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"Hello...put me on to Edenville... aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one"

Monday
Dec122016

The best of 2016

Well, where did that year go?

I'm still not convinced that any dearth of opinionated amateur music critics on the internet requires Eden On The Line to return to more active service, but it still seems right to set down a pick of 2016.

Some amazing concerts - Bruce Springsteen at Wembley, from close enough not to need the video screens, for once; Wussy, touring in full-band mode, upstairs at the Hope and Ruin; Paul Simon (who I'd not seen before) on cracking form, aged 75; a reformed Long Ryders ditto and ditto, though slightly younger...

On record, not many entirely new discoveries, but folk I like made some good ones. The usual crop of wonderful reissues, headed by the expanded It's Too Late To Stop Now by Van Morrison, which includes a DVD of the long-lost video from the Rainbow, originally broadcast as an Old Grey Whistle Test special. Van at his very finest in 1973: essential stuff. Check out also Gillian Welch's set of out-takes from Revival, which is well worth the price of admission.

These were my favourite newbies:

10. Various Artists: Blonde On Blonde Revisited. Mojo magazine came up with this double vinyl collection of cover versions for the original's 50th anniversary. In the general way of these ventures, the contributions are mixed. But it's a lovely package and the better tracks are splendid: Jim O'Rourke makes 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' more interesting than anyone could reasonably expect; the almost inevitable Ryley Walker and Michael Chapman are ace on 'Fourth Time Around' and 'Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat' respectively. The whole thing makes you think about the originals and sends you back to them - which is exactly what you want.

9. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker. In the year that he checked out for good (taking up permanent residence in the Tower of Song), the great man left us with an apt memento, by turns dark, tender and witty. It probably won't be the first of Len's albums we turn to in five years' time. But in 2016 - as usual with his albums - it put most of the competition to shame. (Memo to the - thoroughly deserved - Nobel laureate: there are still opportunities to revisit the writing motherlode...)

8. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. You may have spotted that I'm not generally a huge hip-hop fan. But I like to kid myself that with any genre I can get the really good stuff. I've always had a soft spot for the Tribe since I heard the wonderful 'I Left My Wallet In El Segundo' on a compilation I'd bought way back for one of my daughters. So, yet more of 2016's bitter-sweetness: Phife Dawg dies, at a horribly young 45, but a reformed band turn in an impressive and engaging release, featuring his final contributions.

7. Alejandro Escovedo: Burn Something Beautiful. One old faithful teaming up with another: Peter Buck produces and plays guitar here. They're well matched. No great surprises, but a strong set of songs, crisp playing and admirable energy. What's not to like?

6. Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker: Cannots. Why can't I shut up about Ryley? Because he's so prolific and so damn good. He's already featured in this list on the Dylan covers compilation. His own album this year (Golden Songs That Have Been Sung) could well have featured here - though it was edged out for relative inconsistency and an unacceptably noodling live version of 'Sullen Mind'. This one is a live-in-the-studio duo recording with a jazz drummer, released in a limited edition for Record Store Day. Seek it out, if you're not allergic to jazz. Probing, intelligent, light-on-its-feet and generally wonderful.

5. Steve Gunn: Eyes On The Lines. I could have mentioned Steve already - his 'Visions Of Johanna' on the number ten pick is worth the entrance fee there. He also played a splendid gig in Brighton this year and has produced a Michael Chapman release that's due in January. One of those people who have hit a purple patch in which it is difficult to do any wrong. And there is certainly nothing wrong with this collection of strong songs and lovely guitar.

4. Avishai Cohen: Into The Silence. And finally, a genuinely new discovery in 2016 - courtesy of a review in The Guardian. If the letters ECM bring you out in a rash, stop here. But I find this gorgeous, reflective and intelligent stuff from the Israeli trumpeter and band leader. Inspired by loss, but finding beauty rather than gloom. And I suspect that is a facility we're going to continue to need in 2017.

3. David Bowie: Blackstar. Like Leonard, Bowie went out on a high. A surprise release at the start of the year. It is inevitable, after his death, to find intimations - and explorations - of mortality in the lyrics. But the music is yet another questing, and challenging, shift in a legendarily chameleon career. It's genuinely inspiring to hear the squally jazz skronk underpinning his final dispatches. No compromise and no surrender. I'll have have what he had, please.

2. Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like A Levee. Another known quantity who has played an excellent gig in Brighton this year. This may be MC Taylor & co's best effort yet. And it is not just the main man: lovely grooves to match confident singing. It feels like a band on record - and that is certainly the impression they give in concert.

1. Wussy: Future Sounds. A band here too. And what a pleasure to see the whole team touring the UK in May. (Thanks for the blog, Mark.) I'm not sure that individually the songs here are as strong as the previous release Attica!, but the textures and cohesion make up for that. Chuck and Lisa in fine voice - and they have added a pedal steel! The bizz. If there was any logic in the world Wussy would be playing to audiences of thousands, but it's such a selfish joy to catch them in small rooms: don't miss the opportunity while it's there.

Those of you who know may tastes may feel that this post has been a case of "round up the usual suspects" - and I guess that's one of the reasons why I'm not blogging more regularly now. Other fingers are rather closer to the contemporary pulse...

The close runners-up this year included Paul SimonOliver Swain, Lisa Hannigan, Chris Forsyth, Nathan Bowles and the Trembling Bells. Special mention for the Prettiots: their NYC-sass-plus-ukulele combo didn't really sustain itself over a whole album, but "Boys (That I Dated In High School)" was a killer track. If you missed it, try here.

And so, 2017 - what ya got?

Tuesday
Jan052016

Another guest review

Rob Zanders is back in action, with some recommended reading here.

Wednesday
Dec302015

2015: the year's best music

Even though Eden On The Line is still hibernating it would seem odd to end the year without saying something about its musical high points.

I only got to eleven gigs in 2015, but there were some good ones in there. The stand-out was Patti Smith on scorching form in Glasgow, playing Horses in its entirety, forty years on. And honorable mentions for The Decemberists, Hiss Golden Messenger, Laura Marling and Ryley Walker - excellent shows by all.

It has been another killer year for reissues. Alongside the wonderful Bob Dylan Cutting Edge release, there was a fine Neil Young box of live shows from the late eighties with Bluenote Cafe. Mentions here too for the Velvet Underground's Complete Matrix Tapes; Four Tet's Pink, gathering an archive of 12" releases; expanded remasters of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and His Band And The Street Choir; and the Grateful Dead's San Francisco 1976.

On to new releases and the traditional countdown.

10. Billy McKay & Ryley Walker: Land Of Plenty

Ryley is rapidly turning into one of those guarantees of good quality, turning up in a range of different styles and settings (Steve Gunn is another): you can buy with confidence.

This set is a beautifully varied and intricate set of duets with another guitarist from Chicago, Billy McKay

9. Nadia Reid: Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs

A recent find for me. Nadia is a singer/songwriter from New Zealand and this seems to be her first full album release.

A strong and confident voice and a distinctive stylist. Try this for size.

8. Four Tet: Morning / Evening

Two side-long tracks of Keiran Hebden's trademark electronica, the first featuring lovely vocal samples from Lata Mangeshkar, the great Indian playback singer (whom I first encountered via Cornershop's name-check in 'Brimful Of Asha'). Excellent commuting music, I find.

 7. Michael Chapman: Fish

I do realise that if Michael Chapman has released an album in a given year, then it is very likely to be in my top ten. This is not me being boring, but him being consistent...

After a number of improvised and experimental instrumental albums, Fish is a more generally accessible collection of ten guitar tunes.

6. Laura Marling: Short Movie

Another regular on these lists. To my ears she gets better and more assured with each album. She got some flack for having acquired a bit of an American accent, but I can live with that. Well arranged and varied: great stuff.

 5. The Weather Station: Loyalty

And here's another very impressive female singer-songwriter... Ontario's Tamara Lindeman, trading as The Weather Station. Inevitable echoes of Joni, but certainly not an imitator - or someone who need be daunted by the comparison. 'Way It Is, Way It Could Be' was one of my favourite songs of the year. It's here. See if it makes you hit repeat too...

4. Ryley Walker: Primrose Green

Back to the man of the moment, taking a beautiful step forward from his folky debut, moving with a jazz band into full-on John Martyn and Tim Buckley territory.

