[From The Cutting Room Floor]: Eric Andersen, The Smiths and Bob Marley & The Wailers.

th21-record-player-music-flickr-stacey-d-630w

Often, seeking out new music can feel like a treasure hunt (or sweeping a minefield, depending on how you look at it). And every now and then you will come across those completely unexpected diamonds-in-the-rough that appear in the form of B-sides, outtakes or bootlegged live cuts. Those happy moments where you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and think ‘Why is this only a B-side?’. This feature is about digging out those deeper cuts that deserve more attention than mere relegation.

‘Close The Door Lightly When You Go’ – Eric Andersen
If the mark of an artist is the company they keep then Eric Andersen can be ranked up there with the best of them, having rubbed shoulders with Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Joan Baez, The Band, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol and William Burroughs to name but a few. While Andersen has not shared as much of the limelight as his Greenwich Village folk scene contemporaries, his vivid songwriting about love in all its expressions has influenced and been covered by countless artists in the singer-songwriter tradition and in 2003 he was awarded the Premio Tenco for outstanding songwriting, an award previously won by Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave (again, the company you keep). While later versions of ‘Close The Door Lightly When You Go’ have gathered a more upbeat pace, none of them have the same raw sense of self-loathing and loneliness as the original found on Andersen’s second album ‘Bout Changes ‘n’ Things. A documentary taking in Andersen’s ongoing fifty-plus year journey as an artist entitled The Songpoet is slated for release later this year.

‘Back To The Old House’ – The Smiths
Morrissey is set to release his tenth solo album World Peace Is None Of Your Business in July (announced by way of a tongue-in-cheek music video), and while he tends to divide opinion like Moses parts large bodies of water you’d be hard-pressed to deny the emotional weight he lends to this stripped down version of ‘Back To The Old House’ lifted from a John Peel session in 1983. Nostalgia drips from Johnny Marr’s honeyed arpeggios, complementing the forlorn quality in Morrissey’s tenor and the palpable ambivalence conveyed through understated images in lines such as “When you cycled by, here began all my dreams, the saddest thing I’ve ever seen”.

‘High Tide Or Low Tide’ – Bob Marley And The Wailers
Replete with sultry rhythms from the Barrett brothers and beautiful harmonies from Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, ‘High Tide Or Low Tide’ makes perfect listening for the nights drawing longer. It was recorded during the sessions for The Wailers’ Island debut, Catch A Fire, which would begin Bob Marley’s meteoric rise to become the Third World’s first superstar, but didn’t make the final tracklist. However, positioned alongside the social commentary of ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Stop That Train’, this soulful ditty of solidarity and friendship shows the scope of Marley’s songwriting even at this early stage and it is this sense of peace and love he would infuse much of his music with throughout his career.

What are your favourite B-sides and rarities? Let me know in the comments below.

Advertisements

[Cover Me]: Josh Ritter, Jeff Buckley & Julia Holter

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Josh Ritter – ‘The River’ (Originally by Bruce Springsteen)
Simply one of the best songs ever written, this rendition was one of the first tracks that turned me onto Josh Ritter and marked him out as one to watch. Capturing the broken and forlorn spirit of the song, Ritter’s plaintive cries send a shiver up the spine. I saw him perform this at his show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam last year and it was spellbinding, where time seemed to stand still for the briefest of moments.

Jeff Buckley – ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ (Originally by Bob Dylan)
Found on the extensive and unparalleled Live At Siné, this recording sees Jeff Buckley in his element performing in his café stomping grounds before the release of Grace. Buckley covered many of Dylan’s songs, seeing him as a songwriting muse in some respects, but as ever he left his indelible mark on this slide-driven version of the Blood On The Tracks highlight. He didn’t just play songs, he inhabited them, and the emotional intensity of this song (and many others) remains an indisputable testament to his effulgent talent.

