Michelle Shocked – I can remember precisely the moment I first heard Michelle. It was in my Dad’s car in 1988 and the song ‘When I Grow Up’ came on the radio. I knew straightaway that this girl was new, different and singing a great song in a style that defied description….and still does. Alternative Folk – she is listed under, and it’s as good a name as any. I bought the album ‘Short Sharp Shocked’ and never looked back – except to buy her first release, a live album recorded at a folk festival a couple of years earlier. The Texas Campfire Tapes (1986) is a pretty straightforward acoustic set of not too brilliant songs. Not bad songs but the recording is poor and her voice thin and reedy. Saying that I do like ‘5 a.m. in Amsterdam’ and a couple of others, but even Michelle denigrated the album later. Her first record proper was Short Sharp Shocked – and what a debut. Perfectly formed and produced songs, almost every song a winner, and I fell in love with the album. Opener ‘When I Grow Up’ is of course a gorgeous song with a tropical, almost reggae feel – and the letter sung ‘Anchorage’ is a classic by any standard (You know you’re in the largest state in the Union when you’re anchored down in Anchorage). But my favourite is ‘Memories Of East Texas’ which rolls along describing Michelle’s learning to drive on East Texas red clay back roads. For whatever reason I simply adore this song and usually repeat it again and again. I bought the expanded 2-disc version of this album with quite a few unreleased songs on it and some live versions, again brilliant but not essential to the collection. Apparently, Michelle had her first three albums mapped out completely with songs and arrangements before she even had a record contract. Her second was a slight change of direction; Captain Swing, which was a homage to the sounds of ‘swing’ and ‘big band’ music of before her birth. Not that the songs are old-fashioned and are quite topical, especially ‘On The Greener Side’ and ‘The Cement Lament’ but as usual she mixed it up with a couple of love songs ‘Too Little Too late’ and ‘Must be Luff’ – but somehow this album disappointed me, and still to some extent still does, though I have learned to like it more as time goes by. Her third effort was a country, almost bluegrass folk, album – Arkansas Traveller (1992). I really loved this album for a while but listening now it seems a bit corny in a way. Still, a handful of very good songs – ‘Come A Long Way’, ‘Over The Waterfall’ and ‘Secret To A long Life’. She then left her Mercury label (incidentally retaining the rights to all her previous albums). Two years later she released on her own independent label an album which is not now available at all – strange, as it really is possibly her best record ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ is a desperately sad album sung often in a keening wail of a voice. It deals with hardships of life ‘Stillborn’ and ‘A Child Like Grace’ deal with infant deaths; ‘Winter Wheat’ and ‘Cold Comfort’ are about the hardships of small farmers. But best of all is closer ‘No Sign Of Rain’. A brilliant album – but maybe not for everyone. She created her own record company for her later releases – Mighty Sound. First was Deep Natural (2002) which came with a bonus disc ‘Dub Natural (mostly instrumental versions). A brilliant album, and another change of style…this time an almost doowop swooping brass section – not jazz at all but an exciting sound. Some brilliant tunes too; this girl can really write great songs. Personal favourite is ‘Forgive to Forget’ (with the great line – holding on to the past is my deepest regret) – a gentle song to herself (let it go, let it go, let it go). But I also love most of the other songs on this exciting record; ‘((Joy)), ‘Why Do I get The Feeling’, ‘If Not Here’ and best of all ‘That’s So Amazing’. It really feels as if Michelle was inspired both in the writing and the execution of these songs; they absolutely knock me out. Just listened again to the instrumental disc Dub Natural and it just rocks me too. Then came a retrospective limited edition disc Shockolates – a pretty good resume, all my favourites up to Deep Natural. Then three years later came not one but 3 albums. Released simultaneously and as a threesome, the first of which was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A bit of a mixed album, some very good songs but quite a few leave me cold. Oh well; I really love ‘Evacuation Route’, ‘Elaborate Sabotage’ and ‘Goodbye’…but not much else (these just happen to be the quieter songs too). Much better was the second in the trilogy Mexican Standoff, which has a definite TexMex flavour. I really like this one; some great tunes and a lovely cohesive feel to it. Best songs – ‘Lonely Planet’, ‘La Cantine el Gato Negro’ and ‘Match burns Twice’. The third in the trilogy is Got No Strings and is a bunch of children’s or musicals songs, pleasant but a bit self indulgent. Then came (for me) the disaster – a live gospel album recorded at a church; full of evengelical bullshit. To Heaven U Ride….I hate it. She did manage to redeem herself with Soul of My Soul (2009). A simply lovely record – a return to form. Best songs of hers for a long time; ‘Love’s Song’, ‘Other People’ and ‘True Story’ and ‘Pompeii’ are the best of a very good bunch. And then nothing…Michelle is embarked on a battle with everyone in the music business, trying to stop anyone selling her music in any form that she doesn’t control whatsoever, a hopeless task. Consequently, no new releases till she gets sole control…A pity as she is truly talented, if sadly silent of late
