Archive for March 2010
Last night we saw the new Noah Baumbach movie Greenberg, and there’s a scene where the young actress Greta Gerwig sings a very tentative version of Judee Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road.” I first heard about Judee Sill some six or seven years ago when Rhino Records released her two studio albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973), as part of their pricier, limited-edition “Handmade” series. A friend of mine burned copies for me of copies that a friend had burned for him, and I thought they were pretty great. There were times when Judee’s songwriting got lost in mysticism—she was a follower of Rosicrucianism—and then I got lost too. But great nonetheless. “The Kiss,” the song she performs in this clip from The Old Grey Whistle Test, is the fifth most played song on my iPod. I’ve played it 28 times, though not, apparently, since 11:20 on the evening of July 7th, 2007.
Reading accounts of Judee Sill’s life is heartbreaking. Music and addiction were tied together from the very beginning. She was the daughter of a herpetologist-slash-barkeep, and alcoholism was a family problem. She began playing the piano at age three. All the while that she was studying music and writing songs she was falling in with a rough crowd. She learned the ukelele, held up some liquor stores, went to reform school, got out, learned the bass, won a songwriting contest at college, became a heroin addict, kept writing music, nearly died of an overdose, went to jail, kicked the habit. A friend hired her to write material for other bands, and her song “Lady-O” was recorded by the Hollies, which led to her meeting David Geffen. Her debut album was the first release on his Asylum Records.
Judee’s voice is homey—she has a casual, unforced delivery that prefigures the artless style of indie rock singers of the past twenty years. (Liz Phair is a fan, and the two even look a little alike.) Her music is country-folkish, but there are classical and gospel music influences as well. “The Donor,” her masterpiece, breaks into a medieval round and a chant of “Kyrie Eleison.” She told NME that her influences were “Bach, Pythagoras, and Ray Charles.” She was profiled in Rolling Stone and photographed by Annie Liebowitz, but her two albums didn’t do well, and once Geffen dropped her she vanished from the music world. From there she spiraled downward. Two car accidents left her in chronic pain. She became addicted to painkillers and died of a cocaine overdose in 1979, possibly a suicide. It’s an unbelievably tragic biography—and yet the music is calm, assured, and hopeful.
Other musicians came to know her records and covered her songs, including Shawn Colvin and Jane Siberry. In interviews, Andy Partridge cited her as a major influence on his band XTC. (He rightly compared her voice to Karen Carpenter’s.) After the Rhino reissues it seemed as if a lot of forgotten female singer-songwriters from the 1960s and ’70s were being rediscovered. Karen Dalton, Sybille Baier, Kath Bloom, all came out of Judee Sill’s overcoat. In the movie last night, Greta sings the Judee Sill song on the stage of a neighborhood bar, and then Ben Stiller’s character makes her a mix of other music that she might like, including Karen Dalton. In an earlier scene in Greta’s car, Ben pulls some CDs out of the glove compartment: John Mayer, Sarah McLaughlin. (She admits that they’re “cheesy.”) So if Greta already knows about Judee Sill, that should bode well for the singer’s reputation, right?
Caleb has a mix on 8tracks too, much more rambunctious than either of mine, and it includes this deliriously great song.
Caleb just introduced me to a site called 8tracks, where I can post a mix of songs and you can stream it, and vice versa. It’s very easy to use—the trick is that you can’t see what song is coming next until you get there, or you hit the fast-forward button. My first mix is an extension of last week’s Earworms tribute to the year 1991, with 13 songs that were recorded or released that year, some of which I heard then, some of which I discovered later, but all of which I still listen to with great pleasure. There’ll be more 8tracks mixes from me soon, I promise. They won’t all have songs from 1991 in them, I promise that too.
Update: I just made a second mix of cover songs.
I was a skeptical young fellow. Here’s me in 1978, 10 years old, spotting a poster for This Year’s Model in the record and tape department of our local Two Guys department store: “That guy is trying to become famous by using the same name as Elvis Presley!” A couple years later, seeing a display advertising Zenyattà Mondatta in the showcase window at the entrance to Korvette’s: “These guys, naming their band after an occupation, are ripping off the Village People!” No one was going to pull the wool over this disco kid’s eyes.
