[Mixtape]: I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive


“Now the dark air is like fire on my skin, and even the moonlight is blinding.”

As far as country and americana goes, I’ve always preferred songs from the darker side of the road. Songs that carry with them some of the ancient sinisterness rippling below the surface of the American South’s expansive landscapes or the isolation of its satellite settlements.

This mix was part inspired after reading my way through Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s short stories for an article I wrote commemorating her death fifty years on. Despite an early death, O’Connor’s output was formidable and her vivid, sardonic stories brought to life the conflicted and shifting American South of the mid-twentieth century. In a lecture on the grotesque she said, “I think it’s quite safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ haunted”. It’s this feeling of spiritual malaise that permeated the straggled communities and primeval swamplands of Louisiana in Nic Pizzollato’s HBO series True Detective, the other inspiration for this mix, and which I tried to recreate here.

So if, like me, you like your americana with a tinge of gothic desolation, this is for you. Plug in and enjoy.

Tracklist:
1. ‘Drover’ – Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
2. ‘To Bring You My Love’ – PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
3. ‘Meet Me In The Alleyway’ – Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
4. ‘Redemption Day’ – Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave
5. ‘Rake [Live]’ – Townes Van Zandt – A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt
6. ‘The Way It Will Be’ – Gillian Welch – The Harrow And The Harvest
7. ‘Youngstown’ – Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost Of Tom Joad
8. ‘The Singer’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Kicking Against The Pricks
9. ‘Cold Irons Bound’ – Bob Dylan – Time Out Of Mind
10. ‘Algiers’ – The Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
11. ‘Fallen Peaches’ – The Handsome Family – Singing Bones
12. ‘Wings’ – Josh Ritter – Hello Starling
13. ‘Satellite’ – Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions – Through The Devil Softly
14. ‘Everything’s Fucked’ – Dirty Three – Dirty Three

Let me know what you thought of this mixtape, or post any mixes of your own, in the comments below. I’d love to hear them.

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[Cover Me]: Richard Thompson, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Tim Buckley

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

Richard Thompson – ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ (Originally by Britney Spears)
That right there was the sound of you double-taking. As part of his ambitious 2003 project 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which traced a common thread through music from 1068 all the way up to 2001, folk-rock luminary Richard Thompson closed with this Britney Spears mega-hit (though not without taking a slight detour to the 16th century towards the end). It’s clever, tongue-in-cheek and damn if it isn’t catchy!

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Tower of Song’ (Originally by Leonard Cohen)
It was a toss up between posting this and The Bad Seeds’ haunting cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Singer‘ from Kicking Against The Pricks, but for sheer full-tilt energy and originality I had to plump for this. Leonard Cohen has been Nick Cave’s mentor in many ways (the first Bad Seeds album even opens with a cover of Cohen’s ‘Avalanche‘), so it is not surprising for Cave to pay tribute to the man “gifted with a golden voice”. Rather than sticking to the blueprint though The Bad Seeds rip it up with a frantic race through almost every conceivable genre of the 20th century. The result is as if you were plummeting between the floors of the eponymous Tower of Song and hearing the noises made on different floors on the way down.

Tim Buckley – ‘Martha’ (Originally by Tom Waits)
This track is taken from Tim Buckley’s penultimate album Sefronia, and while much of the album is a mixed bag there is no doubting the grandness of his version of one of Tom Waits’s earliest heartbreakers. In fact, Waits’s Closing Time (the album the original appeared on) had only surfaced two months before Sefronia was released, and this says something for the immediate connection Buckley must have felt with ‘Martha’ to record it and really get where Waits was coming from. While musically Waits’s original is soused in the dissatisfactions of the present, Buckley’s sweet, string laden version brims with the optimism of a young love which the song’s Tom Frost hopes to rekindle with Martha. By being the first prominent artist to cover songs by the then largely unknown Waits, Buckley drew public attention to him and thereby helped him on his way to becoming one of the truly defining artists of the last fifty years. For that alone, this version of ‘Martha’ deserves attention and appreciation.

