Randy Newman – I discovered Newman through Harry Nilsson (coming very soon) on an early album called Nilsson sings Newman. Of course, Harry has a beautiful voice, where Randy is – sardonic, quite nasal and not beautiful – but you don’t listen to Randy for the beauty of his voice but for the expression, the emotion in his voice; much like Dylan of course. A superb musician who as well as releasing a clutch of singer-songwriter albums moved largely into film soundtracks, most famously Toy Story and Shreck. But he started off in the late 60’s with his eponymous album Randy Newman in 1968. The album was unusual for the times, being mostly orchestral. It was in fact a resume of songs he had written for others over the previous few years. The songs are mostly short (the entire album is just 27 minutes long) but oh, so memorable. Possibly his best songs are here but that is a retrospective view. The album flopped so badly he was lucky to record a second. But it is simply wonderful and includes ‘Love Story’, ‘Living Without You’ and ‘Cowboy’ but really, I love all the songs, even the quite nasty sounding ‘Davy The Fat Boy’. You see Randy was a master at irony, at taking a hard right-wing view of the world – only to show up how stupid that is. Often misunderstood, but loved by those of us understood his particular take on the world. Two years later and he released another short album 12 songs. This had more conventional rock backings but somehow it doesn’t really work; his vocals seem lost in there and the meaning of the words doesn’t hit home. A couple of good songs – ‘Yellow Man’, ‘Mama Told me Not To Come’ and ‘Old Kentucky Home’ – though these were usually better sung by others. So, possibly my least favourite of his records. And I might have left him there but in 1972 (possibly the best year ever for music) there were rave reviews for Newman’s third record Sail Away – and I bought it. And wow – what a record, by far his Masterpeice – it is simply wonderful. A much more thoughtful production where the backing is sympathetic to his vocals and never overpowering. And the songs are simply brilliant too, not a poor song or a fill on the record. Hard to pick a favourite, though the title song is simply sublime; also excellent are ‘Last Night I Had A Dream’, ‘Political Science’ and the closer ‘God’s Song’. I could and would listen to this record over and over again – it is that good. Good Old Boys came out 2 years later – and again a very satirical album depicting Rednecks and Southerners with their stupid ideas, though he also pokes his accusing finger at those who think that the blacks have been freed in the North (free to be put in chains in New York City). Another brilliant album – best songs are ‘Rednecks’, ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Louisiana 1927’ – but again there isn’t a poor song on the album. Another triumph really, though appreciated by many his albums still sold quite poorly. I977 saw the release of another superb album Little Criminals. His sense of irony being superb – the lead off single ‘Short People’ being a metaphor for blacks was superb. Again the whole record just rolls along – almost impossible to pick best songs. The arrangements too are simply sublime and Randy’s melodies seem truly timeless. Possibly ‘Jolly Coppers On Parade’, ‘Rider In The Rain’, and ‘Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation Of Albert Einstein In America’ stand out. Born Again came out in 1979 and was somewhat of a disappointment – it sold poorly and had bad reviews. Saying that it isn’t a bad album, but somehow some of that earlier magic had gone. The arrangements were more rocky, and at time Randy was shouting rather than singing; maybe trying too hard to be a rock star – who knows. A handful of good songs – ‘The Story of A Rock and Roll Band’ (about ELO) and ‘The Girls In My Life’ and ‘Half A Man’ but a few stinkers. A pity really. A welcome return to form in 1983 was Trouble In Paradise. This was a much more self-aware album, especially the title songs which was really self-critical. But overall the songs were much better. The title track was a half-spoken denunciation of the ‘Rock-Star’ lifestyle (even name checking Springsteen – in a good way). There is a duet with Paul Simon ‘The Blues’ which is very witty and beautifully sung. There are a couple of sumptuous love songs and some biting satire – but possibly best of all is a wonderful melody and fabulous words which I cant help sing along to – ‘I’m Different’, which is simply charming. So a very good album only slightly marred by a couple of shouty songs. A long break from solo albums as he concentrated on film soundtracks. But he returned in great form with 1988’s Land Of Dreams. Very autobiographical, about his childhood and love and family break-ups. A lovely record with some great songs, almost marred by a hiphop parody which is actually superb but quite out of place on the record. Best songs ‘Dixie Flyer’, ‘Falling In Love’ and sad closer ‘I Want You To Hurt Like I Do.’ My final album of his (though I have just ordered another) Harps and Angels released in 2008 and a much more conventional Newman album. His voice is in quite good form too, and the production is more suited to it. But unfortunately, the songs don’t really hack it, they don’t stand out so well; only three songs are in any way memorable – ‘Losing You’ (about his first wife), ‘Feels Like Home’ and ‘A Few Words In Defence Of My Country’ (even though this theme has been addressed several times before. So, a bit of a disappointment. I also have a compilation which covers his first stretch of albums; Lonely At The Top is a pretty good collection of his best songs and a pleasure to revisit – a good place for beginners to start.
