Monthly Archives: July 2011

Listening to Pat Metheny

The release of a new Pat Metheny album would once have been enough to have me scurrying down to my local record shop to snag a copy and it’s a testimony to my views on his recent output that I’ve had a download of his 2011 release, ‘What’s it all about’  sitting unaired on my hard drive for several weeks now.

Now that I have got round to listening to it, I have to say that it’s pretty much as advertised – a 10-track collection of cover versions played solo on a variety of acoustic guitars; beautifully recorded, played with restraint, affection and great technique.  It’s also bland, anodyne and devoid of any of the wit and invention that characterises his best work.  OK – to be fair, this can probably be seen as a ‘hommage’ to a collection of tunes that have great personal meaning for Metheny, but it does extend a worrying streak of indifferent recordings that stretches back to the 1990’s.

 Aptly titled……

There are probably at least 3 different Pat Methenys; all of them reflecting a distinct aspect of his character.  Metheny the Jazzer has made everything from industrial noise/free jazz (‘Song X’ – 1986, ‘ Zero Tolerance for Silence’ -1994) with the likes of  Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins to post-bop  guitar trio jazz (‘ Day Trip’ – 2005, ‘Question & Answer’ – 1989) with musicians such as Roy Haynes, Bill Stewart, Dave Holland and Larry Grenadier.  Dependent on your taste, some of these albums are top-notch whilst others are just noise.  Rather like The Black Crowes wanting to work with Jimmy Page, Metheny’s free jazz/Ornette  moments reflect his desire for a balls-out harmolodic thrash with an early hero, but in truth, it’s not really him.  What Ornette actually thought about what was essentially a Metheny ‘vanity project’ is open to speculation.  In recent years, Metheny has also produced two albums alongside pianist Brad Mehldau that are impressive on numerous levels but don’t exactly push the envelope for this type of jazz. 

Metheny the Fusion Fan has – since about 1977 –  largely operated via his ‘Pat Metheny Group’ aggregation alongside long-term collaborator Lyle Mays and a rotating crew of top players.  Routinely derided by hair-shirted jazz purists as ‘fusion-lite’, the PMG  gave Metheny an outlet for his rock god aspirations and for about 10 or 12  years from the mid-80’s acted as a focus for his most dynamic and inventive playing and composing.  They were also terrific on stage. The PMG probably reached their zenith in the late 80’s, but continued to deliver the goods at a high level until 1997’s ‘Imaginary Day’.  That album incorporated a wealth of different strands of jazz, rock. funk, techno and world music. to the extent that there was probably nowhere left for them to turn afterwards.  Subsequent albums – only 2 in 14 years – have suggested that this is a seam of ideas that Metheny has now worked out.

Pat Metheny – a bit too tasteful

The third Pat Metheny is something of a sentimentalist and this version has tended to sneak out via his acoustic ballad recordings over the years.  He has made albums with Charlie Haden, Jim Hall, Gary Burton and on his own that reflect a cardigan and slippers performer sliding into middle-aged spread.  ‘What’s it all about’ comes under this heading and is one of the more explicitly mainstream of Metheny’s projects.  Of course, not all of this stuff is worthless fluff; 1997’s ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ with Charlie Haden is a terrific album, but – let’s face it – was bought by an awful lot of people who would generally not be considered  jazz aficionados.  Like ‘What’s it all about’, it’s the kind of CD you can slip on between the crudités and the tapenade at any well-mannered dinner party and will happily snuggle up to both ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Aja’ with equal fondness.

Pat Metheny is a couple of years younger than me, but in common with many people in their mid-fifties, he’s perhaps tending to opt more frequently for the comfortable option rather than the challenge of the new.  His problem is that whilst he has produced a body of work within the jazz mainstream, he’s also a child of The Beatles generation and additionally grew up with the twang of midwest country guitars in his ears.  This means that he’s subject to a raft of different influences and sometimes struggles to choose between them.  ‘What’s it all about’ is clearly an attempt to create an album with a specific ‘late-night’ mood that draws on his many influences, but unfortunately lacks the dynamism and clarity that characterises his best work.  Let’s hope he opts for something a little more challenging in future.

