#45: Billie Holiday – “Lady Sings the Blues” (1956)

The clocks went back a week ago. It’s got dark outside. Everyone is suddenly three times more tired than they were two weeks ago, and I’ve done a very silly thing. Which is to say, for some foolish reason, this was the week I picked to listen to jazz blues.

Billie Holiday has a very recognisable voice, which is more than anything else interesting to listen to. It couldn’t be anyone else. That’s the highest form of compliment I have. Lady Sings the Blues came late in her career, after the drink and the drugs had risen up to be almost overwhelming levels. It came out about the same time as her autobiography, which had the same name. I’m reminded, in an oblique sort of way, of Marianne Faithfull – although Holiday’s voice is significantly better.

Jazz blues, as far as I can gather, are a hundred and one variations on “I had an awful boyfriend; he left me and that’s somehow worse than if he hadn’t; ask me anything”. Once at a time, that feels confessional; a whole album’s worth feels trite. It feels like it’s something the genre asks for, like if you want to sing in this particular way, it has to be about how that terrible man left you but you still love him. There’s a lot I could ask about this – in terms of how autobiographical it actually is, and whether or how much that even matters, but really what fascinates me most about Lady Sings the Blues is track five.

Tracks one to four: all bad boyfriends. Wall to wall, crap men. Tracks six to nine: bad situations, mostly containing useless men. Track ten is a wildcard, that one’s a bit more cheerful. The boyfriend in this one is apparently pretty good. I suppose there has to be one. Eleven and twelve, we’re back to romantic wastes of space again.

Track five is “Strange Fruit”.

It doesn’t fit. But for “Strange Fruit”, this is an album of lounge music, of stuff you have in the background – a fantastic mood-setter, but one where you don’t necessarily listen too hard to the words. And then, there it is, right in the middle. A political gut-punch, right in the middle of 1956. Listen to that trumpet. You have to listen to "Strange Fruit". It's the antidote to trite.

That’s been my conundrum for the week. I’ve also had a cold, a hundred bits of work, a lot of Scottish history. The strange case of “Strange Fruit” is still one I’m working out in my head.

#44: Edith Piaf - "A l'Olympia" (1961)

I have hit the wall. Well and truly, folks. There isn’t any discernible reason as to why I have but so it is - I can’t think of a thing to say about Edith Piaf.

This is not a unique phenomenon. Fiona discusses experiencing it much more eloquently than I can in her take on Graceland. There is a comfort in that but the doomed overachiever in me hates not being able to see something through, especially once I’ve established a track record for it.

There’s plenty to be said about Piaf, of course. From her paradigmatically tragic personal life to her iconic status as the voice of a nation, it’s been said. Like most cinephiles, I’m au fait with La Vie En Rose and Marion Coitillard’s Oscar winning turn. I am sure I have a take on Piaf but it’s not presenting itself as I listen to A l'Olympia '61. Live albums are raw beasts, as they should be. It’s the  best chance to gauge and record what an audience themselves sounded like listening to that performer at that time. And at this time, Piaf was adored.

My French is rudimentary and, as you’ve gathered by now, so is my technical understanding of music. I couldn’t shake the sense of missing out on the wordplay, the banter in between songs. And maybe, just maybe, it's hard to hear your own thoughts above an adoring crowd. Making my way through the dark, I got the feeling of heading over the personal barricades from the brass section playing as if the ship was going down, as well as Piaf’s voice having that paradoxical and magnetic mix of strength and vulnerability, but I felt disconnected from it entirely.

So, yet again my respect for dedicated music critics swells. I am an emotional person, perhaps overly so - I nearly cried today as to how sumptuously round and orange the pumpkin I happened to select was - so when I don’t get any reaction, it usually falls into three explanations. 1) I’m not well. 2) Whatever I’m reviewing isn’t very good. 3) Technical issues in my critical faculties - and that is what’s happening here. It might be a combination of the first two but that isn’t the case just now. How people whose job this is manage, I don’t know.

This isn’t to say that the music is lacking the compatible ports to my feelings - but it didn’t rouse them from their slumber, either. And what do I have to say to that? Take it away, Edith.

#43: Sinéad O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990)

This week, I have looked back over the music I have reviewed over the last few months, and it amazes me how much of it has come at the wrong time. If only I’d discovered it when I was fourteen, or nineteen, or twenty-two. I have strong feelings that I associate with all of those times in my life. Sometimes music fits with them, and sometimes music fits with the person I would have been, at one of those points. I was fourteen the first time I deliberately, properly listened to Sinéad O’Connor singing “Nothing Compares 2 U”. It was on a compilation CD. I didn’t really follow up on it. That missing of the moment can work both ways – sometimes the time has long since passed. Other times, it hasn’t turned up yet.