Michael Nesmith – one of The Monkees, and a superb musician, singer and songwriter who sadly passed away a few days ago. I started listening to his albums in 1970 and have many but not all of them, though a couple are still on order. Magnetic South was his first post Monkees record and it couldn’t be more different. It is almost pure country but with a slight pop sensibility and a witty wordplay and a beautiful high ringing voice. Magnetic South was credited to The First National Band as Nesmith didn’t want to capitalise on his Monkees persona. I’ve grown to love the record over the years – the songs have a timelessness and seem pristine compared to most of what was recorded in 1970. ‘Joanne’ was a minor hit but I also love ‘Calico Girlfriend’ and ‘ Beyond The Blue Horizon’. He followed this the same year with Loose Salute, which fared even less well commercially, which I don’t think bothered the contrary Nesmith at all. He had money from his time on the show and never seemed to hanker after fame; he was looking for some sort of purity in the songs and the sound, which I think he mostly achieved. Best on this one are ‘Thanks For the Ride’, ‘I Fall To Pieces’ and ‘Hello Lady’. Not quite as good in my mind as magnetic South but it still sound good over 50 years later. 1971 saw his third release as The First National Band – Nevada Fighter. Though this sunk even deeper it was I think the best of his early three. The songs seem better, even those Michael did not write. It is again pure country but not really, there is a different vibe going through the songs too. Top marks for a song entitled ‘Propinquity’ – but I also like ‘Texas Morning’ and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweed’ and Nesmith’s version of ‘Rainmaker’ by Harry Nilsson (see N). Prolific seems to be an understatement as the first of 2 releases in 1972 was Tantamount To Treason. Credited to the Second National Band, the album veers into new territory; there is still a country vibe but sound effects and weird instrumentation and almost psychedelic moods pop up here and there. Not sure is it really works but the 3 new members of the band maybe allowed Mike to experiment a bit. Best tracks are ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, ‘Rose City Chimes’ and ‘Lazy Lady’. Not sure where Nesmith was going with this – but he has always forged his own idiosyncratic path, seemingly oblivious to the demands of record company or fans. Late 1972 saw a more traditional Nesmith offering (and only credited to him this time) – And The Hits Just Keep On Coming – which was a riposte to the record company’s repeatedly ignored demands for a hit. Apparently these were all songs Mike wrote while in The Monkees but never really recorded until now. A sparse arrangement and an acoustic feel dominate the record, which allows the haunting melancholy of his voice to permeate. Some pretty good songs again – ‘Distant Drum’, ‘The Upside of Goodbye’ and ‘Harmony Constant’ are superb. His last real country album I suppose was his sixth – 1973’s Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. And this is almost his best – the songs diverging from pure country into somewhere else where they simply exist. Best are ‘Winonah’, ‘Some Of Shelley’s Blues’ and ‘Prairie Lullaby’. Some may say that these albums were pretty indulgent – certainly they sold poorly, which seemed to bother Nesmith not at all. Michael left his record company and dabbled with writing and film music and got into music videos and related digital music as the years went by. I lost touch with him in some ways until I caught up with a compilation entitled ‘The Newer Stuff’ but I also have an early compilation of his first 6 albums called The Masters. No surprises but an excellent overview of these early years. But The Newer Stuff was a revelation. He was branching out into a far more modern sound, multi-layered and sometimes complex; the same haunting melodies and humour laden lyrics. This CD contains a handful of tracks from his later albums and a few unreleased ones. Best are, of course, the fabulous ‘Rio’ and ‘Carioca’ – but I also love ‘Total Control’ and ‘Formosa Diner’. In fact, this has grown into my favourite Nesmith record. I then went back and bought From a Radio Engine To The Photon Wing (1977). This had ‘Rio on but also ‘Casablanca Moonlight’ and the lovely whimsical ‘Navaho Trail’. There are still country influences but a wider more modern sound too. A very nice record. I followed that with Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma (1979). All the songs have single word titles – best are ‘Magc’, ‘Cruisin’ and ‘Carioca’. Again a more modern – almost disco – record. But likeable too. Finally I bought Tropical Campfires, a late career release after a 13 year absence. And a very subtle and quiet record; the vocals are remarkable and the songs haunting and yet at the same time not quite so memorable. Mike also records a couple of Cole Porter songs and a couple of writing collaborations. Not my very favourite record but still pretty good. Best songs – ‘Brazil’, ‘Rising In Love’ and ‘Moon Over The Rio Grande’. Finally we have a live album from 1999 – Live at the Britt Festival. No surprises, but a pleasant career-spanning look back on some lovely tunes. Sadly Michael passed away a few days ago.
Alison Moyet – She of the great bluesy contralto voice. She came to fame as part of the duo Yazoo (see Y) with Vince Clarke. But after 2 albums Vince moved on and Alison went solo. Her debut album Alf (1984) was a brilliant concoction of powerful songs including a couple of hit singles. My favourites are probably ‘Invisible’, ‘Twisting The Knife’ and ‘Love Resurrection’. A great start to a great career. Alison became the premier British female vocalist after this record. She followed up three years later with Raindancing, another superb album; a bit more mature and a few more ballads but a great collection nevertheless. Best are ‘Weak In The Prescence Of Beauty’, ‘Is This Love’ and ‘Stay’. If anything, a less commercial success but a classic album anyway. I did have her album Essex on vinyl and cassette long ago but not on digital at present. She half retired to bring up her child and returned in this century. Only one other original album – Voice (2004) – has found its way onto my CD racks, probably via a charity shop. Well, it is another of those ‘Classic songs’ recorded with an orchestra. Okay in their way but they rarely improve on the originals (see Nilsson N; who absolutely nailed this genre) – however I barely know most of these songs so they sound okay – although I think her voice is better on more up-tempo numbers. Still. Not bad are Costello’s ‘Almost Blue’ and bonus track ‘Alfie’ which was of course sung by Cilla way back in the day. Better was1995 double CD Singles – which was of course her early singles, including those with Yazzoo. My favourites are ‘The First Time Ever I saw Your Face’ and ‘That Old Devil Called Love and ‘Ode To Boy’. An excellent collection. The other CD was a live compilation which is also excellent – best ‘Is This Love’ and ‘Nobodys Diary’. Alison is still making albums but I think I have quite enough thanks.
Jimmy Nail – was an actor form the Northeast who achieved fame in the sitcom ‘Auf Weidershein Pet’. He became a sort of flavour of the month and tried his hand at singing too. Not that he is a bad singer at all, and he has quite a distinctive voice – but he was never cut out to be a rocker and others were smoother and more soulful than him. I picked up his second, 1992’s Growing Up In Public in a charity shop. It is okay, quite soulful and well sung and produced but it doesn’t really hit the spot for me. Tracks ‘Laura’ and ‘Only love Can Bring Us Home’ are good songs but the rest just pass me by. Of course, he really hit paydirt with the TV series Crocodile Shoes (1994) and the accompanying CD. Nail played a singer songwriter in the Americana UK scene and sung the songs himself, almost all written by others. But a great collection of songs they were. The whole album just rolls along – best are the title track, ‘Only One Heart’ and ‘Cowboy Dreams’ (written by the great PMcAloon of Prefab Sprout (see P). The album was a huge hit, partly because of the TV series, and 2 years later after the second series Jimmy released Crocodile Shoes 2. Another very enjoyable album, maybe not such memorable songs as the original but pretty good. Best songs ‘Blue Roses’, ‘I’m A Troubled Man’ and opener ‘Country Boy’. And that is it for Jimmy Nail really. I’ve not been tempted since.
