Nigel Tufnel Day

… It’s 11/11/11 – Nigel Tufnel Day. Go one louder!

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Labor’s top ten

In celebration of today’s Labor Day in the US and Canada, thenation. has come up with its own version – with videos – of the top ten songs commemorating workers’ struggle. As always with personal choices, there’s always room for debate about inclusions and omissions – but it’s good to see something from Phil Ochs in there. And the Dolly Parton is an inspired choice.

Having had my own bash at this a couple of years ago, I know how difficult it is to come up with much from the last couple of, well, decades. RATM/The Nightwatchman apart (from thenation‘s commentators – to which I might also add Diana Jones and indeed, Ry Cooder – thanks to @billybragg!), there’s just not a lot of people out there writing memorable modern songs about labour. A reflection of the – surely temporary – decline in collectivism no doubt, but, with work remaining central to the preoccupations of millions of us and with no shortage of issues to concern us, where indeed have all the good songs gone?

(thenation.com‘s list came to me courtesy of Labourstart – whose Labor Day solidarity campaign features the continuing struggle to get T-Mobile to allow workers in the US free choice of being represented by unions. Add your words to the e-mail deluge here.)

21

With Adele looking set to continue her reign as queen of the album charts, this is as good a time as any for me finally to get around to knocking up a review of 21, her second album.

21 has already helped Adele set a number of records – the first living artist since the Beatles to have two singles and two albums in the chart at the same time, taking Madonna’s record of topping the album charts for the longest consecutive number of weeks by a female artist, and one of the fastest selling albums of all time, taking just 87 days to reach the 2m mark. Clearly albums don’t sell as many as they used to, but in a falling market, when it’s easier for new albums to come along and take top slot, to sell more copies of one album than anyone else for 13 of the last 14 weeks (including 11 in a row) is a remarkable achievement. And remember that Madonna’s Immaculate Conception was a greatest hits collection put out by an artist at the height of her power and after some years of making huge hits worldwide. Adele’s current European (and shortly US) tour promoting the album is a complete sell out, with venues being hastily upgraded everywhere to take account of the demand of tickets. Adele is thus currently unstoppable – not bad for an absolutely down to earth kid from the Brits School and on only her second album, too. Good exposure via the Brits 2011 has no doubt helped – but the talent is absolutely there to support the hype.

I have to say I wasn’t really that taken with Chasing Pavements, the big hit from 19, her first album – it struck me as a little too self-consciously contrived. But the new album has me hooked. Despite the deployment of some unfortunately rather insipid backing vocals, not least on ‘Rolling In The Deep’, which do poor justice to Adele’s strident, confident vocal, this is a thumping and cohesive production – some effort given the number of recording locations and different producers that have had a hand in it. Add on top of that a set of strong, original and self-penned songs dealing with love and relationships (‘heartbroken soul’, as Adele describes it), a collection of very capable musicians including the great Pino Palladino on bass and, bestriding it all, Adele’s hugely confident, bluesy, soulful voice, capable of soaring high yet also as apparently cracked with cigarettes and alcohol as that of blues singers twice her age, this is a terrifically put together work. Her diction is occasionally idiosyncratic, but the emotions on display are gravel raw, exposed and painful. At its best, this is a collection of great torch songs, most notably the singles which bookend the album but also ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ (actually the first song I heard from it), and one or two others which are capable of putting you utterly through the emotional wringer. Even so, there is also a shrewd pop sensibility here, rooted in a contemporary musical approach which make her out stand out from the rest of the crowd, and which mark Adele Adkins out as no one trick pony as well as a fine, rapidly maturing talent.

As close as I’ve yet come to a five-star review. It’s really that good.

Voice of Lightness, Vol. 2

Vol. 2 of the superb collection by Stern’s of the music of Tabu Ley Rochereau, the giant of Congolese music, was published a couple of months back and has been on my turntable (OK, in my CD player) pretty much ever since.

