Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sonic threads

    People say we're wasting our time
    They don't seem to understand
    'Cause when you're dancing all night long
    It gives you the feeling that you belong

So sang Paul Weller in 1977 on "Non-Stop Dancing" on the Jam's debut album In The City. The song had been inspired by the Northern Soul movement then churning up dance floors in venues in northern England. "By 1975, Northern Soul had spread south into a national phenomenon, and the charts were full of reissues of old classics and new cash-in groups like Wigan’s Ovation," John Reed wrote in his Weller biography, My Ever Changing Moods. "And it reached Woking and the teenage Paul Weller, who'd ride up to the Bisley Pavilion on his scooter," adding, "It made such an impact that he even wrote a song about the experience." According to scrapbook notes that drummer Rick Buckler kept during the Jam's early years, "Non-Stop Dancing" was demoed in May of 1976, which means that Weller wrote the song when he was around seventeen years-old. Remember being seventeen?

Pushing forty years-old two decades later, Weller would essentially rewrite the song as "Peacock Suit," the lead single off of Heavy Soul (1997), a swaggering tune defending the Mod sensibility that gripped him as a teenager and that would come to define his tastes into his adult years, an outlook that Weller would liken to a religion. "I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod," Weller said to television host Jonathan Ross in the early 1990s on the cusp of a solo career. "Peacock Suit" was another in a clutch of songs wherein Weller married his twin obsessions, style and music. Allegedly written in response to an article critical of Mod attire, the song can be seen as a sneeringly cocky double a-side to the joy and abandon of "Non-Stop Dancing," both tunes celebrating Mod movement and style—"clean living under difficult circumstances," as the Who's early manager Pete Meaden famously put it in the mid-1960s. "I'm Narcissus in a puddle / In shop windows I gloat," Weller exults in "Peacock Suit,"
Like a ball of fleece lining
In my camel skin coat

I don't need a ship to sail in stormy weather
I don't need you to ruffle the feathers of my Peacock Suit
Did you think I should?
Weller now might blanch at the desire to fit into a community so dear to his heart in "Non-Stop Dancing," yet a sturdy sonic thread runs from that song to "Peacock Suit." The opening riffs in each are cut from the same cloth, as it were (and both are borrowed from the Small Faces' driving "Grow Your Own") and though the pace in '77 is typically quicker than what Weller would take in '97, each song extolls the same thing: the joy of movement, out on the dance floor and out on the street, your image mirrored gleefully in your sweaty mates' faces or in a streak-free shop window. The singer in each song doesn't give a fuck about your review. The driving "Peacock Suit" is still a staple in Weller's set lists; it's a wonder he hasn't revived "Non-Stop Dancing" yet (or updated it in other ways, as he's done in the past with his songs.) Overlay "Non-Stop Dancing" onto the cool, "Day Tripper"/"Jumpin' Jack Flash"-styled vamp at the end of "Peacock Suit" and what do you hear? I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod. Depending on one's attitude toward Weller, the resemblances in the two tunes can suggest a songwriter who's recycling ideas, and shallow ones at that, a criticism long lobbed at Weller, who never shies away from acknowledging that he steals from the best, and often himself. I hear a groove of sentiment and sound that keeps arriving and keeps surprising, the way a sunny day can affect you at seventeen and at forty in the same blissy and overwhelming ways. 

left, 1977; right, 1997

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Acting flash

On balance I enjoyed watching Pistol. The music's so goddamned great it allowed me to more or less forgive the original sins of biopics: the inevitable inaccuracies, the obvious dialogue, the self-awareness of the characters, the insistence that History Is Being Made when we all know that history comes later in the reckoning, rarely in the present tense of things. But the actors gave it their all, the use of archival footage was very cool, the set designing was terrific, and the direction and editing kept things moving. I wasn't there at the time, and I accept the portrayal of the intense media attention—journalists knew they had a story; Malcolm McLaren made sure of that. But I bristled at the dialogue: "We're Punks!" "We hate long guitar solos!" The telegraphing in private conversations was often over the top.