Graham Nash – once of The Hollies, the Manchester rivals to The Fabs, who never quite made it, possibly because they seemed incapable of changing their sound and seemed stuck in the pretty pop era. In ’68 he visited California, fell in love with Joni and harmonised with David Crosby (see C) – the rest is, as they say, History. He became a founder member of CSN and CSNY and recorded a few albums with David too. He was also, while the band was ‘resting’ releasing solo albums. The very best of which I think was his solo debut album Songs For Beginners (1971). Somehow creativity seems to come in bursts and Graham was invigorated by his new found groupmates and this album came out shortly after their debut. It really is a superb record; every song a winner and actually quite concise – 11 songs and under 35 minutes too. But you simply want to replay it as soon as it ends. From the opener ‘Military Madness’ to closer ‘We Can Change The World’ Graham doesn’t put a foot wrong. My favourites are ‘Be Yourself’, ‘Chicago’ and the beautiful ‘Sleep Song’. A superb album all round and a long-time favourite. Three years later and he released Wild Tales, a darker less melodic and more complex album which reflected the death of his lover Amy and the first (of many) break-ups of CSNY. After this he joined David Crosby (see C) and performed and made albums as a duo for a number of years. The album Wild Tales was never a real favourite, in fact I felt it was a disappointment after his debut – so it goes. On re-listening though it is not so bad at all. Best are ‘You’ll never Be The Same’ and ‘oh Camil’ and ‘Another Sleep Song’. Graham did release a handful of solo albums over the years – but you know how it is – there are just two many…But I did buy his latest retrospective from 2020 – a double Over The Years. No real surprises; a lot of well-known songs and a whole album of demo’s, which add zilch to the studio versions. Only one decent new sounding song ‘Cathedral’, but nice to hear a few old favourites again. I recently read Graham Nash’s autobiography – apparently The Hollies would have been as big as The Beatles if they has only listened to Graham Nash – and Crosy Stills Nash and Young too, if only it weren’t for Crosby, Stills and Neil Young. Oh well.
Moby – Only the one album, Play from 1999. Well, this was another of those albums which were incredibly popular and then seemed to disappear from everyone’s consciousness a short time later. This is an electronica album which uses samples from blues songs and then adds beats and hooks etc: I don’t really get it I am afraid. It is perfectly pleasant but leaves me emotionally unstirred. An okay album but I really do wonder where music (was then) and still is going. Best songs are ‘Porcelain’ and ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad’ and ‘Find My Baby’. But not really a favourite…
Moloko – Things To Make And Do is my only album of theirs. Released in 2000, it was this Sheffield Duo’s third album and received quite a lot of attention and radio play. Quite pleasant, especially Roisin Murphy’s vocals but not my favourite of this genre; electronica, dancey trip hop – somehow, I find the sound too repetitive and the melodies mostly don’t stay in the brain for long. Best bits are ‘Sing It Back’ and ‘Pure Pleasure Seeker’. I haven’t bought any other of their albums. By the way the band’s name comes from the milk flavoured drink favoured by the droogs in A Clockwork Orange’.
The Moody Blues – during the 60’s they were just another beat band really, but from the late 60s they moved into making concept albums and were in some ways the respectable face of prog-rock. I bought a box set of five of their 70’s albums, first of which is 1969s On The Threshold Of A Dream. There is a charming naivety about this record; the arrangement is quite sparse and the vocals come through clearly. The songs are simple and unaffected. Best are ‘Lovely To See You’, ‘Dear Diary’ and ‘Lazy Days’. But overall there is a certain silliness in the spoken word poems or homilies or whatever they are supposed to be. Far too precocious to be taken seriously. Mind you this was 1969, so that may explain things. Later the same year they released To Our Children’s Children’s Children. Not so good really, the playing and singing is fine but the songs aren’t so good. ‘Eyes Of A Child’ and ‘never Thought I’d Live To Be A Hundred’ are okay and the best of the bunch really. I think that back then bands and artists were really pressurised to keep recording new music to fee the market, resulting in less and less quality in some cases, or just overload and tiredness setting in. A Question Of Balance came out a year later, not so enthusiastic about this one, I can’t see the connecting thread between a handful of songs of no great merit. Opener ‘Question’ is okay – but there seem no answers after that. 1971 saw – Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – a bit better, in that the songs are better – but I now know why I never bought these albums back in the Seventies. Not so bad are ‘The Story In Your eyes’ and ‘My Song’. Final of this boxset was 1972s Seventh Sojourn. Not so bad I suppose, three really good tracks; ‘Lost In A lost World’, ‘Isn’t Life Strange’ and ‘I’m Just A Singer In A Rock And Roll Band’ but not so fond of the rest. A strange fact, my fave prog rock band Barclay James Harvest had a tongue in cheek track title ‘Poor Man’s Moody Blues’ which was how one critic summed them up. But in my book they were 10 times more creative and better than the Moodys. Saying that I also have a Very Best Of, which is much better of course. From early hit ‘Go Now’ to the famous ‘Nights In White Satin’ this is an excellent collection. It even includes ‘Forever Autumn’ from ‘War of the Worlds’ which was a Justin Hayward solo effort.