Listening to “Eat To The Beat – The Dirtiest Of Them Dirty Blues”

This is a terrific 28 track compilation put together in 2006 by Bear Family Records, who generally seem to specialise in country re-issues by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff.  However, this collection features mainly black artists, ranging from the fairly well-known (Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson) to the totally obscure (Crown Prince Waterford).

As the title would suggest, this is a collection of X-rated songs, generally blues-based but ranging from Howlin’ Wolf-style electric stormers to sophisticated jazz tinklers (so to speak).  What links these stylistic variations is the subject matter of the lyrics; sex, more sex and…well, you get the idea. 

The great thing about this collection is that I always suspected that stuff like this was out there – well before most of these songs were recorded, Robert Johnson was singing about ‘squeezing my lemon till the juice runs down my leg’  (‘Travelling Riverside Blues’) and  there were numerous other blues songs that dealt heavily in sexual or drug-related innuendo.

However, most of these songs do away with coy hints in favour of full-on profanity leaving little to the imagination.  Many of them originate from a period just after World War II when the jukebox ruled supreme.  This was a time before radio stations exercised a major grip on people’s listening  habits and the local diner or the local malt shop or the local bar with its jukebox was the way that many American youngsters heard new music.  Many of these songs with their risqué lyrics and overt sexual content would have seen the dimes and quarters piling into the machines.

A couple of the more notable inclusions – ‘Don’t fuck around with love’,  by a proto doo-wop ensemble calling themselves The Blenders for the purposes of this recording and ‘Think Twice, Version X’ by Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker – are in themselves X-rated alternative takes.  ‘Don’t play around with love’ was issued by The Blenders in 1953 and ‘Think Twice’ in its original format was a big hit for Wilson and Baker in 1966.

Other songs show the art of innuendo to be alive and well, though in Dinah Washington’s ‘Long John Blues’ it’s hard to see how innuendo could be taken any further.  This tale of an obliging dentist who fills cavities and drills all night long leaves little to the imagination.

The mysteriously-named Fred Wolff Combo was reputedly a pseudonym adopted by Detroit rocker Cub Koda who went on to front hard rockers Brownsville Station.  The Combo’s ‘Somebody Else Was Suckin’ My Dick Last Night‘ puts its money where its mouth is whilst ‘Rotten Cocksucker’s Ball’  by The Clovers references doo-wop and earlier jazz vocal groups like The Ink Spots.

OK, so much for the schoolboy smut, but the fact is that whilst not all of the songs on this compilation are as convincing musically as they are provocative lyrically, many of them are.  Julia Lee’s innuendo-laced ‘Don’t Come Too Soon’ is beautifully performed and produced, whilst ‘Think Twice, Version X’ is as good a Northern Soul stomper as you could wish for.

On the whole this is a highly-enjoyable compilation with at least a dozen tracks that are strong musically, irrespective of their lyrical content. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be available in the UK right now so Amazon in the States is probably your best bet.  Alternatively a quick Google of the album title should produce a substantial number of other downloading possibilities.

Graduation Day

A major event on an increasingly busy summer calendar was the Princess’ Graduation Bash, which took place last Saturday at the Bridgewater Hall in Mancunia.  It was best bib & tuckers (whatever they are) all round as we piled into the car and set off up the M6. 

My Dad – now a sprightly 87 – was along for the ride, which assuaged a certain amount of guilt I’ve always felt for missing my own graduation.  When I should have been in Newcastle for that, I was actually on a ferry between Stockholm & Helsinki with a gaggle of tourists in tow as I whizzed them round the highlights of Scandinavia.  It would have been very difficult for me to (literally & figuratively) jump ship to be at my own ceremony, but I’ve always felt that I denied my folks an opportunity to show a little parental pride, so my Dad’s presence at his grand-daughter’s graduation was a partial recompense.