Julia Holter – ‘Hello Stranger’ (Originally by Barbara Lewis)
Virtually unrecognisable from the original, Julia Holter definitively updated the R&B hit on last year’s Loud City Song, taking the fifty years since it’s release in one giant leap. Stripped of the “shoo-bop-she-bop” vocals and jaunty organ, ‘Hello Stranger’ drifts amongst textural soundscapes and Holter’s reverberating vocals, becomeing less a chance meeting in the street and more of an intense channeling, like meeting someone from across the years in a dream.

[Sound and Vision]: Inside Llewyn Davis

inside llewyn davis“I wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave’s so long…”

In a New York state of mind.

The Coen brothers’ latest offering Inside Llewyn Davis is inspired by events in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, memoir of Dave Van Ronk, a lynchpin in the folk scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, NYC. On one level it is a week in the life of eponymous (anti-)hero Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, and on another level it is a detailed, atmospheric snapshot of a collective phenomenon on the cusp of entering popular American consciousness.

The film starts with a song, a beating and a stray cat, and this really sets the formula for the next two hours. Llewyn goes from hardship to hardship (many of his own creation) in his endeavours to make it as a folk musician during what is only a week, but feels like a year. He is a compelling, if not completely likeable, protagonist who tackles loss, estrangement and lack of fulfilment with a rueful obstinacy, repeatedly making and burning bridges in the process. However, it is his unflinching honesty and flagging energies in the face of his youth slowly trickling away which endear us to him. Meanwhile, friends and basket-passing contemporaries wander in and out of the narrative, in some cases assisting him and in others berating him. Like Llewyn Davis who is not exactly Dave Van Ronk, many characters are amalgamations of performers of the time rather than specific counterparts. The folk-couple Jim and Jean, portrayed convincingly by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, equally evoke Jim Glover and Jean Ray as much as Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. Meanwhile, background characters Troy Nelson, a green performer living out of Fort Dix but already tipped over Llewyn for glory, and Al Cody, a capable but struggling musician like Llewyn, bear resemblances to Tom Paxton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott respectively.

Jim&Jean

Like the Coens’ previous pairing with soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which housed a compelling cross-section of Depression-era folk songs and spirituals, Inside Llewyn Davis serves up an insightful and well-executed crop of songs that were doing the rounds of the coffee shops at the time. Some will be familiar (a new arrangement of ‘Dink’s Song’, entitled ‘Fare Thee Well’ and Justin Timberlake and Carrie Mulligan’s wistful take on ‘500 Miles’) and some will be revelations such as Oscar Isaac’s stark rendition of ‘The Shoals of Herring’. Particularly entertaining is the Columbia recording session for absurd pop-protest song ‘Please, Mr. Kennedy’, which is written and performed by the amusingly naive Jim and captures the essence of a time when people still believed that a song could change the world. Throughout the film the songs are delivered with care and are weaved naturally into the story in a way that doesn’t feel conceited in the slightest. Ultimately, it is the songs that survive and which keep the characters going. As Llewyn Davis aptly states ‘If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’, the songs still live over centuries and it is the nature of folk music that it lives on through rediscovery and reinterpretation. Van Ronk’s own career arc can be summed up by Llewyn Davis’s audition with Chicago producer Bud Grossman (Dylan manager Albert Grossman’s surrogate), who listens patiently to Davis’s aching rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ before passing the succinct verdict: “I don’t see an awful lot of money here”. While Van Ronk garnered a considerable cult-legend status during his lifetime, with which he was content, his uncompromising brand of blues, folk and spirituals was generally considered too idiosyncratic and uncommercial for widespread release and so never gained the success of contemporaries Joan Baez or Bob Dylan. However, his influence on his cohorts cannot be understated and perhaps through the Coens’ reinterpretation as Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk and his songs might live again in this generation.

The film ends almost exactly the way it starts, with aforementioned song, beating and stray cat observed with a new perspective, and suggests an endless cycle of struggle as Llewyn endeavours to find success (or even just a bed for the night) in joints which range from the respected (The Gaslight Café, Gerde’s Folk City) to the nameless and miserable. It accurately portrays the harsh insularity of the Greenwich Village folk scene during the early 60s, and Llewyn increasingly finds his purist views hard to reconcile with his desire for success. However, as Llewyn exits the Gaslight at the film’s end there is a teasing glimpse of the back of a stranger’s familiarly bequiffed head as he starts his own nasally version of ‘Dink’s Song’. Llewyn’s attention is momentarily captivated by the performer before exiting and seems to acknowledge the turning point when a generation of Americans would awaken to the quiet rumble coming from Greenwich Village.

