Tag Archives: 1960s

Searching in Vain by Candlelight: Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly

Today, I want to talk to you guys about Procol Harum. But first, here’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”:

This song actually isn’t on the album that I want to talk about, but it sort of sets up everything that runs through their second album, Shine On Brightly, and is the song that the band managed to smash into the long-term memory of popular culture. The dominance of the organ, Gary Brooker’s conversational vocals and the psuedo-intellectualism inherent (the chord progression and melody is lifted from Bach, and the lyrics reference Chaucer among other things) in the song perfectly set the stage for their more confident second album (though the actually recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” before even their first album came out, so it took them two, in my opinion, to catch up to their debut single).

Shine On Brightly was my first real experience of the band and it strikes me as curious now as to why I didn’t pick their debut first, as most versions have “Pale” tacked onto it, which is the logical one to go for – also because I like to start listening to an artist I plan to spend multiple albums with with their first one, but not here it would seem. Oh yeah, I remember why now. More on that later.

With a good balance of classical aspirations and psychedelia, the album has the band in an incredibly potent state, with the organ leading every step of the way – providing the simple intro and core for “Quite Rightly So”, and burbling up through the noise in the title track with that shows Matthew Fisher’s tastefully light touch while deftly handling a solo in the middle without going nuts proving virtuosity. “Shine On Brightly” to me is the key track here, as it shows off every great facet of the band in a 3-minute and 30-second window. While the aforementioned organ keeping things moving, B.J. Wilson is adding some electric ‘hot space’ with his stop start introduction to the verses, while Gary Brooker talks about his ‘befuddled brain’ and creates some grand chords on the piano. This all lays foundation of the best one-note riff I’ve ever heard as Robin Trower peels his guitar off with a most exquisite tone that serves as the platonic of the 60s British psychedelic sound.

The music really seems to bounce along in the piano-led “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” whole Trower is barely keeping his guitar under control underneath the verses before we come to a frilly piano interlude that underpins their classic leanings while the rest of the band exercises their right to launch into freak-out before someone shouts “HEY!” and the whole group fades out on a super-quick version of the Russian Sword Dance. While the songs don’t really go madly off in all directions (one song excepted), there’s a lot of creativity to be found within what seem to be straightforward tracks, as Sgt. Pepper’s had come out the year before and band’s were just going bonkers. The fact alone that the prior song bumps up against a good ol’ blues stomp in “Wish Me Well”, with a shouted twin lead vocal, gives you the impression that there are a lot of facets at play here, and the journey is not going to as simple as it seems.

And indeed the most-faceted are yet to come. The discovery of this album, to me, came in that summer where I dove headlong into progressive rock and tried to get right down into it, as much as possible. I was ultimately unimpressed with the message boards I’d been inhabiting that got me there, but a lot of the good stuff stayed with me. This album, of course, is regarded as the first to feature a 20-minute long multi-part suite of a song, with distinct sections and a hell of a delusion of grandeur. In the prog world, length seems to be king, as it aligns the music with that classical, that most legitimate of musics, as demonstration that serious art is happening and this ain’t just a three-minute pop song (which, honestly, by this time was already becoming an art in itself). The fact that I ended up liking the whole thing was a bonus.

“In Held ‘Twas In I” (the first lyric taken from each of the five sections forms the title) starts off with sitar and a spoken story about a monk going to visit the Dalai Lama to discover the meaning of life, and just goes up from there, expounding on the curiosities and intricacies of life with further spoken word sections of downtrodden spirits wondering about their place in the world. “‘Twas Teatime at the Circus” with shouting from the whole band and appropriately goofy music talks about the act of saving face despite confusion and “In the Autumn of My Madness” muses on the encroaching problem of age as the fear sets in that they will not remain as they are for much longer (very much in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Time”), with a wistful guitar in the background peaking just as Matthew Fisher’s high vocals do (“Bring all my friends unto me/And I’ll strangle them with words”). This, of course, required a klaxon going off in the middle of it for reasons that are perfectly apparent. For all the pop-philosophy and metaphors upon metaphors, however, it really is the band’s finest hour, as the gravity of the piece is upon them and the required songwriting sophistication is on full display here (as well as Brooker’s crowning vocal moment, in “Look to Your Soul”), managing the transitions well and stepping outside of any of the blues-rock trappings they’d displayed earlier.