MMU or ‘ManMet’ is such a huge institution that 9,000 students graduate each year and the ceremonies go on for a whole week.  Saturday’s event was the last one of the week  and featured Law & Social Sciences, Languages and Politics, pretty much in that order, so as a Politics graduate, the Princess was right at the very end of a 75-minute ceremony.

We were joined by the Princess’ boyfriend and found our way to seats up in the Circle.  The whole thing was being recorded on video, so there were numerous close-ups of nervous students fussing with their gowns and mortar-boards juxtaposed with shots of doting parents and excited younger siblings.  After a bit of musical fol-de-rol on the Hall’s pipe organ, the dignitaries took to the stage, all wearing gowns and hats straight out of a bad Harry Potter pastiche.  There was much tugging at forelocks in the direction of the Dean and the whole thing had a slightly comic opera freemasonish ambience.  I expected the Lord High Executioner and the Three Little Maids to appear at any minute.   Maybe it’s because MMU was formerly a Polytechnic that they feel they have to pour on the gravitas and the fancy dress – or maybe they’re all like this; I have to say I wouldn’t know.

Once we got going, however, the whole thing soon became tedious beyond belief as student after student went up to shake hands and enjoy their moment in the spotlight.  MMU has a very multi-cultural intake and what was very noticeable was that there were large numbers of students with Chinese names who were ‘in absentia’.  This was something of a relief as we would probably have been there for 3 or 4 hours if they’d all turned up.  For the extrovert few whose friends and family cheered as they went up, there was a brief salute to the gallery but there was thankfully only one eejit who decided it would be the thing to do to kiss the Dean on the cheek rather than just shake her hand.

Finally the Princess’ big moment came and despite being very nervous earlier, she put her best foot forward and carried off her moment in the spotlight without a hitch.  Rather sadly, she finished her course without ever making any real friends among her coursemates, but that’s probably down to MMU being such a vast and slightly impersonal institution with a high proportion of local, home-based students as it is with any social shortcomings on her part.  Anyway, it didn’t seem to bother her that she was unable to chuck her mortar-board in the air with a bunch of her mates once we got outside.

In fact, once she’d dropped off her costume, we quickly jumped into a cab and headed off to San Rocco in South King Street.  I ate there quite a few times when I lived in Manchester in the 70’s and 80’s, at which point it was called Cesare or something along those lines.  It’s a tad pricier these days and I would call it a ‘special occasion venue’, but the staff were friendly and the food was excellent.  I actually had a chat with the maitre d’ before we left.  He had been there for nearly 30 years and our paths may well have crossed back in the day.  As he reminded me, in those days, Cesare was the only restaurant in South King Street; now there are 5 of them.  This is perhaps a worthwhile measure of how the Princess’ experience of Manchester has varied from my own.  Of course, I wasn’t a student there, but it was altogether a grimmer, greyer place in those days.  Despite that, it was still a great city, but nowadays, it really looks like one as well.

Fergie and the Elephant

As has frequently been the case in recent summers, United have been pretty quick out of the blocks in the transfer market this year.   Ashley Young and David De Gea were obviously identified some time ago as targets and deals for both went through fairly smoothly.  Seemingly Phil Jones was a target for next summer, but with other clubs prowling,  Fergie decided to move earlier than anticipated for a player who’s been described as a ‘future England captain’; not necessarily a recommendation if you look at the current incumbent.

However, there remains an elephant in Fergie’s room and that is the state of our central midfield.  Paul Scholes has retired, Darron Gibson – rightly in my view – has been deemed not up to the required quality, Owen Hargreaves has been released and now, Darren Fletcher has suffered a recurrence of the viral infection that kept him on the sidelines for the back end of last season.

United have been repeatedly linked with three replacements this summer – Luka Modric, who – if he does leave Tottenham – seems destined for Stamford Bridge,  Samir Nasri, who is rumoured to be joining City and Wesley Sneijder, who seems the best fit of these three for United’s needs.

