Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 7)
Thursday, June 23, 2011
- Michael Penn would be the more famous of the Penn siblings.
- They'd make a real TV reality show about the impending death of TV reality shows.
- Comedy films relying almost entirely on gross sight-gags involving bodily functions would be outlawed. In other words, there would be no more comedy films made. I think I could survive quite handily, thank you very much.
- Owners of all corporate radio stations would be forced to actually listen to their radio stations. Cruel, but fair.
- I'd be able to watch this video and enjoy it, rather than crying like a baby as soon as I hear George's guitar. So lovely.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Bliss at One's Elbow...
Forget the glib "Coldplay with beards" comments bandied about in assorted hipper-than-thou music pages whenever Manchester band, Elbow are mentioned. These guys are disturbingly good.
When my friend Ed Woltil turned me on to their 2006 release, The Seldom Seen Kid, I was floored. I just didn't think that I could be that startled by a band anymore. I mean, don't you usually have those apoplectic moments in your youth and carry them with you into geezerdom? Then you get to regale all young whippersnappers within earshot, with nuggets of wisdom like "Back in my day, you had to pay your dues" " or "The production on that album has never been bettered".
For me, listening to Elbow, is to be at once inspired and bewildered. Each song sounds like it's been lovingly arranged, performed and recorded. They sound like they really, really matter to the band members themselves. Now, they really matter to me, and inspire me to want to do better. No matter how many times I hear singer Guy Garvey deliver the tender opening line to Mirrorball (" I plant the kind of kiss that wouldn't wake a baby, on the self same face that wouldn't let me sleep") I'm in awe.
What's incredible to contemplate, though - and this is the bewildering part- is that over the pond at least, these guys are winning awards, having hit records and selling out major venues. How is this possible? It beggars belief that in the coarsened, celebrity gossip-fuelled morass of childish bad taste and mindless auto-tuned mediocrity that passes for pop culture these days, something so undeniably excellent can still make inroads. It's damn encouraging, I tell you.
If you ever listen to the affable Mr. Garvey's interviews and hear him wax poetic about Manchester, it quickly becomes apparent how much his hometown means to him and the music he writes. To be honest, it makes me squirm a little. Perhaps it's because it leaves me with a vague sense of melancholy, remorse, or even guilt about having left the place I was born. I mean, here's a bloke who undoubtedly has the means to move out if he wants to. Instead, he stays and champions the place where he lives. Grey skies and soggy climate notwithstanding, he feels like he belongs there, and he embraces the whole package, warts and all. There's a nobility in it, an authenticity that springs from it, and as much as it warms my heart to hear him speak of it, it also brings these strange feelings to the surface for me. Other than lard and incessant drizzle, I can't help but wonder if I might have missed out on something when I left.
It makes me think about the idea that the longer you're away from home, the more you gradually become aware of the fact that you've lost a fair bit of your accent, and it's easy to wonder if perhaps you've lost some of your identity along with it. While I occasionally feel a little jarred when I hear American-accented words tumble from my mouth, I've also felt the same twinge when occasionally retreating to heavily accented slang phrases from yesteryear. It's almost like I'm acting or stuck inside some weird cultural transatlantic no-man's land or something.
Being the transplant that I am, I suppose I suffer from a sort of envy of those who are so rooted in their surroundings, that they're able to deliver music that's pure, and seemingly devoid of artifice and pretense. If I listen to, say, an Irish folkie or even an Appalachian bluegrass band, I instantly envy their stylistic integrity, and musically, at least, it can make me feel like a bit of a phony. I mean, if I attempt to write a country song in the style of say, Lyle Lovett, it's going to sound like an exercise. I'm so obviously not from Texas, and to even try to approximate such stylings would be awkward and embarrassing.
Oh well, as one famous permanent exile once sang -"What can a poor boy do?". I suppose there's no shame in using these vague feelings of alienation and rootlessness as food for songs. Who's to say that it's not an equally valid muse from which to draw inspiration? Perhaps I need to stop being concerned with silly restrictions like geography and genre? Yeah, that's the ticket. You know, I'm feeling better about this all the time.