Did I mention how great the music is? Every episode sent me back to Never Mind The Bollocks which honestly I hadn't pulled out and cranked for too long.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

It's in the tune in your head

Paul Weller's "Brushed" is a groove: uncomfortable, lived-in, anxious and grateful
To say that I'm on a Paul Weller kick isn't terribly accurate; I've been on a Paul Weller kick since I was sixteen-years old. But lately I have been paying more attention to his songs that I've known and liked for years but have been hearing in new ways.

Like much of Weller's solo material, "Brushed" (from 1997's Heavy Soul) is as much a groove as it is a song, yet this particular groove is galvanizing, intuitive, and purposeful. It's also wholly original. Shuffling three chords, Weller and his band—bassist Mark Nelson and longtime drummer Steve White—are forced to muscle their way through their own arrangement and mix, which churns and startles, layered with screeching, riffing guitars, backward tapes, stereo panning, and restless, excitable percussion. Heavy Soul's producer Brendan Lynch and producer/engineer/mixer Max Hayes are credited with providing "additional sounds"—an apt credit for a soundscape that's hard to pin down, as a vivid nightmare is upon waking. I hear a scream in the mix at one point.

A strangely angry-sounding song song, "Brushed" is remarkable: at once uncomfortable and lived-in, both anxious and grateful. Weller's words aim to reproduce, or anyway to try and make sense of, what seems to have been an epiphany that the singer's experienced, the title word evoking a blink-and-it's-gone moment when the universe wobbles a bit, and something bright and penetrating shines through for a moment before it's gone. (The Japanese have a great word for this, satori, a sudden kick between the eyes.) The first verse lays out the flicker of insight:
It's in a stroke of a brush
It's in the wave of a hand
And a view so bright
It turns the world
And makes all right
Yet seems to say
Come what may
You will be what you will
The second verse alters the terms slightly:
With a brush stroke of fate
You will have to think again
If you touch by it all
Lucky to be brushed at all—
Weller sings that he must now "walk a crooked mile / In a worn out smile" that's been "found on the ground." At the word found there's a sinister and alarming chord change. "Somebody else threw" that smile "down," and it's up to the listener to pick it up. "Looks like that you're the next blessed in town," Weller growls, the irony thick. Given the roiling arrangement, where parts of the song quarrel with each other to find resolve, that blessing feels pretty damn mixed. (You'd be forgiven for thinking that the eternally-stylish Weller sings "best dressed in town," as "Brushed" sits near the great "Peacock Suit," a riff-of-a-song essentially defending Weller's wardrobe.)
In the third verse, Weller locates the inspiration in "a verse" and in "the tune in your head": a revelation that revolves the world, illuminates life, and "makes you see / All the love within / Is still yet to come out." Weller's singing about the gift of art, I think, but he could as well be singing about mind-bending psychedelics; either way, the brief experience that he's trying to wrestle into form and expression ("Like the word—as a bang!") has demanded that he think again, see fresh again, and, blown away, he's grateful for this gift.

Then why the turbulent mix that sounds like nothing less than the soundscape of a bewildered brain? This is what I've been obsessing over since sometime last week, when—I don't know why or, really, how—I heard the song as if for the first time. It might've because I was listening to the 45 I'd recently scored, and the vinyl, unsurprisingly, led me to deeper and warmer places than the 1's and 0's had allowed me for the last couple of decades I'd spent with the song. Whatever the reason, I was particularly struck by the groove and music and the "rough seas" mix this time around, how unruly their vibe is while scoring a song ostensibly about the welcome, unbidden gift of a vision, however vague and fleeting. I think it's because the song matches, or translates, Weller's frustrations in describing what he experienced; if the perception had come unto him peacefully, in tranquility, then he might've reached for his acoustic, but because its presence shook him up and astounded him, he turned to his band, cranked up the amps, and tried to blast his way toward clarity. Weller often second-guesses his lyrics: in a video promoting Heavy Soul, he said about "Brushed": "Don't know what to say about that, because I really like the actual sound of it, sonically it sounds brilliant, I think. But...lyrically, I don't know. I'm not so sure." Yet the arrangement insists on the truth: you may be the next blessed in town, but the grace will forever slip beyond full understanding. Enjoy the ride and its surprising turns.