Morcheeba – Now, this is better. They came out in the mid-nineties at the height of the ‘Dance Music’ scene. My daughter Laura tipped me off about them and I bought their first few albums – and very enjoyable they are too. Possibly because of superb vocalist Skye Edwards, but the brothers Godfrey made the music. Debut album Who Can You Trust (1996) is quite slow in places and some of the tracks are overlong. Despite that it is still a very accomplished album – best songs are the title track, ‘Moog Island’ and ‘Trigger Hippie’. Two years later they really broke through with Big Calm. With its iconic cover and hit singles the album was a winner. Still a tad overlong in some of the songs – dance music seems to get into a groove which the creators struggle to extricate themselves from. Still, a very good album (was I beginning to fall under the dance music spell?) best tracks are ‘The Sea’, ‘Shoulder Holster’ and the closing title track where they ventured into Portishead territory (see P). Fragments of Freedom followed in 2000; the band were simply getting better and better, now incorporating a bit more hip-hop into their music, another excellent album – best tracks – ‘World Looking In’, ‘Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day’ and the title track. Their next was possibly their best Charango; there were a couple of guest singers and a more varied song choice. Some were brilliant in fact – ‘Sao Paolo’ has possibly their best melody, ‘What New York Couples Fight About’ (sung by Kurt Wagner) and ‘Women Lose Weight’ (a brilliant if politically incorrect song) – but really the whole album just hangs together wonderfully. But there were obviously tensions as Skye left the band after this album (she rejoined later). The Antidote was their next in 2005 with a variety of singers. Not that this seemed to affect the quality of the songs which were pretty good as usual. It wasn’t as successful commercially but I quite liked it; ‘Wonders never Cease’ and ‘Living hell’ being the best tracks. Dive Deep followed in 2008. I don’t know why but it seemed a bit dull by comparison; too many slow songs with no real oomph. But the album still sold well and they have carried on without me. I suppose I just had enough of their stuff already, and besides there are just too many others….
Joni – Miscellaneous Joni released a greatest hits album simply called HITS in 1996. A great collection – mostly early years – with only one new song ‘Urge For Going’ which she had recorded but left off Blue back in 1971. Better, in my opinion was the companion album Misses, released the same day, which was a collection of her personal favourite songs from her whole career. This is a wonderful record, mostly later songs which may have been missed or undervalued. It has a consistency which ‘Hits’ lacks, a mood maintained throughout. I love it, a very nice listen on a rainy day. The Seeding Of Summer Lawns is a bootleg of demos which Joni made for several middle period albums. This was before the jazz affectations and arrangements were added. There is a simplicity and honesty about the songs in this ‘raw’ and yet very accomplished state, and a cohesion to the feel of them. I especially like ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Shades Of Scarlet Conquering’. Joni Mitchell Remixed – is another bootleg, this time faster beats and rhythms are added to a few of her songs – too many versions of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ but overall a nice addition to the collection. I also have a triple album of live concerts under the Transmission Impossible label. These must have been originally broadcast on radio and have now gone past copyright. Pretty cool really – disc 1 is from ’66 to ’70. (not really my favourite period) a few unrecorded songs but none of which grabbed me as up to her later standard. Better was disc 2, an early 80s concert to promote Wild Things, I think. Anyway a very nice concert; Joni had by now adopted a more ‘commercial’ sound, more traditional guitar and piano led songs rather than the jazzy 2 official live records – and better for it too. I especially like ‘Coyote’ and ‘Don’t interrupt The Sorrow’ – but actually it is all good. Disc 3 is I think from the early 90’s and was promoting ‘Turbulent Indigo’. Joni was particularly talkative on this concert giving some back ground to songs like ‘Cherokee Louise’. I also like ‘Night Ride Home’ and ‘Yvette in English’; somehow, she manages to sound jazz-inflected with just her guitar. She had certainly come a long way from her early high-pitched folky songs. Last but not least is actually a Herbie Hancock jazz album – River, The Joni Letters (2007). Ten songs, eight of which were written by Joni. She sings on ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy’ and several guest singers including Leonard Cohen on ‘The Jungle Line’ and Tina Turner on ‘Edith and The Kingpin’. Herbie is a renowned jazz artist and has played on several of Joni’s later albums. This is a very jazz oriented record, interpretations of some of Joni’s songs. But really quite enjoyable and a different take on one of my very favourite artists. Joni has retired form making music several years ago, and suffered a brain aneurism a few years ago, but seems to be recovering quite well and still paints. In fact, she has often said that really she was a painter first and foremost; indeed in later years she treated her songs like painting in sound. An incredible artist in all senses of the word who changed the musical landscape by allowing women to be taken seriously and opening up her music to include feelings in a sometimes quite brutal way. I am sad to be saying goodbye to her (just for a while).
Joni Mitchell – The Later Years
Joni changed direction, quite suddenly in my opinion, in the Eighties. She also changed record company and boyfriend – Larry Klein (another bass player) also became her producer. And all to the detriment of her great talent. Not that the records were poor – by anyone else’s standards they were fine – but this was Joni of Blue and Court and Spark. Anyway, I continued buying her records, hoping for a return to her earlier style – but the curse of the Eighties affected her, like it did so many other. Her first ‘new’ album was Wild Things Run Free (1982) and it was a great disappointment. Joni seemed to be trying too hard to be relevant and modern and ‘rock and roll’, even including a (not too bad) version of the old standard ‘You’re So Square’ Best are opener ‘Chinese Café’ and ‘Underneath the Streetlamp’ – but really even these would be the poorest on er earlier records. Better was Dog Eat Dog (1985) – where she enlisted Thomas Dolby (see D) to add new sounds and dubbing to her voice. The results are a bit mixed to be hones, but this is also by far Joni’s most political album, and I like it for that as much as the sound which almost grates at times. Best songs are ‘Fiction’, ‘Impossible Dreamer’ and ‘best of all ‘The Three Great Stimulants’ (one of the few that would deserve to be on a Greatest Hits album). Chalk Marks In A Rainstorm (1988) was another disappointment; a mediocre attempt spoiled by her attempts at duets with Peter Gabriel and Willy Nelson among others. It just didn’t work for me. The album is only redeemed by a couple of tracks where her voice predominates and something like her signature sound emerges – ‘Cool Water’ and ‘The Beat Of Black Wings’. Overall, the sound is too smooth, too laidback, almost too middle of the road for me. Oh Well. I was beginning to lose faith in my Joni but gave her one last try. Night Ride Home came out in 1991, a darker sounding record – after almost a decade of attempting to sound cool Joni made a fairly simple album led mostly by her guitar and voice – the jazzy arrangements subtle and down in the mix allowing Joni herself to return. But of course, it was the songs which were better too; you could hear and remember the words and you felt they meant something. At last, a return to normality. Best are ‘Cherokee Louise’, ‘Come In From The Cold’ and the title track. 