For all the denials from all parties, it’s clear that David Gill is engaged in protracted negotiations with Inter Milan for Sneijder’s transfer and it’s now beginning to turn into a bit of a soap opera.  Clearly Fergie would like to get Sneijder on board ASAP as United have a very tough opening to the season, with Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea all due at Old Trafford early on.  The need to ‘hit the ground running ‘ next season therefore becomes paramount. 

Fletcher will clearly not be ready for the start of the season, which leaves us with Giggs, Anderson and Carrick to hold the fort in midfield – an injury to any of them and a problem would rapidly become a crisis.  In any case, with Giggs needing to be used sparingly, Carrick slowing down and Anderson a model of inconsistency,  there is a strong argument for saying that there isn’t currently enough quality in our midfield anyway.

One side-effect of this scenario may be that French youngster Paul Pogba may be pitched into first-team action sooner than was initially anticipated, as may gifted ‘problem child’ Ravel Morrison.  However, youngsters like these need to be eased – rather than hurled – into the fray and the need for a quality player of the Sneijder variety to be brought in is obvious to every United fan – and, presumably, to Fergie as well.

In fact, many of us are still shaking our heads in disbelief at how United managed to win the Premier League last season without a settled central midfield.  Carrick, Giggs, Scholes and Anderson rotated for most of the season, with occasional contributions from Gibson and the Da Silva twins and frequent help from Wayne Rooney, but – Paul Scholes aside –  you could hardly say that there’s been a dominant force in United’s midfield since Roy Keane moved on in 2005.

Should he join us, Sneijder will come with a big price-tag and a hefty pay packet, not to mention a wife who is already making Victoria Beckham look like a shrinking violet.  A great deal will be expected of him and if this deal ever gets done,  it’s to be hoped that he adapts quickly. 


United in Beantown

Over the years, United have involved themselves in a variety of charitable endeavours, from donating superannuated Old Trafford floodlights to Bishop Auckland F.C. to a range of ongoing initiatives in Africa in tandem with UNICEF.

Right now, United are in Boston, Massachusetts at the start of their pre-season tour of the USA and their presence in Beantown signifies yet another sizeable charitable endeavour.  Their game against New England Revolution tonight offers long-suffering Bostonians a night off from the undoubted misery they must suffer watching the Red Sox play baseball and will also bring home with considerable force to the owners of NESV (New England Sports Ventures) that there are two major ‘Soccer’ teams wearing red shirts who play in England’s north-west and that NESV bought the wrong one.  They must feel like the guy at Decca Records who turned down the chance to sign The Beatles. 

No matter, United are in town, the first port of call on a 3-week tour that will see the squad fly on to Seattle for more training before taking on 2 more MLS teams and a MLS All-Star team that will probably include David Beckham, rounding things off with what will undoubtedly be a fairly painful reunion with Barcelona in Washington DC.

So far, the only new kid on the United tour bus is Ashley Young, who joined from Villa and, if I judge his rather cocky personality right, has been waiting  for a bigger stage on which he will be able to blossom.  Well, now he has the biggest stage English football can offer and I have a feeling that he’s going to thrive out there.

Ashley Young in training

Joining him later in the tour will be our other close-season acquisitions, goalkeeper David De Gea (joining from Athletico Madrid) and defender Phil Jones (making the slightly shorter and less glamorous journey down the M61 from Blackburn) of whom everyone seems to think very highly, but who I’ve never watched particularly closely. 

So far, these three – Jones, De Gea and Young – represent United’s summer business in the transfer market, but the ‘marquee’ signing of a major creative midfield force – rumoured to be Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder – has yet to happen.  With Paul Scholes retiring, Owen Hargreaves released and Darron Gibson (hopefully) on his way, United’s midfield looks short on quality and invention.  Fletcher, Carrick and Giggs remain, but none of them (for a variety of reasons) are going to be able to provide what a player like Sneijder can.  Let’s hope David Gill can get this one wrapped up before too much longer.