Covering the period from 1977 where Vol. 1 left off, to 1993 and Tabu Ley’s virtual retirement from record making, Vol. 2 covers a complex musical period kicking off with Tabu Ley at the peak of his powers to eventual slow decline amidst a surfeit of the synths which did so much to wreck African guitar music (at least, for me). Ever sensitive to the issues here, the selection of tracks here skirts lightly around the latter (while not avoiding it completely), leaving us with – well, you know what to expect: insistent, driving rhythms; melodic, hypnotic guitar lines that ask, nay demand, you put on your dancing feet; and soaring, honeyed vocals that are an absolute delight to listen to (click on the link above – listen to Lisanga ya Banganga (one of his two collaborations on this collection with Franco, the other Congolese giant), and I utterly defy you to sit still!). You get Tabu Ley himself, you get Franco, you get Dr. Nico on his temporary reconciliation with Taby Ley, you get a succession of other fantastic guitarists, and you get quite insane drummers that leave you gasping for breath and you get smooth production values (and a nicely remastered set which doesn’t quite relieve itself of the clicks and pops of old vinyl and tapes!). And a bit of politics too, with Tabu Ley in exile and then, in Le Glas A Sonné (The Bell Has Tolled) an overt call for revolution against Mobutu which has strong echoes in which is happening in 2011 across north Africa and the middle East.

The package is, once again, beautifully put together, dovetailing neatly with the companion volumes in the Congo Classics series by Franco and by Mbilia Bel, encompassing not just two CDs crammed full of beautiful music but also a 56-page dual language booklet with an insighful essay by Ken Braun, former manager of Stern’s US shop and a Tabu Ley enthusiast, as well as rare photos and as comprehensive a listing of the personnel on each track as you’re likely to find (evidently, no mean feat given shifting personnel, individual clashes and egos and faulty memories).

Friday night music at its unstoppable, head-clearing, working week-closing best. Have a little drink, have a little dance, put a big smile on your face.

The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story

On Backstreets, the Springsteen online fanzine, the thread on what should be included in the ‘Darkness’ boxed set for it to be considered to have been done properly ran to 480+ pages and 7,000+ posts by the time the set hit the streets – a remarkable achievement considering that the threat starter (some fifteen months in advance of the release) got the final content pretty much spot-on in his original post. The ‘Darkness’ album is the one that most Springsteen fans eulogise most, and the tour the one that most would make their first destination once time travel machines are invented, so the set has been keenly anticipated.

The box which eventually emerged last month is a marvellously produced collection of a pleasingly compact amount of material for a six-disc (three CDs, three DVDs) set, with all the discs inserted in a facsimile of one of Springsteen’s (in)famous song notebooks. On flicking through, several times I catch myself running my fingers over the creases in the pages, the tape (or rusty-looking paperclips) pinning new pages or photos in, the ‘shadows’ underneath taped-in cassette cards, the yellowing sellotape and the stains and tears, only to find them running over nothing other than smooth paper (and even though I know what it is). There is a wealth of material here from song ideas through which you can trace the development of particular songs, or spot lines that were to appear in songs recorded later, to photos to handwritten instructions regarding the stage lighting on the tour, to several running orders for the album and debates about the songs which should be included on it – both a fascinating document and a superb production.

On to the music itself, and starting with the remastered version of Darkness – well, it was completed in a single day (an ironic reflection of the time originally spent in the studio) and, to be honest, I can’t hear a great deal of difference: yes, Max’s drums crackle and snap, Garry’s bass is much more up in the mix and Bruce’s guitar sounds cleaner, sharper and harder edged. Apart from that, Springsteen’s acknowledged over-sung vocals, which wreck ‘Something in the Night’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ and come close to spoiling ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, remain overwrought. Evidently, remastering can do little about that, but there remains a hiss on the recording and, listening closely, there are evident tape drop outs. That’s a little disappointing, and I had expected a rather cleaner product.