I'll bet it's pissing down in Manchester.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Steve & Ed (with Maggie Council DiPietra looking over our shoulder)
Thanks to all who came out to see The Ditchflowers as part of the Friday Extra Concert Series, last Friday evening. Head Ditchflower Ed Woltil and I opened the show, and I must say that it was nice to blow off a few of the old cobwebs and try out a couple of the new songs. It made me realise what a lazy pillock I am when it comes to this live performance thing, and I must say that I'm quite excited about the idea of doing it again. Of course, you would too, if you had Ed Woltil flanking you on stage, saving your arse at every turn.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
They say you can never go back. You can go back, of course. The thing is, when you do, people look at you funny, and you can feel a bit like a tourist, or worse still, an intruder.
The last time I went back to my hometown of Scunthorpe, was some 15 years ago. It was my first visit in four or five years and I wanted to indulge my nostalgic side by driving down my old street for a look at the old house where I used to live. If was expecting to feel all warm and fuzzy about the experience, I could have saved myself the trip. At the very least, I could have packed a pair of glasses with some seriously tinted lenses.
I remember pulling into the close, at the rear of the house and glancing over at the old garden gate that I'd opened and closed so many times over the years. Ideally it should have been a tender, poignant moment, but it didn't quite turn out that way. A group of young kids were kicking around a football, just like I'd done with my mates all those years ago, and seeing a car they didn't recognise, they ambled over for a closer look.
It's worth mentioning that this was a council housing estate. Of course, the word estate is a bit of a misnomer, since it suggests, on this side of the Atlantic at least, a rambling country homestead with an elegant manor house to match. In reality, it's social housing for the working classes - more urban blight than country life - so things can get a little rough around the edges, you might say. (The photo above is of Westcliffe Shopping Precinct, just across the road from my old house. I must have walked that little strip thousands of times while growing up. Can't say I remember leaving beer bottles on the ground, though. Not Stella Artois ones, anyway.)
Anyway, these kids were very young, probably no more than 5 or 6 years old, but with their football hooligan-in-training buzz-cuts and best menacing scowls on display, they already had the rough around the edges thing down. As the boldest one sided up to the car window for a better look at whoever was invading his territory, I looked up, and our eyes met just long enough for him to dismiss me with a swiftly delivered reverse V-sign hand gesture.
What? Had I really just been advised to fuck off , by a snot-nosed 6-year old kid right outside my old house? I mean, I wasn't expecting a parade or anything, but this was depressing.
Apparently, things had changed. I had changed too, of course. Specifically, I'd changed my mind about wanting to hang around my old house, and instead I quickly retired to my old local public house in order to console myself with a couple of pints of John Smith's bitter. As melodramatic as it sounds, I remember feeling a little like a door had truly closed on my past, and I felt like such an outsider. It was really an odd experience, and I've yet to return. I think I'm a little frightened of what I might find next time.
So, Come Back is one of the songs (there are others; you have been warned!) that sprang from some of the conflicting emotions that can rise to the surface when looking back at a fateful decision to leave the place where you were born. It seems like there's always a part of you that feels like you might still belong there, yet you've gone and made a home and a new life in another place entirely. With this, comes that vague, yet persistent feeling of rootlessness that you carry with you. And let's not forget the slow, guilt-ridden realisation that you once saw fit to ditch your family and turn your back on your heritage and all that, which is something that weighs more heavily on your mind as you watch your own child grow into adulthood (one of my biggest karmic fears is that my daughter will end up marrying an Englishman and move to the land of my birth!)
So, the world spins madly on; family members come and go; your old hometown changes, and you change too. Then, one day you wake up and realise that you've been gone for 28 years. It hardly seems possible, but I've now lived considerably longer in the US than I did in the UK. It's a strange feeling, I can tell you. Yeah, so much has changed, and still you have all these questions: Could I ever go back? Would they want me to come back? Did anyone actually notice that I left? Could I have another pint of bitter please?
