Sometimes it takes that old fart GARY STEEL weeks, months or even years to get around to reviewing albums. From the sublime to the frankly ridiculous, here’s another selection to dip into.
I’d been putting off listening to Whistle Down The Wind (Proper Records/Southbound), the first Joan Baez album in 10 years, because frankly, the sound of fingernails scraping down blackboards is on a personal par with the voice of the celebrated folk singer.
I wish I’d been braver. While the strident tones and blood-curdling vibrato of her early work – and who can forget her Woodstock festival performance, a needle-skipping moment if ever there was one – were enough to deter me from further exploration of her work over a 50-year career, this is something else.
The 77-year-old now sports a beautifully weathered vocal apparatus that’s perhaps a husk of its former self, but way better for it. And to add to the charm, Joe Henry has assembled a wonderfully sympathetic band to interpret this sometime surprising set of covers.
The backing music is dominated by gently plucked acoustic guitars and resonant woody bass, and is sonically seductive and subtle, while the material ranges from the kind of politically pointed folk story-songs she’s famous for to the more personally reflective. There are several Tom Waits songs, including the title track, while producer Henry pens one of the more intriguing pieces, ‘Civil War’. Perhaps the oddest choice is that of Anohni’s ‘Another World’ – a song that dates from a time when the singer was still known as Antony Hegarty. On this track and a few others you get a slight sense of vocal hesitance, as though Baez isn’t quite familiar enough with the material. Given that it was all recorded in a matter of days, perhaps that’s not surprising. Then again, it could be compared to those last Johnny Cash records where his unfamiliarity with the songs somehow created transcendent performances.
Baez is a hugely important figure in the revival of American folk song and in the tumult of social and political protest that followed, and is rightly honoured for her human rights achievements. And of course, she introduced Bob Dylan to the world at large. That still doesn’t make her a great artist or singer, however, and I’m still a fence sitter in that department. Still, Whistle Down The Wind is a creditable release and might just find her some new fans. Rating = 7/10
Most of the time film soundtracks work in service to the storytelling and the mood of the movie, and are therefore seldom genuine standalone listening items. There are honourable exceptions, like those great spaghetti western pieces by Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti’s work for David Lynch, but most of the time I fail to see the point of releasing ‘Original Soundtracks’ of movies for which the best they can do is act as a kind of souvenir or reminder of having experienced the film.
Jonny Greenwood has certainly come a long way since ‘Creep’ or even those controversial latterday Radiohead rock vs. electronica albums, and these days he’s a well-regarded film soundtrack composer who has become the regular choice for Paul Thomas Anderson. Phantom Thread is Anderson’s latest film, and Greenwood is responsible for the exceptionally lush music.
The soundtrack (released through Nonesuch/Warner) comprises of no less than 18 tracks featuring a 60-piece orchestra, and while the episodic nature of its shorter tracks betray its origins and impose severe limitations as a pure listening experience, the longer tracks at least do allow for some thematic development and some decent melodies.
Apparently Phantom Thread is set in the high fashion scene of the 1950s, so the music has an air of gentility, almost as if it came directly from one of those weepy, nourish films from the 1940s. Well, that’s part of it. At times, Greenwood really makes use of all those strings and they get so lush and creamy that you could get high cholesterol just by listening to it. Thankfully, there’s plenty of variation and he’s not afraid to combine tropes from different eras all into one package, or even one small fragment.
I read somewhere that Greenwood was influenced by Bach and baroque styles on this project, but to my untrained ears much of it sounds as if it’s been steeped in classical minimalism, with its simple repetitive figures. There’s even a track that sounds very similar to Michael Nyman’s reduction of Purcell on his Drowning By Numbers soundtrack, but with clever added filigree.
The film regularly calls for weeping strings, and Greenwood capitulates with various shades of aching gorgeousness. A regular trick he uses is to use the ‘soft’ pedal on the piano to create a sound that’s somehow aged and of course, rather lacking in definition. Even Debussy-like musical impressionism gets a look-in on one track.
The Phantom Thread original soundtrack spins many concurrent webs but they all work together surprisingly well. There are moments of real beauty and at certain points these pieces are capable of putting you under their spell. It’s such a pity, then, that so much of it is in miniature, episodic pieces that end before they can unfurl their wings and fly. Rating = 7/10
Comprised of current or former members of The Horrors, The Black Angels, Elephant Stone and The Earlies, we’re led to believe that their vision of the group was, “Black Angels as Nico in her ‘80s industrial phase mixed with George Harrison and Conny Plank.” The end result is way off mark, but that’s what you get I guess when you have an idea that doesn’t come together in real time, but instead via global file swapping.
What this actually sounds like is a group that collectively came of age in the early 2000s but were inculcated with the lysergic grooves of the Stone Roses and Primal Scream, before discovering the original psychedelic-era sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Silver Apples, and moving onto the so-called Krautrock of early 1970s Germany.
Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir brings a world music flavour to some of these songs with his ringing sitar, which reinforces the psych intentions, but while various psych tropes are dutifully parlayed, they’re fed through the lo-fi stoner rock aesthetic of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and similar alt-rock bands.
On a number of occasions they hit on a robotic Silver Apples groove that most will erroneously interpret as where the Conny Plank/Kraut influence takes shape.
The project is seething with contradictions and flaws, the least of which is the self-conscious trippiness that at times despoils attempts to engage with the music, which is after all a fabrication that morphs genres and is weirdly out of time and space.
Probably the most successful moments are the least overtly psychedelic. On ‘(I’m Tired Of) Western Shouting’, for instance, they sound like the bastard spawn of The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart on those incredibly sonically despoiled early Adrian Sherwood dub-fucked tracks, and ‘You Dreamt’ is so full of mixing skulduggery that it’s like a punky cousin to Pil’s ‘Fodderstompf’ audience-baiting joke. There’s a dub influence running through some of the tracks and it’s one of the saving graces. ‘Hocus Pocus’ boasts some spectacularly insipid lines (“I-I-I-I/Feel so high-high-high-high”) but is in some ways like a lo-res version of one of Jah Wobble’s Space Invaders’ 1990s world-dub voyages.
But while Mien clearly wanted to make a truly psychedelic record, its roots in lo-fi drone-rock and the baggy grooves of the Stone Roses are fairly obvious. While there are dollops of unfettered creativity here, they don’t quite make up for the absence of actual, memorable songs. Occasionally I felt genuinely aurally dislodged by the shape-shifting aural collage, but mostly I was one step removed, and the overriding impression was of a few guys swapping ideas online without the engagement of real-time musical collaboration. Rating = 6