Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Old Ennui

I've done this one before (way back in 2011) but I love it so much it's back again. Fell for 'Casablanca' when it was first released in '82. Played it all the time. From the fine LP, Out In The Jungle (1982).

The Saints
Casablanca (1982)

A year later, Tom Waits reinvented himself and gave us Swordfishtrombones. Here's the heartbreaking 'Town With No Cheer'. Have a nice day and keep on keeping on.

Tom Waits
Town With No Cheer (1983)

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

More Music For Decorators

The Chairman of The Board has doubts about that silk finish

On the subject of slapping a bit of paint around, I started on one of the cubs' bedrooms today (it'll be a hell of a job) and, as usual, took my portable CD player upstairs to accompany the paint action. I started the session  off with the whole of Bowie's 'Heroes' album but was (apparently) playing it so loud that Mrs. B. stomped up the stairs and lodged a formal complaint. Uh! (Note: she failed to complain to Ray next door who has been blasting bloody Showaddywaddy for days whilst he creosotes his decking). So, wanting to keep the peace, I moved on to Sinatra's Songs For Swingin' Lovers. I've listened to this classic probably hundreds of times but there was something rather wonderful about decorating and the Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle soundscape that made for a great combination: keeps you working as you start to flag. Then, as Frank hit the peaks of one of his most famous of all songs, I've Got You Under My Skin, once more, his true genius was revealed to me afresh. Does it ever get better than this? This performance is so great that my words cannot do it any justice - just listen. Anybody who doesn't love this gets whacked. Now, where's that bloody roller?

Frank Sinatra
I've Got You Under My Skin (1956)

Whippings and Apologies: Scratching Out Sparks and A New Coat Of Paint

I was down on my knees, applying a new coat of paint to the skirting boards at the top of the stairs, listening to songs from the nether regions of the collection, when up pops that long neglected oddball, A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, the second album by Sparks, recorded way back in 1972. I hadn't heard this  left-field pop gem, which was the farewell to the original band featuring Earle Mankey on guitar, for many a long year.

Whippings and Apologies (1973)

This sort of thing may well have gone down quite well, whether you call yourself Halfnelson or Sparks, on the more Glam-friendly West Coast, but Middle America would probably never be ready for a helium voiced, somewhat androgynous singer and his Hitler-'tached 'bro. Consequently, the Mael brothers soon found themselves in swinging Britain, where Bolan had been ruling the roost for some time and Bowie was taking over. They formed a new band with some British musos and made the stunning Kimono My House LP (1974).

Here In Heaven (1974)

That album also featured the glories of 'Amateur Hour' and 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us'. Follow-up record, Propaganda (1974), wasn't, in my opinion, so full of killer tunes but was still Glamtastic (sic). Here are the boys in action.

Something For The Girl With Everything (1974)

Sparks seem to resurface every now and again, continuing to make interesting music, without bothering the 'charts' but I don't suppose they care much.

I thought all this and then dipped my brush back in the pot of white eggshell.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Keith Jarrett: Arbour Zena

I was lost in a reverie last night, headphones on, listening to 'Runes' from Keith Jarrett's 1975 album on ECM, Arbour Zena. Recorded with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and with Charlie Haden on bass and Jan Garbarek on sax, this is an album of rare beauty. Here's the second of the three extended tunes, 'Solara March'.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Down In The Cellar: Mythos

To be completely honest with you, we don't have a cellar and even if we did I'm not sure I'd store albums in there. We do have a shed but that's a little damp and exposed. Then there's the attic, which does contain a few boxes of cassette tapes and at one time had a massive box of 7" singles against one wall but the weight of that worried me so I brought and down and stored it under the stairs, right at the back and hardly accessible. Where am I going with this? I want to feature some things that I hardly ever get around to playing but value highly all the same; albums and songs that I've often almost forgotten about but then I remember and have to drag them out from my metaphor for a cellar - the big black CD boxes that are rarely touched but store hidden gems. I think I'll just go and pull one out at random now (they are in alphabetical order) and see what I lay my hands on...hang on. This looks like it's F to, first disc by Focus and then, all the way at the back we have the first, eponymous, album by German 'space rock/art rock' band, Mythos. So, why not start with that? Here's the opening track, 'Mythoett', which features some groovy flute.

Mythoett (1972)

Mythos was led my multi-instrumentalist, Stephan Kaske, who played flute, guitar, sitar, synths and percussion. They recorded for the famed German label, Ohr.

The second track is the rather excellent 'Oriental Journey'. Perhaps you may be thinking you know why this one is hidden away in the depths of the collection but it's all down to a complete lack of space, honest. More from the 'cellar' soon.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Billie Holiday Born 100 Years Ago

One hundred years ago today, the great Billie Holiday came into the world. She lived a hard, often tragic, life but gifted us with some of the finest recorded moments of the whole twentieth century. Here's one of her very finest, cut in 1941.