[Cover Me]: Arctic Monkeys, Mazzy Star and Johnny Cash

Arctic Monkeys – ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ (Originally by John Cooper Clarke)

Not exactly a cover, so much as a setting of words to music. The influence of John Cooper Clarke’s wordplay has long been evident in Alex Turner’s lyrics and since the Monkey’s last trio of albums has lead them to L.A. and back it seems fitting for their latest offering to come full circle and finish with Carke’s kitchen-sink poetry. Turner’s Sheffield brogue is a perfect foil for Clarke’s Salford drawl as he delivers lines like “Let me be your ‘leccy meter, And I’ll never run out”. Meanwhile, the shuffling beat and swirls of oscillating guitar hold a strong tie to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’s ‘Loverman’ (the band have also covered Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, from the same album). Positioned at the end of the album, this song of longing proves to be the woozy hangover at the end of AM‘s long, heavy night.

Mazzy Star – ‘Five String Serenade’ (Originally by Arthur Lee)

Mazzy Star recently released their first album in seventeen years, Seasons of Your Day, and it reminded me of this little beauty from 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See. Originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love, the song choice really lays out the shared Californian genealogy between the two bands. Both bands have a knack for hazy and psychedelic melodies. However, while Arthur Lee’s psych-tinged original wallows amid waves of chorused guitar and shimmering strings, David Roback and Hope Sandoval’s take really accentuates the lullaby at the heart of the song. Roback slows the pace down to a slow dance, accentuating each note in the arpeggio, while the swathes of strings in the original are condensed to a sparse string section. Floating between these and the occasional tambourine shimmer is Sandoval’s sultry drawl, which complete’s the song’s soporific atmosphere. The song lies nestled at the centre of So Tonight That I Might See, and is a spellbinding moment of tender magic.

Johnny Cash – ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ (Originally by Gordon Lightfoot)

It has been ten years since the loss of Johnny Cash, whose American Recordings albums remain a tribute to his power as a performer and a songwriter even in his final years of deteriorating health. His output was so prolific at this stage that he left behind three album’s worth of recorded material that were released after his death. It seems that he was a man wanting to set the record straight before he checked out, and nowhere does this come across as strongly than in his versions of ‘Hurt’ and ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. The latter was penned by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and is one of the most evocative and accurate account of a dissolving relationship I have ever come across. Lightfoot’s original was already pretty poignant, but in Cash’s hands the song takes on a whole new poignancy. As with all American Recordings covers, ‘If You Could My Mind’ is stripped down to its very essence, with barebones instrumentation. But, as ever, it is Cash’s entrancing vocals that really clinch it. His voice is recognisable but quavers, betraying his years and deteriorating health, forming cracks in the deep and confident voice which sang ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. It is the audible hesitation when singing “I’m just trying to understand” and “I just don’t get it” which cuts through to the core. It gets me every time. Rest in peace, Johnny.

[Cover Me]: Anna Calvi, Nirvana and Bhi Bhiman

Anna Calvi – ‘Joan of Arc’ (Originally by Leonard Cohen)

If, like me, you are champing at the bit to get your mitts on Anna Calvi’s upcoming album, One Breath, then hopefully this wee gem will help keep you tided over until October. Originally recorded for the Attic Sessions and subsequently released as the B-side to ‘Desire’, Anna’s instrumental reinvention of Leonard Cohen’s own reimagining of Joan of Arc’s death as the love between Joan and the fire that would consume her is a shimmering slice of guitar wizardry. Calvi explains of her version that ‘there are four parts to the instrumental, as there are four verses. After each verse Cohen returns to the same refrain, which he sings a beautiful tune just with “la’s”. After each verse I also return to this melody. I just wanted to capture the story which is so beautifully told, with music.’ As with everything I have heard of Calvi, ‘Joan of Arc’ is spell binding and the fact that she manages to effectively convey purely in notes the emotions that Cohen puts through in words is a testament to her tasteful virtuosity. Roll on 7th October.

