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259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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257: Alison Krauss/Brenda Lee: ‘All Alone Am I’

Posted by jeff on Feb 24, 2017 in New Acoustic, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

snobfAlison Krauss, ‘All Alone Am I’

Brenda Lee, ‘All Alone Am I’ (live version)

Alison Krauss, ‘Losing You’ (live version)

Brenda Lee, ‘Losing You’ (live version)

Guilty pleasures.

Could we keep this just between us?

It’s not something I’m proud of, nor do I care to publicize it. I have a reputation to maintain as an insufferable effete snob. It might not be the glitziest reputation around, but it’s the one I have, and feel an effete snob’s obligation to maintain it.

887348e489221458f047cc295b9fc4d2Guilty pleasures. We all do it. Some of us just have a hard time admitting it.

Eating an entire Milky Way bar.
Scratching an itchy scab.
Listening to Alison Krauss’s new album.

With your permission, I’m just going to skip over the whole Alison Krauss story. About how she began as a fiddle child prodigy, recorded her first album at 14, has won more Grammies (27) than any other member of the female persuasion (surpassed only by Sir Georg Solti). About how she legitimized and populized bluegrass by giving it her commercial “countrypolitan” sugar coating.

I told some of the story (especially the Newgrass aspect) in SoTW 131 about Nickel Creeek. There are other chapters that could be told, had we but world enough and time:

  • Her 14 albums, both solo and with her band Union Station, every one produced and polished to sparkle and shine. The material usually ranges from traditional to pop covers. The focus has shifted from her fiddle to her ‘angelic’ voice. The content is most frequently country soppy sad.
  • Her featured role on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (7 times platinum!!)
  • amd-plant-krauss-jpgThe very fine “Raising Sand”, her ‘gender-bending’ collaboration with Robert Plant (yeah, the guy with the long hair who sang ‘Stairway to Heaven’), impeccably produced by T-Bone Burnett. If you don’t know it, it’s worth checking out—it’s a tough album to not enjoy.

A grouchy old fart might say her music is commercial, derivative and proudly inoffensive. BUT–

She’s as purty as an April daisy (I just made that up).
Her voice is as lucid and limpid as a mountain pool of melted snow on a sunny spring afternoon. (I’m thinking of starting a new career as a coiner of clichés. Does anyone out there have connections at Hallmark?)
She can take a nothing of a song, more often than not country shlock, sing it so innocently and honestly and delicately and sincerely that you won’t notice till the end of the 3:21 that she’s gone and broken your heart.

rs-187105-457938728That’s what she’s been doing to me for the last week with her brand-new album “Windy City”. The album is a collection of country songs, some famous, some obscure – all prettified and just waiting to be listened to, over and over, when no one’s watching and we let our snobbish guard down.

It’s got ‘It’s Goodbye and So Long to You’ and ‘Windy City’, originally by Nashville stalwarts The Osborne Brothers.

It’s got the very beautiful ‘I Never Cared for You’, originally by Willie Nelson (sounding like an out-take from Dylan’s “Desire” album).

It’s got ‘River in the Rain’, written by Roger Miller (‘King of the Road’) for a musical about Huck Finn.

It’s got a knockout ‘Gentle on My Mind’, written by John Hartford and made a standard by Glen Campbell.

_91390895_thinkstockjetty976And it’s even got a perfect ‘You Don’t Know Me’, which you can read about in its own SoTW. Alison Krauss may not have the soul of Ray Charles or the palpable passion of Richard Manuel, but she’s got her own little perfection.

She says she picks one song and then builds an album around it.  I don’t know which cut from “Windy City” came first, but I’d put my money on one of the two Brenda Lee covers, ‘Losing You’ or ‘All Alone Am I’, the two songs that have been earworming me for the last seven days.

Brenda Mae Tarpley was born in 1944 into a poor, uneducated Southern white family. She was a child phenomenon as a singer. Her father died when she was ten, and she became the family’s main breadwinner, performing at local radio stations and contests around the south. In 1955, Red Foley was persuaded to let her perform Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya’ at a show of his:

ebb92c77d6db2ec223833cf0ffb6b44cI still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.

Here’s a live clip from around that time. Trust me—take a look. That’s why they called her Little Miss Dynamite.

From the late 50s through the mid-60s she was the fourth biggest selling artist in the US, following Elvis, The Beatles and Ray Charles. She had nine consecutive Top Ten hits, and stood 4’9” (145 cm) when fully grown.

Here’s ‘Dynamite’ from 1957. And ‘Just Because’, from 1958, together with an in-depth interview. ‘I’m Sorry’, 1960.

Brenda-Lee-dancing-with-Elvis-PresleyHer last big hit was ‘Losing You’, 1963. I knew the song back then, but to tell you the truth – it didn’t make much of an impression on me back then. But then here comes Alison Krauss. Her ‘Losing You’ opens the new album. What can I say? On its own terms, it’s perfect. If my heart were breaking, that’s the song I’d cry to.

