No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

Ross Palmer on the album we’ve just released…

songs from so deep

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James…

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Townes Van Zandt 1969

Townes Van Zandt was born in Texas in 1944. He died, after years of mistreating himself, of cardiac arrhythmia in 1997. As a musician he tends to be classified – by those who see fit to classify – as a country singer, although his principal influences (Bob Dylan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt) were schooled primarily in folk and blues.

The first Townes I heard was his Live at the Old Quarter album, recorded in 1973 and released in 1977. I bought the album purely on the strength of his reputation, having been vaguely aware of him for some years but never having heard a note of his music. I remember the purchase was inspired in part by a typically hyperbolic piece by Alan McGee in his Guardian blog. My initial impression was that Van Zandt was a gifted lyricist, a functional melodist, a decent but not brilliant singer, and a talented acoustic guitarist; as well as having been, generally, a pretty funny guy. I largely stand by all of the above. But (and look who’s hyperbolic now!) it took me some time before I realised that Townes was also a giant of 20th century popular music.

McGee had suggested that the Old Quarter was the best place to get a Van Zandt fix because his studio albums were ‘uneven’ and ‘dated by their production’. Working through chronologically as I did, one would be forgiven for jumping to the same conclusion. Certainly his debut, 1968’s For The Sake Of A Song, is flowery and ornate, with a heavy reverb on the voice which doesn’t do any favours to the intimacy of Van Zandt’s songs. Cleary Townes himself felt as much; he re-recorded several of the songs on later albums. The following year’s Our Mother The Mountain is a little sparer and the better for it, but the reverb is still overdone, and the flute sure is overused.

His self-titled third album, however, also from 1969, is a vast improvement; in fact it is one of the great singer-songwriter albums. From the opening guitar notes of the remade For The Sake Of A Song, to the closing None But The Rain, there’s rarely a moment less than brilliant. The songs are consistently top notch: (Quicksilver Dreams Of) Maria must be as beautiful and poetic a love song as any in the pop idiom, while I’ll Be Here In the Morning is light as a feather and similarly gorgeous. Other highlights include the bleak and oft-covered Waitin’ Around To Die, and the magnanimous Don’t You Take It Too Bad, which might just be my own personal favourite.

The production is crisp and unfussy. The arrangements feel sparser than on his first two albums, but I suspect that’s simply because they’re better-suited. Most of the songs are actually still a fair way from being just Townes and his guitar, but lovely touches abound: the percussion on the jaunty Columbine, the harpsichord on For The Sake…, the subtle harmonica (well, at least as subtle as harmonica ever gets!) on I’ll Be Here…, some great bass playing on Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel.

Generally when you assess the major figures in pop music, whether Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley, you find that they advanced music in some formal sense. They opened doors, did new things; broke boundaries. They made kinds of music that couldn’t have been (or at least weren’t) created in times gone by. But Townes is different; stylistically his music is unremarkable. Listeners who come to him with a working knowledge of Dylan and the singer / songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s will find little in his music to surprise them, other than the simple brilliance of his songs. That should be more than enough.


Nothing Lasts Forever – Echo and the Bunnymen

“All the shadows and the pain are coming to you…”

I’m holidaying, as I write, in Calpe, Spain. Before I flew I spent a short while updating selections on my iPod. Said gizmo stores up to 8GB of music; a mere fraction of what’s on my (dying?) desktop at home. So from time to time I go through my iTunes and refresh the tune-age on my iPod for portable listening purposes; sometimes with new purchases but also with older favourites that I haven’t heard in a while. As I scrolled through iTunes, I stumbled upon Echo and the Bunnymen’s Nothing Lasts Forever, the first song of theirs that I ever heard. I had a quick listen but elected not to pop the song onto the iPod. Clearly I didn’t know then that I would be writing about it now! Instead I chose two stellar tunes from earlier in the group’s career: Never Stop and Ocean Rain.

The Bunnymen formed in Liverpool in 1978, and released five albums in their original incarnation: frontman Ian McCulloch, Will Sergeant on guitar, bassist Les Pattinson and Pete De Freitas on drums. They were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, and the music they made helped inspire plenty of other groups (including some who went on to considerable commercial success: Coldplay, Radiohead, the Verve). Nothing Lasts Forever was the group’s 1997 comeback single, their first new release with McCulloch in a decade or so. It reached number 8 in the UK singles chart upon release in June 1997.* Sadly it did not feature De Freitas’ distinctive drumming. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1989.

