I have had enough of the incompetent, half-hearted singing I spent so much of my early listening life tolerating. I still head for the fringes but finding myself underwhelmed, I drift back to where the song can be found. It matters more to me these days than the noise, though if I can have my cake and eat it…
So not having got my hands on the latest, much more expansive and expensive box set dedicated to Sandy Denny, I am listening to the five disc A boxful of treasures. I’m also listening to Rufus Wainwright’s Want one. Sandy is the better singer – at her peak, one of the very best ever – but Rufus has the voice he needs and writes a great song, so that I believe him just as I believe in the worlds that Sandy’s songs portray; the old folk song world of broken hearts and tragic tales, and the world of broken but resolute hearts of her own experience. The introduction to a live version of ‘Who knows where the time goes?’ reveals that it was the second song she ever wrote. She ran before she could walk.
Of course it’s yesterday’s news – hell, all of this post is – but Arcade Fire’s The suburbs grew and continues to grow on me with every listen. That The neon bible was muddy, heavy, overblown, and drenched in the internal and semi-solipsistic consciousness of Win Butler made it doubly inaccessible but I’m glad I gave them one more chance. While The suburbs doesn’t have quite the quotient of excitement that Funeral or The Arcade Fire did, it does have something, an air of mystery, an indefinable thread holding it together. It’s nostalgic yet detached, subjective and universal. But I’m afraid I still can’t help thinking of Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins when I hear Régine Chassagne sing.
I like the Decemberists tipping their hat to the Smiths and trying to be R.E.M. more than I like them progging out and about (though since Shara Worden was singing with them, I could overlook that). But while it’s affecting to hear Colin Meloy singing songs from his own heart, now I miss his yarn-spinning. Is there no pleasing me?
I am underwhelmed by PJ Harvey’s Let England shake. It’s the first of hers that I’ve bought, though I have always had a sneaking admiration for her. I thought this might be the one, from the noise accompanying release, reading between the lines. But her voice isn’t quite what I was hoping, and nor is the recording. It sounds tinny where it should ring in peals like the bells in old flintstone churches. Still, I’m glad she’s there, doing her thing.
I love Warpaint though, particularly when they get their shit together on songs like ‘Beetles’, and drift from groove to yearning melody. It’s then that I think they belong in the lineage that includes the Slits, ESG and Luscious Jackson. But if like those groups they can be idiosyncratic, lock down a groove, and find a beautiful melody, they can also be not only motorik, but plaintive and dreamy. They repay a lot of listening.
Counter-intuitive it may be, but rather than hearing another paean to your favourite group it’s often more rewarding to read about why someone likes music with which you have no familiarity, that you are not interested in, or even actively dislike. It challenges your preconceptions, widens possibilities, enlarges your rationale for listening to music. Do it regularly enough and preconceptions are minimised and maybe even disappear.
When I came across Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, the title I was initially drawn to was Let it be, Colin Meloy’s memoir built on the raw and rugged substance of that album by the Replacements. I’ve never knowingly listened to the Replacements, and have only ever been mildly inclined to seek them out, despite a certain fascination with their fucked-up mystique. I was keen to learn more, and as curious to see how they were important to Meloy, whose group the Decemberists I have listened to as much as any since Alistair first mentioned them in dispatches on Tangents. How great it was to work my way through the songs of a writer whose twin fascinations were historical narrative and life on the ocean, putting these to work against a well-defined musical sensibility to say more about the 21st century than anyone else seemed to care to do.
As it turns out, few of Colin’s pages go into any detail about the actual sound made by the Replacements on Let it be, and nor does he go out of his way to say exactly why he was attracted to the music of the Replacements rather than that of x, y or z, save for a sense of identification; that being from Minnesota, the ‘Placemats’ must have endured the same frozen winters and backwater culture as the young Colin in Helena, Montana. They could be the band making the glorious racket in the garage down the street.
Colin’s story is all about agency and context – cultural, familial and social. He writes about how a love of music arises out of the ashes of childhood, how in adolescence that love becomes so engulfing that it blinds you to everything else, and how slowly but surely you determine that you must become a participant. At some point along the line you establish in your mind a connection with a band that are where you want to be. It doesn’t matter whether this connection is real or illusory; what matters is that it’s conceivable.
Colin might have taken his musical rites of passage further, to the point where he has established a fully-functioning band, rather than end it arbitrarily at the point when he dares to dance aged fourteen with a girl in a bar. But his take on Let it be captures something infrequently documented as well as it is here – the girl- or boyhood dreams, influences and life of the mind of a future musician. And as with the gliding narrative lyricism of his songs, he gives the reader enough to generate the universal from the specific, letting us draw our own conclusions and parallels.
Certainly I’ve a greater curiosity to hear Let it be having read Colin’s memoir, but its immediate effect has been to send me back to the Decemberists first three albums, reflect again on the slight disappointment of the fourth, The crane wife, on which their lightness of touch deserts them from time to time, and hope that this is restored on the fifth. While we await that, there’s the self-explanatory Colin Meloy sings live! to look forward to.