Wesley Sneijder; wanted man…..

The inability to nail down Sneijder before now is a source of some disappointment; another is the absence of most of United’s Academy players from the tour party.  Only Sam Johnstone from the F.A. Youth Cup winning team has made it to the States and he’s probably only there because De Gea isn’t (yet). 

Of that team, midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe has already joined Scott Wooton and Nick Ajose at Darren Ferguson’s Peterborough on a season-long loan, though Ajose’s move is permanent.  However, I can’t help but feel that the likes of Paul Pogba, Will Keane, Larnell Cole and Ravel Morrison would have profited from such a trip and  it would also have demonstrated  that Alex Ferguson is not averse to the idea of promoting from within.  Instead, they were drafted in to play a fairly meaningless friendly against Curzon Ashton which is unlikely to shed any new light on their talents nor offer them any incentives other than those they can generate themselves.  For the record, Morrison scored a beautiful goal against Ashton, which saw him slaloming his way through the defence before sliding the ball home.  How much more meaning might that have had for him if he’d been able to do it playing for the first team in a big American stadium?

In fact, the United squad for this tour is actually considerably stronger than that which toured North America last summer.  The likes of De Gea, Welbeck, Jones, Smalling and Hernandez have all been involved in summer international tournaments of one kind or another, whilst Antonio Valencia is currently with the Ecuador side at the Copa America in Argentina, though injured and having to watch from the stands, apparently.  Still, there have been no World Cup or European Championship distractions this summer, so most of the ‘senior pros’ – Rooney, Berbatov, Ferdinand, Evra, Vidic, Nani – are part of the picture this year.  Their presence probably explains why there was no place for the ‘youngsters’ this time around.  De Gea, Smalling, Jones, Hernandez and Welbeck are scheduled to join the tour later on, so it will be a formidable squad by the time they line up against Barcelona in Washington in about 3 weeks time.  By that point, it’s to be hoped that Wesley Sneijder will be part of Fergie’s plans for the coming season.

Listening to Espers

I would have to say that I came to Espers via the side exit.  I found myself increasingly drawn to an album of traditional folk songs given to me by a mate.  The album was called ‘Dear Companion’, a 2007 recording by a Philadelphia-based folk singer called Meg Baird. 

 Meg Baird on stage

‘Dear Companion’ is an album of the kind of full-on folk music that I normally avoid like the plague.  Baird works alone and accompanies herself throughout  on guitar and dulcimer.  Originally from New Jersey, she has allegedly  traced her ancestry back to some real 19th-century Appalachian Mountain folks, although the tracks on ‘Dear Companion’ borrow heavily from the folk traditions of this country as well.  ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ is a song I recognised from one of Anne Briggs’ early ’70’s albums and there are a number of grim traditional ballads of medieval mayhem like ‘The Cruelty of Barbry Ellen’ and ‘Maiden in the Moor Lay’. However, for me, the best song on the album is Baird’s own ‘Riverhouse in Tinicum’, a song that has a much more contemporary feel to it. And that really offers a clue to a quite different Meg Baird; the one whose Jacqui McShee meets Sandy Denny vocals are a major component of Espers.  Having enjoyed ‘Dear Companion’ so much, and with Baird routinely described on sundry websites as the lead singer in Espers, they were always going to be my next port of call.

What I found was that Espers are also based in Philadelphia and have thus far recorded four albums – three of original material; (I [2004], II [2006] and III [2009]  plus an album of covers ; ‘The Weed Tree’ [2005] )

They began as  a core trio of  Baird (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Greg Weeks (guitars/bass/keyboards/vocals) and Brooke Sietinsons (guitar/vocals).  This trio were largely reponsible for the band’s first album, which drew a good deal of critical acclaim.  For their next project, the covers album ‘The Weed Tree’, the trio was augmented by Swedish-born cellist Helena Espvall, percussionist Otto Hauser and bassist Chris Smith.  The expanded sextet have since produced two further albums which have  developed  their slightly tremulous folky origins into something far more muscular and owing more to rock than to folk.

