dominate normal every day experience). So it did not surprise me to find that he had a copy of "The Myth of Sisyphus" by his bedside when he died.
There were also some other interesting details e.g. in the fact that Chris de Burgh was briefly a member of his first band at school. Also I found it fascinating to find that Elton John had recorded four Nick Drake tracks in 1970 at the time when his own career was really taking off.

So in the past week or so I have been reacquainting myself with an artist that had eluded - as with so many others - attention first time around.

As is now well known, Nick Drake completed just three albums before his untimely death (with total sales of the three less than 10,000). However, thankfully a few always believed in his talent. And this faith has proven well justified as he is more popular than ever (enjoying a certain cult status among a growing number of followers).

The three albums he recorded are very different. My own clear favourite is the first "Five Leaves Left". The second "Bryter Layter" is more commercially orientated and contains at least one song "Northern Sky" that should have been a massive hit (with the right kind of marketing). Indeed even now if it was properly promoted this could still happen! However - perhaps precisely because of its more commercial sound - this does not have quite the same resonance for me as the first album. The third "Pink Moon" is a very stripped down recording where to my mind Nick sounds at times remarkably like Donovan. Indeed some of the songs e.g. the title track "Pink Moon" seem very much in the style of Donovan's own writing. Though some would maintain that this is is his finest recording I would not concur. For one thing it is very short in duration (like some early "surf" albums by the Beach Boys).

However I would have no hesitation in considering "Five Leaves Left" as a truly remarkable recording on many levels.

For one thing it shows that Nick had a uniquely distinctive voice that simultaneously is extremely light and gentle and yet quite grave in tone. And this very voice is uniquely suited to revealing the paradox of existence (which is a recurring theme in his songs).

Also his acoustic guitar playing as for example on the track "Three Hours" is truly exquisite. And then the quality of most of the songs both musically and lyrically is of a very high order. I especially like "River Man" (which is perhaps his best known), "Day is Done" (which has a guitar intro that is reminiscent of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle") "The Thoughts of Mary Jane", "Time has Told Me" (recorded by Elton John before his breakthrough) and especially "Fruit Tree" (which I would see as his most definitive song).

On the debit side the words cannot always be distinctly heard and at times the arrangements - though full of wonderful baroque touches - are over produced. (This is especially so on "The Thoughts of Mary Jane" where his voice (in the latter parts) is drowned out by the accompaniment!

However the essence of Drake's great gift lies I believe in the very nature of his personality. As many have testified he was not a good social mixer and tended to become increasingly withdrawn in later life. So properly listening to him resembles a secret initiation through which one becomes drawn into an immensely evocative hidden world that in various ways echoes the great mystery of life.

Though this I believe is true of all his songs in a special way it is true of "Fruit Tree" which has proven eerily prophetic with respect to Drake's own life.

In a way the true message of Nick Drake's songs is very challenging. He is is not attempting to provide answers but rather reveal what alone is ultimately true of existence i.e. its great mystery. At times such mystery can inspire joy and a great depth of meaning. At other times - as it clearly did in his own short life - it can threaten to engulf one in a seemingly unending darkness.

Even the title of this first album resonates with meaning. Before listening I was looking out my back garden and admiring the lovely golden brown autumn colours on the cherry and fruit trees. However these leaves enjoy but a transient existence and are very quickly gone. When Nick recorded this album he had but five years left to live. So his own existence was to prove as transient as the leaves in the title.

And in way I think this is the core message that comes from both Nick Drake's life and recordings i.e. the truly fragile nature of existence.

However there is also a deeper element of hope to be found in that life does not end with our mortal death. Somehow it continues on in the lives of others (for we all remain part of this infinite tapestry of existence).
And in a sense Nick Drake is a wonderful example of this hope for he has now been reborn fruitfully in the lives of an ever expanding group of admirers (in a way that he never achieved during his 26 short years on earth).

Monday, July 5, 2010

Eva Cassidy

Like so many my first introduction to Eva Cassidy was through the grainy black and white promotional video shown on BBC's Top of the Pops 2 (around 2000). This was shot in a small club (Blues Alley) in Washington DC and showed Eva performing "Over the Rainbow". I found her performance absolutely riveting and though I rarely weep, the tears were flowing down my face long before the song was completed. Indeed I remember it as one of those special moments - never to be forgotten - when I was deeply touched by beauty in the form of a truly unique female singing talent.