Another thing that has occurred to me is that I’m a little bit obsessed with trying to capture the feeling of now. I remember being twenty-one, and listening to Frank Turner and wondering how the hell a person can capture the feeling of twenty-one-ness like Love, Ire & Song does. I remember wanting to hold on to that for a long time – and listening to it again, just a few months ago, and finding that it didn’t quite click right with me any more. I’ve kept a diary for eleven non-consecutive years of my life, countless notebooks, endless lists and trackers and scraps of paper, trying to write down what it feels like right now, to be at this level of development, to see the world from precisely this vantage point, so that I can revisit it and feel it again. Sometimes, rarely, I succeed. More often I don’t. Either way, I will probably keep trying until I die.

Twenty-seven, for me, feels like I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. This is witchcraft, because O’Connor released it when she was twenty-four, but this album somehow manages to slot into the years a little post quarter life crisis, where the anger has dissipated, and the disappointment that you can’t in fact do everything – and you’re too old to be a prodigy now – has ceased to sting so much. And, crucially, the gaping hole of What Else Is There has ceased to be the most interesting question. I didn’t believe, for a very long time, that it was possible to not want what you hadn’t got, and it is only really right now that I am getting my head around the concept. Under this album is a long thread of loss and regrouping, but without the taut, twanging immediacy of… of Lauryn Hill, I suppose.

The best bits just to listen to are the simple bits. The opener, “Feel So Different” starts with the Serenity Prayer, and otherwise is just strings and O’Connor’s voice, both of which are suited to the confessional and the emotional, and hit me in places. It’s a good counterpoint to the final, titular track, which is just vocals and reverb. Nowhere to hide. It takes significant balls to keep that going, without being boring or going even the slightest bit wobbly, for nearly six minutes.

I Do Not Want has broken my otherwise unblemished record: I am a crier, in general, but I don’t think I’ve shed a tear at any Mookbarks album thus far. It is nearly the end of October. It wasn’t “Nothing Compares 2 U” that got me – I’ve heard it too many times, I suppose. It was “Black Boys on Mopeds”. It resonates with some other things I am thinking about at the moment, and apart from that, this is the kind of thing that wouldn’t have hit me nearly as hard two or four or six years ago. That’s an odd thing to think, that the contours of my empathy have shifted and still continue to shift – “Black Boys on Mopeds” is about racial violence in England, but it’s not that I respond to tragedy, and more how. Does that make sense? This is what I mean about feeling things differently at different times in your life. If I knew how to put this into words properly, I’d do it.

“I Am Stretched Out On Your Grave” is obviously my favourite thing on the whole album, because it’s a seventeenth-century Irish poem, with a hop-hop beat attached to it, and nothing else. It’s fusion, but in a Hymns Ancient and Modern sort of way – and it finishes off with a folky bit of fiddle, which means it was obviously written specifically for me.

That said, the weirder or more starkly simple the sound, the better I Do Not Want generally is. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Jump in the River” both seem to pack their emotional resonance more into the words than the music – which is fine, it’s just that some of the others are so astounding that it almost feels like a cop out. Maybe I just gravitate towards the acoustic more than the electric, the soft more than the rocky.

It is the end of October, and what with one thing and another, I am on the edge of a couple of emotional milestones at the moment. It is difficult to look them in the eye, and even more so to articulate. Maybe I will listen to this until I know it off by heart, and then at least somebody will have said what I mean.

#42: Ravi Shankar - “Three Ragas” (1956)

Where has this year gone? Ten albums away from completing this joint venture, Fiona and I have got to the point where we are wondering where to go next. This is the issue with coming up with ideas yourself to escape your echo chamber. Eventually, you’re going to realise you were just bumping against the walls of that chamber. I’m going to be opening up my Twitter feed to suggestions for my final four - as Fiona and I have a real treat for you for our last album of the year. 

But you know what, I actually went to a real life gig last week, my first in ages. I’m not much of a live music person, truth be told. My introversion too often wins out but having a music promoter pal means that I need to get my act together in order to support him and I never come away disappointed. An all women of colour line-up definitely gets my attention too. Shilpa Ray headlined and it was transcendent. Both she and my pal are of Indian heritage and I thought it’s about bloody time I dig into something distinctly less Western.  So I started with the absolute edge of my echo chamber - Ravi Shankar.