Solitude (1941)

Monday, 6 April 2015

Brief Histories of Great Songs: Stardust

A new feature for a new season at GUB: Brief Histories of Great Songs, in which I shall take a little look at some of the versions of what I consider to be the very best popular songs of all time, try to trace some of the history behind these classics and add something of my own perspective. Perhaps the list may turn out to be somewhat idiosyncratic but if we all looked at things in the same way it would be a dull world.

More and more often, as I sink deeper into middle age, I find myself wanting to spend time with what I think of as truly 'great' music and have less and less patience with the merely 'ordinary', 'average' or plain old 'mediocre'. This may sound like common sense: after all, who chooses to listen to 'mediocre' music? But as I ponder the subject, I've come to the conclusion that, very often, very many of us, even professed music obsessives, put up with 'average' and 'ordinary' a lot of the time when there really isn't enough time to worry about such fripperies and trifles. Don't get more wrong, I know not all songs that give me pleasure are necessarily 'great' and the difference between 'pop' and 'pap' is often as little as a mere vowel, but whilst such passing fancies come and go like the mayfly, some things are built to last and will be talked about, perhaps, hundreds of years from now and if they are not, that's one loss to the the future.

As you may have noticed from the picture above, I'm going to begin at the very top, with one of the acknowledged classics of twentieth century song craft, 'Stardust' by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish. I first encountered 'Stardust' (or, originally, 'Star Dust') via my mum's love of Nat 'King' Cole, who recorded the song in 1956 (issued in '57 on the album Love is The Thing). When I was attempting to 'sing' a bit myself in one incarnation or another of a student band back in the early 80's, I had a tape of some of the best known songs by Nat Cole that I had half-inched from home and I would listen to Nat's 'Stardust' and just wonder how on earth anybody could sing so wonderfully, with such understated grace and dignity, and then I'd weep at my own pathetic mewing.

We'll get to Nat's version in time but first we need to back up to Hoagy Carmichael himself. The great man is said to have got the idea for the tune as he wandered around his old alma mater in Bloomington, Indiana, some time in 1927. Thinking of the first rush of young love, he started to whistle a tune which he then rushed to write down before he lost his inspiration. How true any of this is, I don't know, but it wasn't long before he recorded the melody for posterity. Here's the original instrumental take from 1927.

Hoagy Carmichael and His Pals

Two years later, Mitchell Parish added the lyrics which pushed the song closer to the often ethereal beauty that is captured in many of the better versions to come.

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely night dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
But that was long ago
Now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song

Beside a garden wall
When stars are bright
You are in my arms
The nightingale tells his fairy tale
A paradise where roses bloom
Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love's refrain

Needless to say, very many vocalists have recorded versions of this beautiful song about a beautiful song, with varying degrees of success. One the earliest, and best, takes was by the great Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra in 1931, in which Sachmo adds his own inimitable style to the mix, not to mention some wondrous trumpet playing.

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra 

With the rise of the 'Swing Era', 'Stardust' became a staple of almost every band going. Artie Shaw recorded one of the finest instrumental versions, which features some blistering trumpet playing by Billy Butterfield.

Artie Shaw and His Orchestra

Other band greats such as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Harry James all cut versions; vocals on the James and Dorsey versions provided by one Frank Sinatra but we'll come to him in a moment. A personal favourite version is by the great jazz vocalist, Sarah Vaughan, who adds some superb touches all her own. Such warmth and feeling.

Sarah Vaughan

Even without the human voice and the great lyric, the transcendent wonder of 'Stardust' shines through. Very many jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Dave Brubeck, have cut fine takes of the tune but one that stands out for me is from the sax of John Coltrane in 1958, with Wilbur Harden on flugelhorn, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

John Coltrane Quintet

Just now I mentioned that Sinatra had sung 'Stardust' with the James and Dorsey bands and those early versions are pretty wonderful but the one he cut in 1962 for his Sinatra and Strings LP is particularly special, even though, to Carmichael's initial dismay, he only sang one verse. The mood and controlled passion on this one is quite something.

Frank Sinatra

'Stardust' has continued to live on in covers by the likes of Willie Nelson,  Harry Connick Jnr., Rod Stewart and Katie Melua (!) but some such things fade into insignificance compared to the utter perfection of the great Nat 'King' Cole who knew his way around a beautiful melody and just what it took to convey the meaning of the lyric, never overstating the case for one moment. Listen out for those opening strings that take us somewhere else altogether.

Nat 'King' Cole