For an aspirational album with a touch of psychedelia, it’s hard to top Shine On Brightly. Every member of the band is working to create something new in the wide old world of 1968, when the onus of creativity much outweighed that of the playing, and the resulting content is much more accessible to anyone who’s curious to listen. The entire album contains the strength of what made “A Whiter Shade of Pale” such a big deal, only writ larger and with an incredible confidence at the centre of it.

“Shine On Brightly”:

“Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)”:

“In the Autumn of My Madness/Look to Your Soul/Grand Finale”:

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Loud Crowds & Forgotten Lyrics: A Live Album Round-Up

I have been acquiring a lot of live albums lately!  I guess that once you’ve gotten well-acclimated to an artist or at least the portion of the artist’s discography you’re comfortable with, live albums offer an extra bit of material to hear from them – most of the tracks you will be familiar with, but a performance of a little-known B-side or a radically different take on an old classic might be all you need to invigorate your enthusiasm for that artist once again. Or, if you’re enjoying an artist’s current run, a live album allows you to sort of bask in the glow of current fantastic material. Live is a whole different ballgame, apart from studio tricks (for the most part) – it can often give a better idea of the state of the band.

Enjoying the heck of out Push the Sky Away, I had to keep the good times rolling with Nick Cave’s latest output, Live at KCRW. As it is promoting the recent album, 4 of the 10 tracks here are from Push the Sky Away, and the rest sort of even-handedly comb through the Cave discography, which produces interesting results. The Bad Seeds are a drastically different line-up than they have been for a majority of their album-making career, with Warren Ellis being Cave’s right-hand man after the (somewhat) recent departure of Blixa Bargeld. As such, a lot of the performances of older songs have taken a slower and more sombre tone  (with the exception of the rowdy rendition of “Jack the Ripper” at the close of the album), most notably the formerly raucous live favourite “The Mercy Seat”. Where the songs remain relatively unchanged are the instances where the original songs were already slow and mournful – the setlist has been carefully chosen (“Eventually you’ll say one of the songs on this very short list” quips Cave after a few seconds of people shouting requests at home). Everything feels a part, though, as the performances blend each of the songs into the style of the recent album – if you were a newcomer to the band, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It feels like a statement from Cave about how he wishes to proceed or at the very least his headspace during this time – rock has been more or less left in the dust and he’s now looking for that arrangement, that melody, that loop. Push the Sky Away made very much the same statement, but putting that stamp on prior tracks feels like a manifesto.

With slight trepidation, I picked up Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band. My trepidation was thus: I remember hearing the 60s concerts Dylan did in England (of “Judas!” fame) where The Band hadn’t made a name for themselves and were just his backing band. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by the performances and wanting to experience a little of that magic. How does that equal trepidation? I didn’t trust my mind, first of all. This was quite some time ago and I felt I might have been romanticizing the whole thing and would end up disappointed. Secondly, the performances I remember were circa 1966, whereas this album was from 1974, far beyond my reach of Dylan knowledge (for whatever reason, I’ve expanded little beyond Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. No, not even Blood on the Tracks, which I realize would have set me up much more nicely to experience this one). I did, however, have faith and I wanted to find a way to get into The Band, so I figured this was a good stopgap.

The setlist is culled from both acts, though leaning a little more on Dylan’s side. The first thing I noticed was that it took me awhile to recognize Dylan’s voice, which seems to have dropped or at least changed style quite a bit – his trademark sneer is toned down quite a bit, and the cadence and placing of his words seems very deliberately off-kilter from the well-familiar version (something I’ve heard from people who have gone to see him these days). The now-classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”* sounds relatively unchanged (having been released the year before), but others didn’t fare as well. Maybe the rambling style of his earlier songs was something he felt shouldn’t be duplicated – to hear an attempt to recreate something like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”* sounds strange, as there’s so much to it and it just feels like a strangely intimate open letter society rather than a proper song/stadium rocker. The Band, for their part, sounded in fine form (and recognizable), adding a little energy to their classics I do know – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – while impressing me with the ones I didn’t, which will be getting some re-listening as I try to figure out where I wanna drop in with The Band (probably the Brown Album, but still).