I'd come back if only you'd let me in
I'd be there bearing roses
I'd endeavour to crawl upon hand and knee
While you all stare down your noses
I have changed like you
Rearranged and new
I'll show you proof
When I come back to you
I'd come back if only you'd change some things
I'd be there without warning
Bring back pennies, steam trains and Slade Alive!
I'd be there there by the morning
You have changed like me
Rearranged, I see
I'll tell the truth
When I come back to you
Places to go, love to take or to leave
Big consequences we never conceived
Time on the clock ticking over
So far away is much closer
Than we might believe
I'd come back if only you'd talk to me
I would answer your questions
Where did I go and why did I let you down?
Funny that you should mention...
We have changed, it's true
Edges frayed and unglued
We'll know the truth
When I come back to you
Come Back ©2011 Across The Water Music (BMI)
(Photograph by Dominic Romney)
Monday, March 07, 2011
Giddy up! (CD Update #1)
Don't fall over, but the recording for the upcoming solo EP (The Ride Of Our Lives) is over. It's not really finished of course, but it is over. Thanks for asking.
Of course, there are always things you wish you'd done differently, just as there are always a few overdub ideas that you never got around to trying. There comes a time, though, when you realise that you could easily spend the rest of your life labouring over these songs without ever finishing any of them, and so you come to accept that it's time to let them go. That way, you can start labouring over the next batch.
So, guitars and microphones have been put away, and under the expert guidance of Brian and Ed Ditchflower, mixing has begun. And what fun it is, too. I mean, I love just being in the company of these extremely fine and talented gentlemen at the best of times, but joining them in the cozy confines of Mr Merrill's Studio Bee in order to fine tune and polish these little songs over a couple of fine fermented beverages? It's damn uplifting, I tell you.
First order of mixing business was the title track, which is actually the last song on the record (I said it was fun; I never said it was orderly). This song means a lot to me, since it's built around a true story (unlike the majority of my material which is gleaned from unsubstantiated rumours and bald-faced lies). The Ride Of Our Lives tells the story of my mother, Jean, and her best friend, Mary, growing up together in post-war England, and how their friendship endured into adulthood. Although my mother remained in England, and Mary ended up marrying an American and settled in the US, their lives (and the lives of their children) remained entwined. Mary's American husband would become my Godfather, and in case anyone wants to point fingers, it was his invitation for me to come over to America, back in 1978, that resulted in me actually moving here.
Acoustic guitar-based, with a dash of mandolin, this might be the folkiest-sounding concoction I've come up with yet. No apologies there though; the lyrics almost insisted upon it, really. I'll admit that early on in the recording process, I was a little concerned that it might sound a little too fake-Celtic or something, but I've stopped worrying about it. Instead, I'd rather focus on how thrilled I am with the viola part that Nashville-based string maestro, Tim Lorsch, added to the song. I'd originally asked him for a fiddle track, and he suggested using a viola instead. It ended up adding a nice plaintive touch of melancholy that seems to suit the song perfectly. Having said that, if any reviewer does end up levelling the fake-Celtic barb at this effort, Tim will, of course, get the blame.
The next one up was "Come Back", which is to be the opening song on the record. Lyrically, this one has me looking back at Old Blighty (again) and sprang from me thinking about my decision to leave, all those years ago. They say you can never go back, and Lord knows I'm not going to argue with that, but it is a bit of a deep and murky issue for me, and one that I have trouble dealing with, and articulating. So, I did what any self-respecting, repressed Englishman would do: I trivialised and made light of it by dressing it up as a 4-minute disposable poppy-folk song.
I have to say that Brian did an admirable job of blending in Ed's snazzy, foraging electric guitar embellishments and assorted atmospherics in order to tart up what otherwise is another rather stark, acoustic guitar song (anyone noticing a trend here?) Truth be told, I'm really pleased with how this one came out, and am particularly proud of the fact that I managed to work references to both steam trains and Slade, into one song. It makes little sense of course, but it makes me happy. Giddy, even.
