VII. Picking up the pieces of my sweet shattered dreams

In  review: Gordon Lightfoot, Sundown (WEA, 1974).

I really doubt that Gordon Lightfoot has ever been ‘cool’.  As he has said himself, he came out of the folk revival of the (very) early 1960s.  Despite some cosmetic changes to his style over the years, he has remained true to his vision.  Sundown, one of a host of studio albums Lightfoot put out in the 1970s is very constant.  It’s a disc of ballads with strong country undertones.  And you could just stop there.

But when you start listening to the songs, their lyrics, you start to realise these are no steel gee-tar bourbon swillers.  Lightfoot is singing about love, yes, but he’s singing about unrequited love. And he’s singing about it well.

The pairing of the longing and regret in the music mixes so well.  The arrangements and orchestrations are balanced perfectly to give maximum impact.  An edge exists to this album, though.  ‘Sundown’, Lightfoot’s best selling single, is about toxic love and an extramarital entanglement from which no love can come.

There are more upbeat tracks, of course. But even in the most downcast there is resilience and reflection. Love may not have worked out.  Love may have been cruel.  But love is a window into yourself.  Your inner being, Lightfoot implies, needs your love as much as any other individual.  Indeed, only through finding a level in our own emtional life can we ever hope to access honestly someone else’s. As the lines from ‘Carefree Highway’ states, ‘living is just bein’ satisfied / With knowing ‘ I got no one left to blame’.

This all combines into a high impact album that is yet subtle.  It asks you some direct questions but then leaves you to ponder a few potentially unpalatable answers.

VI. I’m fighting things I cannot see

In this review: Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega (A&M, 1985).

Suzanne Vega was just always out of earshot for me.  My friends listened to her and she influenced the music I liked.  With the exception of the inclusion of a track or two of hers on a mixtape here and there, it wasn’t until the DNA remix of ‘Tom’s Diner’ got some major radio play in the mid-90s that I began to think about her in her own right.

Listening to her self-titled 1985 debute, it is very clear that she started as she meant to https://i2.wp.com/www.ondarock.it/images/monografie/suzannevega_2_2210.jpgcontinue. I find the clarity of her vision to be really amazing, especially for a first release.  There is something about the clear, intellectual vocals paired with just-complex-enough instrumental backing that sounds timeless.  In an age of overblown stadium rock, Suzanne Vega stands out for its intimacy.

But if intimate it is not small or insular.  The topics she covers are actually quite bold.  A strong feminist, or at the very least empowered, theme comes across.  Love is complex, but it is also not about objectification.  In ‘Marlene on the Wall’, one of her best known tracks, Vega deals with the very reverse: the actual fall out of being in a toxic relationship from the point of view of a woman struggling against societal expectations of how she is supposed to behave.  Perhaps in our post truth era such themes resonate particularly.  Actually, songs like ‘Straight Lines’ (which I think is all about mental health) speak of the empowerment that comes from self knowledge and self belief.

The subject matter doesn’t weight down the songs, though.  There is an effervescence throughout this album that is very beguiling.  Vega occasionally lulls you into a false sense that this is all a bit of bubblegum.  But the words and thoughts worm their way into your mind in a way that hasn’t happened to me very often.  I found myself staring into space at work this week thinking about ‘Small Blue Thing’.  I’m not sure I understand the song completely, but I did wonder if I was/is/have ever been a small thing in someone else’s pocket.

My friends who listened to Vega were all women.  I have an inkling about why Vega’s music would appeal especially to young women trying to find their way in a very uncongenial world.  Vega is smart and sharp, and unapologetically so, but she also seems to play the system.  The messages in her songs aren’t sugar coated but they also aren’t fully frontal.  There is almost a guide-book quality to this album, almost like Vega is teaching her listeners how to appear to conform whilst actually questioning, questioning, questioning.  If I had been a teenage woman I can certainly see why I’d have wanted to listen to what Vega was saying.  To my ears now, it’s also a call to question how I approach relationships and how I view those around me and their relationships.  Vega calls for equality and equity, but also for criticality and clarity.

We could all use some practice on recognising those.

V. You can never surrender

In this review: Corey Hart, Boy in the Box (EMA, 1985).