Stylistically Nothing Lasts Forever is quite different from the Bunnymen’s 1980s output. Although the band were never strangers to stately, string-laden balladry, Nothing Lasts Forever is more classicist than, say, Seven Seas or Silver. It’s clearly a song written by McCulloch on acoustic guitar and built up from there. Whereas most, if not all, of their earlier work is audibly the work of a band writing together; more riff-based, with McCulloch singing over the top of repetitive chord sequences, often leaping up an octave for the chorus to try to find somewhere different to go melodically. Lyrically Nothing Lasts Forever is also considerably more direct.

The record begins inauspiciously, with a strummed acoustic guitar (well, probably two guitars being presented as one) jumping unnecessarily from one side of the stereo spectrum to the other, and then a typically mid-1990s (and rather lumpen) introductory drum fill from session player Michael Lee. Surely a more delicate opening was called for; but perhaps then they wouldn’t have had a top ten hit on their hands. In any case, things soon improve.

Sergeant’s tone is lovely and his playing understated, and Lee’s drum performance is more sympathetic as the song builds; his push from the first bridge into the second verse is particularly nice. Adam Peters’ orchestral arrangement is perhaps not as idiosyncratic as some of his work on Ocean Rain, but it is perfectly fit for purpose. McCulloch’s vocals are as strong and assured as ever, albeit now gruffer and less (Heroes-style) declamatory (I, for one, love his peculiar pronunciation of the word ‘pain’ in the coda). And Liam Gallagher, oddly, is on hand to snarl some backing vocals which probably shouldn’t work, but just about do.

Nothing Lasts Forever wasn’t quite up there with the Bunnymen’s highest highs (The Killing Moon, My Kingdom, The Cutter) but it was a great return. However the song’s parent album, Evergreen, wasn’t in the same league as its lead single. Too many of the songs were workaday, and it didn’t rock as hard as it thought it did (rather like mid 90s Paul Weller). Only Just A Touch Away and Forgiven were in the same league as Nothing Lasts Forever. Pattinson left the group before the release of the band’s next album What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? Here McCulloch seemed more at ease with his middle-aged musings, and although the record made less of a splash commercially, I certainly thought it was a better album overall.

* If memory serves it charted the same week as The Verve’s comeback single Bittersweet Symphony – but the release dates listed for the two singles on Wikipedia look a little awry, one being 16th June and one 20th June, so I’m not sure….


Decade – Neil Young

I think it was the summer before I started University that I worked briefly at Oxford’s Waste and Recycling Centre. It’s difficult to recall quite how long I worked there for. Three or four weeks? Perhaps a few months? Anyhow it was a good job, once you managed to get over the smell. And the reason why it was a good job, simply put, was that you got to keep stuff other people didn’t want. TVs, Stereo systems, video cameras… This was before Freecycle, after all. Without a doubt my best acquisition was Neil Young’s Decade, on triple vinyl.

As I plough on into my thirties, piecing together the music listening timeline of my past can be problematic. I remember well, for instance, that I bought Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter album for myself for my seventeenth birthday. But I don’t recall exactly when it was that I first heard Neil Young. I think by the time I picked Decade out of the rubbish (each vinyl disc in perfect condition) I was already a fan of Harvest and an After The Gold Rush sceptic. I remain both of these things. I suspect I was also reasonably familiar with the Buffalo Springfield by this point. But Decade quickly became my favourite Young album.

It became apparent, as I further investigated Neil Young’s oeuvre, that even his strongest studio albums (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Harvest, Tonight’s The Night, Zuma) fall short of stone-cold classic status. On The Beach is, perhaps, the only exception. Consistency, frankly, is not one of Young’s main traits. His approach to songwriting seems to have always been: write as quickly as possible and try not to engage brain too much. His ferocious electric guitar playing is much the same; visceral, slapdash and yet often thrilling.

A collection of 35 songs recorded between 1966 and 1976, selected by the man himself, for a long time Decade was the only Neil Young compilation on the market. But it doesn’t quite position itself as a ‘best-of’, nor a ‘greatest hits’ album. Instead it sprawls its way through his back catalogue, omitting several stellar cuts (Only Love Can Break Your Heart, On The Beach, the understated Through My Sails) and including five previously unreleased songs.

Side six is particularly exciting. Prior to my acquiring Decade, I hadn’t previously heard any of the five songs therein.  The extended workouts Like A Hurricane and Cortez The Killer are both are among Young’s finest songs and contain some of his best lead guitar work. Love Is A Rose and Campaigner are lesser-spotted tunes but also both well worth a listen; the former a simple but quite wonderful country-esque tune and the latter a caustic, surreal (and kind-of screechy) acoustic strum. The side closes nicely with the sentimental Long May You Run, which in other contexts might perhaps come across as hokey.