The six-piece version of Espers…looks familiar somehow…..

If Baird’s vocal stylings are one distinctive characteristic of Espers , another is probably Greg Weeks’ enthusiasm for broadening the palette of the band’s sound.  Weeks frequently shares vocal duties with Baird, but it’s his talents as a multi-instrumentalist that have propelled Espers beyond their folk roots.  There is a geekish quality about Greg Weeks.  He suffers from acute tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome that must render the act of creating music fairly hellish at times – and his CV features no less than four solo albums alongside his work with Espers. 

However, he also has a fondness for unearthing vintage keyboards in junk shops and rebuilding mellotrons.  If anyone can be said to have pushed the envelope of the Espers sound, it’s probably him.  There were signs from quite early on , but when the band followed up their successful debut album with ‘The Weed Tree’ we soon saw from their choice of covers that someone in the band had been listening to something other than Fairport Convention.  Alongside the fairly predictable ‘Rosemary Lane ‘ and ‘Black is the colour’ from the Folkies’ Handbook, ‘The Weed Tree’ also features left-field offerings such as The Durutti Column’s ‘Tomorrow‘ and a 10-minute acid-guitar blowout version of Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Flaming Telepaths’.  This might seem startling enough, but when I read an interview with Weeks where he cited Egg’s ‘The Polite Force’ and the brilliant post-King Crimson ‘McDonald & Giles’ album as being on his Desert Island Discs hitlist, it all began to make sense.  For Weeks, as for me, 1970 was clearly a landmark year.

Very familiar…inner gatefold from Bronco’s ‘Ace of Sunlight’ (Island Records 1971)…plus ça change…..

Stylistically, tracks like ‘Flaming Telepaths’ and ‘The Weed Tree’s ‘ only original track, ‘Dead King’  took Espers out of the folk ghetto and launched them into deeper waters.  On 2006’s  ‘II‘,  the six-piece band produced denser textures, though the drum sound was still throttled back.  Massed acoustic guitars and Espvall’s cello usually provided a bedrock for most of the songs, with vocals layered on top and a widening palette of other instruments – electric guitars, recorders, synths, flutes, mellotrons and random swirls of electronica – used as embellishments.  The songs got longer, too, with nothing under five minutes in length and frequent instrumental forays by Weeks.  ‘II’ is a compelling album, but there is something vaguely indigestible about it; the mix has a slightly cluttered quality  and the vocals occasionally get lost in the richness of the arrangements.  It’s almost as though Espers had been let loose in a vintage instrument shop and decided to use everything they found.  For all that, ‘II‘ has some great songs and firms up the experimental forays of its predecessor.  The new fuller sound invited comparisons with bands like Hem, Midlake and some of David Roback’s ventures – notably Opal – and had journalists straining for new categorisations to pigeonhole the Espers sound.  Psych-folk, anyone?

It would three years before the third  album of original Espers material (‘III’ – is there some kind of Led Zeppelin thing going on here?) appeared in 2009.  ‘III’ has a fuller sound and a wider range of material.  Drums are much further forward , but the vocals have been restored to some kind of centrality in the mix, which makes the album more coherent somehow.  Some of the songs are almost conventional in their structure and arrangments and whilst the doomy psychedelia of previous recordings has not disappeared entirely, it does seem to be more integrated into the band’s overall sound.  Having said that, I’m not sure that the songs on ‘III’ are as memorable as on previous albums somehow.  Oh well.

Espers are probably about due another album, but the collective bonds that tie them together are looser than in some of their contemporaries.  Baird, Espvall and Weeks have all produced solo albums, Baird and Espvall worked with Sharron Kraus on another album of traditional tunes and most of the band moonlight with other performers.  The success they have had with Espers will probably mean that there will be more from the band in due course, but I suspect that the further they depart from their origins in folk music, the tougher it may be to keep this maverick ensemble together.