This almost isn’t a real review.  I saw this album in a discount bin for £1.  When my sister was in her mid teens, a giant poster of Corey hung on the door to her room. She must have spun all his tracks at one point or another.  With her birthday coming up, I thought I’d pick it up, throw it in an album frame, and send it to her.

Like most of us, though, the only track of his I can remember actually listening to is ‘Sunglasses at night’.  So, I figured I’d throw it on.  This led to two major surprises:

  1. This is a full album.  For some reason (perhaps the slightly naff album design) I thought this was a single. But no! It’s nine tracks of 1980s Canadian content. (That’s just over 10p a track, which pretty good value by anyone’s estimation.)
  2. It’s actually quite decent.

To start with, Hart’s voice is clear and strong. He doesn’t demonstrate the range that Sting or Bryan Adams does, but there’s good control there.  He mustered nice emotion as well, which plays well to the material in many of the tracks.  There is good, deep backup to his vocals.  A range of percussion fills in between some fun guitar shredding and the healthy dose of synth.  There is good energy throughout the album, making much of it come across as still fresh and approachable.

Hart is at his best in the slower songs.  ‘Never surrender’, for example blends his aching heart throb vocals with a slower backbeat that ends up having significant emotional impact.* ‘Everything in my heart’, leading off the second side, has the makings of a classic pop ballad.  The last minute of the final track, ‘Water from the moon’, is simply beautiful.

When things get more up tempo, though, it’s a bit shakier.  The title track, ‘Boy in the box’, fails to achieve critical mass and some of the other bouncier songs are slight non-starters.  More than a bit of this is down to the 1985 production choices.  The 80s saxophone line in ‘Komrade Kiev’, for example, is a bit embarrassing.

Still, if you’re reading this Mr Hart, I think you should be proud.  If I could pull out an album I cut 30 years ago (especially if it were my debute album) and have it as listenable as this one, then I’d consider myself damned lucky.  Also, I think my sister will be happy to be reunited with your sound.

* – I just checked, and ‘Never surrender’, won a Juno! So smart people agree with me 😏

Kicking it into gear

I’ve always loved Kickstarter.  Just the range of ideas — not even limited to spectrum of the sublime to the ridiculous — continues to astound and inspire me.

gearbox

Not long after I started this wee blog (so, about three weeks ago) I came across a project where engineers from London want to put together a crazy-cool turntable that figures out what you’re listening to and connects to a range of devices.

It’s called the Gearbox Automatic Turntable and you need to back it, right now (assuming you’re reading this before 1 February)!

Why?  Well…

  • it’s going to be made in the UK
  • the components are going to be high quality
  • it has a compact footprint and sweet design
  • there’s nothing else out there that combines analogue and digital in this manner
  • because you should! (I mean, just look at it).

Plus, they’ve got some cool backers’ rewards including lots of free vinyl.  So, basically, you’ve got nothing to lose.

IV. Franky ain’t no good

In this review: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (Columbia, 1982).

You don’t have to be big to be a giant.  This album proves that.

Any album released between 1980’s Titan The River and the superlative 1984 Born in the USA would have a difficult time getting noticed.  But not Nebraska. In fact, I think this disc is the definition of why Springsteen is the Boss.

It’s just him. His words, his voice, his guitar, and about three other tracks of overdub, all of which he did.  I know Springsteen caught a lot of criticism early in his career for not being as good a songwriter as Bob Dylan.  There might be some truth in there (I’m sure Bruce’s Nobel prize is still in the post or something), but then then you actually listen to the thing. Springsteen isn’t being austere for effect. He was laying down demo tracks to record with the E Street Band and only afterwards stepped back to see a full album.  If your demo tracks are that hot then just wow.


I’ve never been to Nebraska. But I’ve been to a lot of places that sound a lot like where Springsteen is singing about. Driving through Pennsylvania’s rust belt on the way to and from my grandparents, looking at the post industrial horrors of western New York State, and in the auto town where I grew up I could see all of these things and knew I’d met most of these people.