I’m sure there are many Neil Young completists out there, but I am certainly not one of them; too much of his work is patchy and I’m not rolling in cash here! But a more sensible and structured ‘best of’ wouldn’t be the answer, as it would by its very nature smooth away too many of his rough edges. And this is why Decade my favourite place to get my Shakey fix. So, ironically, one of the ‘classic rock’ artists, helped lead young rockist me toward a more poptimistic mindset.


Björk – Vespertine

I was speaking with a friend the other day, when conversation turned to Björk Guðmundsdóttir. In fact I steered the conversation that way, having previously seen said friend mention her in a Facebook post. From my point of view I’m always keen to chat music; in fact I rarely chat anything else. My friend was visibly delighted to discover that I was also a fan. She explained that she doesn’t know many Björk fans. Which got me to thinking that I don’t either. Considering that I have a great many friends who are musicians and / or keen music fans, this seems rather surprising. Even taking into account her reputation as an oddball, there is no escaping the fact that she is a fantastic writer of accessible and moving left-field pop songs.  

Vespertine, released in 2001, is my favourite of Björk’s records. It was her fifth solo studio album, although I tend to think of it as her fourth; assuming, as I do, that her eponymous debut album – recorded when she was eleven years old – can probably be disregarded. (If I’m making a terrible mistake in thinking this, please do let me know in the comments section! But it does seem to me telling that she named her first solo album as an adult ‘Debut’).

In the artist’s own words Vespertine ‘sounds like a winter record’, but she pulls off the difficult trick of sounding simultaneously glacial and warm. Similarly it’s album both intimate and grand. Electronic glitches and throbbing bass combine with harps, choirs, and strings. The arrangements are consistently fantastic. The tracks themselves veer between more electronic soundscapes (Cocoon, Undo, Sun In My Mouth) and brilliant pop songs (Pagan Poetry, It’s Not Up To You, Hidden Place). It would be difficult to choose a standout track; one could make a convincing argument for half of the album. But today I’ll go with the touching closer Unison, where the singer finds herself emotionally ready to commit fully to the compromise of relationship for the first time.

I’ve often wondered how big a Tim Buckley fan Björk is. Not that they sound remotely alike, but his vocal explorations and musical restlessness seem to me a likely influence on her. A quick internet search just now proved inconclusive, although I notice I’m not the first to suggest it…

Anyhow, I digress. To my mind Vespertine is one of the finest albums of its time.


Tim Hardin

James Timothy Hardin died of a heroin overdose in late December 1980, three weeks after John Lennon was shot. He was 39 years old. A fine singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist; his greatest work was released on the Verve label, best known for their jazz records. Despite his considerable talent – and his early death – his reputation and cult hasn’t ever reached the levels of, say, the Buckleys, or Nick Drake. Perhaps he wasn’t pretty enough. But his songs – Reason To Believe, If I Were A Carpenter, Black Sheep Boy, How Can We Hang On To A Dream, Red Balloon, The Lady Came From Baltimore – are much more famous than he; largely because his music has always been popular with musicians. He has been covered by, to name just a few, Scott Walker, Johnny Cash, The Four Tops, Nico, The Small Faces, Neil Young, Bobby Darin, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Carpenters, Rod Stewart, Astrud Gilberto, Robert Plant, Cher, Paul Weller, Okkervil River, Leonard Nimoy, and um… Cilla Black.

Hardin’s reputation seems to rest almost entirely on his first two albums, helpfully titled 1 and 2, and released in 1966 and 1967 respectively. There isn’t much to choose between the two. The first is blues-ier in places, and closer in spirit to Fred Neil; with whom he played, and took heroin, in Greenwich Village. Tim Hardin 2 seems to be the consensus ‘best’ Hardin album, and might just be slightly more consistent, although Don Rubin – who co-produced it – said: “Frankly, I think Tim Hardin 1 is better”. In any case if you look around you’ll be able to find both albums collected on one CD.

More readily available is the excellent compilation An Introduction To Tim Hardin, with which I first acquainted myself with his music way back when I was ‘studying’ at University College London in the early Noughties. If memory serves – and it so rarely does – I liked his music instantly; some of it an awful lot. But it didn’t hit me quite as hard emotionally as other similar artists (Drake, Buckley, Neil).

With hindsight I suspect this is because Hardin’s songs have an uncommon lightness of touch and economy about them (notwithstanding the overdubbed strings and what-not that adorn some of the tunes, apparently much to his displeasure). Of the ten songs which make up Tim Hardin 2, only two pass the 3 minute mark. Five don’t even make 2 minutes! Unfortunately the backing musicians went uncredited, as there are plenty of fine contributions; the percussion work in particular is often wonderfully inventive. One supposes that much of the credit goes to Don ‘Knight Rider’ Peake, who arranged the record, and boasts a more than impressive CV.