When I then dicovered the treasure trove of some of Eva's best recordings on "Songbird" my initial impression was only enhanced through the marvellous interpretations of other songs such as the title track "Songbird", "Fields of Gold" and "I Know You by Heart".

And it soon became readily apparent that not alone could Eva interpret romantic ballads in an exquisite manner but that she was equally home in a wide variety of genres including blues, gospel, folk, jazz and country.

Despite the limited amount of recorded material that she had left by the time of her untimely death from cancer in 1996, I would say that quite simply she is the best female popular singer that I have every heard. There are others that perhaps I would put ahead with respect to pure quality of voice e.g. Jo Stafford and Karen Carpenter, but in terms of overall talent and ability to truly connect emotionally with a song, if Eva has any superior, I have yet to hear her.

Then it is only by sheer accident that she ever came to the notice of the wider public. During her lifetime she was scarcely known outside her native Washington and struggled to make an impact in the commercial world. Happily, however though enjoying no great success on their initial release she did manage to complete a few albums with a number of other recordings. After her death some of the best of these were released on "Songbird" which later came to the notice of the producer on Terry Wogan's hugely popular morning BBC radio. So it was this show that really brought Eva Cassidy to the wider public and the rest - as they say - is history.

However one might validly ask as to how such a wonderfully talented singer failed to make any real headway during her own lifetime. It is certainly a bad reflection on the commercial world that the very qualities i.e. sincerity and true authenticity that uniquely define Eva Cassidy's singing were likewise the same factors blocking recognition amongst a wider public.

Unfortunately nowadays success is largely based on synthetic marketing values collectively consumed by a mass - and often undiscerning - audience. So what is unique does not fit in with this shallow philosophy.
Indeed popular music has largely died a death in terms of producing anything of true originality or lasting value. Instead we witness the endless promotion of TV manufactured pop stars attempting to be ever better clones with respect to material that has already achieved popularity through other artists.

To her eternal credit Eva Cassidy was true to her own vision refusing to fit in with the conventional marketing approach.

In one way she paid a very high price. However through a fortunate twist of fate some fans did properly recognise her unique talents and preserved her legacy eventually enabling a wider rediscovery after her death.
Now many can see that it is the very truth through which she acted as an artist that now above all else gives these precious recordings a special value in their unerring ability to communicate directly with the human heart.

A great artist succeeds in producing great art; and in the realm of popular music this precisely is what Eva Cassidy has achieved.

Best Recording

I would have to pick her studio recording of "Over the Rainbow" which still moves me greatly on each hearing. Also it is beautifully produced (despite being a relative unknown).

If I had been asked before hearing Eva to give just one example of the definitive recording of a song by an artist, I would have nominated Judy Garland's version of "Over the Rainbow".

Now having heard Eva Cassidy's version I have changed my mind! Yes! it is really that good.

Other Favourite Recording

There are several that I could choose. However one that I especially like is "Penny to My Name" which was not included on "Songbird".

Here Eva is in country mode singing a song that was especially written for her which she performs superbly. Emotions of longing and frustration are directly conveyed to the listener fitting perfectly the story in the song (where every word can be clearly heard).

To me this is country singing at its very best! But then again no matter what the genre Eva Cassidy reigned supreme.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gilbert O'Sullivan

Gilbert O'Sullivan has once again been appearing here in Ireland. It is a long time now since his hay day in the early 70's. However due to the poverty of the present pop scene, nostalgia for the hit makers of early years still grows so that interest in his career will never entirely wane.

Indeed I was quite a big fan of Gilbert O'Sullivan (and still am). Though I did not like his original image branding him somewhat in stage Irish terms as an uncouth tramp, I could see that he undoubtedly possessed considerable singer/songwriting talent.

Indeed before his first big hit "Nothing Rhymed" he had recorded a song called "Mr. Moody's Garden" under the name "Gilbert". Listening to it again, it seems to have borrowed tunewise - and perhaps also in name - somewhat from "An English Country Garden". And the voice here does have an exaggerated Irish slant (though O'Sullivan had already been long resident in the UK). However one can already see a unique talent - which was to become his hallmark - for writing quirky though very appealing lyrics based on unusual phrasing and juxtaposition of words.
The B side of "Mr. Moody's Garden "I Wish I Could Cry" represents, I believe, one of O'Sullivan's best songs. The original version perhaps suffers again from his exaggerated style at the time and a production that speeds the song up too much.