Listening through Nebraska I was reminded of a poem by Constantine Cavafy called ‘The City’. In it, the first stanza talks with the voice of someone who is desperate to leave a city where they feel they have wasted their life.  Instinctively, they know that their only hope of redemption comes from breaking the cycle and starting anew elsewhere. The second stanza is a mirror of the first.  But this time, the voice is of a commentator saying in no uncertain terms that the first voice is doomed to failure. The wasted life wasn’t due to location but rather to the person themself. They will fail not because of any external factors but because the failure is inside of them then, now, and forever.

Springsteen’s view of the world is exactly like that.  The protagonist of ‘Atlantic City’, for example, tries to lead an honest life but slips back into the familiar and fatalistic when the chips go down.  The best he can look for is the hope that everything that dies somehow will come back, even if he’s unclear about they might come back to. Or, in ‘The Highway Patrolman’, Jo Roberts can’t find wholeness in his corner of the world; if he does his job then he betrays his brother but loyalty to family could jeopardise what gives him stability. The halves can never be made whole.

Springsteen has never shied away from the difficult or the uncomfortable in his music.  It takes a real talent and chutzpah to put these tracks out there, though.  The fact that this album is still in print, 30+ years later, shows that we need more straight up music telling things we don’t really want to know.

III. Don’t stand so close to me 

In this review: The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M, 1980).

I spent the summer of 1992 in Cyprus with my father, who was working there at the time.  The tourist town of Pafos was awash with really cheap cassette tapes, all pirated. We bought loads to listen to on the endless car journeys that he had to do.  The really low quality tapes weren’t what you wanted to put into a real stereo, but we were driving ex-United Nations Mazda 323s, so it didn’t really matter.

One of these tapes was a compilation of Police hits.  I cant remember if it was a proper album or not, but there was something of the catchy post-reggae beats and throught provoking lyrics that matched the hot and scratchy, almost unfinished, Cypriote landscape.  Much later, in the depths of Canadian winters, I would put the Police on and recaptured a little of the warmth and sense of speed from that summer.

When I came across Zenyatta Mondatta in the used record shop near me, though, I realised that I didn’t know much about their albums.  ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ and ‘De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da’ — unsurprisingly both on that sticky cassette from Cyprus — are two of my all time favourites, so I decided to take a punt.

I was not disappointed.

Of course those two bangers are amazing.  The rest of the album really holds together, though. Listening to it through I was stuck by just how tight the whole thing is.  For all its flair and bounce, there is no wasted effort at all.  Each component, each note, each track does exactly what it is supposed to.  But that doesn’t mean it’s simple.  As has been said often, simplicity isn’t simple.  What this demonstrates is a band working as real unit.

Looking at the narrative behind the recording, this is even more amazing.  According to legend, this was laid down, in a hurry, in the few weeks leading up to a major world tour.  Apparently, it was only completed in the we hours of the day the tour started.  Being a master at all sorts of last minute work, I know the perils implicit in this kind of strategy; it can go so wrong so quickly and with no time to react.  And yet, there is no hurry in this album (although, admittedly, they did re-record the two singles later because of perceived poor production).  It sets its pace and sticks to it, unfolding a sound that shows the edgy, angry future of the band whilst still cradling their reggae roots.

The b side is particularly entrancing.  ‘Man in a Suitcase’ and ‘Shadows in the Rain’ are both hypnotic gems, drawing you in and not letting you down.  The control of the vocal mix is really staggering , turning the paired down lyrics into nearly another instrumental line and giving the impression of not so much actively hearing the words but just ending up with them inside your head.

It’s more than just the sound on this one for me, though. Even though this disc plays like it was pressed yesterday, the sleeve is well loved.  I know that whomever bought this rarely played it, but they kept it.  It’s been handled, moved, taken with.  I think that’s not always the case with music so it makes me doubly happy.

II. The further on I go, the less I know

In this review, Peter Gabriel, Us (Real World, 1992).

I came of age in the early 90s, that silver age of the mix tape.  CDs had become ubiquitous, making creating kickin’ mixes easy.  But, the internet was on the horizon, with Napster parties and mp3s just about to burst on the stage in a real way.  All too soon we were swapping playlists and, eventually, getting into streaming services and all sorts.