"[Heavy Soul] feels like quite an angry album," Weller remarked to Paul Lester in Uncut a year after the album was released. "Quite bare and exposed. The idea was to try and do something even more removed from [Stanley Road], more rough and spontaneous." He added,
There was criticism that some of the songs were undeveloped. That was true. I wanted to write them as quickly as possible. I wouldn't say I could listen to it every day. It's a bit heavy going. It's quite uncompromising.
On "Brushed," Weller sings in a way that sounds as if he's indebted and at the same time resentful for his tongue-tied fate. Heavy on the soul, indeed.

"Brushed" is one of Weller's great songs, yet it's the full-band performance that brings it to life. Here's the group grooving it in1997.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Hoodoo Gurus carry on

Dave Faulkner's songs have always been there for me when I needed them. I vividly recall standing in a consignment store on Knox Road just off the University of Maryland campus in the fall of 1984 when I first heard "I Want You Back"—the top of my came off during the chorus; I'd been sent without realizing I'd needed the deliverance. Over the new few years, Hoodoo Gurus' songs soundtracked my agonizing relationship problems and my general twenty-something agita with incisiveness, "I Was The One" and "Bittersweet" in particular reaching me—and helping me—in my darkest moments. A decade later, in a different state, literally and figuratively, "If Only" from 1996's Blue Cave played on repeat as I wrestled with major life decisions and existential questions of self-worth. I sang it to myself for months like bible verse. (Of course Faulkner wrote songs that scored bliss, as well: "Something's Coming" from 1991's Kinky brings me right back to the heady days of the courtship of my wife. I see her walking toward me on my front porch, now, as I sing the opening bars to myself 30 years later.)

And last year came the balm of "Carry On," one of the songs that helped get me through the unhappy residue of the Covid lockdown and a pretty severe anxiety attack during which I came dangerously close to bottoming out. "Carry On," in its blend of shrugging vulnerability and cheery resolve, is a signature song on the new Gurus album Chariot of the Gods as it suggests to my ears a turn of sorts in Faulkner's songwriting. He's always been tuned to the cynicism, meanness, excesses, and two-facedness that pockmarks humanity, and he's sung about them with humor and wryness, but on the Gurus' recent albums that grim knowledge turned his smile to a sneer at times. He seemed to be taking a lot of stuff personally. 

There's a dark edge to some of Chariots of the Gods, too— "Answered Prayers" recounts harrowing emotional and mental abuse from the point of view of the abuser, and the audacious and moving title track is an anthropological lesson in the colonialist ravages visited upon Australia's aborigines (really!)—but that edge is softened by the album's buoyant and lively tone. The sadder songs ("Was I Supposed To Care?", "My Imaginary Friend") are balanced by the fun ones: "World Of Pain" is a hilarious account of a bender that ends in a bar fight, "Get Out Of Dodge" wrestles with the grossness of narrow-mindedness but in a rollicking, winking way, capped with a vintage Gurus chorus, and "(He Wants To) Hang With The Girls" is a rockin' and pointed celebration of living along the gender spectrum. Guitarist Brad Shepherd's "Equinox" is a beaut: a knocked-out paean to the wonders and surprises that the natural world can offer, in this case the titular earth/sun meeting which blew the songwriter's mind in 2021. "You never know what’s coming," he reminds us.

"Settle Down," though tinged with the melancholy image of falling leaves, warmly embraces a calming epiphany of personal rootedness. Faulkner's mentioned in several interviews that he's recently experienced a significant measure of personal growth, self-acceptance and comfort in his skin that'd been sorely lacking for decades. I hear that new-found vibe on just about every groove of this mature, optimistic album. "I am less patient with the idea of mincing my words," Faulkner said in March to Dan Condon and Caz Tran at Double J radio. "I had some things I wanted to get off my chest, so there was definitely a lot of purpose there. That kind of fired me up."