Younger me knew him as Norah Jones’s dad. Slightly older me knew that most of my music-loving pals at university rated him highly, particularly the guitarists. Now me knew him mainly as a great inspiration to George Harrison.  George Harrison will always be my favourite Beatle. He was monikered the quiet one but to me, he’s the epitome of still waters run deep. Listening to the instrumentals and koan-esque lyrics of Extra Texture or All Things Must Pass and of course, the later Beatles offerings, you don’t have to be a music expert to sense a non-Western influence. However, it is so rewarding to finally get to the source and appreciate the lack of appropriation, that Harrison saw himself as a student to Shankar and the spiritualism of the music of India, rather than a master of it.

Three Ragas is three tracks, each around the 12 minute mark, which to my cinematic brain equates to three standard length short films. It’s probably unfair to plant some kind of narrative to each of them but Evening Raga does expertly capture the mood of a bustling night out with friends, much like the aforementioned gig, with such buoyancy that I couldn’t help but smile. Morning Raga similarly matches my exact level of morning energy - not much, with lots of stretching and yawning and gradual reawakening to the world.  

Shankar spoke of his dismay at seeing Jimi Hendrix set his guitar alight at Woodstock, where Shankar had been hugely well-received, that instruments were part of God, and music the most direct route to godliness. Not to sound too clean-cut or ascetic but I respect that respect, sensing it throughout Shankar’s work. There’s a vitality and harmony to it that’s accessible in a way that a lot of Western classical music isn’t on first listen.  

Shankar left us at the age of 92 but instead of setting his sitar on fire, his music continues to warm the heart and replenish the soul.


#41: Korn - "Follow the Leader" (1998)

Before we get stuck in: this blog is usually safe for your most pearl-clutching-est of maiden aunts. Today, however, there is Language. Gird your loins or otherwise as you feel appropriate.

This week, skirting around the edges of things I know very little about, I was thinking about things that people I knew liked circa about 2005, and it occurred to me there was something I’d forgotten. I announced to my partner, “I think I’m going to bite the bullet, you know. I think I’m going to have to listen to some Evanescence.”

He pulled a face. “If you’re going to do nu metal, at least do something good.”

And that is when I realised that I’d forgotten that metal music exists.

There is a reason for this, which is that I have never really listened to any vaguely metallic music for more than a few minutes, and of course this is where we remind ourselves to not knock things until you’ve tried them. If nothing else, I’m a gunner for sampling as many weird and wonderful varieties of art as you can get your hands on, from roleplaying games to opera to penmanship. Sometimes you find a thing that really works for you, where you never expected it.

“Give me something seminal,” said I.

The first thing I can tell you about listening to Follow the Leader is that it is written, and performed, by angry men. Angry boys. No, angry men. It is music for being angry to, in the flavour of screaming and letting your emotions out through your voice – there’s some bits that in my notes I’ve referred to as “goblin scatting”, somewhere halfway between deep, bass yelling and beatboxing, don’t ask me how it works – but also in the flavour of there being several songs explicitly about being mad at your parents for not understanding you. The kids who listened to The Smiths probably showed up in class the kids who listened to Korn, and the Korn kids probably sat on the bus and fantasised about beating the Smiths kids up. That’s the vibe I got from this – or some of it, anyway.

The thing about The Smiths, and about this, though, is that it’s music to grow beyond. Follow the Leader is full of men yelling “Shut the fuck up!” over and over, as if it’s the only way they can articulate it, and there’s probably a time in most people’s lives where that’s true, albeit briefly. But I am older than that now, and you probably are as well. This quantity of fucks and cunts and motherfuckings is hardly transgressive. One of the songs about how your parents couldn’t possibly understand you is called “Dead Bodies Everywhere”. What are we, sixteen? (And you’ll never guess what “B.B.K.” is supposed to stand for. Apparently it’s a name they came up with for Jack Daniels and coke, which of course is their drink of choice, because metal. At least spell it right, edgelords.) This album captures that age where you pepper your conversations with swears, where you first start to realise you can drink things and stay out and even have sex if you really want to. I remember being in a bar in Leuven when I was seventeen, drinking that obligatory JD and coke, with a mish-mash of feelings but also anxious and trying to show off. That was the age the people I knew would have been listening to Korn. That makes sense to me.