3 years later and the quality was there again in Turbulent Indigo – an album with a cover painting of Joni with a bandaged ear based on a self-portrait by Van Gogh. Almost every song is great and approaching her mid 70’s brilliance. The voice is darker and deeper and her guitar playing dominates as she angrily condemns the current obsession with Sex in Capitalism in ‘Sex Kills’. She sings of the terrible injustices of the Catholic Church in possibly the best song on the album ‘The Magdalene Laundries’ and ‘Borderline’ evinces both her and Van Gogh’s borderline mental issues, especially around their creativity. I also like ‘Yvette in English’ – a song she wrote with her old lover from the 60’s, David Crosby (see C). The final song ‘The Sire Of Sorrow’ is subtitled Jobs Sad Song and is hauntingly beautiful and sad. In fact, sadness permeates the record’ a world weariness, a mature looking at the world which I find I share too. 1998 saw the release of Taming The Tiger, which for a while seemed to be her last album of original songs (wrong, as it turned out) not quite as good as its two predecessors but quite a good record all the same. The songs though seem a bit rambling and without much focus. Best are ‘Love Puts On A new Face’ and ‘The Crazy Cries Of Love’. Not that Joni was finished – but she decided to record an album of love songs, most by older writers (except her own ‘A Case Of You’ and the title track). Sung with a jazz-inflected orchestra, Both Sides Now (2000) is a sumptuous journey through the stages of a love affair from first sight, infatuation to disillusionment. I really like it and Joni does the older songs really well. Best are ’Come Love’ and ‘Stormy Weather. She followed this with a double retrospective Travelogue– re-recording many of her songs with the same jazzy orchestral arrangements. Although a pleasant album I tend to prefer the original recordings, which may simply be familiarity – though ‘Man Is The Sire Of Constant Sorrow’ is spectacularly good. The last album by Joni was ‘Shine’ (2007). And so far, I haven’t really taken to it. It is sparse and piano-led, but it is the songs I cannot really relate to – don’t know why, but her old albums are like old friends and this just doesn’t seem to fit. Her voice sounds tired and there is a lack of enthusiasm there. But there you go…..
Joni Mitchell -the middle years. – Joni took her time over her sixth album, maybe feeling slightly rushed in the recent past; it was absolutely normal to write, record and tour a new album every year – but by the mid-Seventies artists were beginning to demand more time to work on their albums. She recruited Henry Lewy as her engineer, and in reality, co-producer and a host of session musicians including Tom Scott – a jazz instrumentalist. And the whole album is the epitome of smooth L.A. jazzy rock. Leaving behind much of her guitar and piano led arrangements for a subtler softer sound the album has a feeling of just rolling from superb song to wonderful song, each complimenting each other – and almost the same rhythm and pace almost to the end. Hard to pick a favourite but the singles ‘Raised On Robbery’ and ‘Help Me’ are simply sublime – so too is ‘Free man In Paris’, the title track and ‘Just like This Train’. No more, as far we can tell honest heartbroken songs or pining for lovers – but the songs, though sometimes slightly mysterious lyrics have sumptuous melodies that carry them through. This was three almost masterpieces in a row. Joni took the album out on tour but this time rather than performing solo she took Tom Scott’s band L.A. Express with her. The resulting album was mostly earlier songs rearranged in a more jazzy and far too fast style – Miles of Aisles 1974 was another success, possibly introducing many of her earlier songs to a new post Court and Spark audience. Not my favourite album really, as I almost prefer the original versions – for me the songs are all speeded up and lose their subtlety and charm. Two new songs ‘Jericho’, which she would later record again in the studio and ‘Love Or Money’ – neither of which at the time really grabbed me. However, the album sold well – but I couldn’t wait for the next studio album which came out in late 1975, almost 22 months after Court and Spark. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – refers to the sprinklers in suburban gardens in L.A. I remember when this album first came out – and I loved it. It is more experimental; ‘The Jungle Line’ combines Burundi drumming and mixes images of Rousseau and Joni’s haunting voice – and it works. There is an almost acapella ending ‘Shadows and Light’ which also works well. There is a quite radio-friendly single ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’; and some of my favourite songs – ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ (a study of Scarlett O’Hara and romance’, and ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’. In my mind she barely put a foot wrong – but the critics were sharpening their knives – well, punk was just rearing its ugly head and all these ‘oldies’ were fair game. I suppose everyone just wanted another Bule or Court and Spark, but that was never Joni’s way; just like Dylan and Neil Young and Bowie she was always searching and following her muse wherever it would lead her. She spent much of late ’75 and ’76 travelling across America and wrote songs reflecting this for her next album Hejira 1976. Joni has always been influenced by her lovers and bass players, who were often the same. She started an affair with jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius and he influenced Hejira to a great extent, taking her to some dark shades and sumptuous rippling bass lines. The songs are often rambling with no real choruses and yet they cast a spell over the whole proceedings. Best are ‘Coyote’ and ‘Amelia’, but I also love ‘Refuge Of The Roads’ and ‘Song For Sharon’. Joni was now in the fortunate place where only few artists exist; being completely free to record whatever she wanted regardless of the demands of the record company. And she pushed this envelope to almost breaking point in the late Seventies, leaving behind quite a few fans on the way – but she always regarded herself as a painter and followed her muse wherever it took her. The following year she indulged herself with a double album which many critics thought could have been condensed into a single record losing in particular ‘The Tenth World’, a sort of drum-based chant. Maybe….maybe not. For a long time Joni refused to let this be available on CD so maybe she shared some of their views. However, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is possibly my favourite of her mid-term albums. Anyway – impossible to choose a best track…from the opening base runs on the intro to ‘Cotton Avenue’ to the Jazzy reflections and drawn out vocals on ‘The Silky Veils Of Ardour’ Joni doesn’t put a foot wrong (except for Tenth World – undoubtedly a misunderstood track). I especially like the mostly instrumental ‘Paprika Plains’ and the wonderful title track, not forgetting ‘Dreamland’ (Black babies covered in baking flour, the cooks got a Carnival song)….Ah, I could listen to this album all day long and never tire of it. Her last album down the jazz-infused road is Mingus (1979) – Most fans even find this a hard album to love, she has gone right off the Richter scale with her homage to and playing with Charlie Mingus. A strange mixture of rapping (that is talking) and very weird lyrics, none of which make much sense. But repeated playing has made me like some of it – ‘God Must Be A Boogie Man’ recorded after his death has a naïve charm, and ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’ is passable – otherwise it is an experimental and deeply divisive album. Joni never repeated the experiment as fans and critics alike mauled it. We finish this middle section with another live album Shadows and Light (1980). Again, a very jazzy effort but more listenable than her previous one. No new songs but quite a pleasant though hardly essential addition to the collection. She does do a short version of the old rock’n’roll standard ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ which gave some clue to her next direction. Having gone as far as she could with Jazz she moved back to the centre.