Nirvana – ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sun Beam’ (Originally by The Vaselines)

Nirvana’s final album, and best in my opinion, In Utero, is twenty years old this September and is set for a deluxe rerelease, so it seems fitting to put in a cover from their MTV Unplugged show performed two months later. I fell out of love with Nirvana for a long time, but digging out the Unplugged album a couple of years ago reminded me how accomplished their songwriting and melodies were, really indebted to the Beatles as much as punk and alternative rock influences. In the midst of the media shit storm that surrounded Nirvana for the three years after Nevermind broke, it’s really lovely to see them revelling in some of their favourite songs at this performance. The tip of the cap to The Vaselines here is a beautiful moment, where the band all appear to be comfortable and content. From this performance you could be forgiven for imagining at the time of Nirvana’s end that Dave Grohl would go on to start a solo career as a one man band (he simultaneously sings, plays bass and hi-hat on this track), but it would seem he formed Foo Fighters instead. Ah well, I guess we shall never know now what could have been….

Bhi Bhiman – ‘Walk of Life’ (Originally by Dire Straits)

As promised last week, here is a track from Bhi Bhiman’s fantastic covers EP, Substitute Preacher.  In truth, all of the songs on Substitute Preacher are remarkably reimagined (check out ‘Highway to Hell’), holding the same quality as the covers on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings where you cease to have the original version in mind. However, I had to choose just one so I’ve gone with his take on Dire Straits’s ‘Walk of Life’. Never really a Dire Straits favourite of mine, but when I saw Bhiman perform it at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, complete with audience whistling and shouts of ‘Ooh yeah, the boy can play’, I was really taken with it. Bhiman says ‘I knew the song since being a kid, and I’ve always thought of it as Mark Knopfler’s nod to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. The song really rings true with me because, in a way, its my story too.’ The song is also perfectly complemented by the Buster Keaton compilation video that accompanies it:

[Artist Spotlight]: Bhi Bhiman

BhimanI’m just a vagabond, I live to see the light of dawn / The train beats a rhythm and I love to sing along”

 It’s nice to be back. During my European excursion with my old flatmate we managed to catch Josh Ritter’s magnificent show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The Paradiso is a beautiful venue and Ritter delivered a killer set with the Royal CIty Band, bringing the songs of The Beast in its Tracks to full, brimming life. Old standards were also mixed in (including Ritter’s beautiful, solo take of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’) and throughout the gig Ritter grinned and bounded around like an excitable spaniel. I could easily fill this article with a note-by-note play of the show, but the reason I’m writing this is to share the music of one Bhi Bhiman (pronounced ‘Bee Bee-man’), who supported Ritter at the show.

 A former member of San Francisco’s Hippie Grenade, Bhi Bhiman’s folk-country singer-songwriter (and other double-barrel categorisations) leanings completely bely his early influences of AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, who Bhiman cites as a particular influence. Picking up the guitar as a teenager when a sporting injury temporarily put him out of action, Bhiman eventually decided to pursue a career in music and has honed his storytelling skills into something very special. On his second album, Bhiman (produced by Josh Ritter producer/band member, Sam Kassirer), his stories range from women and blood (the signatures of country ballads) to railroad drifters and North Korean prisoners. He is also capable of skillfully reinterpreting songs on his damn fine covers EP Substitute Preacher, songs from which I will share in an upcoming Cover Me.  His rocksteady rhythm guitar playing keeps the songs chugging along and is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s sound, but on tracks such as ‘Mexican Wine’ and ‘Time Heals’ he also shows influences of World music, particularly South African melodies.

Other than his storytelling skills and his ear for a sublime melody Bhiman’s most outstanding quality, the one that caught my attention in Amsterdam, is his crisp and emotive vocals which cut right through the mix. His vocal delivery and timing are flawless, demanding attention and carrying the listener into the stories he spins. He is a truly remarkable performer and is sure to become a heavyweight figure of New Americana, concealed by a benign, welterweight appearance.

Bhiman  and Substitute Preacher are both available now on Tummy Touch Records. Bhi Bhiman will also be supporting Chris Cornell on his upcoming US tour.