Inside Llewyn Davis is in cinemas now.

[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Of 2013

Well, 2013 is officially over, which means its time to cast an eye back over the year’s finest moments. There were so many albums I loved last year that they would easily fill up a top twenty, and even then there would be pushing and shoving. However, there can only be ten (for arbitrary reasons) and so with that in mind I have chosen the albums which impressed me most and continue to impress me long after luring me back for repeated listens. So, without further ado…

The Best Albums

2013 Banner 1

10. Kwes – ilp
On his hypnotising debut Kwes blends pop, ambient and electronic influences into a gluey fog of emotion that clings to you, giving it the deeply immersive quality of Portishead’s Dummy. While the understated melodies and blurred beats don’t immediately grab attention, it is the quiet confidence and kaleidoscopic nature of the music which is ilp’s strength. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

2013 Banner 2

9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Not usually my thing, but there was something very compelling and mesmerising about Loud City Song which called me back for repeated listens and made me dig deeper each time. Each layer of Julia Holter’s avant-garde pop intrigues with moments of tension and release, forming dense collages of sound. Meanwhile, her flexible voice adopts different guises and moves eerily between seeming faint in the distance or uncomfortably close, as if you were listening to a radio which could tune into different rooms of a city.

2013 Banner 4 (1)

8. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
After the overwhelming success of No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley’s debut at sixty-two, Victim of Love sees Bradley spreading his wings and finding his own (loud) voice. Aided by the capable Menahan Street Band, Bradley moves effortlessly between Temptations style psych-funk on ‘Confusion’ and ‘Love Bug Blues’, and slow-burning soul ballads on ‘Give Love A Chance’ and earnest album closer ‘Through The Storm’. It is an album brimming with gratitude and he gives as good as he gets (better, I’d argue).

2013 Banner 3 (1)

7. Jim James – Regions Of Sound And Light Of God
Jim James’s first out-and-out solo LP came up trumps, inspired by Lynd Ward’s Good Man and exploring themes of living life in an age cluttered by technology. Away from My Morning Jacket’s expanded alt. country, James blends genres to great effect from new-age rock ’n’ roll to electro-gospel. As ever though, at the centre of this extended sonic horizon is his cavernous voice, which sounds more than ever like a man sending messages into outer space.

2013 Banner 5

6. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
No other album I heard this year was quite so aptly labeled, or half as fun. Wonderful, Glorious is the sound of E revelling in finally being in a band that can keep up with him, dishing up outrageous, scuzzy rock and gentle, mellow pop in the process. A golden slice of life affirming rock and roll!

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F

5. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
An album of dark nights and new mornings, The Beast In Its Tracks is the result of Josh Ritter retreating into songwriting to exorcise his demons from divorce, alcohol and insomnia. While much of the album sees Ritter happy in the arms of a new lover, songs like ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Between bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter evokes a long road to recovery experienced by many and perfectly captures the turning point onJoy To You Baby’. Ritter’s Blood On The Tracks? Possibly…

2013 Banner 7

4. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Twenty-three years and ten albums in, Pearl Jam could be forgiven for showing signs of age. But, on Lightning Bolt they prove themselves to be as lean and hungry as ever, equally comfortable delivering full-throttle punk (‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Lightning Bolt’) and gentle ballads (‘Yellow Moon’, ‘Sleeping By Myself’). The only signs of age are a mature perspective on love and mortality, with ‘Sirens’ seeing Eddie Vedder “overwhelmed by the grace with which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”. Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam ageing gracefully; still angry and still at the top of their game.