Pink Floyd rounds out the list with a live recording from before the release of even their first album, titled London 1966/1967. When I saw this, I immediately thought it would be an interesting artifact to hear – the band really developing their chops at this point, albeit with original bandleader Syd Barrett, rather than David Gilmour with whom they’d go on to much greater fame. The album consists of two ten-minute plus psychedelic jams ““Interstellar Overdrive”, which does appear on their debut album, though in much shortened form. Here it’s made clear that it’s their live freak-out showcase, with very little in the way of structure – apart from a bit of a descending riff to start out – as the band ebbs and flows and Syd with his trusty echo effects attempts to play parts of his guitar which were not necessarily intended to be played as an introduction to the more anarchic sections here. The other track is entitled “Nick’s Boogie”, based on a little ditty played by Nick Mason on his toms at the start of the track and the jam builds up from nothing, as the band members peek their heads in further and further, coming in only very intermittently with very strange noises weaving in and out. It’s great to see all the ingredients of a freak out, but what you are seeing is really the clay with would form to become the songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Not an experience I will turn to often, but if I’m lying on the floor in a daze, it might be the perfect thing.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Jack the Ripper”

“The Mercy Seat”

Bob Dylan & The Band

*Being unable to find the versions of these songs from the album, I will give you more or less the original versions so you get some idea of where I’m goin’

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Pink Floyd

“Interstellar Overdrive”

 

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Fare Thee Well: The Story of Inside Llewyn Davis in a Single Song

*SPOILER WARNING: This review ruins some key moments in Inside Llewyn Davis, so beware if you’ve not seen it yet!*

 

 

Ever since the day after I got to see the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack almost incessantly. What struck me in some of my repeated listens were two versions of the same song that more or less bookend the album – “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. In thinking about it further and reflecting on the movie afterwards, that this song actually encapsulates much of the character development and plot found in the movie. Indeed, much of the movie actually revolves around this song.

We’re introduced to the song when Llewyn puts on the album that he and his now-deceased partner Mike Timson put out (played in a vocal cameo by Marcus Mumford). It’s the cut we hear from the album and, presumably, it was the lead track/single, as the first four words of the song comprise the title of the album (“If I Had Wings”). Despite its slightly somber title, their version has a fairly upbeat poppy (for 60s folk) arrangement in 4/4, with some interlocking fingerpicking parts with a guitar and banjo and a break for a fiddle solo.With Mike taking the high parts in their two-part harmonies, his voice easily dominates over Llewyn’s lower one. This is, essentially, the type of music bigwig Sal Grossman tells Llewyn he should be involved in in Chicago after Llewyn plays him a song from his solo record, and, it seems, the exact type of music that Llewyn wants to get away from.

While it doesn’t seem that Llewyn was particularly glad of his partner’s dead, it’s clear that he did see it as a chance to establish his own voice, and play the way he wants to play, as evidenced by the scene in which he’s staying over at the house of a professor friend of his. He and his wife ask Llewyn to play a song after dinner, to which he begrudgingly obliges. He begins to play “Fare Thee Well” (a very different version, which we’d hear later) and the wife begins to sing the high harmony, which causes Llewyn to stop playing. “But that was Mike’s part!” she claims, to which Llewyn responds “Fuck Mike’s part!” He then goes on about not wanting to do what he does for a living on command, for free just to entertain people. The idea of being beholden to his past career and replicating what worked in the past to gain any sort of attention or acclaim in anathema to Llewyn. He wants to do it absolutely his way, which why he says no to Sal Grossman.

Towards the end of the film, we see Llewyn’s performance from the opening of it, but where one song was omitted at the beginning, here we get to see it in full – “Fare Thee Well”. It’s stripped down to just its basic chords, and put in a more insistent, more lyrical 3/4, as we get to hear the melody soar for the first time, with Llewyn putting his heart into it. “I have a man/who’s long and tall” has been changed to “the woman I love/is long and tall” as Llewyn tries to put as much of himself in the song as possible (his semi-requited for love for Jean, chiefly), also adding the stanza “one of these mornings/it won’t be long/you’ll call my name/and I’ll be gone” that wasn’t in the first version – Llewyn clearly doesn’t want to stick around Greenwich Village forever after the time he’s had. At the same time, performing that song live and accepting it back into his life after his history with it allows him to literally say goodbye to his partner and that chapter of career and go forward his way, for whatever fortune that brings him.

Llewyn likes his folk pure as he can get it, (as you see his disdain for the quartet of minty-sweatered college boys singing “The Auld Triangle”) and is trying to be both successful and honest in a world which rarely rewards both in the same way. The stark contrast in the different versions of “Fare Thee Well” go a long way in showing Llewyn’s attitude towards music (ostensibly,  his life) which, in turn, gives an insight into why he often seems to make the odd decisions he does in the movie and ends up where he does.

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