Tag Archives: UK

Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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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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Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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Toxic Canterbury Syndrome: Caravan’s Golf Girl

We’re practically awash in all manners of summer here in Southern Ontario, and summertime is when I reach for Caravan. Caravan is a part of that early 70s British prog scene, albeit a specific subgenre of which originated from one little area of the country. It basically started with one band – The Wilde Flowers, who eventually split up and whose members formed Soft Machine and Caravan. These would again split off and create new bands (Gong, Egg, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North), members would swap, and each new line-up needed a name – not to mention that other people heard what these guys were doing and wanted to imitate it as well. By that point, there were so many bands/projects/albums in that style that it was determined that it had to have a label, which ended up being the town of origin of the whole darn thing regardless of where the majority of the bands ended up coming from.

The actual Canterbury sound was not so interested in terror as King Crimson nor virtuoso performances like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It very much started out rooted in jazz, but with an appreciation for the stronger melodic content of a pop song and a preoccupation with absurd, silly lyrics. Caravan itself took a pastoral and slightly gentle approach, with the melody being the key. No more is this more evident than in “Golf Girl”, a prog pop song if there ever was one.

The song tells the tale of its narrator going out for a game of golf “dressed in PVC” and falling in love with the girl at the golf course selling tea (which is a lovely service for a golf course to provide). The trombone intro gives the song a little flash in straying from the standard rock instruments, as does the piccolo than can be heard throughout, but it plays a goofy little melody that perfectly sets the tone for what I can find no better term for than a light-hearted romp. You can hear the grin in Richard Sinclair’s voice as he documents the charming story, his voice warm and his accent pronounced – he’s not belting by any means, but simply relating – over top of the rest of the band marking the rhythm with some piano and acoustic guitar strums. There’s a bit of an organ solo and a bit more of a piccolo solo, but there’s no feeling that the band is having to prove something here, unlike some of the other prog bands of the time. They’re just trying to write a fun pop song, but the combination of the musicianship and their love of marijuana ensure that it comes out with a few frills going off here and there – each instrument gets its chance to work its way into a silly little corner before coming back into the main tune.

The song doesn’t have any one unbelievable characteristic, it just always puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The story combined with the surrounding instrumentation is oh-so-English and paints a wonderful little picture of the time. Early 1970s Britain, as the post-Beatles rock explosion began, is one of my absolute favourite periods/places in music, so getting even a small idea of what it might have been like excites me. “Golf Girl” is downright pleasant and feels like summer – when I listen to it, I can feel the sun on my face, and the atrocious pants on my legs.

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Toxic Folk Syndrome: Seth Lakeman’s Kitty Jay

It’s funny – I can’t actually remember how I got turned onto Seth Lakeman in the first place, but I’m so glad that I did. Seth Lakeman was the first folk artist that I got into that wasn’t Simon & Garfunkel or Bob Dylan. The first apart from from the “dash rock” appellation, yes, but also the first taste of English folk music rather than the New York sound of the 60s. It was the first time that I’d heard folk music as possessing the sound of the people of a country rather than “pop songs with acoustic guitars” (as I thought of it then), as the entire album is based on myths and legends based around the Dartmoor area of England. I’m an Anglophile and a history nut, so the ideas of getting deep into the history and fantasy of a specific region though these narrative songs that sounded like they had travelled many a year to reach my ears had me excited beyond measure. The other attraction for me is that the album was mostly based around the fiddle rather than the guitar, and Lakeman’s prowess with the instrument is gobsmacking.

Apart from a few moans from the double bass, this song is all layers of violin on top of each other, zigging and zagging closer and closer but never quite hitting and all going a hundred miles an hour. The frantic violin lines convey the sheer “Terror [that] broke her sleep”, as the narrative unfolds of someone standing at the grave of Kitty Jay, trying to piece together what had happened to her. It’s left unclear, as, indeed, the actual legend is – the only speculation in the song is the couplet “Never guessed it with his bare hands/Call the Devil the mark of man.” The backing of the song, however, gives a profound sense of confusion with the violins racing, harmonizing without any grounding presence; coalescing and then drifting apart again.

The sorrow comes from Lakeman’s vocal, musing “poor Kitty Jay”, eyes shut tight as he contemplates the tragedy he’s witnessing 150 years too late. His haughty voice trills on “prayer” as he hopes that “this silent prayer/it should paint some peace on her grave.” It’s not silent, of course, but that’s because we’re hearing what’s going on inside his head. The vocals/thoughts are the only things that the violins seem to respond to. As he crescendoes, so do they, as they’re brought in line for a moment as he tries to make sense of everything, but fall back into their chaotic pattern as he determines “something broke her sleep”. When he reiterates and replaces “something” with “terror”, that is when the bass begins its sinister moan.

A fantastic, energetic folk song and one where the instrumentals tell as much story as the vocals, “Kitty Jay” is the shining jewel in Lakeman’s impressive folk oeuvre in this blogger’s opinion. In subsequent albums, he would often relegate the violin to a smaller role in favour of the more immediate and expressive acoustic guitar – and creates some damn good tunes doing so – but the magic comes alive for me when he reaches for the smaller instrument.