It was written as ‘Connais-tu’ by Jean Renard in 1960. The English lyrics were provided by Carl Sigman, who made a career of Americaphying such songs as (ready for this?): ‘Love Story’! ‘Ebb Tide’! ‘It’s All In the Game’ (which had its very own SoTW, melody written by a Vice President of the United States)! ‘What Now, My Love’! ‘You’re My World’! His lyrics for ‘Losing You’ may never displace ‘Elusive Butterfly’ as rock poetry, but they sure are clean and effective.

And our Song of The Week, which certainly did catch our attention back in 1962, ‘All Alone Am I’. Here’s Brenda singing it live. And here’s her studio recording. I’m still trying to figure out what note she’s singing on the second syllable of ‘ca-ress’.

Brenda Lee Getty Harry Thompson 1964Μην τον ρωτάς τον ουρανό’ was composed by Manos Hadjidakis for the film “To nisi ton genneon”, together with ‘Ποτέ την Κυριακή’, aka ‘Never On Sunday’, which won the Oscar as best original song of 1960.

The English lyrics were provided by one Arthur Altman, who also gave us ‘I Will Follow Him’ and ‘All or Nothing At All’.

I think Brenda Lee’s ‘All Alone Am I’ is a pretty great cut. But Alison Krauss’s version? Oh, it goes down so smoothly. The pure, unadulterated, exquisite pain everyone has felt at one time or another, usually in our teens. Heartbreak incarnate.

My heart’s grown a lot older since I first heard Brenda Lee sing the song. The muscles creak and groan– קרעכצן – rather than weep and sigh. But, boy, Alison Krauss can revive that old feeling. Just please, keep that between us.

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166: John Martyn, ‘Bless the Weather’

Posted by jeff on Oct 23, 2015 in New Acoustic, Other, Song Of the week

John Martyn – Bless The Weather

John Martyn – Solid Air

John Martyn – May You Never

 

Young John Martyn

At the age of 22, I found my life but lost my music. For the love of a woman, the love of a country, and the yoke of a mortgage, I embraced self-imposed exile to a musical Siberia. If the Beatles hadn’t recently broken up and Dylan hadn’t released “Self-Portrait”, I don’t know if I could have done it.

I spent the twenty years from 1970 till the advent of the internet in musical exile, where the local AM radio’s idea of a hip foreign playlist was Johnny Hallyday followed by ‘Greenfields’ followed by Rex Allen’s ‘Son, Don’t Go Near the Indians’. Somehow, on Friday afternoons, when the Kommisars of Kitsch were taking their pre-weekend nap, an hour-long program snuck on the air called ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. It still may be running, for all I know. I stopped listening to other peoples’ playlists the moment the airwaves were liberated.

The theme song of the program was a Jose Feliciano instrumental, a harbinger of good things to come. They played new, interesting, refined music, stuff that was unavailable in the local stores. I was playing a lot of mediocre guitar in those days, and was thirsty for new sounds and materials and directions. I’d sit by the radio with the microphone of my little cassette recorder pointed at the speaker. When a promising intro started up, I’d flick on the tape. And it was thus, boys and girls, that I compiled twenty or thirty compilation cassettes that I loved dearly, tapes now closeted in the back of some drawer but dusted regularly in the nether corners of my musical memory.

One song that struck and stuck with me was a charming, disarming, more-than-ditty called ‘May You Never’ by a John Martin. I enjoyed it for years, and when All Music Guide and YouTube and Amazon Records hit town (iTunes still won’t sell here), I checked him out.

Bar Room Fight

May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

It turns out his name is John Martyn, a Scottish dissolute who died of booze and pneumonia and diabetes and excessive indulgence with one leg and many scars in 2009 at the age of 60. He began at 17 as a young adherent of the burgeoning British folk scene which included Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and others. They started with traditional British/Celtic folk materials, amplified their acoustic guitars, and melded into them American blues and American jazz. Richard Thompson took Fairport Convention towards a new brand of rock. Paul Simon took the tweed jackets and turtleneck sweaters (and Graham’s ‘Angie’ via Jansch’s rendition) back to America. Jansch and Renbourne recorded alone, as a duo, and then together in The Pentangle, creating a riveting but regrettably short-lived acoustic folk-jazz amalgam.

John Martyn at the beginning

John Martyn took his guitar to the pub. After four albums where he honed his craft and many drinks in which he learned to slur his voice, he broke through the constraints of the folk tradition into a remarkable outburst of brilliant, genre-defying folk-jazz in his next two albums, “Bless the Weather” (1971) and “Solid Air” (1973).

Martyn’s music of this period is spare in format – a sliding drunken mush of a voice, more an instrument than a singing voice as such; an expressive, fingerpicked electrically amplified acoustic guitar with a lot of percussive backslapping; backed by double-bassist Danny Thompson (formerly of The Pentangle); and the occasional bongo or ornamental piano. But it’s all Martyn and his guitar and voice backed by Thompson. The subject matter is slippery and elusive, ranging from the whimsical to the passionate to the cosmic. But it’s all a distinctive, unique voice. And hence difficult to describe, lacking all reference. He’s like no one, no one is like him.