Gorgeous.

3. Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete

I guess the joke in the title is that, while the music has a traditional country feel (to match its Civil War team-shot cover), Dave and Gillian's latest couldn't be further from obsolete...

It's not a perfect record - 'Candy' is too annoyingly repetitive to sustain frequent listens - but the stronger songs are in a class of their own, with the pair's singing and playing together just getting better. Here's proof.

 

2. Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There

I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I do. It's a mix of cover versions and reworked originals that I thought might just be self-indulgent. In fact it's a gem: beautifully recorded and performed with a gentle intensity and dedication.

It ranges from Hank Williams to Sun Ra via The Cure, but they manage to make it a satisfying and cohesive whole.

1. The Decemberists: What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

The long-awaited follow-up to The King Is Dead, the album which belatedly sold the band to me. This has a more varied sonic palette, with nods to their proggy and folky sides alongside the predecessor's Americana. There's a sense of making up for lost time, after keyboard player Jenny Conlee's return from sick leave. There are no fewer than fourteen tracks on the main album and a further five out-takes on a later EP, Florasongs. My FB take on stand-out number 'A Beginning Song' when it was released was

A grown-up take on the pain and joy of living that has me punching the air every time I hear it.

I'll stand by that, and the rest of the record is pretty good too.

I'll leave you with mentions for the runners-up bubbling just under the top ten: step forward Peter Case, Steve Gunn & Black Twig Pickers, Lynched and Trembling Bells.

See you in 2016.

Thursday
Nov192015

Dylan's Cutting Edge: hidden treasure

I'm not about to launch into a full-scale review of the latest Bob Dylan Bootleg Series release - I'd need a few more weeks even to listen to it all.

However, if (like most right-thinking folk) you feel that your life needs some version of it and you are pondering which to go for, this information might help.

The frankly lovely 3 LP set also gives you the same material on CD. However, I find that buying it from Amazon gives you, at no extra cost, an auto-rip of MP3s for the more extensive 6 CD version (£99 if bought as CDs).

One for your letter to Santa, I suggest.

Tuesday
Nov172015

The music challenge: seven influences

I've recently responded to a challenge on Facebook from an old friend to share over seven days seven key musical influences.

 I thought I might share them now with a (potentially) wider audience.

Day one

When it comes to listening to music, writing about music, writing songs or trying to play them, there’s one person who’s influenced me more than anyone else: Bob Dylan. I first bought a copy of Greatest Hits on Clitheroe market in about 1970. I was soon tracking down everything he’d done, guided by Michael Gray’s book ‘Song and Dance Man’, one of the first serious bits of rock criticism I’d come across. I’ve chosen a song from his 1975 album ‘Blood On The Tracks’, which was also the first record I ever reviewed – for a school magazine. I liked it then and I love it now: a gloriously sweeping and cinematic story of ill-starred love, beautifully written, passionately sung and featuring a decent harmonica break. I hope you enjoy it. Day two

In amongst my love of strongly constructed songs – and living happily alongside a taste for both punky stuff and some fairly angular out-there weirdness – there remains a place in my heart for the genre that rigorous musicologists define as "hippy shit".

When I started listening to music and buying records in 1970, Jefferson Airplane was one of my first obsessions and I splayed out from them into a whole load of West Coast stuff. From this side of the pond, I can happily stomach even the most whimsical bits of the Incredible String Band's catalogue. And I love the Airplane's transatlantic cover of Donovan's "Fat Angel", which must be about as hippy as you can get, and toyed with choosing it today...

But then I settled on this: the Grateful Dead at their inimitable best. I first heard it on "Europe 72". The delicately bonkers "China Cat Sunflower" (they don't write them like that anymore) flows irresistibly and practically telepathically into the traditional blues song "I Know You Rider". You don't need to see the pictures to know how closely they're listening to each other.

Day three

Growing up in Clitheroe (semi-rural east Lancashire, for the non-cognoscenti) I felt very much NOT at the centre of things that mattered to me. When it came to filling in UCCA forms a little later, the main question was: how far could you go?