That time — about 1992/3 — that I fell in love (properly) for the first time.  And, joy!, it was reciprocated.  My beloved we shall call Cynthia.  She was a complex and brooding soul, vastly intelligent, and very artistic.  She also had two older sisters who listened to lots of music, meaning that she really opened my ears to all sorts of sounds that were brand new to me and amazing.


She wove these together into a series of mixes that I still have, nearly 25 years later.  One thread that tied them together was Peter Gabriel.  ‘Only Us’ became a theme for our relationship and stayed with me in the dark days after our (inevitable) breakup.  With a few exceptions, though, I didn’t know much else by him.

When I was in a record store the other day I saw Us, his sixth studio album.  I was feeling the pricks of nostalgia, and since ‘Only Us’ doesn’t seem to be available on Spotify, I decided to go for it.  It’s a two disc set including other tracks I knew, like ‘Steam’ and ‘Sledgehammer’.

The production value is exactly what you’d expect from Gabriel. Complex orchestrations, rich textures, and Sinead O’Connor doing some backing vocals (??).  As an album, though, it does chart an interesting emotional journey.  The usual themes are all their, like live and longing and hearbreak. But Gabriel sprinkles hope in there as well, which for me really raises the whole experience.

Sitting here this evening, with a bourbon in my hand and the embers of a hard week dying out around me, this album is coming together like a puzzle. The picture I’m beginning to see is complex, but it does look a lot like needing to think about yourself and your own actions.

Critics of the album found it a little bland, and I can see where they’re coming from.  Giving it a chance to unfold at its own pace, however, and allowing it to open itself up under its own terms is very positive.  It undulates beautifully, like watching a fire when there are no other lights on in the room.  

A few of the places I’ve been hurt open up, but just enough to give me the chance to reflect on choices that have been made.  I wonder if it does the same for Cynthia.

I. Cathy, I’m lost

I remember the day my mother came home with a CD player.  A friend had said that Sears was having a sale and so she went and picked one up.  A pretty decent one, too, but it wouldn’t play music.  That’s because she’d got one designed to plug into a component system.  So, we had to go out and buy and actual stereo and, as it turned out, a few CDs to boot.  I was about ten.

One of the very first of those little silver discs I ever listened to of my own accord was Graceland by Paul Simon.  My parents listened to lots of music, but nearly always on the radio or mixes recorded inexpertly onto cassette tapes.  The CD player brought, for the first time, the concept of an album — a sustained and discrete expression of artistic vision — into my life.  I didn’t pick it up quickly, and to this day cherry pick my favourites onto playlists, but I did start thinking about it.

Graceland and, later, Rhythm of the Saints became friends.  I love now as I did then the flow of their songs into sound stories that gathered meaning for me each time I played them.  It also inspired me to get to know Simon’s work better and especially his partnership with Art Garfunkel.  These guys really became part of my teenaged world and I have happily harmonised till many dawns with most of their catalogue.

It seemed fitting, therefore, that the first LP I would buy for this new listening approach would be by Paul Simon.  I chose the two disc The Ultimate Collection compilation because it was on sale and has a good mix of his material that he preformed with Garfunkel.

paulsimon

There’s nothing new or ground breaking here.  There are 18 tracks and you can probably already sing at least 10 of them and have heard about 15 of them enough times to be recognisable.  They’re mixed and matched, though, and the sides each come together to tell their own story.

Take the first side, for example: ‘You Can Call Me Al’, ‘Graceland’, ‘Mrs Robinson’, and ‘The Boxer’.  Arguably the four most iconic songs written by Simon, I had nevertheless not listened to them in this grouping before.  Introvert anthems all, these four tracks chart a journey Simon has taken through inner space and the various relationships with which he connected along the way.  There’s hope and optimism mixed in, too, but you can’t get away from the pangs.

I would never say that I have an all time favourite track.  There’s just too much music out there for me to ever know how to make that decision.  Still, one that would be in the running is ‘America’.  A simple three stanza poem about the aimless journeying of youth and what it’s like coming to terms with forging your own identity stanza, I’ve always found this beguiling.  There’s vulnerability to it, as well, that I think cuts through the very masculine vibe that S&G often give off.  It made me happy to see this included along side much bigger numbers.