[Chariot of the Gods] doesn't feel like a jaded piece of work. It feels fresh to me. It's very alive. It feels like a reboot to me, I actually approached it that way in my mind.

Even when Faulkner pushes back against those who want to box him in—a career-long pet peeve of his—he reacts less acidly this time around. In "Don't Try To Save My Soul," his personal confidence is matched by the song's freeing gallop, and the overall vibe is: I won't be bothered anymore:

There is a place called happiness
They said, “Go seek it, boy.”
They didn’t tell me where to look
To find the real McCoy.
I stumbled ‘round for nigh on 40 years
To work out who I am,
Now I ain’t gonna change for anyone
‘Cause I don’t give a damn.
Such a hard-won contentment's reflected in the album's closer, too, the Lou Reed-esque, hilariously titled "Got To Get You Out Of My Life," Faulkner's strutting coolness so centered and assured. This album could be subtitled I Just Don't Care.

The album was conceived as a series of singles (as was the band's debut album nearly forty years ago) that were rolled out leisurely across 2020 and '21, which perhaps allowed Faulkner to focus more closely on his writing. The songs' arrangements are characteristically clean and tight, guitar-based, layered, but never fussy, and the band—rounded out by stalwart bassist Rick Grossman and new drummer Nik Rieth—is hitting on all cylinders, if a tad less loudly. (I attended a Gurus show at the old 9:30 Club in the mid-80s after which my ears rang for a week.) Shepherd hauls "I Come From Your Future" from his sack, a wah-wah-guitar stomp that hearkens back to "Mars Needs Guitars." The vinyl edition adds "Hung Out To Dry," a cool put-down that's impossible not to laugh along with in its mock sneer, plus two covers, a fun but superfluous "I Wanna Be Your Man" (that song's got legs; the Stones hauled it out the other night in Liverpool) and a jog through Dylan's "Obviously 5 Believers" from Blonde On Blonde, where Faulkner gets to imitate a mid-60s garage band imitating Zimmerman. Great stuff.

If the Gurus are indeed re-booted, after Faulkner's cheery pronouncement, then we can look forward to years more of affecting, smart, and powerful rock and roll. And here's hoping that the thrice-cancelled U.S. tour can be re-booted, as well. America needs guitars!

Band photo by Christopher Ferguson

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Buck Owens Guitar Method

I picked up this 45 a while back, and a seat finally opened up in class. If I'm gonna learn I might as well learn from the master!

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

"I'm so thankful"

I was gutted to hear that Reigning Sound is calling it a day. The band posted an announcement on their website today, reading, "Due to Covid-19 and several other logistical hurdles, we are announcing the cancellation of Reigning Sound’s upcoming July European tour."

We are also formally announcing the end of the group. It was my intention with A Little More Time to come full circle, reunite the original lineup of the band, and finish where we started. I thought we could support the album with some touring and go out on a high note, but Covid has proven to be a long-lasting concern and more difficult to navigate than anyone could have anticipated. Rather than compromise ourselves or our fans, I have decided this is the right time to dissolve the band.

We appreciate the fans who kept us inspired and motivated to make music for the last twenty years.

Thanks for your support. Be safe and be kind.

—Greg Cartwright, Reigning Sound

I loved Cartwright's songs—which I trust will still arrive—and the many bands he's led or played a supporting role in, but none more than Reigning Sound, which I consider one of the great American bands of the last couple of decades. Cartwright's songs were urgent, melodic, driving, sweet, cutting, always deeply felt. He sings the tradition of the three-chord rock and roll song like few do. 

In 2015 I wrote a 9,000-word essay on Cartwright that appears in my book Field Recordings from the InsideHere's the opening:

Thank you Greg and all of the terrific musicians in studios and onstage who helped bring his amazing songs to life.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Tales from pastel fields

In 1981, The Jam released the single "Absolute Beginners" backed with "Tales From The Riverbank." In the liner notes for the band's Dig The New Breed live album Paul Weller would describe 1981 as "an 'horrible year for songs!", yet he obviously cared enough about "Tales From The Riverbank" to have shepherded it through a few iterations, including an early charging version titled "We've Only Started" (first released in 1992 on the Extras compilation) and in a horn-driven arrangement issued as a fan-club flexidisc at the end of the year. Allegedly both he and his label Polydor regretted not choosing the song for the a-side of the single.

