News (and comment) – Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom is like Marmite. She’s made from the leftovers of the brewing process in Burton-On-Trent, England. Wait a second, I’ve got that wrong. What I meant to say is that you either love her, or you can’t stand the very sight of her.

And round these parts, we’re big fans of Joanna. I’d never heard of her before seeing her supporting (Smog)1 at the Conway Hall, back in 2004. When a harp was brought on stage we though “Uh-oh”, and when a fey-looking, if rather beautiful woman took the stage in full baroque gear, I really did think “Oh God, this is going to be awful”. But as soon as she started playing it was like someone had cast a spell over the audience. Then she started singing. At that point, about half the audience went “What the bloody hell is this?”, and the rest were amazed. For, it must be said, Joanna has a challenging voice. Bjork is the closest reference point; or possibly a drunken lady elf on helium.

And the words were astonishing: “We sailed away on a winter’s day\With fate as malleable as clay\But ships are fallable, I say\And the nautical, like all things, fades\
And I can recall our caravel\A little wicker beetle-shell\With four fine masts and lateen sails\Its bearings on Cair Paravel”. Of course, I didn’t catch all that the first time. But it was obvious that here was an astonishing new talent.

Since then, I’ve seen her a couple more times – once at the Royal Albert Hall, where she fitted beautifully with her band (the Ys Street Band – please don’t make me explain that to you) and finally her last live show last year, at Somerset House in London. At that show she played some new, mostly untitled material, and she played live a couple of days ago in Big Sur, as seen by Naturalismo.

The show was performed under the moniker The Beatles’s, playing with Mariee Sioux (who I must confess to never having heard before), and the setlist was made up of almost entirely new songs. According to Devin Woolf (alerted to the show by two sisters who’d casually asked at the venue who was playing that night), around 2/3 of the songs were harp-based, with the rest of the songs played on piano. Now, I’ve always preferred her harp songs, as Joanna’s piano technique is certainly weaker than her harp skills, but at Somerset House it was clear that her piano has come on in leaps and bounds.

It sounded like an amazing evening – one of those rare instances where you see a great musician trying out new material, without the pressures that usually attend the dreaded “Here’s one from our new album” scenario. There’s a full review at the Naturalismo site.

I’ve got to say, I’m thrilled that there is a new album on the way (at some point). Both Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys were favourites of mine, and both hit the tops of “Best Album of the Year” lists – could Joanna Newsom make it three in a row?

MP3: Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie by Joanna Newsom

1 As he was at that time; now of course he’s recording as Bill Callahan. And yes, I know they’ve broken up now.

Buy Joanna Newsom’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (CD)

EDIT: When making additions to a blog, like the nice little buttons below, always make sure they work in both Firefox and IE7. I guess that’s why I’ll never be a developer…

Like my blog? Please help spread the word: Add To FacebookAdd To DiggAdd To RedditAdd To DeliciousAdd To TechnoratiAdd To StumbleUpon

The Pitchfork 500 Noo Yawk – The Clash to ESG

The Clash – The Magnificent Seven
Talking Heads – Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice
Klein + MBO – Dirty Talk
ESG – Moody

This part of the Pitchfork 500 concentrates on New York bands, or bands who’d come to New York to record. And the sound of New York in 1980/81 was hip-hop and disco.

I’ll start off by saying that “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash still doesn’t change my mind about them. I really don’t see how them taking reggae and putting it into rock is still seen as somewhat revolutionary, when 10cc had done it two years early, to quite tooth-grindingly awful effect, on “Dreadlock Holiday”. Personally, I find Clash’s reggae just as bad. Maybe that’s just me. In any case, this track kicked off that quite terrifying sound of white English and American bands trying to rap. So there you go, The Clash are solely responsible for Limp Bizkit and Bloodhound Gang.

Ok, that’s being a little harsh. The Clash did at least really try to get involved in the genres of music that influenced them. This track, from 1980, was recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s old studio in Greenwich Village, where the band had decamped to record the sprawling 3xLP Sandinista. Mick Jones had been turned on by the rap music that had exploded onto the New York scene in the previous year (as I talked about in my last Pitchfork post)and wanted to incorporate elements of it into their new songs.

“The Magnificent Seven” is The Clash doing hip-hop, kind of. Rapping in an English voice just sounds wrong1 and posh-boy Strummers’ monotone delivery sounds stilted. The music itself isn’t too bad, I suppose. That’s me being nice.