Glad to have this.  It’s got good balance.  And it’s interesting to hear Simon’s voice remain rock solid through the years, even as his writing and thinking have changed wildly.

My rig

So, the first thing you’re probably asking is: on what is the guy going to be listening to all of these life-defining, listening-enabling, mind-blowing LPs?

Well, I’m going to disappoint the hard core amongst you straight up.

Once upon a time, my friends got really into hifi systems.  I mean REALLY into them.  This obsession got the point where one was planning to build a concrete pillar from the foundation of his house up to the room with his stereo to ensure as vibration free a base for his turn table as possible.  (He never did, sadly.)

So, I had a general vision of what a good standard was at which I should aim.  My budget, however, had other ideas.  So, I settled on flexible, upgradable, and (ahem) inexpensive.  After some research, I picked up a Sony CMT-SBT40D.  sonyThis is a little mini system with 50W speakers that has received decent reviews.  It also is bluetooth capable.  Now, this is particularly important because it means that in addition to a turntable I can also connect the range of devices that are floating around my house, making the other residents happy as well.  Fifty watts of total system power won’t impress many of you, but for the space I’m working with it’s just fine.  Having a radio and CD player is a bonus.  It has clear sound, if slightly unresponsive volume dial, and a remote.

For the most important piece of this set up, though, I struggled.  *Good* turntables are beautiful things.  Bad turntables aren’t worth the money you spend on them.  Anything in the middle?  Doesn’t really exist.  So, I went bad(ish), but bolstered my decision with a good trawl through reviews on several sites.  ionEventually, I settled on the ION Audio Air LP (piano black — couldn’t justify nearly £25 extra for the wood grain finish, although I’m kinda regretting that now).  It’s a bluetooth system, but it also has RCA and USB output, which means I can wire it into a better amp if I upgrade or my computer should I want to do geeky things.  Having a CD fall out of the box first did make me smile, but I haven’t worried about ripping my vinyl tracks yet.  The belt drive is good, it has a range of table speeds, and a fairly smooth motion (although the cradle or whatever you call it is only half-sized, so it’s not going to be as smooth as all that).  The bluetooth pairing works well.  The sound isn’t as clear through the system, or headphones, as I would ideally like.  Overall, though, it does have a reasonable balance of volume, intensity, and low fairly distortion or garbage being hard to find, so I think it’s much better than it could be.  That being said, it does have a good richness without too much crackling or hissing in most operation.  Despite being cheap, it appears well made, with useful instructions and surprisingly helpful online assistance.

So, not a crazily auspicious start.  But, as my good friend S (who played bass in a 90s Brit pop band and knows a thing or two about music) says, the most important thing in choosing a system is to have a budget and stick to it.  If I really get into the LP thing then maybe I’ll upgrade.  With the bluetooth functionality, I can go for either a better turntable or amp/hifi as the mood (and the finances) take me.

In the meantime, this is what we’re going with!  What are you using?  Any thoughts on this pairing?  Any recommendations for better kit?

Learning to listen

couch

This blog’s genesis does coincide with the new year. It is not a new year’s resolution kind of blog, though.  Rather, it’s an odd and roundabout way of dealing with an issue — that of learning to listen.  Not hearing, mind you; my ears work fine.  But actually listening.

You see, there have been some things happening to me recently that have been impacted on by my listening abilities (or, occasionally, lack thereof).  So, when a record player came into my life this Christmas I thought I might use that as an opportunity to start to try and listen again.

As any of you who know records will know, this isn’t just a spur of the moment Spotify play list kind of listening.  Analogue gives little away by means of instant gratification.  Rather, you’ve got to commit, focus, and pay attention.  And maybe those are skills I need more of in my life.

So, we’ll see where this gets us.  Like I said in the about section, what I’m writing here isn’t going to make hardened audiophiles weak at the knees.  But, for me, this isn’t all about Mission speakers and vacuum tube amps.  It’s about taking the time to stop and listen and think.

Who knows.  Maybe I’ll actually learn something doing this that’ll have some relevancy in other, less blog-worthy, parts of my life.  Are you going to listen along with me?