I imagine that Gilbert also considers it one of his best songs as it was released again as an A side following his big breakthrough (though not a hit). Then he recorded it again in a slower more soulful style in 1995 (which represents the definitive version). Indeed in this respect it reminds me very much of "Castles in the Air" which was originally recorded by Don McLean on his first album "Tapestry". However this recording always seemed too fast! Then about 10 years later he recorded a new - and in my opinion much superior - version of the same song.
However as O'Sullivan has been out of the public eye so long, his own new recording of "I Wish I Could Cry" did not receive the attention it deserved.

Much has been made of O'Sullivan's relation with the noted manager Gordon Mills who in fairness - recognised his talent as an unknown artist - and then guided him successfully to super stardom. One of Mill's earlier marketing tricks was to change his recording name to Gilbert O'Sullivan (bearing obvious association therefore with Gilbert and Sullivan). Indeed this is what first attracted my interest when I heard him on radio. Having suffered through several Gilbert and Sullivan productions at school, I was only too happy to embrace this modern replacement (whose music I enjoyed considerably more).

Mills also saw the value of maintaining O'Sullivan's somewhat unusual scruffy image which served to attract attention. However this was gradually toned down and by the time he became hugely successful in the US his image had changed to that of a well groomed college boy!

However these marketing tricks should not be allowed to detract from O'Sullivan's talents for he could write tunes reminiscent of Paul Mc Cartney at his best delivered in a very distinctive voice and with unique lyrics that can be confused with no other artist. Apart from the afore-mentioned "I Wish I Could Cry" other notable efforts include "Nothing Rhymed", "I Will", "No Matter How I Try" (one of his best), "Alone Again Naturally", "Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day","Matrimony" (not released in most jurisdictions as a single) "Clair", "Get Down" and "Ooh Baby". However as so often is the case, the hits eventually started to dry up with the quality of output gradually dropping.

In a way the very factors that led to O'Sullivan's success were the eventual cause of his demise. His very popularity was due to the distinctive niche he had created with respect to image, voice and songs (especially with respect to his unique lyrics). However having saturated the market for a time with his particular talent, the uniqueness started to wear off with new material resembling very much the old. And this trend has continued. Though he has brought out many new albums over the years, it seems very much as if he is still reworking old material. For example I heard him performing a track off his forthcoming album "All They Wanted to Say" which immediately reminded me of "Alone Again Naturally"!

This is a problem that has always interested me. When an artist like O'Sullivan tours, everyone remembers him by his old hits. Though they may tolerate listening to a few tracks from the inevitable "new album", they really are there to indulge their nostalgia for the old, which have rich associations with their earlier lives.

Therefore it is not surprising that in writing new material the artist himself will find himself trying to capture the magic of the old (in essentially reworking this material). One possible escape from this would be in perhaps recording well known songs by other artists (in a distinctive manner) thus perhaps widening the basis of one's appeal. However O'Sullivan has never tried to do this and in truth though possessing a distinctive voice he was never really a great singer or indeed a great performer. In short he was designed to fill for a time a unique niche in pop music (which in fairness he managed superbly for several years).

O' Sullivan' career is also notable in a very different way. Though his relationship with Gordon Mills was an integral part of his earlier career he subsequently fell out with his manager due to the limited amount of money he made from his success. So he took his former manager to court and in an important decision issued in 1982, the judge ruled in his favour. So this case serves as a landmark for many other successful artists who have found themselves in the same position.

Best Recording

Alone Again Naturally would have to be a strong candidate. It is a truly marvellous song that was to prove a huge international hit (spending six weeks at the top of the US chart). It is probably his deepest song emotionally, and autobiographical with respect to its overalls sentiments (if not the exact lyrics).

In the many interviews I have seen conducted with O'Sullivan he comes across essentially as a loner. Though intelligent and articulate, he masks an intense and brooding personality that often demonstrates very little real rapport with the interviewer.
It seems to me that his song writing ability offered for him an ideal counterbalance to this tendency. Indeed he has a unique genius here to write lyrics in an informal conversational style that greatly adds to their appeal.

However his outer personality represents the opposite tendency where he comes across as too serious. This tendency also affects his performing style without him ever seeming to fully relax. Indeed this came out in a rather prickly attitude where he did not want to perform on his recent Irish tour in his native Waterford (due to a less than full audience on a previous occasion). However his attitude here might likewise reflect the old marketing shrewdness as this "controversy" has managed to garner him a significant amount of publicity.