Joni Mitchell (The beginnings)– one of the very greats. I remember seeing her on a Sight and Sound concert on BBC2 singing mostly songs from Blue; her first Masterpiece. I bought it and slowly worked my way back to her first 3 albums. Her debut was Song To A Seagull (1968) – and really I cannot see much evidence of the greatness that was to come. The songs seem almost twee – very much in the folk mode, and her voice is so high it is almost shrill at times. I quite like the title song and ‘Night in The City’ – but I almost cannot listen to the rest. Apparently, it was produced by David Crosby and has lately been remastered and sounds much better. However – I have no wish to buy it again and be inevitably disappointed all over again. Coincidentally Dylan’s debut I also disliked – so what do I know? The following year and a much better effort – Clouds – came out. The voice is a bit more varied, less shrill and I have always loved her deeper notes. The songs seem more interesting too – better melodies and sumptuous guitar strumming. This record sold much better, partly on the back of the single ‘Both Sides Now’ with its unforgettable words. I also like ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘Gallery’ and ‘Songs to Ageing Children Come’. But almost all the songs are interesting and varied. She was beginning by now to get into her stride, stepping out of her folk style and into one of her very own. Several artists had begun to record her songs too and she was unashamed of her quite personal and emotional lyrics. She was beginning to write pure poetry, just like Dylan had before her and Leonard Cohen was just arriving on the scene. Ladies Of The Canyon followed in 1970 and was pretty damn good, in fact I really like this album. In fact, quite a few ‘slowburn’ artists’ albums preceding the ‘Big One’ are usually pretty excellent. And this is no exception. Joni was almost famous, starting to fill larger venues and just on the cusp of Worldwide Acclaim. The template of simple acoustic guitar and piano was expanding to include jazzier elements and the songs were stretching out into Joni’s signature sound. One of the defining elements of greatness is that the listener instantly recognises the voice; and not just the tone, but the emphasising, the phrasing, the breathing almost. Joni, in a later interview, called it your ‘Auk’ – that distinctive thing about voices that means we just ‘know’ it is Joni or Dylan or whoever as soon as a new song is heard. Almost every song on ladies is very good. If I have to choose, it would be ‘Woodstock’, ‘For Free’ and of course ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (her first big hit) – not forgetting a much earlier written song now committed to record – ‘The Circle Game’. But of course, in many ways Joni was only just beginning. She was still something of an ingenue, a beginner, unsure of just how far she would travel in her search for perfection. We were soon to discover exactly how incredible an artist, a poet, a musician and a singer she would become. But before we get to Blue, her first and maybe most enduring masterpiece we have a rare little album of a live performance from 1970 called Amchitka. She had agreed to play a concert on behalf of early Greenpeace in Northern Canada. I am not sure if Blue had been released yet but she sung a few songs from that and some earlier ones too. Best was a duet with James Taylor (see T) where she segued ‘Carey’ and ‘Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. In later years she would criticise Bob, but she sung his song and joined him on The Rolling Thunder Review in ’75. Then we come to her Masterpiece – Blue. From the superb dark blue photo on the cover the mood is set for a great batch of some of her best songs. In the latest Rolling Stone top 100 albums of all time, Blue is at number 3. The album keeps growing in popularity and fame, and even now – though I know every note and word off by heart – the album still sounds fresh and bright and NEW. Every song is just right, they follow each other, one after the other as if Joni is writing a daily diary, one day happy ‘My Old Man’ ‘Carey’ and then sad and devastated ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ and ‘Blue’; songs of love ‘A Case Of You’ and ‘River’ and songs of personal loss ‘Little Green’ (about the child she gave up for adoption, and ‘This Flight Tonight’. Her playing, guitar, piano and Appalachian Zither, and oh, that voice – now maturing and slightly deeper are magnificent. But the whole feel of the album is of an open and wounded and sometimes elated heart….and honesty. There is absolutely no artifice here at all. Similar in it’s way to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which would follow a couple of years later – and is likewise (possibly) my favourite album of all time. I could happily listen to Joni and Bob and Leonard all day without tiring at all. And Blue is just 10 songs – less than 40 minutes of perfection. She followed this a year later with another brilliant album For The Roses. And though brilliant it didn’t sound quite as wonderful as Blue, which was such a hard act to follow. For my ears the songs don’t quite flow so well, and just a touch too much heavy piano songs. However, having said that it is very hard to find any fault with the album. Not a poor song, and some are slightly angrier or seem do to me. I particularly like the hit single ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’, which she apparently wrote because the record company said they wanted a hit. But I also love ‘lesson in Survival’ and ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ – which was apparently written about her then lover James Taylor’s heroin addiction. Another great record really – but Joni had not reached her peak at all.
