Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest

I got to thinking about the previous albums and songs that I’ve been writing about. Most of them are rooted in rock and roll history – which confessedly is a blip on the radar in terms of overall music history. I’ve only tackled one album and one song that crossed into the 21st century. With that in mind, I’ve decided to get contemporary and write about my favourite album of 2011 thus far. The problem with that is….well, thw music sounds more old timey than anything else I’ve written about.
Yes folks, I’m referring to the new album by the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings called “The Harrow And The Harvest”. As a side note, I once heard Gillian Welch say that her albums are not released in her name as a solo act. She’s in a “band” with David Rawlings and the band just happens to be called Gillian Welch. I’ll return to this point soon.
For an artist that’s not on the mainstream media radar, there appeared to have been a fair amount of interest (at least from where I see it) in the lead-up to the release of the album. Notwithstanding the album she and David did in his name “A Friend of a Friend”, it’s been 8 years since the release of her last long-player, “Soul Journey”. Does this album live up to the high expectations? In summary….yep, and then some.

Gillian Welch (the individual or the band - take your pick) has always provided light and dark in her songs. For instance, Orphan Girl (a song I first heard beautifully covered by Emmylou Harris) with its gospel tinge, takes a subject that would be milked for all tragedy by other artists or in other genres. From the pen of Welch it combines slight sadness but with faith and the hope that when the time comes, she'll meet her family again at God's table. Like Judee Sill before her, she can write a song of faith without alienating those who don't necessarily share that faith.

The name of the new album The Harrow and The Harvest implies duality - joy and sadness, hope and resignation. Indeed, a number of these songs deliver on that premise.

In The Way It Goes, the singer is recalling the fate of friends, presumably from her youth - financial hardship, drugs, death. Everyone goes their own way and friendships go missing in action. Instead of grieving over the tragedies, the singer is resigned to their and our fate ("Still there was a time when all of us were friends"). The music may be old timey, but the lyrics unfortunately deal with a timeless subject. The song reminds me of "Needle and Thread" by Richard Thompson. Unlike Gillian's protagonist, Richard won't just be resigned to his characters' fate - he needs to "sew his soul back together again".

The Way The Whole Thing Ends takes a slightly different approach to life events. Gillian's character chastises a former friend for not sticking to the ideals they'd originally lived by. When deserting the ideals doesn't lead to the success they hoped for, Gillian unsympathetically tells her character tough luck - "that's the way the cornbread crumbles".

Now once you had a hook and ladder / Up into the headless night / And once you had a motorcycle /
But you couldn't ride it right / Standing in the doorway crying / Now you're gonna need a friend
That's the way the cornbread crumbles / That's the way the whole thing ends

Gillian's former friend is hoping for forgiveness but instead gets disdain. Maybe the album should be called The Harvest and The Harrow. Another song with a good argument for that name reversal is Hard Times. The song starts off with a man who ploughs his land,has a donkey to help him, and is happy enough with his lot to not let "hard times rule my mind". Of course, being a country song, a positive ending is not how this cornbread crumbles. By song's end,he's a shambolic figure that's didn't realise hard times didn't care for his mind - just his life and circumstances.

It's not completely clear to me if Scarlet Town is a murder ballad, but the character is certainly singing from the grave to a former lover who promised her the earth, but left her to rot in it. He should watch his back though because she's "looking through a telescope from hell to Scarlet Town". He thinks he's lived his harvest, but hell hath no fury like a lover wanting to impose harrow - or something like that.

I haven't even cited the album's highlight yet - Tennessee. The song is about self-destruction. The protagonist has spent her life trying to live well and be "apple pie", but loses out to temptaion every time. "I had no desire to be child of sin / Then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek". There's that theme of duality again.

To this point I've spent more time talking about the lyrical themes on this record (now I'm really getting old timey) than the music. As per usual, Gillian and David's melodies and arrangements are haunting and beautiful. There is not a note out of place and there is not a superfluous note anywhere on this album. As I think it's been stated before, David Rawlings is a master of the understated guitar performance. The band Gillian Welch live to serve the songs and stories they tell about in gorgeous close harmony. They are so locked in sync that Gillian's statement about the two of them being a band (that just happens to be called Gillian Welch) is no whimsy.

These songs are indeed about hard times and the characters in the songs face sad circumstances (is that a female version of Dexter in Dark Turn of Mind?) Yet, after multiple playings of this great album in the short time it's been available, I've never felt anything less than exhilirated from the haunting beauty of these melodies and their scary lyrics. These characters face harrow, but my enjoyment of these songs is the harvest.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Love That Album - The Podcast

Hey folks,

Well, it wasn't enough to tackle the written word - I had to open my mouth and talk about the same sort of crap I was writing about. Yep, I've joined the world of podcasting. On "Love That Album - The Podcast" Episode 1, Melbourne music journalist Jeff Jenkins and myself debate life's most important question - which of Bruce Springsteen's albums between "The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" is better? The answer is the former of course, but listen to the discussion anyway.

