Great Albums: Solid Air

By 1973, I had managed to mostly avoid Folk Music. With the exception of Bob Dylan, and a few emerging British progressive bands, I rarely listened to either Folk or Traditional music, of any kind. So, I had never heard of John Martyn, a British Folk singer from Scotland. Until one night when I visited the home of a close friend, a man who played guitar in a band himself, and boasted an eclectic taste in music.

He was excited to get me to listen to a new album he had just acquired, and gave me the cover to read, as he lined it up on the turntable. I skimmed over the sleeve notes with little interest, as I had never heard of the man who had made this record. But I respected my friend’s judgement, and sat back to hear what all the fuss was about.

The first track had the same title as the album, and I immediately realised that this was indeed something wonderful, and very different to so much around at the time.

By track five, I was completely hooked, and I knew that I would be in the record shop the following day, to buy my own copy. There was a merger of multiple genres going on. Songs that felt like Jazz and Blues rolled into one, with the Folk background evident, but not intrusive.

It didn’t flag at all, not a single duff track. Some songs were faster than others, but the spirit of Martyn could be felt in every line. By track seven, I was swept away by this new sound, and that track delivered a touching and poignant love song. I was smiling at my friend and his girlfriend, and they was smiling back.
We all knew that was a very special moment.

The album brought a new audience to John Martyn, and great critical acclaim too. He received a lifetime achievement award in 2008, and continued to tour and perform until his death in 2009, aged just 60.

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Great Albums: Corinne Bailey Rae

In 2006, this young lady released her eponymous first album. If you read this blog a lot, you might recall that I have featured one of her songs before, in my ‘Significant Songs’ series. From the moment I heard some tracks on the radio, I was undeniably hooked. This was a new British talent, a singer/songwriter of amazing emotional perception, and one who could translate that emotion into wonderful lyrics and songs.

As I listened to the album, I went from happy to sad, then back again. I was literally staggered. This was undeniable talent, of the highest order. I confess to have being very pleased to live in a country that had produced such musical magic. The album went straight in at number one, a spot justly deserved.

Listening to the album, the quality just got better and better. I remember thinking to myself that this was something special. Perfect vocals, wonderful arrangements, and great lyrics. I imagined that Corinne would top the charts, and be the great new talent of the early 21st century.

Have you ever been in love? if you have, then you cannot fail to connect with perhaps the album’s most prefect track. One of the best modern love songs ever written, in my humble opinion.
‘Just Like A star’. Flawless, and overwhelming.

But fate had sadness in store for this talented young woman. Her husband, Jason, was found dead, following an overdose of methadone combined with alcohol. After a long break grieving her loss, she released a follow up album, ‘The Sea’, in 2010. Despite critical acclaim, it seemed that it was too late for her. She had lost that early momentum. By the time of the third album in 2016, Corinne seemed to have been forgotten by both the industry, and the public.

But she left this sublime legacy, in her first ever recording.

Just been watching…(61)

Brooklyn (2015)

***No spoilers***

I generally avoid romantic films. When I see the words rom-com in a synopsis, it usually means my brain switches off. But in the past, I have enjoyed some romantic dramas, like ‘Circle Of Friends’ and ‘As Good As It Gets’. And I confess that I laughed more than once when watching ‘There’s Something About Mary’. I have read some of Nick Hornby’s novels, and seen a couple of films based on them too. So when I saw his name attached to the film ‘Brooklyn’, I thought ‘why not?’

And I was very glad I did.

This film is set in Ireland and America, during the year I was born. A young woman seeks to escape a dull and seemingly pointless existence in rural Ireland, by leaving to live in America, where a job has been found for her by a priest known to the family. Leaving her older sister behind to care for her widowed mother, Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) departs for a new life in Brooklyn. Once there, she stays at a boarding house run by the feisty Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) and starts work in a prestigious department store in the huge and daunting city.

Ellis is terribly homesick, and cries over letters from her sister. On the verge of returning to Ireland, she talks to Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), and he convinces her to stay and to overcome her fears. At a church social dance, she meets the handsome young Italian-American Tony, (Emory Cohen) who immediately falls for her, and lifts her spirits. Once in that relationship, she discovers a new joy in her surroundings, and starts to do well at work, as well as feeling more settled in her life in New York. But something happens that means she has to return to Ireland, throwing her world into confusion.

Back in her small home town, Ellis is no longer the mousey and quiet girl they knew. She appears to be wordly, smart and sophisticated, and soon attracts the attention of a very eligible man. Her best friend is soon to be married, so Ellis stays on for the wedding, leaving Tony worrying back in Brooklyn. Over the next few weeks, Ellis is forced to reappraise her situation, and she has to decide whether to make the most of a different life in Ireland, or return to her love in Brooklyn.