That apart, it is evident that the Paramount Theatre as-live performance of the album – recorded late last year in only two takes and including just the members of the band that were involved in ’78 (Charlie Giordano subbing in for Phantom Dan Federici, and without an audience other than the cameras) – is Springsteen’s re-statement of the album as it should have sounded. That he can still do this 32 years on from the original is testament enough to Springsteen’s ability not just to believe in his music but to live it, and in the first two numbers in particular, he appears particularly pumped up (what must he have been listening to before going on stage?). The two takes provides an ironic comment on the time taken to record the album in the first place (painstakingly reproduced on the ‘The Making of…’ DVD, also broadcast in an edited version on BBC1 this week (the opening shots of Springsteen engaged in jaw-breaking yawns tells of the difficult times in the studio)). Intense, emotionally raw and ferociously angry, but also brooding and with moments of great beauty, this is the album as it should have been heard and it might just, perhaps, stand as Springsteen’s best work.

The double CD of ‘The Promise’ (which has its own separate release) remains, even with some additional recording, mixing and production carried out earlier this year, a collection of out-takes of mostly complete songs, or alternative versions of songs that did make it to the album, and songs with different lyrics to some familiar melodies or titles. It’s clear that, with the final selection of songs for Darkness, they got it right pretty much 100% of the time – it does remain the ‘right’ single album out of the dozens of songs recorded at the time: there is a coherence to that album (for all its production faults) and a lot of these additional songs, many of which feature the nucleus of the Miami Horns, have a party feel akin to the first side of ‘The River’ (or else a lot of the core content of what would have been ‘The Ties That Bind’, the ‘lost’ album) and would have sounded out of place on ‘Darkness’. Whoever slowed down ‘Racing In The Street’ for the album was a genius (though the line about ‘waking up in a world that somebody else owns’, which doesn’t appear in the album version and which never made it anywhere else in Springsteen’s lyrics, is an unfortunate loss): it casts greater shade on the rest of the album than would otherwise have been the case from the faster version, and there are clear benefits to the beauty of the song from the more relaxed vocal approach.

That said, some songs clearly got away – ‘Because The Night’ is a great song (though only hinting in the studio version here at the fire breathing monster it became on the tour) and would have fitted the album well (Springsteen’s reasons for not finishing it are honestly explained in one of the most interesting moments in the ‘Making Of…’ DVD), as would ‘The Promise’ (known not only for its appearance in a different guise on the short version of ‘Tracks’ but also in a bootleg sneaked out of the production studios in 1978), which remains a haunting follow-up account some years on of the runaways of ‘Thunder Road’.

Stripped to a final selection of 10-12 tracks, and including some songs recorded at the time and which later appeared on ‘The River’, ‘The Promise’ would have been a decent immediate post-Darkness album, based around a theme of young working class males with a growing sense of responsibilities surrounding their working lives but still with time to spend growing up. But then, we already know this from the tracklisting that would have formed ‘The Ties That Bind’.

Finally, the live ‘house cut’ DVD is an interesting choice of gig to put out: a couple of live bootleg films from the tour have been circulating for some time while from gigs that are, perhaps, more apparently representative of its energy and the dynamism of Springsteen’s own performance on it – otherwise evident thus far only in the plentiful and good quality music-only bootlegs. This is a touched-up version of what was a lo-fi film (befitting its origin as a ‘bootleg’ recording from the theatre’s own recording system): it’s dark and grainy, there are drop outs and out of focus shots, and some of the action is, simply, missing. Some elements have simply been cut. The sound is great, mind. But, in that it doesn’t represent the physicality of the tour that well, the DVD helps to build its aura that bit more while, at the same time, contributing to the clamour for the Springsteen organisation to dig that little bit deeper into the vaults for other, better, more representative, live films to release. But it’s still a very watchable performance of a decent gig and, until that time machine is invented, this (and the touched-up clips, continuity problems and all, from another ’78 gig on the Paramount Theatre DVD) is about as close as we’re going to get.