Alex Chilton, rest in peace.
This is a video, possibly the only one, by the early ’80s band of Tracey Thorn, who not long after went on to form Everything But the Girl. Tracey started the Marine Girls when she was 15, and after she went to college the group played live shows whenever she had a holiday. She sang about half of the songs; the other half, including this one, were sung by Alice Fox, whose sister Jane played bass. In this clip, filmed at Brighton Pier, Tracey is the one with the pouffiest hair. Lazy Ways, the album this song comes from, was produced by Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants. I’ve been listening to Tracey Thorn songs a lot lately, and you should expect to see more of them here in the weeks ahead: she has a new solo album coming out in May.
One of the things that’s so rewarding about being a Kristin Hersh fan is that she makes loyal listeners feel like royalty. She’s a prolific songwriter, to say the least. She started making music in the early 1980s, when she was in her teens. She’s released, as of this writing, eight albums with her seminal band Throwing Muses and seven as a solo artist, and also four EPs with her more thrashy band, 50 Foot Wave. New recordings by all three are in the works.
Such a profusion of music would be enough to keep me happy. But Kristin was one of the first musicians to begin thinking about how to reinvent the relationship between artist and listener. She was one of the founders of a remarkable nonprofit organization called CASH Music, which allows musicians to distribute their work directly over the Internet in creative ways, with no middleman.
For the past few years, Kristin’s been posting one demo a month on her CASH site. You can download them here and here—they were gathered in two series, one called Speedbath and one called Bliss—and she drew from these rough drafts for her forthcoming studio album, Crooked. The entire recorded output of 50 Foot Wave, including their amazing half-hour-long song suite Power + Light, can be downloaded here (where it says “download everything”). Demos for a new Throwing Music album are now being posted here. If you download this music and enjoy it, it would be very nice if you left a donation, but it’s not obligatory. What’s important, I think, is that the music finds its way to people who will enjoy it.
Kristin’s also a terrifically gifted prose writer. She blogs and twitters—her tweets feature a lot of very funny dialogue overheard in New Orleans, where she lives—and she also posts a picture a day on her website. Her memoir of her early days with Throwing Muses is being published by Penguin in the US next year as Rat Girl and by Atlantic in the UK as Paradoxical Undressing.
Crooked is coming out in June; the first song on the album is “Mississippi Kite,” above. Kristin recently announced on her website that in the UK, rather than release “another dead, plastic CD”—and when I read those words, I knew just what she meant—Crooked will be packaged with a nifty 60-page book, a collaboration with HarperCollins, filled with photos, lyrics, and essays, as well as special codes that you can type into your computer, which will then explode with more cool stuff, including an excerpt from her book. You can read all about it here. There’s a charming interview where she talks about her new songs here.
The other day I finished reading Just Kids, Patti Smith’s new memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and of her early years in New York as a fledgling artist and musician. The Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, the last vestiges of the Beat and Factory scenes—I can’t say I’m into the romance of that period. But I was affected by her tenderness toward the people she knew and learned from, and toward Mapplethorpe, her one-time lover and best friend. The final pages of the book, her visits from Detroit back to New York to be with him during his last days, are wrenching. And I was wholly absorbed by her search for a medium that suited her great striving to express herself artistically, and in the formation of the Patti Smith Group, a band I have loved but whose history I only know piecemeal.
I first heard Horses in my senior year of high school, and I remember when the needle of my Sears turntable hit the first words of this song, which are a description of some pretty violent gay sex, I had to quickly turn down the volume so my parents wouldn’t hear. Not that they would have paid much attention—by this point my music was probably only a kind of muted ruckus behind my bedroom door. After the locker-room sex part, the song meandered on through … what? 1950’s dance moves? Drugs? Death? Waves turning into horses? Who could tell? I tried to figure out what the song was about, because I thought, with its lyric about “the sea of possibility,” that it might tell me something about my gay fate, but I really couldn’t hang on to anything. Still, the rush of words, the great whirl of it all, were thrilling and cathartic like no other music I had heard.
