Mike Mellor: So, it's fundraising time again. I know you won't bring it up here, so I'll do it:
WUMB relies on membership donations for a disproportionate amount of its operating revenue. Quite literally it is the only station in Boston that plays the kind of music we talk about in this series, and the same goes for a lot of the music I write about elsewhere on this blog. It's also where you hear (the amazing) American Routes, Mountain Stage and Albert O's Highway 61 Revisited. It's something worth supporting, so do it.
This week's theme is new music. Some of my lifelong favorites have put out records in the last few months and for the most part I've been really pleased with them, especially Richard Thompson's Electric. Thompson puts out a lot of product and the results have been inconsistent since 1999's absolutely perfect Mock Tudor, but this is the best record he's put out in 13 years.
Recording at Buddy Miller's house and having him produce the record probably has a lot to do with it. Thompson is remarkably steady with his songwriting and guitar-playing styles, and I think that has been his downfall for the last decade. He needed a collaborator to send him in new directions and challenge his creative process.
Miller lives in Nashville, and there is one song in particular that sounds born to be an Americana "hit" for somebody like Delbert McClinton or T. Graham Brown, or even Robert Plant:
Brendan Hogan: Thanks for the plug. It's the people's radio, so it has to be supported by the people.
There's already been a lot of good new music this year, so I think it's worthwhile to take a look at some of it. The new Richard Thompson album is definitely one of the best. He's a guy who can go deep, and I agree that if the production stays out of the way his songwriting and playing shines through.
It feels weird to say about RT, but everyone can suffer from a heavy hand. It's not everyone who can take advantage of being pushed in the way that I'm sure Buddy Miller is capable, though. That man can get sounds, and to a musician as prolific as Thompson, it must be like being served a pitch right in the wheelhouse. The record has been stripped of anything unnecessary and left only the essence of what makes Thompson great. My understanding is that the whole album was recorded in four days, which goes to show the high octane of creative energy both guys are running on.
The new Kris Kristofferson record stays out of its own way, too. I've heard people say he sounds like a tired old man, which is a complaint I don't understand. What else should he be? The album is called Feeling Mortal, and that's exactly what it sounds like.
It also helps to remember that Johnny Cash was sounding every bit his age on his last recordings, and while I'm not comparing the two, it's testament to Rick Rubin and Don Was as producers to just get out of the way of that, not to try to force a voice or a playing style into places it can't go. You'll get a far more genuine record that way.
Mike: Kris is another one...I've literally been listening to him my entire life. He won me over as a kid with the song "If You Don't Like Hank Williams (You Can Kiss My Ass)". It was the only time I could say ass in front of my parents without getting in trouble.
If somebody complains that he sounds like a tired old man, they clearly don't know Kris's catalog. Every new composition on this album has a thematic/stylistic counterpart from the classic era of his career (1966-1974). He's been writing like this since his 20s and singing like this since his late 30s. The only differences are he sounds a little happier now and the tired sound comes from old age instead of from burning the candle at both ends.
I think we've talked about this in person, but I feel like Johnny Cash ushered in a new era in popular music where performing songwriters can work their craft for an appreciative audience all the way to the grave. This has been true in the fine arts for centuries, and we seem to always have performers living off their past glory in old age, but it's a pretty new phenomenon in such a young person's game as recorded popular music to let the old dogs have resources and creative control to do things their way. We're starting to see it with Dylan, Willie, Prine and Waits, too.
Brendan: It's definitely a new phenomenon. The idea that an artist can cultivate his or her craft over a lifetime is nothing new; in fact I think it was expected. It's the idea of the artist as pop culture icon that is new. Dylan, Prine, Cash, Willie, Waits and Kristofferson have each managed to sustain their craft as artists while also maintaining their relevance in the marketplace. And they've done it with their own finesse, which is a difficult balancing act. So to be turned off by sincerity; well, I guess I just don't get that.
Mike: Me neither.
Another guy who's a little younger but shows every sign of being on that path is Nick Cave. He's been doing whatever he damn well pleases since he formed The Birthday Party in the late '70s. Since then he's consistently been juxtaposing ideas: Christian imagery of savageness and grace; an overwhelming appetite for the romantic and insatiable lust (and occasionally a middle school locker room sense of humor); life-affirming beauty amidst gruesome violence. The main difference I see between young Nick and old Nick is that now he favors third person where he used to favor first. It's as if his characters are on paths he's already been down, and he likes to send them heaps of trouble.
His pet topic of late seems to be young people finding their way—with all their confusion and optimism and hormones—through a contemporary world that appears near collapse on many levels (economic, environmental, moral). "Water's Edge (Will of Love)" is the song off his new Bad Seeds album that really gets to me:
Brendan: Hearing that makes me think of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" and the carnival he refers to where all the Brooklyn girls stay and never win. Both songs are describing a chaotic charade that no one can succeed in, but one which still carries on. Both Cave and Waits are on the outside looking in, with the distinction being that Waits' character is in his moment and in love, whereas Caves' character has seen his best days gone by. It's a brilliant song and I love the way he sings it.
It's no secret how much I like Laura Marling's music, so you can imagine I was pretty excited this week when I got to hear a track off her forthcoming record. Laura is so young and has come so far artistically already, that I really look forward to seeing how far she'll develop her craft.
The arrangement on the new song is more sparse than on her previous records, and while I can't make assumptions about the production of the record as a whole, the thinner treatment really leaves the song wide open. The less there is to prop up a song, the more it can stand on its own. Laura's songs have always been little masterpieces, so it's cool to possibly expect a record that approaches them in a simpler, more direct way.
Mike: That's an interesting observation. I guess a Brighton, England beach and a New York City subway car aren't so different after all.
I really like how this song builds with just the four of them. Marling on guitar lets in the B3 sounding like a pea whistle, which lets in the bass, which eventually lets in the drummer, whose just playing cymbals, I think. She moves from picking to chords, the drummer picks up a bass drum beat, and then what sounds like a tambourine, the B3 picks up momentum...and she's so solid a singer she sounds the same even as she has to be heard over the increasing noise.
And that verse: "Truth about desire, they say / Is the need to breathe for another day / Truth I hear about regret / It's the hardest truth I've come to yet." She is in the zone.
I know you've been on the Marling train for a while, but I've been waiting for the next stop in her artistic development. If this song is indicative of the album I'm on the train.
Brendan: Glad to hear you're on the train. It's strange: In the past I might never have been exposed to the amount of new music I find myself exposed to now, if not for the radio gig I'm working now. I've never been one to have my finger on the pulse, so-to-speak, nor do I care about buzz. But it is cool to keep up on things, because there is good music being made.
I think it's easy, especially in this post-Woodstock Baby Boomer legend-making world, to fall under the romantic assumption that anything worth being said has already been said, or that the iconic figures who made their statements a generation ago can never be equaled. That's bull. Great new things are still being made today, some by old masters, some by people much younger than you and me. To believe there's nothing left worth being said, well, you might as well pack it in.
Mike: Great new things are being made by this guy and this gal our age, too, and this young dude. And we could play this game for hours. People talk a lot about how the contemporary economy is real tough on musicians, but that doesn't mean the music they make is lesser, or that economic forces can make the creative well run dry. Capitalism is less than 500 years old; making art is primeval.
Dark Was the Night airs on WUMB Saturdays from 8pm-midnight.
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