Mike Scott – was the singer in The Waterboys (see W), and I have just one solo album of his; which is strange, as it really is great. I will make a note to myself to keep an eye out for him. Bring ‘Em All In – 1995 is a pleasure to listen to – a classic singer-songwriter, mostly acoustic and fabulous songs – and oh, that voice, full of emotion and a lilting Scottish (almost Irish) accent. Best songs – the title song, ‘Edinburgh Castle’ and ‘A Long Way To the Light’ – but really not a bad song on this record.
Scritti Politti – I have Louise to thank for this record, which she played almost constantly – and what a record; Songs To Remember 1982 was such a different and remarkably clever album; almost too clever for the music critics who struggled to pigeon-hole them. They came out of the late punk scene but leaned more towards pop and what would become indie. Lead singer and songwriter Green Gartside was truly an intellectual and littered his songs with references too obscure for more to fathom – but somehow they worked. This was their debut album, delayed for a year because he had collapsed on stage and needed to recuperate. Well, all the songs on this record are great, I cannot help singing along to them. Fave songs – ‘Assylums In Jerusalem’, ‘Lions After Slumber’ and ‘Rock-A-Boy Blue’. They made a couple of later albums but I have never really been tempted.
Scouting For Girls – despite the ambiguity of their name, I quite like this recent Indie group. A nice positive vibe, slightly reminiscent of early Squeeze (see S). They had a minor hit with ‘She’s So Lovely’ and I like opener ‘Keep On Walking’ and closer ‘James Bond’ with it’s hidden ode to Micheala Strachan. But sometimes just one album is enough….
Seasick Steve – was a strange phenomenon who popped up a few years ago and was a minor sensation….a completely unreformed old bluesman, hillbilly who played on homemade guitars – or maybe not, but who cares – he was quite a character. He interspersed his songs with a narrative about surviving on handouts and riding trains etc;. First up is the cleverly titled I Started Out With Nothing And I Still Got Most Of It Left (2008) – This was his breakthrough album I think, and the first one I got. It was very novel at the time, and I like the roughly mixed raw sound of the blues and mostly underproduced single guitar sound, his voice as rough as gravel on sandpaper he seemed very different. Best songs – the title track, ‘Happy Man’ and the long mostly spoken ‘My Youth’ – however, these long monologues pall a bit the more you hear them. I then went back and bought his debut Cheap (2004). Well – not so different really – a bit grungier maybe. And having listened twice, I can’t really pick out any favourite tracks. Much the same must be said about his next album Dog House Music (2006). Not that there is anything wrong with it, it just doesn’t grab me. I haven’t kept up with him since.
The Senators – (not to be confused with an American band of the same name) were a duo from Scotland who emerged in early 80’s. I discovered them via a couple of CD singles. I have 3 albumsand they are excellent…actually that was all they ever recorded. I don’t know much about them, they aren’t on Wikipedia. As far as I can make out they were two vocalists who sang on most of the self-written songs – they may have been Scottish. They have an uncluttered sound where the voices are clear and you can hear every word. Anyway, I really liked them, though they only made 3 albums before calling it a day. Welcome to our World (1988) was their first. A great collection of songs; best are ‘One More Chance’, ‘Little Italy’ and ‘Love and Small Talk’. Their second was Hopes and Bodies (1990); the same template – delicate and catchy songs beautifully sung – best are ‘Good Morning World’, ‘Crying Wolf’ and an excellent cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Their final album Lovely was released in 1992 – again the songs are great, if anything a touch sadder – best are ‘Forty Nights’, ‘Hosing Down The Strand’ and ‘Another Love Song’. Hard to know why some bands are successful and others are not. A pity, as I believe these boys had real talent, but then – when was talent the main determinant.