Meanwhile, my old Headlights comrade-in-arms, Steve Connelly, has worked his usual magic over at Zen Recording, mixing track #3 for the record. This one's called Bed Of Nails, which is one I've had kicking around for a while. In fact, it was originally intended for "Undercurrent" but it never got finished. The drum track (courtesy of the charming and talented Chuck Darling) actually dates from the Undercurrent sessions, and like everything Chuck does, it makes me giddy.
This week we'll be mixing the final two songs: Middle of Life, and Riddles. Middle of Life is another folky one, and is an homage to my ballroom dancing expertise. Ok, it's really not, but it is in 3/4 time, waltz you very much. Once again featuring the mighty Tim Lorsch with his acrobatic fiddle, along with the sublime Miss Emma Robinson on some sweet backing vocals, it also has the term "glottal stop" inserted into the first verse. Giddy? Yep.
As for Riddles? Well, it's one I've yet to figure out.
Good times, clean rhymes and riddles
Be kind, don't lie or
Fiddle about (don't shout!)
We'll tell you what you need to know
Not what you want to hear
Listen to me
I sound just like you
Old ways, long days to dally
New toys, old boys
Carrying on, with bells on
Tell us what we need to know
Not what we want to hear
Listen to you
You sound just like me
Feel your heart break
Back in the neighbourhood
The faces we make
Sometimes stay that way for good
Good times, clean rhymes and riddles
Wednesday, March 02, 2011
Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 6)
For this pasty-faced adolescent in the UK, David Bowie's appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1972 was a bit of a life-changer. And what an appearance it was; I'd certainly never seen or heard anything like it. I had no idea what hazy cosmic jive was, but the minute he sang of it, whatever it was, I wanted a piece of it. Amid the New Seekers and Donny Osmond-strewn pop landscape, it felt a bit like an alien had landed in the living room to save us all. Nothing would be the same again.
The next day, I went into town, marched into WH Smith's record department and plonked down two pounds and nineteen pence for a copy of The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars, the album from whence Starman came. It was the first album I ever bought, and listening to it today still thrills me to no end.
It's funny, this is the only record I remember everyone in our house being in agreement on. My sister fell for it hard, and quickly took to pasting pictures of the Starman himself over every square inch of her bedroom walls. Amusingly enough, a glance or two at our old family photo albums from the 70s suggests that she may have even been looking to him for makeup and hair-colouring tips, but we'll not go into that, just in case she decides to offer up retaliatory photographic evidence of my one-time predilection for gaily colored platform-soled footwear.
My dad loved Ziggy, too, and I'd often catch him listening to it on his headphones. He'd usually have his eyes closed, but every now and then he'd look over, raise his eyebrows and point at the gooseflesh on his forearms during one of the many spine-tingling moments on the album, as if to let me know that he really was getting it. It tickles me now, to think of this man whose listening habits had previously revolved around Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass and easy listening icons like Bert Kaempfert and James Last, sitting in his recliner, all blissed-out in his own private moonage daydream. Brilliant.
Even my mum was in on the act. She had little time for most of the music I'd listen to, but for some reason, something about the Ziggy Stardust record tickled her ear. She always used to say - "I like something I can 'la-la-la' to", which was her way of saying that she was only interested in easily digestible, and easily hummable, melodies. As a result, her musical diet was generally very white-bread, leaning towards cabaret-style acts like Englebert Humperdink, Tony Orlando & Dawn, and maybe even a little Neil Diamond (if she was in an edgier mood). I think the closest she got to anything remotely exotic was a little daffy Euro-pap from a continental crooner like Sasha Distel (don't ask), so the fact that Ziggy grabbed her, says something. I don't know what it says, exactly, but in retrospect, I love the fact that she looked past the glam space alien schtick and simply enjoyed the noise that Bowie was making. I suppose that Starman, with its catchy "La-la-la-la..." refrain, literally fit her musical requirements, while for me, an impressionable young teen recently armed with his first guitar, it marked the arrival of a whole slew of new ones.