Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pentangle - Basket of Light

One thing that annoys me, dear reader, is music critics. It’s a rather unusual confession considering that this is a blog devoted to music commentary, but hear me out. More specifically, it’s the lazy music critic that states that a particular band or performer plays “all styles ranging from rock to blues to folk to jazz” where it is plainly not so (one particular critic I’m thinking of is notorious for overusing this description). All it takes is for a rock group to occasionally play a strange sequence of diminished ninths using acoustic instruments and sing lyrics about having woken up this morning feeling strange, and this type of critic presumes they have all genres covered. AAAARRRGGGHHH.
I’m not saying there aren’t artists who haven’t accomplished mastery of multiple styles, but it’s not as prevalent as certain folks would have us believe. One group that I do believe had some valid claim towards this mastery was Pentangle.
Pentangle was something of a supergroup in its day. Not they were appreciated as such, but all had achieved some level of success and mastery in their prior endeavours. Guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch had made a number of records separately and together (Jansch being looked up to by the likes of Neil Young and Jimmy Page no less). Renbourn was traditional in his outlook but could play a mean blues as was the case with Jansch. Singer Jacqui McShee is one of the great English folk singers from an era where contemporaries included Maddy Prior and Sandy Denny. Drummer Terry Cox and bassist Danny Thompson were a great working session jazz duo and had worked with Alexis Korner. Somehow, they could each play to the strength of their individual disciplines, and yet always sound like a cohesive unit working towards the same purpose.
Their third album “Basket of Light” was apparently their most commercially successful, due in part to the inclusion of a song written for a BBC TV show. Masterful playing alone wasn’t what made this band great. Whereas other groups of the day that were supposedly their contemporaries like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span – both bands that I love - for the most part delved into creatively arranging traditional folk music played with electric instrumentation (the case especially for Fairport post Richard Thompson / Sandy Denny), Pentangle truly offered something that sounded different in the songwriting department.
“Once I Had a Sweetheart” makes a concession to the era with the inclusion of a sitar, and yet it still sounds incredibly fresh. “Train Song” has incredible rhythm section work and a great bluesy guitar solo (all acoustic).McShee’s vocals are incredibly seductive on this song, and in fact on the whole album. “Light Flight” has serious jazz chops with time changes that never sound forced or clumsy. Danny Thompson’s bass is the leader on this song.
When I was 9 or 10, I found this record in my sister’s record collection and I wore it out. I was overjoyed when it go a CD release. It’s true that this album is tied to my childhood (I wonder how many other kids heard and loved it), but I repeatedly listen to this album now due to the combined strengths of great arrangements, great musicianship and great songs. It could have been released today by a young band that....well,...played all kinds of music from folk to blues to jazz. But don’t tell me they exist – that’d just give me the shits.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Songs that left me speechless - Part 1

Okay okay, I know this was going to be a blog about my thoughts on albums I love, and that will happen. So why the hell is my first real article about individual songs? Because these really are songs  I fell in love with the moment I met them. That's the great thing about songs - you don't have to be monogamous. In fact, all the better if you aren't.

So, I love a lot of songs. I mean A LOT of songs. So what specifically is this article about? This is going to be part of an ongoing series of articles when I feel like doing so about songs that on first playing, really made me feel like I had to sit down and think about what had just happened. I don't want to sound like a pretentious twat or anything, but if we accept that music really has a power to hit your emotions, and it's not just lyrical rhetoric or romanticism, then here is the first article about songs that have done just that to me. There may be songs I love more, but these are songs that knocked me out the first time.

1) Surf's Up - The Beach Boys

I first heard this via a bootleg of Smile, the Beach Boys album that never was. Over the course of the Beach Boys recordings, Brian Wilson had gone through a series of different lyricists. One biography I read claimed that Brian always considered his lyricist his "new best friend". Van Dyke Parks was the best friend over the Smile period. Much has been written about Brian's change from the songs of surf, holding hands and cars to his own personal religious experiences on Pet Sounds. Smile was a step further out again. Since Brian re-recorded Smile as a suite with his touring band,there has been a lot of revisionism with the question being asked whether it was ever worth waiting for. While certianly not as cohesive as Pet Sounds, it's still a wonderful experience and  for me, there had never been a song quite like Surf's Up.

What is it that does it for me? Not the lyrics. Van Dyke's words are pretentious twaddle, and yet would the song have worked half-as-well if it had made sense? Another song about really riding the surf? Probably not with that melody. "Columnated Ruins Domino?" What the hell does that mean? A WW2 spy code? Certainly it's not a song with a conventional verse-chorus structure, so was never destined to be a single. Yet, this is a beautiful work of art. It's not rock (the Beach Boys never really were). It sounds like Brian was listening to Burt Bachrach for compositional inspiration and guidance. Paul Mccartney was jealous, and with all due deference to Macca's Beatles-era writing skills, he had every right to be jealous. If no other part of this mini symphony in 2 movements moves you, then the last 30 or so seconds of Beach Boys harmonies and counter harmonies will. If not, seriously check your pulse.