But, looking back, there were some surprisingly enviable events. The local council decided to sponsor some one-day pop festivals in the grounds of the castle in the early 70s. We got to see the likes of Roy Harper, Third Ear Band and Brinsley Schwartz - some of the more interesting second and third division acts of the time - at a bargain rate. 50p for a 12 hour show in 1971.

Today's pick is probably the best of that bunch - Kevin Ayers. He also stands for a strand of slightly eccentric, playful Englishness in my influences: think of his time in the Soft Machine with Robert Wyatt. I love Robert's solo stuff too and a whole host of related stuff, like Henry Cow, Peter Blegvad, King Crimson. Cleverness and fun, mixed with some uncompromising music.

Anyway, Kevin's band at this time included a very young Mike Oldfield and (a rather older) Lol Coxhill. They were great live. I saw Kevin one more time in Brighton in the nineties or noughties. Then this year I happened on his memorial in the cemetery in Deia in Mallorca. I was looking for Robert Graves, but found Kevin and the great guitarist Ollie Halsall. There's a metaphor in there somewhere...

Day four

The halfway point and far too much still to fit in...

In the early 70s, alongside the hippy shit, I was heavily into its supposed antithesis: the pared-down, blunt realism of the Velvet Underground and the raw power of The Stooges and The MC5. Which meant I was ready and waiting when punk came knocking on the door of the mainstream in 1976

Meanwhile, the UCCA form had done its work and I enrolled at Royal Holloway in October 1975. 

In the Christmas holiday the album that soundtracked the next three years was released. I remember a sceptical John Peel playing the title track on the radio: he wasn't sure, but he thought his listeners ought to hear it. (Thank you, John, for that and a whole lot more.)

Well, what I heard rang true to me – and, remarkably, Reidys in Blackburn had an American import copy of the record. The combination of poetry, power and eye-balling self-confidence in the grooves was irresistible – even putting to one side the transcendent image of Robert Mapplethorpe's glorious cover photo. 

And, for me, she has just got better as time goes on. Her positive commitment to art and to human potential is genuinely inspiring – while her ability to tap in to the beating heart of rock 'n' roll can trump any intellectual explanation. 

I wrote a song about her twenty years ago, following a vivid dream. I have to keep updating the number in it, but the current version of the opening couplet is:

"She supplied the soundtrack to my bid for a misspent youth
And now we've tried through forty years she tells an older truth"

We saw her do a 40th anniversary recreation of "Horses" in the summer and a live interview about her new book a couple of weeks ago. 

Pretentious? Of course she can be – but, so what? She's a grown-up artist. It works.

My hero, as you might have guessed:  Patti Smith.

 

Day five

It's the turn of folk music.

The other good thing about Clitheroe musically (as well as Day 3's festivals) was the folk club above the Dog and Partridge pub. 

Mike Harding used to play there often, in the days before his hit and telly career: he was very funny and very good - a decent singer and guitarist. Bernard Wrigley (the 'Bolton Bullfrog') is another who sticks in the mind. But the Friday night that really floored me was Richard and Linda Thompson, playing an amazing set to about 50 people. One of the very best gigs I've ever been to.

The power and beauty of the British folk tradition has always been a big part of my musical make-up, starting probably with Fairport Convention. 'Liege & Lief' and 'Full House', in particular, were up amongst the key records that did the rounds at school and quickly got under my skin - both the traditional songs and the new ones that shared their spirit. I'm no purist. I can enjoy real finger-in-the-ear stuff but also the rocked-up versions. So long as it's good...

Today's choice is a traditional song, sung here by Sandy Denny and featuring the wonderful Richard Thompson on guitar and accordion. 

I was tempted to go for Bert Jansch's version, which is also lovely, in a different way. That would have allowed me to tell the story of a spur of the moment decision to get tickets to see Bert supporting Neil Young at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2010. He sang 'Blackwaterside' there and it was one of the experiences of my life. But I didn't choose his version so I can't tell you about it... However, let me say in passing, if you're dubious about going with a "silly" indulgence that would be an amazing one-off experience: just do it.

Back to Sandy. Perfect control. Beautiful melody. Literally spine-tingling every time I hear it, after more than 40 years listening.

Day six

Having done the folk tradition on this side of the pond, let’s cross the Atlantic to Americana – and particularly the bands and the experiences from going to folk festivals in Canada.