Will the set bring any converts? – well, not at £80 in the shops for a set featuring already released material or stuff from deep down in the vaults, it won’t. Sales are reported to have been disappointing, and I can only imagine what non-fans buying the separate release of ‘The Promise’ make of it all unless they know some of the history. Me, I’d have paid £80 just for the Paramount Theatre DVD alone – but then that could just be me. But, did they do it properly? Definitely.

For the ones who had a notion….

With the release today (in the UK) of The Promise, this blog has been doing a bit of catching up with its roots… Darkness was the first album by the Boss I bought, and it’s not just the album for hard core fans, the tour promoting it is also the one most heavily-reminisced about amongst the fan-base.

Three CDs and three DVDs in the pack needs a bit of a reflection before comment, but after spending my day off going through the DVDs, disc 6 (the ‘official’ bootleg of the Houston 78 gig seems (again – hmm) to be missing a couple of key elements (though us Springsteen fans can be a bit hard to please) but disc 5 – the as-live performance of Darkness at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre last year – is an absolute belter: Springsteen at his most emotionally intense and ferocious best. Still. Just the 32 years further on up the road from the original, then…

2010 Mercury recalled

The XX were this year’s Mercury Prize winners; I’m sure they were decent winners, but they’re not really my cup of tea. I understand completely what they’re trying to do and the minimalism is no doubt a bit of a zeitgeist for these times; it’s just that I tend to prefer my music to have a bit of kitchen sink thrown into the mix. But I have picked up the albums of three of the contenders and, a few months on from the award itself, here’s a brief review.

Paul Weller‘s Wake Up The Nation saw a late rush of punters’ money, but in truth this is far from Weller’s best work. At its best, on a number of tunes which share a 60s psychedelic soul influence in common, it works well – but these moments are rare and the album is otherwise overlong and contains too much filler. Continuing the ‘chuck enough mud at the wall’ practice of the previous album, there are 16 tracks on here and, occasionally mercifully, none of them hang around for very long. A bit more selectivity and this could have made a decent album but, as it stands, it’s not one to listen to right the way through too many times. Sadly, not really a keeper, whatever the late Mercury money suggested.

The two stand out acts on the night – and the only two to make me look up with interest from my laptop – were the Kit Downes Trio and Villagers. The Kit Downes trio – a piano, bass and drums combo – are straight from the Blue Note studios, around the time of the great Alfred Lyon, and I had no idea people were still making this sort of music. With just one melody instrument in the band, the large bulk of the improvisational burden clearly falls on the band leader, but Downes is clearly capable of rising to the task. The set of tunes contained in Golden ranges structurally from the simple to the complex and, although the latter is likely to make the album a tough listen for a non-jazz fan, there are enough of the former to hold the interest. Coming from so far out of left field, it would have been an unlikely Mercury winner but, outside that, it remains a good album.

Becoming A Jackal is the contribution of Villagers – in reality, the collective guise of multi-instrumentalist Conor O’Brien – whose appearance at the awards ceremony somewhat blew the cover! Choosing to play a spellbinding acoustic guitar version of the title track, Villagers brought the whole show to a complete stop for me. A collection of tender and vulnerable songs about the failures of human relationships would seem to present some challenges to the stamina of the listener, but this is an album that repays repeated listening owing largely to O’Brien’s stated desire to treat his songwriting with ‘joy and humour‘. The result is that the music provides a frequently effervescent counterpoint to the dark lyrical poetry and the overall effect is a delight. Villagers would have been a worthy prizewinner this year; that they’re not perhaps owes more to the commercial imperative of Mercury to push records and, as good as the album is, I suspect it’s not going to be a top seller (at least, not outside their native Ireland). But that shouldn’t detract from what is a fine record.