If you look close to the top of the page on the right, you'll see an embedded mp3 player to listen to the show while streaming, or you can right-click on the link below the player to download it to your mp3 player of choice. I haven't quite worked out how to submit this to iTunes yet, so I hope by the next episode that will be in place. I'd love to read any feedback you have. Like the show? Hate it? Better albums to talk about? Let me know.

The written articles will continue on a more frequent basis than the podcasts.

Right click to download and save Episode 1 here.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Beatles - Penny Lane EP

The Beatles,Penny Lane E.P. - Reissue,Australia,Deleted,7

For those of you reading this outside of Melbourne, there is an iconic pub called the Esplanade Hotel in the seaside suburb of St Kilda (no one who lives here needs that introduction). A grand old building - open for more than 130 years, I’m led to believe - it reeks atmosphere and is a heavy supporter of live bands. When my previous band The Shambles got a gig there, I felt I never needed to perform again – unfortunately, so did the general public. This venue is truly beloved of music-mad Melburnians.

For the last few years, one of its rooms has been the home of another beloved Melbourne institution - the TV music trivia show, Rockwiz. For those of you unfortunate not to have seen it, features a crack band, local and overseas guests as both performers and contestants, comedians as host and adjudicators, and ordinary punters fuelled by beer and bravado to have a shot at their Warholian 15 minutes as contestants. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have my own 15 minutes.

Before the quiz proper begins, the show’s host, Julia Zemiro, asks each contestant what was the first record he or she purchased, or what was the first concert they attended. I was asked the former. Other contestants could proudly proclaim Cosmos factory, Sgt. Pepper, or Physical Graffiti as their first purchase. On national television, I sweated profusely as I had to confess.....

.my first purchase......

with my own money.....


“100 Years of Strauss Waltzes”.

If I hadn’t been so truthful (and indeed, sacrificed the good value of a laugh), I could have proclaimed my first serious purchase as the four track Beatles EP, Penny Lane. It featured Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby on side 1, with Strawberry Fields Forever and Yellow Submarine on side 2.

It's a dangerous thing to write an article about the Beatles. Millions of words have been written about the Beatles and their music. There's no way I can add anything truly meaningful about their music to the mountains of words already composed in tribute or in smug, revisionist doubt of their true worth. I just want to describe what it meant then and what it means to me today.

After 10 years of listening to (almost) exclusively classical music, a school friend had played me his Twist and Shout EP. I've used the word "epiphany" before in a previous blog entry, but I definitely had one the day I heard Twist and Shout, especially the four-note chord build up to the Lennon scream. This was the music for me. This was the band for me. If only they hadn't broken up 5 years prior.

I bought this Australian-only EP as a 10 year-old, about 8 or 9 years after it was originally released (the Beatles singles and EPs never went out of print). I saved up and went to Pitts Record Bar near my house. The music was completely removed from Twist and Shout, but still sent my 10 year-old brain into a complete spin. Can you remember what it felt like to hear Strawberry Fields Forever for the first time? I recall the first time I heard the horns, the backward tapes, the string section, the words that made that made no fucking sense, the false ending...It's no exaggeration to say I played that song hundreds of times. I used to go over to my neighbour's house to listen to this song. They had a Danish state of the art stereo system. Heaven was listening to Strawberry Fields Forever through headphones on their stereo.

This was different to the music I'd spent my lifetime listening to. It was different to music the Beatles themselves had made 3 years prior. For the record, my favourite music to that point had been Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Dvorak's New World Symphony,and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade. Still listening to these songs, there was the use of orchestral instrumentation, adventurous songwriting, the French Horn on Penny Lane inspired by McCartney hearing the Bach Brandenburg Concertos. Maybe it wasn't so far removed from my previous music listening experience.

The thing that made this EP special was the actual combination of these songs - three "serious" tunes and a novelty tune. The Beatles had a tradition with novelty tunes - "You Know My Name", any of their Xmas fan club records, "Revolution 9" (a song for Australian Idol perhaps?), and Yellow Submarine's own bastard son, "Octopus' Garden". The three "serious" tunes were songs of tribute to childhood memories either in their hometown of Liverpool, or more broadly relating to life in WW2 England.

Still none of that mattered to me as a 10 year old. Forget the lyrics. I just know that these compositions and their brilliant execution set me on the path for a wider love of music than I'd experienced to that point. I approached each Beatles record that I bought over the next few years with the same level of excitement I imagine people that bought them upon initial release might have felt. I got Abbey Road for my 12th birthday, and I still get apprehensive about the approaching cut-off ending on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". Still, it all started with the Penny Lane EP as my first purchase......Strauss notwithstanding.