So, you get the idea. We have all seen something like it before, haven’t we?

But this is very well done indeed. A great script from Hornby, and convincing acting from the talented cast. The sets and wardrobe evoke the early 1950s so well, you might imagine that it had actually been filmed back then. Switching the action from Ireland to America and back to Ireland again is what makes the film so special. As the viewer, we feel that wrench, and end up hoping for one outcome, or the other. We take sides. The fact that I found myself rooting for one ending made me realise just how great this film is.

It does so much, with what seems to be so little. Highly recommended.

Great Albums: Lungs

2009 is quite recent to state something is a ‘great album’. But where Florence Welch is concerned, I will make an exception. Recording as Florence and The Machine, that might give the impression of a large group. But it was only her, and one other woman, her collaborator Isabella Summers. Mind you, lots of producers and other musicians were involved in the production of this startlingly original album.

Florence treads a rare path, one inhabited by the likes of Kate Bush, Bjork, and few others. A female vocalist, singer/songwriter who was completely original, and as refreshing as a shower in a remote waterfall. Appearing apparently from nowhere, she went from obscurity, to overnight acclaim and fame. Before the album was released in 2009, some singles were released the previous year, serving as teasers for the public and critical reception that was to come.

With her mane of red hair, Florence was good to look at, as well as being obviously talented as a singer. She was young, feisty, and very English. ‘Lungs’ was an immediate success, spending months in the charts, and peaking at number two. In 2010, it won the Brit Award for best album, and Florence was undoubtedly on her way. I already owned the album by then, and I was lapping up the originality, and the superb vocals on offer.

Like many before her, Florence embraced the chance to create great videos to promote her songs. Making the most of her looks, and slightly ‘hippy’ style, she went from strength to strength, based on just this one album. One track was even used on a film soundtrack, widening an already excited audience.

Like other artists before her, Florence realised the beneficial effects of changing her image, promoting her femininity and sexuality, and hitting the record-buying public with imagery, dance, and sheer talent. ‘Lungs’ also tipped its hat to the old days of disco, with a cover version of Candi Staton’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’. This modern version crowned the album with class, and did something very rare. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, she surpassed all previous recordings of that classic dance track. In my life, I have rarely heard such a flawless vocal performance.

Florence carried on after ‘Lungs’ with the follow-up album ‘Ceremonials’, in 2011, and the third album ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, in 2015. That album topped the US charts, but was less well-received in the UK. Florence continues to record and perform, but it is fair to say that she never repeated the overwhelming success she enjoyed with that first album.

Kate Bush: An appreciation

I have included songs from Kate Bush on this blog before. But when I was writing about David Bowie’s album ‘Hunky Dory’ recently, I started thinking about his many changes of style, his clear diction, and his use of mime, dance, and striking outfits in his excellent promotional videos. Then Kate Bush came to mind, for exactly the same reasons.

Few female singers in Britain have enjoyed such a long career, or been so highly regarded by critics as well as fans. Her songwriting skills are self-evident, and her changes of style and appearance have guaranteed to keep our interest, despite her signature long absences from the music scene. Like Bowie, Madonna, and a few others, she recognised the power of the pop video from the early days, and used it to tremendous affect when promoting her songs. In many examples, we didn’t see Kate just singing the song, we saw a small feature film, with the music as background.

Kate will be 60 years old this summer, and she had her first big hit as long ago as 1978. When she was only 13 years old, she wrote the wonderful song ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’, which featured on her debut album, and was the second single to make the charts. And that’s not a typo. She was just 13. This was not a childhood prodigy, but an example of the musical genius that was to follow.

In all that time, she has only released ten albums. By some standards, that is not much of a legacy for such a long and continuing career. But the quality of the songs is timeless, and many are still breathtaking to hear, (and to watch) even after forty years.

Kate also made appearances in some films, and provided vocals for other artists, including Peter Gabriel. In 1986, she performed a duet with Gabriel for his album ‘So’. That amazing song, ‘Don’t Give Up’ has gone on to inspire many people, and the causes that support them.

Since her last album release in 2011, she has returned to the touring circuit for the first time in 35 years, with sell-out performances in 2014, and rumours of more tours to come. She is still working, still writing songs, and sounds as good as ever. An English treasure, undoubtedly.

Retro Review: Hellraiser (1987)

I had never read the book ‘Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker, but caught the buzz around this British horror film that he wrote and directed, based on his story. Reading the book first would certainly have given me a better idea of what I was about to see unfolding on screen, but the startling visuals and effects made knowing the plot secondary to experiencing this unusual slice of horror.

(This review is about the original film. I have not watched the many sequels that followed.)