2013 Banner 8

3. Poliça – Shulamith
Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed debut, Poliça build on its momentum with their difficult second album. The basic elements of echoing vocals, glacial synthesisers and effervescent percussion are still present, but Shulamith is more confrontational than its predecessor (much like its namesake, Shulamith Firestone). The music is less introverted; the synths are brutalising and the pulsing beats are feverish. Meanwhile, Channy Leanaegh’s vocals and lyrics, concerned with conflicts of identity in relationships, are direct and forthright. Rather than courting mainstream success, you get the sense that Shulamith is the sound of Poliça staying true to their beliefs.

2013 Banner 9

2. Anna Calvi – One Breath
Grander in scale, but more vulnerable than it’s predecessor. Anna Calvi still has a flair for the dramatic, but she seems to let down her guard more on One Breath, not letting the façade get in the way of expressing mortal frailty on the title track or brutal honesty on ‘Love Of My Life’. Calvi’s symphonic ambitions still remain intact on ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Sing To Me’ though, and that astounding voice continues to grip the imagination, even when it is but a barely audible whisper.

2013 Banner 10

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
With the departure of guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009, Nick Cave’s right-hand man for nearly thirty years, the sound of the next Bad Seeds record seemed uncertain. As a result, the Bad Seeds embrace disarmingly minimal and intimate soundscapes on Push The Sky Away, focusing on textural instrumentation and contemplative lyrics delivered with conviction by Cave. The album looks both backwards and forwards on the band’s legacy, with the cataclysmic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ seeming an answer to their ‘Abattoir Blues’ prophesied nine years earlier, while the spiritual communion of ‘We No Who U R’ and personal mantra ‘Push The Sky Away’ gesture to the artistic boundaries which they continue to push and transcend.

The Best EP

sampha-dual

Sampha – Dual
A genre defying EP; part electronic and hip-hop, part soul and singer-songwriter. While Morden based musician/producer, Sampha Sisay, has been lending his skills to high-profile artists such as Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Drake, here on his second solo EP he shows that he kept the best ideas for himself. The songs themselves, based around Sampha’s soulful vocals and commanding piano melodies, are accomplished and would make enjoyable listening by itself. However, the extra layers he constructs on these solid basics indicate a measured artistry and that Sampha has a clear direction in mind. Brief interludes such as ‘Demons’ and ‘Hesitant Oath’ brim with creative enthusiasm and give the EP a cohesiveness which is missing from many full-length releases, while the intricate composition of clipped samples that weave in and out of the ‘live’ instrumentation keeps Dual unpredictable and imbues it with a compelling sense of depth. And yet for all its intricacy Dual still manages to sound pared down to its lean essentials, with no flab or unnecessaries attached. Evocative and simply captivating.

The Best Single

David Bowie Performing

David Bowie – ‘Where Are We Now?’
Released silently on Bowie’s birthday in January, ‘Where Are We Now?’ announced the Dame’s return to recording as the leading single to The Next Day. In many ways indicative of the album’s musical introspectiveness, evoking and pastiching the diverse phases of Bowie’s career, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the quintessential post-Bowie Bowie song. While only four minutes long, the song’s sweeping scale and slow-burning energy feels like a lifetime condensed into a single moment, as Bowie casts a forlorn backward glance at his Berlin days. Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall things have changed yet remain the same, as old names and places spark memories and are filled with hurrying people crossing their fingers as they traverse busy intersections “just in case”. In the midst of the commotion which leads us nowhere, a childlike Bowie finds some solace and resolve to carry on in a few fundamentals: “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”.

The Biggest Surprise

Lou-Reed-Creem

Apart from Beyoncé dropping a killer pop album unannounced, Miley Cyrus’s twerktastic antics sparking mass debate on female autonomy in the music business and the early release of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, probably the single piece of news that caused widespread shock and disarray across the music world was the sudden death of Lou Reed on 27th October. Lou died of liver disease at the age of 71, having undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year, and I guess the reason his death came as such a shock was that his body had been through so much abuse that people expected him to be one of the few things to survive a nuclear armageddon, along with the cockroaches and Keith Richards. Black humour aside, the effect Lou’s songs had on music and peoples’ lives is immeasurable and his sudden death took many off-guard as they realised there would never be another like him. So rest in peace, Lou, this satellite has gone way up to Mars.