I really still don’t know what gets my goat about The Clash though. Partly it’s that they just make huge pronouncements yet don’t follow them up. Like not using songs for advertising then selling themselves to Levis, or not wanting to sound like “The Beatles or Rolling Stones”, yet sounding like a not particularly competant version of the Stones on some songs. But, many, many bands I like adore The Clash – from Manic Street Preachers to The Hold Steady – so maybe I’m just odd.

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is Talking Heads’ third appearance in the Pitchfork 500 (out of four!)2. The song is a deeply odd mix of a kind of warped Afrobeat and uptight New Wave, with David Byrne doing his strange half singing/half talking thang over the top. Just as it can’t get any odder, there’s quite possibly the strangest guitar solo in history, from Adrian Belew (who’d later go on to play with King Crimson). Only Talking Heads could make dance music as uncomfortable as this:

Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” came as a real shock to me. For years, like most people, I only know Yoko Ono for her marriage to John Lennon3, with all the attendant baggage that holds, including her, errr, experimental music. And frankly I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of Yoko Ono now without thinking of this:

But this is a great track. Over a funky bass, noisy guitars (played by Lennon himself) and non-more-Italo Disco piano chords, Yoko sings about having to suffer the pains of life, and how we forget what has been said and done. And then she sings that “I may cry some day\But the tears will dry whichever way\And when our hearts return to ashes\It’ll be just a story”.

After mixing this track with her husband, they left the studio with the final mix in John’s hands. It was then that they met Mark Chapman, who shot John dead.

Klien + MBO’s “Dirty Talk” is one of those influential tracks you may never have heard before. Along with ESG, they made proto-electro, heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, mixed with the disco- and funk-based rap then exploding out of the Bronx. And it was this music heard by visiting Mancunians New Order and A Certain Ratio, who saw the beauty in interlocking bass and lead lines on the synthesiser mixed with dance beats. New Order took it back to Manchester and made Blue Monday.

“Dirty Talk” itself is an early example of the mix of disco and electro that would become House music. It can best be described as the Kraftwerk you can actually dance to, with some additional smuttiness on top that would later be built on by the likes of Lil Louis’s “French Kiss”. Let’s face it – if you can get glum Mancunians dancing, then you’re really onto something.

ESG are one of music’s great enigmas. Massively influential, they have been sampled by everyone from TLC, through Tricky to the Wu Tang Clan – so much so that they released an EP in 1995 called “Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills”. Pitchfork themselves reckon that “If you like hip-hop…you have a 95% chance of owning a track that samples their 1981 song “UFO””.

Yet, if you went up to a man in the street, I’d bet you £1000 you’d need to speak to 100 people before you found one who’d heard of them. I only heard of them a few years back when my brother – who loves anything produced by Martin Hannett and living in New York at the time – played me some of their songs off Soul Jazz’s marvellous compilation “A South Bronx Story”. Right eye-opener it was too – ESG have that unusual ability to sound like loads of other people, yet totally unique. And of course, that familiarity is down to having their sound stolen/borrowed (delete as applicable depending on your moral stance toward sampling) by Man & Dog.

Produced by legendary genius, and total nutcase Martin Hannett, the song mixes jittery Post-punk with hip-hop and electro, with a fluid fretless bass making things funky at the bottom end. It’s a heady mix, and just as it’s building through the layers of echo that Hannett put everything through, it…..stops. You kind of expect it to restart, but you realise that’s it. It’s an audacious end to a stunning track.

So, go and enjoy ESG’s “Moody” and Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice”.

1 And indeed has only recently been rescued by the likes of Roots Manuva and various Grime folk; sadly the great MC Buzz B appears to have been completely lost to music historians.

2 Four Talking Heads tracks but no room for Grandaddy? Say it ain’t so.

3 It won’t come as much of a shock to you to discover I’m not a big fan of The Beatles either.

MP3: Walking on Thin Ice by Yoko Ono

MP3: Moody by ESG

The whole list is available here.

Buy “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash (MP3)

Buy Talking Heads “Remain in Light” (CD)

Buy Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice” (MP3)

Buy Klien and MBO’s “Dirty Talk” (12″ Vinyl Is The Only Version I Found!)

Buy ESG’s “A South Bronx Story” (CD)

Like my blog? Please help spread the word: Add To FacebookAdd To DiggAdd To RedditAdd To DeliciousAdd To TechnoratiAdd To StumbleUpon