What did surprise me was the broadness of the musical influences – one thing I’m learning this year is how incredibly influential hip-hop is, because it gets everywhere, presumably on account of if you want to say something wordy in a high-energy way, hip-hop is what you want. Ice Cube makes an appearance, on a song containing the lyrics, “Fuck the law, with my dick in my hand” – look, I like the sound of rapping, a lot of the time, but this is why so many people, including me, object to the content. Other parts are rockier; moments sound almost indie, but with the heavy turned up. Lead singer Jonathan Davis plays the bagpipes at some points, which can I just say, is a delightful concept. On the other hand, “All in the Family” is basically a rap battle between Davis and Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit, poking fun at each other in a way that presumably they mean as friendly but which is gratuitously offensive and homophobic. I’d say it’s aged badly, but was it okay to say things like that in 1998? Either way: not good.

The first minute consists of twelve, five-second, entirely silent tracks, presumably to mess with the shuffle function on your MP3 player. Apparently there is a reason for it, to do with the last wish of a dying fan. I wonder if I’d be more forgiving towards it if the rest of the album felt more mature, more considered. It did not. I would like to emphasise that here. This does not feel to me like a mature album.

The misogyny is unfortunate. The homophobia is unfortunate. “All in the Family”, in its entirety, is unfortunate. I didn’t actually like this album. But I appreciate it. I see what there is to like in the genre. If metal has grown since 1998, and maybe cut out the word “faggot”, then there’s a spark of something here.

#40: Lily Allen - "Alright, Still" (2006)

I owe Lily Allen an apology. As does, I think, most of the people who were in her marketing team, as well as a great swathe of politicians but for now, I'm going to admit mea culpa here. For some reason, I thought she'd only recently gone through a political and personal self-awareness but that just goes to show what I know. A lot of this I lay down at the door of my own prejudices and impressions of a certain set of West London social stereotypes that was not helped in the slightest by the short shlockumentary series that followed Lily and her half-sister, Sarah, setting up their couture-for-hire shop Lucy In Disguise. It was narrated by Simon Callow and made Allen out to be more than a little deluded and ungrateful, living in a bubble, which felt manufactured and the part of a cruel editorial campaign. But it showed her during a harrowing miscarriage and there was no getting round or editing her immense strength and bravery to be seen during that time, her second experience of having a wanted pregnancy taken from her by the worst luck.

Listening to her first album, Alright, Still, it smacks me in the face that she always been unafraid to speak her mind, amplifying the voices of those not listened to,  whilst also being wickedly funny. I also forgot that, despite her famous parents, her own rise to fame was pushed as a narrative of democracy, that particular fable of the mid-noughties of the MySpace samples going wild, meaning a relatively safe bet for a record company after what was essentially a free hype campaign. The second half of the album was completed with more external help, and it fizzles out somewhat, but Allen's songwriting strength is her satirical slant. Everything I found lacking in Zappa is in abundance here. The sugary pop is the perfect contrast to her social commentary, particularly in the love-hate letter to England's capital, LDN. The press has focused on her personal life and spent more column inches discussing the possible muses of her relationship songs, way before Taylor Swift, but, from what I can tell, there's been a lack of widespread appreciation of her near Brechtian treatment of modern living, particularly as an ambitious and flawed woman.

What other pop singers at the time discussed their dismay at rising house prices and how to shirk off unwanted male attention? And how to make it catchy, too? Whilst wearing a prom dress and trainers, a look that revolutionised my idea of how to be both comfortable and glam?

Outstanding, Still. 

#39: Lauryn Hill – “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998)

This week I am thinking about what there is to love in music. Because there is a lot. I know several people who absolutely adore The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and it isn’t just the sort of album you have to come to at a certain age and it sticks with you for life (looking at you, The Smiths), it seems to have something for several levels of maturity – I can’t speak for how it’ll resonate with me in five years or a decade or two decades, but I can see traces of the things I would have loved at any point over the last decade or so, and they’re not the same things as I enjoyed in Miseducation now. I can see why this is a record a person might come back to again and again. Not bad for something written by a 23-year-old.

Let’s get this out of the way, then: I didn’t adore Miseducation like some people adore it. I like hip hop best when it’s storytelling – when it’s rattling away at a great old pace and twisting poetry out of thin air, like in “Final Hour” or “Every City, Every Ghetto” – that sort of music makes my ribcage vibrate and I will listen to it over and over. On the other hand, I am not (I am coming to discover this year) the greatest fan of anything terribly soul-influenced. There’s a certain kind of sound, which seems to turn up alongside a certain kind of romantic narrative, and I don’t really get on with either of them. Put a bookmark in that; we’ll come back to it in a minute.