Family connections have meant five visits to the Edmonton Folk Festival in Alberta, the first in 1993, and we’ve more recently sampled the intimate and ridiculously scenic Canmore festival, in the foothills of the Rockies.

Bigger names have included Hot Tuna and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright, with assorted family members. These trips have also meant seeing a lot of talented folkies (and fellow travellers) from over here: the extraordinary Scottish singer Dick Gaughan has popped up a couple of times, Ireland’s Lisa Hannigan, England’s Richard Thompson… But the two big advantages are the opportunity to find a whole load of stuff you’d never otherwise have heard of; and the brilliant tradition they have over there of running a load of small side stages where they put different acts together in workshop sessions. It's great to see different performers joining in with each other’s songs and generally knocked out to be sharing a stage – all within spitting distance, so you can see the whites of their eyes, and what their plectrum’s up to.

Discoveries? Alejandro Escovedo, Braden Gates, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, Del Barber, The Wooden Sky, Oliver Swain, Jon Dee Graham… the list goes on.

But today’s choice is this guy, Tom Russell. First seen in Edmonton twenty-odd years ago, subsequently in Brighton several times (most recently a couple of months ago), as well as on return trips over there. He can sometimes do that overly-sentimental country thing but his strongest songs are superb – and I’ll happily mount the argument that he’s the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, if you’ve got a spare hour or two.

He’s here in his own right, but also as a symbol both of the happy coincidences of festival viewing and the strength of the country tradition. I wouldn’t ever want to have to choose between the folk heritage of North America and the British Isles, but of course they're hopelessly intertwined anyway…

Plus, the song seems appropriate too: I’ll be the protagonist’s age in just 5 months’ time, where ‘There’s a mighty thin line between a heavyweight champ and a used-up old clown’. But he’s still up for it: ‘The rock and the roll and the fight for your soul goes on and on. You put on the gloves, you’re always ready for love: pray your passion ain’t used up and gone.’ There's hope.

Day seven

Van Morrison has been an irreplaceable part of my musical landscape, since I first came across his 'Saint Dominic's Preview' album more than forty years ago. 

He's an astonishing performer, unmistakeable, never the same twice. The unpredictability and spontaneity mean that he sometimes lets you down. He's legendarily grumpy and I've sat through some concerts where he's essentially phoned in an unengaged performance. But when he's genuinely present and it all falls together, he is spellbinding. I've been there with him twice: a recreation of 'Astral Weeks' at the Royal Albert Hall (where this song also featured) and a supper club performance at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, where he was warm and relaxed and genuinely funny. Really. It's jazz, basically: sometimes it's amazing and couldn't get any better; then you're looking at your watch and wondering what went wrong...

But let's say something about this song. If you just saw the lyrics written down, or the very simple and repeated chord progression, you'd be asking what the fuss was all about. A few generic blues phrases and some incoherent rambling. Grunts, even. But, whoa: just give in and let him take you on the journey...

Rock critics tend to bandy the word 'shaman' around, but I'd say this performance is genuinely shamanistic: Van is channeling something, and I'm not sure what it is. And the musicians all play their part: lovely, subtle, flexible jazz drumming from 'Astral Weeks' veteran Connie Kay; great lead guitar from Ronnie Montrose, of all people – he went on to have a minor hit with 'Bad Motor Scooter' with his eponymously named hard rock band, featuring Sammy Hagar.

OK, it's a wonderful, one-off track. But I'm also including it here for another reason. Writing about music has always been a big part of my appreciation of music. I owed a lot in my early days to journalists like Richard Williams, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray for tipping me off to what I should be listening to, and why. I loved the writing in Let It Rock in the seventies, through to The Wire (for all its pretensions) more recently. And when I stopped working full time I thought I'd have a go at writing about music. As well as my Eden On The Line website, I pitched for a commission to write a book about 'Saint Dominic's Preview'. I didn't get anywhere, but I'm really glad I went for it anyway and just wrote it. I had a great time doing the research and talking to some of the musicians and technicians who contributed to the record. The self-published book has sold nearly a thousand copies so far - and that feels good. To me, thinking about music has its place alongside simply enjoying it.