What were your best music moments of 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

— Elements of The Best Albums appear in extracted form over at Hercules Moments.

[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

355019178_640

“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

pjnick

“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

10_1lg

“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

Joni

“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

The Horrible Crowes 0811 4

“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Justin Vernon

“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

Tom+Waits+-+Blue+Valentine+-+PRESS+PACK-511202

“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

Josh_ritter_1_t440

“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

[Artist Spotlight]: Roy Harper

Roy Harper“You’re a girl with horizons, so easy to see, / Atop your high mountain, time is temporary”

Long absent, but never truly gone. Roy Harper has long been one of those stalwart figures in the background of British music, working tirelessly often behind the scenes but imperceptibly influencing anyone who has ever come into contact with him or has heard his work. Having gained praise and tips of the hat from both contemporaries (Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Who) and subsequent generations of musicians (Jonathan Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Counting Crows), he has naturally gained a mythological status as something of a folk sage. His reclusion from recording after poor experiences with record companies has only fuelled this reputation, but recently he broke the thirteen year silence with Man-Myth, co-produced by present-day folk mythologist Jonathan Wilson. Tonight Harper will play the first of three intimate nights showcasing the new album, accompanied by Wilson and a small string and brass ensemble. If you are going to the Festival Hall in London tonight, I am very envious of you.

For those of us not going though, we must content ourselves with the music. With that in mind I thought I’d draw attention to a gem off Man-Myth which has been coming into my mind during the morning drives past lines of trees shedding their golden leaves, ‘Time is Temporary’. Naturally for someone of his age and reputation Harper’s attention has turned to intense self-reflection, meditating on mortality and the discrepancies between self and perception, reality and expectation. Secluded here amongst delicate cello and banjo lines and buoyed up by a compelling guitar melody, Harper muses on love’s fleeting nature and the passing of time. However, with age comes perspective and rather than vocalising maudlin self-pity, Harper resigns himself, and possibly comes to terms with, the way things truly are. What makes the song truly poignant though is the tension Harper weaves in his poetic lyrics between trying to preserve the ‘perfect moment’ (“I have seen you for days here dipping your toes into the stream, / A vision of purity in an old pre-raphaelite dream”) and accepting that the passing of time is a fact of life (“I’d love you to stay here, but soon you’ll be gone / That’s just the way here in the sun”).

However, as one of Harper’s earliest influences, John Keats, wrote in Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us”. All moments are fleeting and temporary, but against the ravages of time we can commit it to memory and commemorate it in art, as Harper does here. The sparse core of guitar and voice, tastefully embellished on occasion by additional instrumentation, is a perfect vehicle for Harper’s reflections and his legendary tenor is like honey, still able to take you away to a place where the breeze gently moves the grass on verdant meadows and where streams babble freely amongst themselves for eternity.

Man-Myth is available now through Bella Union. Harper is on tour this week only, but still posts infrequently on his blog. Check it out, it’s good stuff.

[Cover Me]: The Gaslight Anthem, Michael Kiwanuka & Sachal Studios Orchestra

The Gaslight Anthem – Changing of the Guards (Originally by Bob Dylan)

The Gaslight Anthem are a band I have been following since I first started listening to them a few years ago. In that time they have gone from strength to strength, incorporating varying elements of punk, soul and rock and roll into a uniquely recognisable style all of their own. The lads have announced that they’ve finished recording their fourth studio album, Handwritten, which is estimated to be released in the summer. If, like me, you can hardly wait for the album’s release then hopefully this gem of a track will help tide you over until then. I hadn’t heard this Dylan track from 1978’s Street Legal before, but the lyrics are prophetically striking and almost Yeats-ian. However, I find the original somewhat pales in comparison to this raw and blood racing rendition. As ever Brian Fallon’s delivery is impeccable, moving between red-eyed rage and broken vulnerability as the situation calls for. Meanwhile the cutting lead guitar, cascading drums and thundering bass show the rest of the band are on sterling form as they race along, helter-skelter style, through Dylan’s apocalyptic track.

Watch this space for a review of Handwritten come summer time!