John Martyn at the end

The only thing that comes to mind is that other unique Celtic jazz-rock masterpiece, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (1968). Way back in SoTW 38 I wrote:

What is unique about “Astral Weeks” is how unique it is. It comes from no tradition and left no legacy. Stylistically, it stands absolutely alone. Spiritual blue-eyed Celtic soul acid acoustic jazz-rock. It’s gorgeous and sumptuous and moving and transcendent. No one else even tried to go there. It is literally inimitable. Probably the closest album to it in its musical frame of reference is The Pentangle, their first, an album I quite admire. Listen to this, and you’ll hear how many light years beyond its contemporary surroundings “Astral Weeks” was. Its impact, if not its influence, has been indelible.

I wrote that a few years ago, and I’ve learned since then that John Martyn did some fine work in that very vein. Van Morrison drafted jazz masters Richard Davis (bass) and Connie Kaye (drums) for “Astral Weeks”. Thompson was a significant partner for Martyn. Folk-jazz, the genre that almost never was.

John Martyn

Van never repeated the experiment, but he went on to a long, restless and energetic career. John Martyn spent the rest of his life degenerating personally and musically. John Martyn was a singular talent, tragically wasted. Many friends collaborated with him over the years, attempting unsuccessfully to resuscitate his career: Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, and Levon Helm. Back when I was discovering him, I dutifully plowed through his dozens of albums and innumerable live performances. Trust me, he flamed brilliantly for a short time, and you’ll do better avoiding the stench of his decline.

I made myself a Favorites compilation, 33 songs, 1970-1980. Not a single song from the subsequent 30 years of sloppy, self-indulgent recordings. And to tell you the truth, 30 of the songs are really fine, admirable, enjoyable. But there are three that outshine the others. Heck, they outshine just about everything. There’s the aforementioned ‘May You Never’, a charmer, witty and wise and loving. Listen to Clapton mistreat it. Gives you some respect for Mr Martyn, doesn’t it? Here’s Martyn singing it live in 1973, when he was still holding himself together.

Solid Air

And then there are these two transcendent, breathtaking cuts. One is a paean to pain, soul bared, nerves exposed to the ‘Solid Air’. Martyn wrote it as a tribute to his buddy Nick Drake, who had the tragic good taste to end his misery in one fell swoop rather than dragging it out.

You’ve been taking your time

And you’ve been living on solid air
You’ve been walking the line
And you’ve been living on solid air
Don’t know what’s going wrong inside
And I can tell you that it’s hard to hide when you’re living on
Solid air.

Here’s the studio version from 1973. And here’s a live version from 1978, in which his dissolution is palpable. It’s not just his string that’s broken.

And then there’s our Song of The Week, ‘Bless the Weather’. It’s a love song by definition, but how often does a popular artist invoke the elements as the impediment to love’s fulfillment? Oh, those Scots. It’s just John, his voice and his guitar and his bassist. And the elements, and his love, and the pain of her absence.

The Weather

Time after time, I held it
Just to watch it die
Line after line, I loved it
Just to watch it cry.

Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you home.

Wave after wave, I watched it
Just to watch it turn
Day after day, I cooled it
Just to watch it burn.

Pain after pain I stood in
Just to see how it would feel
Rain after rain I stood in
Just to make it real.

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131: Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Posted by jeff on Mar 16, 2012 in New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Children should be seen, not heard. By children, I mean anyone significantly younger by myself, which is most people. To be more specific, you can’t trust anyone under thirty. Could you just give me a hand for a moment, help me climb up on this soapbox?

You know how there’s a minimum legal age for all the important stuff? Consensual sex, driving, marriage, enlistment, voting, drinking (that list is in order—in itself, food for thought). I believe there should also be a minimum legal age for creating really excellent music. In classical performing, it should be 40. In classical composition, 72. Jazz musicians shouldn’t be allowed to excel till they’re in their thirties. Rock stars are allowed to be 28, or even 27 in some exceptional cases. Rock artists have to be seven years older than me, as John Lennon and Bob Dylan were.  James Taylor is three months younger than me, but he was crazy and an addict, which gain him lots of age points. I don’t care how old Justin Beiber is, as long as he’s in some other hemisphere.

L to R: Watkins, Watkins, Thile

That’s the way the good old world used to (and is supposed to) operate. And then these kids come along and mess it up. I’m talking about brats like Chris Thile (mandolin,b. 1981) and siblings Sean (guitar, b. 1977) and Sara (fiddle, b. 1981) Watkins, aka Nickel Creek. They all grew up in suburban San Diego, where their mothers had spiked their nursing bottles with a brew of blue grass. They played their first gig at a pizza parlor in 1989. Do the math—Sean was 12, Chris and Sara 8. Combined, that’s still under thirty! They were backed by Chris’s dad on bass. The three kids together couldn’t even lift the bass, let alone play it. Read more…

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