Seventeen years later, Weller would stroll those same riverbanks. In 1998, he issued Modern Classics, a best-of compilation of his solo work, including with it a new single, "A Brand New Start," an ironic title given its rearward-glancing b-side. "The Riverbank" is a curiosity: neither a remake nor a wholesale rewrite, it sounds like a spirit cousin to the original song, the new, affiliated title suggesting a relative once-removed. There are certainly family resemblances: "The Riverbank" emerges in a slow up-fade as does the '81 song; the moody and atmospheric arrangements, cast by trippy guitars, sitar, and feedback, are similar; the songs are only a couple seconds apart in length. So why did Weller revisit the tune? To redress the wrong of relegating a personal favorite to a b-side? Like many artists with long, sustained careers, he has been known to pick his old songs up off the floor and see if they still fit; he's performed onstage and recorded in the studio countless songs from his Jam, Style Council, and solo catalogues in differing arrangements and with competing intentions. (As I wrote about here, his 2018 live version of 1980's "Boy About Town" was revelatory.) Weller occasionally approached the same song from different angles during his eclectic Style Council years—the journey of "Headstart For Happiness" from acoustic version to big-band arrangement was especially audacious—but he rarely retitled a song of his, that gesture alone indicating that there's something distinct about "The Riverbank."

The differences between the '81 and '98 recordings are subtle: Bruce Foxton's memorable bass-line, the strong undertow in the original song, is gone in "The Riverbank" (though it's impossible for me not to hum it anyway when I listen); Weller's vocal a decade and-a-half down the line is more wistful, and gentler. In the last line of the opening verse the singer now wishes to spread in the listener's heart "joy and love" rather than simply "hope," and in the final line of the second verse Weller jettisons the "too many to the pound" lament about vanishing green spaces for the more expansive, and sentimental, "place of hope and of endless times." 

The chorus differs slightly, but intriguingly, the original's
True, it's a dream mixed with nostalgia
But it's a dream that I'll always hang on to, that I'll always run to
Won't you join me by the riverbank?
replaced with
The truest of dreams, I live and I wonder
But it's the scene that I'll always hang onto, that I'll always run to
Join me by the riverbank?
In the '81 version the singer acknowledges that the bittersweet sentiment he sings about is part dream, part nostalgia—that is, it's all lost. In the '98 version the tone's less rueful to my ears, as the dream is now "the truest" of visions, casting a spell and inspiring wonder. Coupled with Weller singing the title phrase in a gently ascending melody against the '81 version's descending melody, the mood in "The Riverbank" is suffused with gratitude. It's a warm invitation, now. Generous too is the bridge, which in the '81 version is spooky and positively Welleresque in its grumpiness: because life's "too cynical," we lose "our innocence," and "our very soul." Seventeen years later he sings:
A magical leaving when it's time to believe in
The magic between us, the magic of innocence
I might be hearing Measured for leaving in that first line—I can't find the lyrics anywhere—but the adult wisdom in the words that follow rings loud and clear. Weller was nearing the age of 40 when he wrote "The Riverbank," an already-long career and a personal life of ups and downs behind him, and maybe he was taking stock in the value of cynicism—the language of his twenties—and questioning its shelf life. Or maybe the further he gets away from childhood days spent in the countryside along quietly streaming rivers the more he cherishes the memory and no longer feels that he must apologize for its romanticism. It's time to believe.
Detail of a riverbank on the back sleeve of the Jam's "Funeral Pyre."
Listen to "Tales From The Riverbank" and "The Riverbank" back to back and the impression is of waking from a vivid dream, the particulars of which are already fleeing from memory in the moments of rousing. That was wild, the dreamer thinks, it was the same song but it was also different somehow, and he chases its wind-blown remnants the rest of the long day.