There is a puzzle box that unleashes terror. Strange creatures from another place, and eye-popping body-horror that has stayed with me ever since. Flashbacks set the mood, and explain some of the story, but this is not a film you sit back and analyze, rather one that keeps coming at you, and hitting you in the face. One man’s (Barker’s) vision of Hell on Earth, and oustanding in its execution of that vision too.

I will give you some idea of the plot, but believe me when I say that it really doesn’t matter.

Frank finds a strange puzzle box, and tries to solve its complicated design. As he does so, he is captured by the Cenobites, a chilling group of half-human disfigured creatures who live to inflict pain. Later, his own brother saves him, when he also finds and tries to solve the puzzle box. But in saving him, he is also doomed to the Cenobites. Frank returns stripped of his flesh, and uses his loyal girlfriend to lure victims to the house, so he can use their skin to regenerate his body. But the Cenobites are not to be trusted, and come back after Frank, and his family too.

It doesn’t sound much, I agree. But it is much more than it sounds. Characters like the Cenobite leader, Pinhead, his face and head pierced by countless needles, and the exposed body of Frank, devoid of any skin covering. Such images will stay with you for a very long time. And Pinhead left us with one of the best lines in any horror film, ever.

“We have eternity to know your flesh”.

Great Albums: Hunky Dory

In 1971, the same year that I bought the Carole King album, ‘Tapestry’, I bought an album by David Bowie. It was called ‘Hunky Dory’, and the two records could not have been more different. This was the fourth album that Bowie had released, and he had already made some impact around the world, with songs like ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. I was 19 years old, and after reading about the buzz around this new album in the music press of the day, I decided I had to have a copy.

One of my better decisions in life.

Track one, side one was ‘Changes’. A song so different, and so overwhelmingly good, I was lifting the arm of the record player back to the edge, to hear it over and over again, before I had even got to track two.

The second track was Bowie’s own version of the song ‘Oh You Pretty Things’. This had been a hit single for the group Herman’s Hermits earlier that year, with Bowie playing piano on that recording. But it might just as well have been a different song, as this version by the composer was light years better.

Make no mistake, this is not a record you put on to party to. I doubt any track is suitable for dancing, and it is definitely not background music for a social occasion either. It demands both careful listening, and serious appreciation. The song lyrics are simply amazing in the main, and come with lots of meanings and interpretations, giving something for everyone. Bowie is known for clever construction of some of his songs, alongside some simple tunes that at first appear to be little more than forgettable pop songs. Listen longer, listen more carefully, and you will actually find touches of genius here. By the time I had listened to track four, I thought I was going to never recover from the symphony that was ‘Life On Mars’.
This was modern music at an entirely different level.

Side two continued to enthrall. After Bowie’s version of the happy Paul Williams song ‘Fill Your Heart’ started the side off on a cheery note, I was immediately blown away by the inventiveness of track eight, ‘Andy Warhol’ Leaving on some talking as an intro, the great acoustic guitar that follows leads us into a witty and clever appreciation of the man that was the artist of the title. I played this one at least five times straight off, carefully placing the needle on the groove each time.

With all the hype that followed later, it is easy to forget just how talented David Bowie was. The man could not only sing, but sing well. You can understand every word he says, and he sings those words with the skill of a great actor, reading his lines.

Track ten saw Bowie as a rocker, with the punchy song ‘Queen Bitch’. Great build up to crescendo vocals, and snappy lyrics. I didn’t think this album could get any better, but then I heard track eleven. Few songs have affected me in my life as much as ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ did that day. Does it mean anything? Is there some significance to the title, the lyrics, or the unusual construction? I didn’t know, and still don’t. I didn’t care, and still don’t. It was the last track on side two, and as soon as it was over, I flipped the disc and played side one again. And that continued for most of the week that followed.

The year after ‘Hunky Dory’, Bowie released ‘Ziggy Stardust’. A new persona, and a different style. One of many more that were to come during a long career. It was only after 1972 that ‘Hunky Dory’ began to get full attention, and became a belated worldwide hit. Although I own almost every album that Bowie released, I have never liked one better than ‘Hunky Dory’.

Here’s the original track listing.

All tracks written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. “Changes” 3:37
2. “Oh! You Pretty Things” 3:12
3. “Eight Line Poem” 2:55
4. “Life on Mars?” 3:53
5. “Kooks” 2:53
6. “Quicksand” 5:08
Side two
No. Title Length
7. “Fill Your Heart” (Biff Rose, Paul Williams) 3:07
8. “Andy Warhol” 3:56
9. “Song for Bob Dylan” 4:12
10. “Queen Bitch” 3:18
11. “The Bewlay Brothers” 5:22