Monday, August 24, 2015

Fairport, RT, and Me

It's been a weird Summer in the Pacific Northwest. After a mild Winter and a similarly drier Spring, we experienced very hot weather in June and July followed by a cool down in August. So all the growing came a month early, and now it looks like Fall will be early too. No climate change around here, of course... But I guess the Repugs have other Obama bones to pick over as the Elections "Season" heats up. (Can't we all just hibernate for the next 11 or 12 months?)

These Dog Days instead are a perfect time to check out the music, new or old, being offered at your local CD store, Download site, or Amazon supplier-subordinate. I've been especially song-conscious (see why below); here are five of my current favorites, lifted from five different albums:

Leading off--but dating from the fifteen-years-gone centenary, "Kurt Weill 2000," celebrated 'round the globe--is Karen Kohler and her version of "River Chanty," the
concluding track on Jam and Spice: The Songs of Kurt Weill. "River Chanty" is one of five songs Weill composed with Maxwell Anderson for a musical version of Huckleberry Finn, that died along with Weill in 1950. Ms. Kohler has a lovely voice (tending more to musical theater's stylings than to Opera's soprano screeching), employs idiomatic German, French, and English in the 16 songs offered, and evinces a general joie de vivre that makes the whole album a joy to live through and listen to. Plus she is backed by a crackerjack ensemble (including cello, clarinet, trumpet, banjo, and accordion) on all but one tune, arranged and conducted by Robert Rene Galvan; excellent versions of "Berlin im Licht," "My Ship," "Surabaya-Johnny," "Lonely House," "Youkali," et al, but none so sweet and simple, so alert but resigned, as "River Chanty" with its mixed-emotions refrain:
Where you been river, where you goin' today/ What you bringin' me river, river,/ What you takin' away?... Who you been stealin' from river,/ Who you been friendin' today?/ What you bringin' me river, river,/ What you takin' away?

The Weill piece sounds like a 19th century folk tune, while Martin Simpson's astringent new love song "Dark Swift and Bright Swallow" (from Topic TXCD591, Murmurs as by super folk trio Simpson-Cutting-Kerr) could have come from any alert Romantic poet, and been written down at any time in the past 300 years.
Preeminent songwriter, songcatcher, folk-and-blues guitarist Simpson (plus Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion and Nancy Kerr on fiddle), has shaped a lilting, loving melody hiding a much darker story from WWII (see Simpson's notes):

April sun on Slapton Ley, between the lagoon
and the haunted sea,
I was thinking of war and cruelty when
Spring's first Swallow split the sky
And I was lifted above all care as the Swallow
swung through the salted air,
Come from Savannah and desert and sea to
mark another year for me...
And for you my Love and Eternity.

Love, death, war, two birds of Britain, and a birthday ditty too; at awards time this one should win song and performance of the year.

One remarkable sidebar of the British invasion of 1964 or so was the "trad arr": out-of-the-distant-past discoveries rendered 20th century-friendly by real green-fields, Blessed Isles Folk/Rock groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Fairport will soon celebrate 50 years together; only Simon Nicol remains from the original group whose list of important ex-Fairporters includes Richard Thompson,
Sandy Denny, and Dave Swarbrick). Simon, who writes rarely and sings reluctantly, functions as interpreter rather than creator most of the time, which forces the group to rely on current member Chris Leslie (often too "twee" or spiritual for me) or "friends of Fairport" like Ralph McTell, Rob Beattie, and P.J. Wright, for the latest song advancements. Still, their brand-new album Myths and Heroes (Matty Grooves MGCD053) is a corker--mixing jigs and ballads, rocks and reels, plus one beauty from the proud British tradition of songs shredding WWI. Credited to the unidentified Irish trio of Laird/Starrett/McRory, "John Condon" is a quiet, haunted, harrowing account of all that useless death:

Just a day another day, beneath a Belgian sun
Past grave on grave, row upon row, until I see the name John Condon...
And all around the harp and crown, the crosses in the ground
Stand up in proof, the bitter truth, the waste of youth that lies forgotten...
Heroes that don't come home
Sing out for all their souls
Here they lie in Belgian fields and Picardy.

Bitter, resigned, Simon quietly nails the coffin lid shut.

No lack of originality and brilliance on any album by the great Richard Thompson ("RT" to his fans); and his new one, Still (Proper PRPCDX131), offers solo guitar
moments, stinging electric excursions, solid trio rockers, and expanded-group elaborations, brought to fruition by producer Jeff Tweedy. Richard has several albums on various magazines' lists of all-time greatest (Unhalfbricking, Liege and Leif, and Full House with Fairport; I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Shoot Out the Lights, Hand of Kindness, and several more from his solo career--kind of listener's choice among 30 or 40 candidates). He has seen many of his songs covered by other artists, has received degrees and honors from academia and pop culture alike, eclipsed most other guitarists in both skill and originality, not to mention listenability, and somehow has managed to age, within Rock music, with dignity and distinction both.

I don't blindly love the new album yet, but here's one folk-related gem, its opening track, "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road," which has the melodic familiarity and Scottish "drone" that anchor his finest songs in the patented RT "doom and gloom":

In the old cold embers of the year
When joy and comfort disappear
I search around to find her
I'm a hundred miles behind her
The open road whispered in her ear

She never could resist a winding road
She never could resist a winding road
Maybe just around the bend
The rainbow waiting at the end
She never could resist a winding road.

The last song that's been tugging on my aural sleeve is, I confess, a ringer. Over the course of 40 years, I've written a handful of songs (the lyrics, that is) with Bruce Lofgren, my guitarist/big bandleader friend living in L.A., and Bruce has just released the latest album, Wind and Sand (Night Bird NB-4), featuring his terrific Jazz Pirates band, playing six originals, two covers (a great version of Bronislaw Kaper's
"Invitation"), and three tunes with lyrics by... me. The vocalist is Karen Mitchell, niece of Jazz bassist Red Mitchell, and she does a fine job overcoming the limitations of the lyrics.

Still, I can't get them out of my head, so here's a sample of the words to the frisky, some would say racy "Sheet Music":

My daddy's a master musician,
He rocks and rolls me right,
Composin' me
With close harmony,
Sweet sheet music every night...

Jazz me, Papa, that bed time song,
Rhythm followed by blues.
Write me some inner chorus
I can put vocals to.
Dot my sweet half-note, baby,
I'm treble and bass for you.

And further deponent sayeth not.