ngs)– one of the very greats. I remember seeing her on a Sight and Sound concert on BBC2 singing mostly songs from Blue; her first Masterpiece. I bought it and slowly worked my way back to her first 3 albums. Her debut was Song To A Seagull (1968) – and really I cannot see much evidence of the greatness that was to come. The songs seem almost twee – very much in the folk mode, and her voice is so high it is almost shrill at times. I quite like the title song and ‘Night in The City’ – but I almost cannot listen to the rest. Apparently, it was produced by David Crosby and has lately been remastered and sounds much better. However – I have no wish to buy it again and be inevitably disappointed all over again. Coincidentally Dylan’s debut I also disliked – so what do I know? The following year and a much better effort – Clouds – came out. The voice is a bit more varied, less shrill and I have always loved her deeper notes. The songs seem more interesting too – better melodies and sumptuous guitar strumming. This record sold much better, partly on the back of the single ‘Both Sides Now’ with its unforgettable words. I also like ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘Gallery’ and ‘Songs to Ageing Children Come’. But almost all the songs are interesting and varied. She was beginning by now to get into her stride, stepping out of her folk style and into one of her very own. Several artists had begun to record her songs too and she was unashamed of her quite personal and emotional lyrics. She was beginning to write pure poetry, just like Dylan had before her and Leonard Cohen was just arriving on the scene. Ladies Of The Canyon followed in 1970 and was pretty damn good, in fact I really like this album. In fact, quite a few ‘slowburn’ artists’ albums preceding the ‘Big One’ are usually pretty excellent. And this is no exception. Joni was almost famous, starting to fill larger venues and just on the cusp of Worldwide Acclaim. The template of simple acoustic guitar and piano was expanding to include jazzier elements and the songs were stretching out into Joni’s signature sound. One of the defining elements of greatness is that the listener instantly recognises the voice; and not just the tone, but the emphasising, the phrasing, the breathing almost. Joni, in a later interview, called it your ‘Auk’ – that distinctive thing about voices that means we just ‘know’ it is Joni or Dylan or whoever as soon as a new song is heard. Almost every song on ladies is very good. If I have to choose, it would be ‘Woodstock’, ‘For Free’ and of course ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (her first big hit) – not forgetting a much earlier written song now committed to record – ‘The Circle Game’. But of course, in many ways Joni was only just beginning. She was still something of an ingenue, a beginner, unsure of just how far she would travel in her search for perfection. We were soon to discover exactly how incredible an artist, a poet, a musician and a singer she would become. But before we get to Blue, her first and maybe most enduring masterpiece we have a rare little album of a live performance from 1970 called Amchitka. She had agreed to play a concert on behalf of early Greenpeace in Northern Canada. I am not sure if Blue had been released yet but she sung a few songs from that and some earlier ones too. Best was a duet with James Taylor (see T) where she segued ‘Carey’ and ‘Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. In later years she would criticise Bob, but she sung his song and joined him on The Rolling Thunder Review in ’75. Then we come to her Masterpiece – Blue. From the superb dark blue photo on the cover the mood is set for a great batch of some of her best songs. In the latest Rolling Stone top 100 albums of all time, Blue is at number 3. The album keeps growing in popularity and fame, and even now – though I know every note and word off by heart – the album still sounds fresh and bright and NEW. Every song is just right, they follow each other, one after the other as if Joni is writing a daily diary, one day happy ‘My Old Man’ ‘Carey’ and then sad and devastated ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ and ‘Blue’; songs of love ‘A Case Of You’ and ‘River’ and songs of personal loss ‘Little Green’ (about the child she gave up for adoption, and ‘This Flight Tonight’. Her playing, guitar, piano and Appalachian Zither, and oh, that voice – now maturing and slightly deeper are magnificent. But the whole feel of the album is of an open and wounded and sometimes elated heart….and honesty. There is absolutely no artifice here at all. Similar in it’s way to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which would follow a couple of years later – and is likewise (possibly) my favourite album of all time. I could happily listen to Joni and Bob and Leonard all day without tiring at all. And Blue is just 10 songs – less than 40 minutes of perfection. She followed this a year later with another brilliant album For The Roses. And though brilliant it didn’t sound quite as wonderful as Blue, which was such a hard act to follow. For my ears the songs don’t quite flow so well, and just a touch too much heavy piano songs. However, having said that it is very hard to find any fault with the album. Not a poor song, and some are slightly angrier or seem do to me. I particularly like the hit single ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’, which she apparently wrote because the record company said they wanted a hit. But I also love ‘lesson in Survival’ and ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ – which was apparently written about her then lover James Taylor’s heroin addiction. Another great record really – but Joni had not reached her peak at all.
Tom McRae – a Suffolk born singer-songwriter of this Century no less; Who says I only like artists from the Sixties and Seventies? He came to prominence at the turn of the Millenium, when he was feted to become the new Dylan etc:, like so many others before. But Dylan he ‘ain’t; not that he isn’t very good – he just isn’t changing the world as Bob did. His debut album Tom McRae came out in 2000 – and was very good, but somehow not even there. His voice is subtle and quiet and occasionally soaring and the tunes are okay and yet somehow you don’t even hear them at all. The record starts and then it is over and you don’t remember a damn thing. I liked ‘The Boy With the Bubble Gun’ and ‘You Cut Her Hair’ but I cannot tell you what they were about. His third All Maps Welcome is similar if a bit livelier in places. Okay, a bit like Elbow and Coldplay at times and an influence of Ed Sheeran too. But honestly nothing really stays in the brain after it ends. Best are ‘The Girl Who Falls Downstairs’ and ‘Packing For The Crash’. But I gave up on him after this.
Meatloaf – in spite of the ridiculous name, he was an exceptional, almost operatic singer. He came to fame with the superb album Bat out Of Hell – which I remember being first heard on The Old grey Whistle Test in 1977. Along with half the world I loved it and bought the album and played it to death. Still the best driving record ever. Every song a winner – written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren – it could hardly fail. It was a phenomenon which Meatloaf failed to eclipse or even approach again, despite linking up again with Steinman. I only have the original on CD, and there have been several Greatest Hits and version of this – the original stands supreme and unimprovable. Hard to pick a favourite, but maybe ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’ just edges it. Only the one album – and really that is all you need.
Katie Mehlua – Another smooth, almost cabaret, singer from America – though Katie does come originally from Georgia. A silky yet strong voice and a good choice of songs, some self-written, some old favourites. First up is Call Off The Search (2004), and a pretty good debut album really. I particularly like her version of ‘Lilac Wine’ and the big hit ‘Closest Thing To Crazy’. The whole album is a pleasure to listen to, but nothing at all new, either in style or arrangement – in fact sometimes hard to notice when one song ends and the next begins. Also good is Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’. Her second album Piece by Piece is exactly the same template; and almost as good. I like ‘Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing’ and ‘Halfway up The Hindu Kush’ – if only for the strange lyrics. Is it me, or is it just my familiarity with the older songs – but this stuff just doesn’t excite me. It is good – no doubt, but is good good enough? Not really, I am afraid.