"Alone Again Naturally" also strikes a chord with many listeners as they can identify so well with the universal quality of the lyrics (in that we all feel deserted and alone on occasions). Again it is just a superb song that deserved all of its considerable success.

Favourite Recording

I would have to pick "Clair". For me this is just one of those perfect pop songs where I would not wish to change a single note.

As is well known Clair was the baby daughter of Gordon Mills. And at the time of this recording in '73, O'Sullivan was a virtual member of the Mills family. So in this context it is even sadder to reflect on their subsequent breakup!
Again O'Sullivan's unique conversational style is very much to the fore on this track (especially in the last verse) giving it an utterly charming quality. Indeed O'Sullivan was to continue this conversational trend with his follow-up - another great song "Get Down" - which this time was addressed to his dog!

As I say, though I well recognise O'Sullivan's limitations as performer and singer, I still rate him very highly for his uniquely distinctive talents. At his best he was able to produce several truly memorable pop songs in his own inimitable style. For this he deserves to be remembered and for old time's sake, I would be delighted if he could enjoy just one more big hit!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dionne Warwick

Some years ago in the mid 90's I found myself following an internal bleeding incident on a busy hospital ward in a Dublin hospital.

All human life seemed to be on that ward but with the constant noise and unending interventions from staff and patients alike I sometimes wished for a little less of that life. Then after several days of stoical endurance, I was unexpectedly transferred to a private room.

Luxuriating in my new found peace, I turned on the hospital radio to hear that a Dionne Warwick special was about to start. And for the next hour as one marvellous Bacharach/David song followed another I felt as if in Heaven.

Dionne Warwick seemed to me to embody true class and sophisticated elegance. Due to her unusual vocal abilities and musical training she was the ideal vehicle to do justice to the intricate and complex demands posed by so many wonderful Bacharach melodies. And Burt Bacharach not only wrote these songs (with Hal David as lyricist) but also produced her recordings with a perfectionist zeal.

It was therefore somewhat ironical that though Dionne Warwick was especially suited to his requirements that it often seemed as if she was being mainly used as a demo singer with so many of her recorded songs proving major hits for other artists.

What she thought would be her first single "Make It Easy on Yourself" was given to Jerry Butler instead and then later became a No. 1 hit for The Walker Brothers in the UK.
Then another of her early recordings "Anyone who Had a Heart" was to become a massive hit for Cilla Black. And this pattern was to continue through the decade with Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black (with Alfie) Herb Alpert and Carpenters among those enjoying big hits with songs that Dionne Warwick had also recorded.

Thankfully, perhaps her best - and Bacharach/David's best - song "Walk on By" did not suffer this fate becoming a major international hit. Among her other big successes of the 60' were "Do you Know the Way to San Jose", "I Say a Little Prayer", "Valley of the Dolls" (not however written by Bacharach/David) and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again".

However by the early 70's the partnership with Bacharach/David had run its course. Though she had have her first US no. 1 on parting through "Then Came You" (with the Spinners), she enjoyed little further success till another big hit in '79 with "I Know I'll Never Love This Way Again". A fruitful collaboration with the Bee Gees then led to huge international success with "Heartbreaker" . And then as Dionne and Friends (i.e. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John) she was to have another US no. 1 with "That's What Friends Are For".

Just last night she appeared on the "Late Late Show" in Ireland and though now touching 70, still gracious, classy and elegant. As befitted the occasion with St. Valentine's Day approaching, she performed live "What the World Needs Now is Love". With only an unobtrusive backing piano for accompaniment her performance was just exquisite!

Best Recording

I would definitely say "Walk on By. If one wants to know how superb early 60's pop could truly be, I would suggest just listening to this song.

Favourite Recording

I have always loved "That's What Friends are For". Often, these types of collaborations don't come off, but on this occasion the four involved do dovetail together seamlessly (ably abetted by Stevie Wonder's harmonica playing).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bert Jansch

In the early 70's I spent part of the summer doing some construction work with a motley group in a rehab centre in south Dublin. As the weather was good we lunched outdoors in the middle of the day. A record player was found and an album that I had never heard before was played which I found captivating.

One song in particular "Needle of Death" really impacted with me in a way that only a handful of tracks have ever done. Music has the wonderful capacity to resonate - at least occasionally - in a profoundly meaningful manner. And this certainly was one such occasion!

I remember looking at the album sleeve and mistakenly leaving with the impression that it was by Bert Yance. And on several occasions over the years, I tried without success to learn more about this artist.