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God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Having watched The World’s End the other day, it put me in mind, of course, of Hot Fuzz. That, in turn, put me in mind of Village Green Preservation Society, the only album I know by the Kinks and the only real non-Beatles British Invasion-er album I know intimately. It was Hot Fuzz that first put onto the album, with the title track appearing during Nick Angel’s morning jog through the town, foreshadowing the town’s obsession with its old British ways and fear of change. The album deals with very much the same thing, 40 years earlier.

The title track has the narrators claim to be parts of groups with increasingly silly names, all of which are concerned with sticking to the status quo and trying to upkeep old traditions (“God save little shops/China cups and virginity”), while at the same time preventing any progress or change that might encroach on that goal (“The Office Block Persecution Affinity”, “The Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliates”). Upon hearing this in full for the first time, I was bowled over by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song, but also the close harmonies and cheery, pastoral feel to the proceedings.

As I implied, it was my first exposure to much if any non-Beatles British Invasion music, and it surprised me hearing the more observational lyrics rather than the Beatles’ love and psychedelia – it gives a little more of a picture of what 60s Britain might have felt like and what the perception of the youth of the time was. Village Green Preservation Society was clearly a dig at the previous generation’s traditions and outrage at the actions of the next one. It’s a tale as old as time, but fascinating from this particular vantage point.

It’s not only a look back at people’s outdated, rural notions, but also of people gone by as well. “Do You Remember Walter?” recounts a childhood friendship, when “We said we’d fight the world/so we’d be free” and “buy a boat/and sail away to sea”. the first part of the song builds up all of the optimism and ambition of youth that, as we get towards the last verse, slowly deteriorates as life gets on – to the younger generation, very much a betrayal of the notions they still hold dear. “I bet you’re fat and married/and you’re always home by half-past eight” ponders the narrator, content in the fact that “people often change/but memories of people can remain” – another example of the way things used to be being much better than they are now.

“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” was always my favourite track. It has a kickin’ harmonica riff, and, instead of a key change near the end, the song kicks up the tempo and gets faster, which I did and still do think is a brilliant way to kick it up a notch. The narrator goes on about he’s “the last of the good old renegades”, for whom “all this peaceful livin’/Is drivin’ me insane”. “Johnny Thunder” tells the tale of an old renegade – a badass who wouldn’t listen to reason and wouldn’t ever grow up and rejects everyone else pleas for reason, but is still prayed for by “sweet Helena”. Over and over on the album, these youthful figures of badassery are portrayed, but always surrounded by nothing to rebel against and quite alone in their quest – the ultimate fear of your ideals and anger fading away, ’till you’re not quite sure what you’re holding onto any longer.

With a solid 15 tracks – each memorable, cheeky and deftly played – Village Green Preservation Society is an album that I will always return back to every now and again when I’m in the mood, and I always manage to get a little more out of every time. It’s successfully been catalogued with the ‘nostalgia’ stuff in my brain, it’s been long enough. I intend to explore more Kinks’ albums in the future, as their talent becomes more and more apparent as I re-listen, but this album is always going to hold a special place for me in their oeuvre.

“The Village Green Preservation Society”:

“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”:

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Toxic Synth-Pop Syndrome: Thomas Dolby’s Flying North

First off, I wanna start by saying that I’ve reached 500 views! Thank you to everyone who’s been reading so far, and everyone that chooses to do so in the future. In honour of that fact, I’ve decided to do a post on my 500th most listened-to song which, according to last.fm (http://www.last.fm/user/nicholasdaniel), is Thomas Dolby’s “Flying North”. This is fantastic news, as it gives me an opportunity to talk about Thomas Dolby.

Though classified squarely in the One-Hit Wonder category for the amazing “She Blinded Me With Science” for most, Thomas Dolby has a knack for two things – a melodic hook and technology*. Using these talents in tandem, he created the shimmering jewel of synth-pop that was 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless. The album became a smash, due to the success of the “Science” single, even though any song could have been culled (5 of the 10 tracks did in fact get single releases). The album is shot through with concerns and observations about technology and its increasing effect on our lives, and uses that very same technology to produce its music.

“Flying North” looks at the restless life of a world traveller taking endless plane trips who feels at the mercy of the airport schedules and takes up one of the few constants for those of the jetset – alcohol. But even once home, there’s no getting comfortable for he’ll just be “flying North again tonight”. The song has a restless backbeat and a busy synthesizer riff in between choruses that sounds like a call sign transmission at first before it fills out, with all sorts of small echoed noises rising and shuffling and falling and skittering in the background. The atmosphere of the song is so detailed and finely tuned, that the main riff and melody are only a tiny part of the story, each piece locking into place to create a magnificent whole.

What a first may seem like a simple song opens it doors wide, and you realize there are so many moving pieces that add to the experience that you would never have guessed were there in the first place, such as the modulated ‘landing’ noise which kicks the whole thing off, or the subtle backing vocals that sound like they’re whooshing by on the wind. That’s the great thing about Thomas Dolby – his interest in synthesizers extends beyond which patch to use – it’s every echo, drum beat, sound effect, voice modulation and sample used to create a singular vision, all molded around fantastic melodies. Never had technology felt like such a living part of the music than when in the hands of Mr. Dolby.

*In his break from the music business in the 90s, Dolby pursued the technology bug, where he created the technology that produces ringtones in cellphones!

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