Mercury Rev – another album that was hailed as genius and turned out to be just so-so. Well maybe a bit better than so-so, but not in the genius league by any means. An okay listen I suppose – best songs being ‘Holes’ and ‘Endlessly’. I don’t think they have really been heard of since….
Mike and the Mechanics – Mike Rutherford, originally base player and later lead guitarist with Genesis, possibly bored with the semi-retirement of Genesis, started this band, solely I think for recording a few of his songs. A sort of supergroup of session musicians and featuring Paul carrack on vocals. The line-up tended to change with each album. I’m not sure if they ever toured. Mike had had a couple of solo albums out earlier (see R) but the songs for this band were very commercial and sold well as singles and albums. I only have two albums, the first is The Living Years (1988). A very pleasant, almost soft rock album; very easy listening as most of the songs sound as if you have heard them years ago. Best tracks are the title track, ‘Nobody’s perfect’ and ‘Why Me’. I also have Beggar on a Beach of Gold (1995). Possibly even better than Living years. Fave songs are hard to choose as it is all good – possibly ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ and ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’. A very enjoyable album – but ultimately, I was always searching for something new, something bright, something different – so that was enough of Mike and his mechanics.
Steve Miller Band – a Seventies and Eighties American rock band, pretty good – I have Greatest Hits – but apart from the excellent ‘Joker’ and ‘ Abracadabra’ not that exciting. Still nice to have in the collection.
Don McLean – a true giant in the pantheon of modern song. A bit of a loner, quite a shy man who was seemingly introspective in his song-writing at times. He came to prominence in the early Seventies in the rush of singer songwriters who emerged out of the Sixties. A brilliant guitar and banjo player he was a folkie to begin with and a bit of a protest singer too. He had toured with Pete Seeger and was an accomplished performer. Like most people I first heard the song and album American Pie, and then went back and bought his first album Tapestry (1971). And what an album, what a debut – the songs so good, so perfect, and the playing, singing and production immaculate. The lead-off song ‘Castles In The Air’ is almost as good as anything he would write later. ‘And I Love Her So’ was covered by so many artists, including Sinatra. But really all the songs are good…I especially love ‘Magdalene Way’ and ‘Circus Song’. A very excellent record. Followed and surpassed by American Pie the following year – though these songs had been written a few years earlier. Well, what can you say about the title track and huge single – it is one of the classic songs of the Twentieth century – and at 8 and a half minutes an incredible listen. It is still enduringly popular and has been covered even by Madonna. But it isn’t even the best song on the record. Nor was follow up single ‘Vincent’ which was also a huge hit. My favourite songs are ‘Empty Chairs’ and ‘Winterwood’ -but like its’ predecessor, there is not a poor song on the record. So, two in a row – where could Don go after this. Well, inwards was the answer. That difficult third album Don McLean was quite introverted really – despite the mood lightening ‘Narcisssma’ and ‘Amazon’ the album deals with sadness and loss really. My favourite songs are ‘Oh My, What A Shame’, ‘The More You Pay’ and ‘Bronco Bill’s Lament’. Another excellent record, though I did wonder why album number 3 should be self-titled – but it was maybe the record company’s idea. Anyway, Don was pretty established by now and we all looked forward to album number 4. But we all expected another album of brilliant self-written compositions, a bit of protest maybe. But nobody was prepared for this album of very old songs played on banjo and guitar in a more or less traditional style. It was called Playin’ Favourites – and was just that; Don playing a few old songs he had always loved. The critics and most of his fans didn’t understand why he was almost alienating his hard-won audience. But actually, it is a delightful, if quite different sort of album. It is now actually a bit of a collector’s item and is hard to find on CD or indeed even on vinyl. Best tracks – ‘Mountains of Mourne’ and ‘Fools Paradise’, Don returned somewhat to his original style with Homeless Brother (1974) his fifth album in 5 years….but really this was not my favoutite album of his. I felt that he was drifting into a more middle of the road territory, apart from the title track and lead-off song ‘Winter Has Me In Its Grip’, I am not enamoured with the rest. Then Don had a three years break and changed record companies. He returned in1977 with a zinger Prime Time, one of his best. The title track is about as close to a rock number as Don ever got, and it really rolls along. There is a sort-of protest song ‘The Statue’ about immigrants and how they’re no longer welcome. There is a humourous song ‘Building My Body’ and a couple of tender ballads – and my very favourite ‘The Pattern Is Broken’. A very good album. For some reason I stopped buying his albums around this time; my only defence being so many other artists I was following. But lately I bought a 3 cd box set with his next 2 albums on it. Chain Lightning came out in 1978 – and it seems only half an album; half the songs are originals and the others are standards, which Don sings mostly in a Fifties Doo-Wop style, complete with backing by The Jordanaires. A syrupy sort of album, not that it is really bad, but veering far too close to the middle of the road. One song is so religious too that it almost weeps with divinity. Don’s voice is sumptuous but the edge seems missing completely. He speak-sings one song ‘It’s A Beautiful Life’, and does a beautiful cover of Roy Orbison’s (see O) ‘Crying’ which was a number one hit. The long title track is quite good, but hardly up there with his very best – so – a disappointment. Even worse really was Beleivers (1979) half the songs are standards with nothing to really warrant their inclusion. Apart from that, only ‘Sea Man’ bears any faint resemblance to his classic stuff. He seems to have lost it. However he has continued to churn out albums, mostly of old hits by others; I have just one For The Memories which is pretty dire stuff I must say. But let us finish with the wonderful Greatest Hits which concentrates rightly on his early songs. I have seen him live where he likewise sung his early hits and he was great. Anyway, a great talent whoi seems to have run out of ideas – or just decided to make money with recording old songs by others. Who knows?