All that being said, Lauryn Hill has a great voice, she weaves a great story, she has excellent taste and good range and this week I felt all the feelings in my chest. This is the second album for this project I’ve listened to that has overt Christian themes in it – the first was Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, and I found it uncanny and preachy. Miseducation is not like that at all – it has the feeling of religion that has met the real world, been kicked about a bit but essentially remained intact. It’s not sterile and unknowable and aspirational, it gets right up next to the rest of the world and interacts with it.

Honestly, I cannot believe how young Hill was when she wrote all this. I want to throw half a dozen tracks at you and get you to listen to them, to see what your heart rate does. Miseducation is a piece of cultural history, at its best political and descriptive and outward-focused and emotional.

No, look, I can’t help it. Come on. Here you go, listen to this. If you ever doubt the power of listening to other people’s music to give you perspective and empathy, here you are. It’s just a fantastic bit of storytelling, of word-picture painting.

And then, on the other hand, there is the love story. Woven throughout Miseducation is the story that presumably is most personal to Hill herself – when she wrote it, the internet repeatedly tells me, she was pregnant and going through a tumultuous on-and-off relationship which was, at this point, fairly firmly in the “off” position. There are clips of children in a classroom discussing with the teacher what love means – I think there are several implications here; firstly that there is a strong narrative of what love ought to mean, that we all learn very young; and secondly that this is not an education that Lauryn Hill got in the standard way. I am not very good at this, on account of being devastatingly prosaic and not at all up for having another person be the centre of my universe. Stories of the kind of love that veers heavily towards co-dependency just seem to slide off my back like water. I can’t get purchase on them. Soul seems to be a mode of getting that feeling across that just falls right past me. I don’t get it, you guys, I just don’t.

Which means that there are huge chunks of Miseducation I just don’t resonate with, and that’s disappointing to me. It means that this album which is 77 minutes long – that’s 2.1 Queen-Is-Deads, or 2.8 Coats of Many Colors – feels too long for me. Does it feel too long to you people who understand slow emotional music? Maybe not. What’s sad, though, is less that and more the effect it has on the internal narrative: towards the end, there’s an uplifting note, with “Everything is Everything” and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in quick succession, talking about how everything happens for a reason and you’ve just got to seize control of your own destiny. And then – then! – we’re back to a cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and finally to a song containing the lyrics “I’ll endure what comes/ Because he’s all that I got”. It feels like backsliding into old habits. It feels like it ends on a downer. I am more emotional about that than I am about the actual heartbreak. Someone give this woman a hug and a holiday.

In conclusion, you should definitely listen to this imperfect, personal album, several times, and on subsequent times you should either look the emotional bits in the eye – or, if you’re me, feel free to skip to the dramatic bits. They’re excellent.

#38: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - "Freak Out!" (1966)

Being primarily a Captain Beefheart fan, I thought it would be unfair of me not to give Frank Zappa a turn. Their "mutually useful but volatile" friendship is the stuff of music legend, with both of them forever changing the landscape of what rock music could achieve, not only sonically but societally. Zappa in particular is often cited as the soundtrack to the cultural revolution of the '60s - and tends to soundtrack vox pop retrospective documentaries of the time. But, wow, listening to it now is a bleak experience.

Intended as a satire of the pop culture of Zappa's day, it's hard to get a grip on what, exactly, its principles are. Call me an old-fashioned square but good satire has a core principle to it, a direct address to what is wrong or hurtful but hinting at or suggesting something better. There's nothing to be found here of that vision for a better world, just endless repetition of self-obsessed nastiness that sounds a little too rooted in genuine desire for it to be a parody of someone else's greed. 

Oh, and funny. It has to be funny. There's more punch than punchline here and even that feels weak and smarmy.

There are some funky-sounding hooks here and what struck me is how straightforward '60s pop so many of the songs are before getting on to the more hallucinatory opuses towards the end of the album. This must have been a bizarre thing to get your head round at the time because, other than Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, Freak Out! was the only other double album release. So to have one album that sounded much like anything else out there but with lyrics that were most definitely in your face, to then flip to the other side and meet Suzy Creamcheese whilst melodies melted... I mean, that's a heck of a journey, and I appreciate that. But it's still just plain nasty.

Beefheart 4 ever <3