And so now I know a little more. In Just Kids, there’s a scene where Patti and Robert take some hash and then walk down Christopher Street to the Hudson, where they see the sorts of things one saw going on down by the river in the 1970s. “The demon vision of the city,” she writes. “Random sex. Trails of glitter shaking from muscled arms.” It freaked her out. (To make matters worse, it was in the middle of a garbage strike.) So maybe the song “Horses”—and “Land,” the larger song structure of which it was part—was a kind of message to her erstwhile lover not to go too far over the edge in the S&M world that he was embracing. This clip, from The Old Grey Whistle Test, might bear out that interpretation. In the middle, she improvises this line: “If you are male and choose other than female, you must take responsibility of holding the key to freedom.” And maybe there’s some anger, or sadness, at losing the man she loved, and who loved her, to something beyond her control. From the album version: “We had such a brainiac-amour/but no more, no more.”
But who am I to say. And anyway, she writes that the “wild-boy imagery” of the song—William S. Burroughs used to come to CBGB’s to see her shows and sat at a front table with Mapplethorpe—is fused with “the stages of Hendrix’s death.” Thus, the segue here into “Hey Joe.” The song didn’t, in the end, have much to do with my gay fate, though I found it thrilling, and still do. For all its darkness, it never scared me, though I’ve always been a squeamish thing. There’s something reassuring about Patti’s narration. She’s disengaged from all the frenzied self-destruction, trying to calm it down. She’s the one who “seizes possibilities,” who holds out the “branch of cold flame.” Whatever that is.
If there’s a band that I would love to introduce you to, it’s the Lilac Time, and if there’s one song that I think would hook you, it’s “Madresfield.” Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of Lilac Time videos out there. (The band made promo videos for many of their songs, but not always their best.) This clip is the best I can come up with, and it probably doesn’t do much to convey why I think the band is so special. The footage is grainy, the sound isn’t great—still, the song comes through, and it breaks my heart once again. It takes its name from a village in the Malvern Hills of England, where singer Stephen Duffy grew up. The song is about time, memory and death. Soon sleep beneath the snow.
Astronauts, the album this song comes from, came out in 1991. I didn’t see a copy until 1992, on my first visit to London, while shopping at the Tower Records on Oxford Circus. I had bought the first three Lilac Time albums as they came out, and I loved them. They had been picked up by an American record label, but then Astronauts never came out in the United States, and so standing in the London Tower (but not the Tower of London) I thought, eh, maybe it’s not any good. The band had broken up at that point anyway—it was not the era for an English rural folk-pop outfit—and it seemed time for me to move on. So I put the disc back in the bin.
I had a Lilac Time revival for myself some years later, and discovered that Astronauts had been reissued with bonus tracks, and I bought it and found out that, of course, it was the best of all their albums. It is, in fact, unfinished. The basic tracks were assembled, but Stephen couldn’t figure out how the record was supposed to sound, and no one seemed to care anyway, so he just left it. Thank goodness—it’s quiet and spare, and pretty near perfect.
This live footage was taken in 2007—the band got back together in 1998, and has been together ever since—and the woman on the piano is Claire Worrell, who recently became Claire Duffy. You can download a rare 7” single with an early version of “Madresfield,” backed by a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” here. (It’s okay; it’s out of print.)
Cath Carroll’s first solo album, England Made Me, was recorded in Sheffield, São Paulo, and Chicago. The picture on the front cover was taken in Louisiana, and a series of promotional photos was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe in New York. This video was filmed in New York too (in an abandoned mental institution, I read somewhere). For all its globe-traveling, though, the album, with its singular, silvery sound, has always seemed to me as if it’s not quite of this planet. I imagine it floating somewhere above my life, like a dream, or another place. In 1991 I moved bag and baggage into the world of England Made Me. The music—and Cath’s voice, one of my favorite musical instruments—would flow in and out of my head for years to come.