September Songs – The Music Of Kurt Weill. A secret passion of mine, these are songs from the Thirties and Forties which many musicians have loved ad much as I have. This collection was produced by Hal Wilner in 1997 and featured Nick Cave, Sting and many more and Elvis Costello among others. Some brilliant interpretations and a thoroughly enjoyable listen – if only for some.
Ron Sexsmith – unusual name, unusual singer – but maybe not so unusual. A distinctive voice and style, but at times the yearning sounds like whining. Only one album – Boy Blue – sometime in the naughties…I quite like it, but then again nothing special really.
Ed Sheeran – and right up to date – well, almost. Just the one album (so far) – X – (2014). Now, I like his voice and his style and his apparent ability to mix genres old and new….but….somehow I don’t quite buy the hype; that he is the new genius on the block for a start. When you even dare compare his musical progress to anyone from the Sixties or Seventies or even Eighties, come to that…well, of course there is no comparison….and probably never could be. And that is for one simple reason. Music meant something then, it was an identifier, it was our inspiration, it was the dominant cultural driver. Now it is simply a background noise for adverts or computer games. Not that there is not incredible talent – it is just that the whole industry, the scene, the genre has become tired. And maybe after all – all the best songs have already been written. Anyway, back to Ed; a very pleasant record, but it doesn’t make me go wow, as The Beatles or Dylan or Leonard or Joni or Neil or bowie or Elton…..or a hundred others did. Maybe I am just old and cynical, but I will continue dipping my toe in today’s music – only to return hotfoot to the music I love the best.
Buffy Sainte-Marie – I first heard Buffy in Sixth form, probably 66 or 67. She was part of the folk movement and I liked her voice, part Indian – she seemed, and of course was, totally authentic. Becoming a huge fan of her work in the seventies I had all her early albums on vinyl, and really should get them again in CD, naïve though they were in some respects. My real enthusiasm for her started with 1971’s ‘Ballerina’ and I worked my way back to 1968’s I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again, which as the title suggests is a full-on country album – and I love it. Raunchy arrangements and great melodies and, oh – that voice. She obviously loves the genre and gives it all she has got – I particularly love a couple of quieter songs ‘Tall trees In Georgia’ and ‘Take My Hand For A While’ with sumptuous melodies and a melt your heart voice. But the up-tempo songs are pretty good too; the title song and ‘Soulful Shade Of Blue’. She still does a couple of numbers with mouthbow, a unique trick of hers – but especial thanks for one of her early Indian political songs, an updated arrangement of ‘Now That The Buffalo’s Gone’ her lament for on-going Indian deceit by the U.S. Government. The following years album was a complete change of sound. All the sounds on the album have been synthesised form Buffy’s voice and guitar. In fact, as far as I can find, one of the first uses of synthesised sound, and incidentally one of the most exciting. Sad that in the 80s synthesisers simply tried to replicate acoustic instruments. Anyway, the album Illuminations will always be in my top 100 albums and I play it regularly. Not everyone’s cup of tea maybe and on first listen it can sound harsh, but somehow the songs and her voice worm their way into your consciousness and you end up worshipping the record. It starts with Buffy singing an unrecorded poem of Leonard Cohens’. It is actually an excerpt from his book Beautiful Losers, which incidentally features sex scenes with an American Indian (co-incidence or a likely story – but Buffy maybe had an affair with Leonard; almost everyone else did) A couple of up-tempo, almost hard rocking numbers; ‘Better To Find Out For Yourself’ and ‘Keeper Of The Fire’. There are semi-religious songs; ‘Mary’ and ‘Adam’ and a couple of gentle ballads; best of which is the hauntingly beautiful ‘Guess Who I Saw In Paris’. The album ends with another chilling but exquisite vocal ‘Poppies’. As soon as the album ends, I just want to put it back on again. She followed this with