Michael Kiwanuka – Whole Lotta Love (Originally by Led Zeppelin)

It’s about time we had another Zeppelin track in this feature, and this time BBC’s elected Sound of 2012, Michael Kiwanuka, steps up to the plate.You’d be forgiven for not recognising the song at first, until the familiar bass line emerges out of a haze of swirling sitar instrumentation. After this the rest of the track falls into place, with organ, slide guitar and drums enthralling the listener. I never thought I’d hear a cover of the proto-blues/punk classic that features a sitar, but it makes sense here, especially in the cavernous breakdown after the second chorus. Meanwhile, Michael’s soul-searching voice remains cool and restrained, making sure not to fall into the pitfall of imitating Robert Plant’s inimitable, primal vocals. Though the band follow the original’s blueprint fairly closely, they manage to make their individual mark on it.

Stay tuned for a review of Michael’s debut album Home Again later this week.

Sachal Studio Orchestra – Take Five (Originally by Dave Brubeck Quartet)

While we’re on the sitar tip, let’s take things into exotic jazz territory. ‘Take Five’ is probably one of the most instantly recognisable jazz riffs, if not THE most recognisable jazz riff, and it was while looking up George Benson’s equally impressive cover that I came across this interpretation. By using traditional Indian and Pakistani instruments the Sachal Studio Orchestra manage to make Dave Brubeck Quartet’s jazz masterpiece sound simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The saxophone riff is transposed onto sitar and violin, while the essential timekeeping duties are given over to tablas. It really works and manages to breathe new life into a classic which has been covered to the point of possibly losing its original spark and colour. Stunning.

[Cover Me]: PJ Harvey, Iron & Wine with Calexico and Bon Iver

PJ Harvey – Highway ’61 Revisited (Originally by Bob Dylan)

Congratulations are in order to PJ Harvey for winning the Mercury Prize last night for Let England Shake. PJ Harvey’s albums have littered the Mercury Prize shortlists over the years and it’s been ten years since she first won the award in 2001 for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, making her the first artist to win the award more than once. In recognition of this it seems only fitting to post Harvey’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’ which featured on her second album Rid of Me in 1993. Dylan’s desperate blues shuffle becomes a feverish and filthy juggernaut in Harvey’s voice, laying waste to the characters that populate the song. Beginning with Harvey’s muted rhythm guitar and her delicate vocals the song soon erupts with distorted guitar mangling and Rob Ellis’ cacophonous drumming while Harvey’s vocals turn into the whooping of a bird of ill omen. Proof that throughout Harvey’s career she has always had the power to captivate. And still does.

Iron & Wine with Calexico – Wild Horses (Originally by The Rolling Stones)

Sam Beam undoubtedly has one of the most distinctive and gentle singing voices and whatever he sings will always come out in his own hushed style. So though this live session from the In The Reins tour is close to the Stones’ original, Sam’s whispering delivery still keeps things sounding fresh. In fact with American and Mexican folk influenced band Calexico performing this cowboy song of camaraderie with Beam on vocals, a certain level of authenticity is brought in. Coming from musicians who have spent their careers traipsing the American plains, ‘Wild Horses’ sounds truer than ever.

Bon Iver – Bonnie Hathaway (Donny Hathaway/Bonnie Raitt medley)

It’s no secret that Justin Vernon has the heart and soul of an old fashioned crooner, as exhibited by his appearance on the Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble’s release A Decade With Duke performing, amongst his own material, jazz standards such as Duke Ellington’s ‘Rocks in My Bed’ and Nina SImone’s ‘Since I Fell For You‘. In what sounds like an ‘off the clock’ moment in the studio, Vernon lays into a soulful and sublime medley of the Donny Hathaway song ‘A Song For You’ and Bonnie Raitt song ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’. Accompanied by gentle and plaintive piano, once again Vernon’s vocals soar and express infinite emotional depth. I realise with recent articles on ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir‘ and ‘Bon IverTSAR has been a tad Bon Iver heavy of late, but it’s odd throwaway moments like this which bring home just what a treasured artist we have in Justin Vernon.