Then some 25 years or so later, I spotted a notice outside the College where I work in Dublin promoting an upcoming performance by Bert Jansch nearby in Whelans. In that moment I realised the true identity of the singer that I had heard all those years ago. Because I remembered the precise track no. for "Needle of Death" I am now quite sure that I was listening to the compilation album "The Bert Jansch Sampler" (The preceding instrumental track "Angie" also remained in my memory!)

"Needle of Death" appeared on Bert Jansch's first album in 1965 which was recorded on the cheap using a tape recorder and then sold for £100. Jansch was - and still is - a Scottish folk singer with a truly distinctive guitar style. Indeed some of his best tracks such as "Angie" are in fact pure instrumentals.

It is the sheer unadorned simplicity of the recording of "Needle of Death" that greatly adds to its stature. It was written following the death of a musical friend from drugs and contains some of the most heartfelt riveting lyrics that I have ever heard. The unusual guitar style of Jansch contributes much to the overall effect. In several places it seems almost as if his guitar is stuttering and coming to a halt only to resume again. Then at the end of the song it stutters once again before finally fading out altogether (like the life of the victim in the song).

For some reason I believe the song had an even greater effect on me hearing it outdoors as the unique guitar notes wafted in the gentle breeze before finally disappearing without trace.

I did nor hear that song again for 30 years. However I have recently reclaimed it and number it among my all time favourites.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Brenda Lee

Recently an old Brenda Lee song "I'm Sorry" has been featured on a TV ad here in Ireland.

Though not heard that much nowadays, I remember the time when Brenda Lee was the dominant female performer of the early 60's.
Though I never particularly liked her voice - which I found a little too hard and raucous - she certainly had something special. From an early stage - following her early recording of "Dynamite" in 1958 (at the age of 13) - she became known as "Little Miss Dynamite" which was a perfectly apt description that lasted throughout her career.
Her voice had a special punch in it (perhaps unequalled by any other performer) whereby she could turn immediately from soft to belting mode. Thus she was at her best on certain rock ballads such as "I'm Sorry" which especially profiled this ability.

She also fell into that category of a truly precocious performer that had already attained a remarkable maturity of performance at an early age. Her first recording of the old Hank Williams number "Jambalaya" was made in 1956 when she was 11 and she had her first two minor hits "One Step At A Time" and "Dynamite" in 1958 (when 13).

Remarkably the perennial seasonal favourite "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was also recorded in that year. In this regard she bears close comparison with Leann Rimes who was to burst onto the scene with her recording of "Blue" in the early 90's (also at the age of 13). What is remarkable about "Blue" is that - though an original number - it always sounded to me like it had been recorded by someone else at an earlier stage. And then it suddenly dawned on me that the person I was imagining in my mind was Brenda Lee (who could have given at 13 a very similar performance of the same song).

Another notable in this context was Helen Shapiro a UK contemporary of Brenda Lee. She had her first hits at the age of 14 performing with a remarkably mature deep voice, and enjoyed instant success only to see her hit making career over by 16.

However it was the groovy rocker "Sweet Nothin's" that really brought Brenda Lee her first big hit (in both the US and UK) and she was to follow this with a hugely impressive sequence of successive hits for the next 5 years or so. Included among these were "I'm Sorry" "I Want to be Wanted", "Fool No. 1, "Speak to me Pretty", "All Alone Am I", "As Usual" and "Too Many Rivers". Then when the pop hits dried up she moved into country music where she enjoyed further success for many years. In truth however she was always a country singer with some of her memorable pop hits such as "Fool No. 1", "As Usual" and "Too Many Rivers" falling unashamedly into this idiom.

Best Recording

I would have to nominate "I'm Sorry" - her biggest hit and a truly marvellous song that displays Lee's unique talent especially well. However I also consider "All Alone Am I" a superb ballad. In some ways it represents a throwback to the romantic ballad style of the early 50's. One could well imagine - say - David Whitfield or Eddie Fisher - giving it the appropriate big voice treatment. It amazes me that no major singer has subsequently tried to cover this song.

Favourite Recording

This has to be "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" which really is a standard which quite deservedly has become one of the most enduring of the seasonal favourites. What I love about this - apart from the performance - is the great sax solo in the middle and - unlike so many modern pop songs - it's complete lack of unnecessary redundancy.

When I hear my local supermarket playing this each year I know that Christmas has once again arrived!