maybe her best-selling album She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina (1971). It had quite a big hit, which she sung on Top Of The Pops – ‘Soldier Blue’ – which was the title track of a film about atrocities against Native Americans and was a minor sensation. But the album was a quite full-on rock album; with great production and a good choice of songs, with a handful of covers – ‘Bells’ by Leonard Cohen’ and ‘Helpless’ by Neil Young, where I think she sings the song better than the original. But there are a handful of great songs from her own pen – ‘Moratorium’ (an anti-war song), ‘The Surfer’ and best of all a really sad and heartfelt song ‘Now You’ve Been Gone For A Long Time’ (best line – I wonder why you padlocked up my heart if you never meant to return). A brilliant album….and yet…like so many others, she failed to follow this up with anything as good for a very long time. 1971 saw a half decent album Moonshot. I quite liked it but felt she was moving just a bit too close to the middle of the road, her voice was splendid as usual, but the songs mostly lacked that brilliance of her three former albums. Best are 2 songs reflecting her Indian heritage ‘He’s An Indian Cowboy In The Rodeo’ and ‘Native North American Child’ – but most of the other songs don’t really reach great heights. Then followed 3 albums which I felt were pretty mediocre; I only bought them much later as a set of 3 albums on 2 discs. Quiet Places, Buffy and Changing Woman – did little to enhance her reputation, a couple of half-decent covers – Joni’s ‘For Free’ and ‘Eventually’ – a couple of half decent songs ‘Hong Kong Star Boy’ and ‘Eagle Man, Changing Woman’ are okay – but most of the rest just passes me by. But….she had one last album in the Seventies – 1976’s Sweet America, which more than made up for the previous trio. Almost every song sounds great, her voice never better and the songs just sparkle. From opener ‘Sweet America’ to closer ‘Ain’t No Time For The Worrying Blues’ she sounds positively happy…but best of all are a couple of songs where she uses traditional Indian chants in her songs; ‘QueAppelle Valley’ and ‘Honey Can You Hang Around’ are simply superb. A welcome return to form….but then Buffy retired from the music business and took up a residency as a presenter in Sesame Street. I never watched the programme, but apparently, she was a great success. However, after her own children were grown she returned to recording – and how. Co-incidence and Likely Stories suddenly appeared in 1992, sixteen years after her last record. And Buffy was now fully committed to her Indian heritage and her political views still as bright as they ever were. She re-works a couple of her old songs but the new ones are pretty fierce too….especially ‘The Big Ones Get Away’ and ‘Disinformation’…but best are two quieter songs ‘Fallen Angels’ and ‘Goodnight’. A pretty confident return to form. 1996 saw a re-recording of many of her earlier songs – a sort of greatest hits. She included a song she never released but which she had written for a film ‘Up Where We Belong’, and Buffy’s version is much quieter and reflective than the Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker extravaganza (which had been a big hit). I am not sure that these versions bring anything new to the songs and the whole album smacks of a hint of desperation. Another new album came out in 2000 – Running For The Drum. Not bad but the few new songs were supplemented by yet more re-recordings of older songs; still the new ones are pretty cool – best are ‘Too much is Never Enough’ and ‘Still this Love Goes On’. One last original album came out a few years later Power In The Blood – and here the producer has tried to really update her sound for the 21st century – I am not sure it works. The title track is very modern sounding but the words are lost. Some good songs though – ‘orion’ and ‘Love Charms’. So far that is it – but I do have 2 greatest hits; Soldier Blue – The Vanguard Years – is a lot of her earlier albums, which are the best, even the pure folk early ones. Fave songs – Co’dine and a couple of covers ‘Helpless’ and ‘For Free’. Hardly essential but a nice selection. I also found The Best of Buffy – Vol 2 a while back. No surprises, but nice to hear songs like ’97 men In This Here Town’ and ‘Reynardine’.