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Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Under-appreciated songwriters

One of the great pleasures of 2012 for me was discovering the music of Bill Fay through Life is People

Fay's songs are simply astonishing - simple and melodic yet with unusual imagery and insights (both whimsical and surreal bearing comparison with Syd Barrett and Nick Drake) delivered with gravity and grace. 'Cosmic Concerto (Life Is People)' is a highlight from a collection of stand-out tracks; a celebration of the miracle of ordinary life, the infinite variation in each human face, which stirs his soul. I'm currently absorbing his classic Time Of The Last Persecution; empathy in the face of apocalypse. Humility seems to run throughout his music; both in his low-key, almost hesitant and weathered delivery and in lyrics such as "The never ending happening / Of what's to be and what has been / Just to be a part of it / Is astonishing to me" ('The Never Ending Happening') and "I don't ask much, for myself / But for the one's I love" ('Thank You Lord').

Following on from that discovery, here are some other stunning songwriters who, like Fay, have not achieved the attention that their work actually merits:  

Michael Been, The Call's singer/songwriter, was born in Oklahoma City but migrated to California before forming The Call with Scott Musik. Sin and salvation are staples of the diet that The Call served up. Been thought that every fault in the world was within him and said that he had had "hundreds of born-again experiences" needing them because he was dead a lot of the time: "I believe in truth. Whatever is necessary for a person to experience to find the rock bottom, to know the darkness of his life, that's right. A lot of our music is confrontational, it deals with the dark side of life because that teaches us something." Red Moon and Reconciled represent the peak of The Call's work combining literate lyrics with powerful anthems and genuinely encompassing despair, ecstasy and the stages in between.

T. Bone Burnett creates ridiculous satirical morality tales - the marijuana smoking computer operator paying through the nose for free love (The Sixties), the millionaire buying culture in massive fashionable chunks (A Ridiculous Man) and the émigrés selling soft sentiment and soft porn to children (Hefner and Disney). Burnett knows though that judgements are precarious - that what we think we know and what we actually know are often in opposition - so he balances his tales on the jerky, anxious, angular rhythms of his rock 'n' country hybrid, almost like stiltwalking.

Peter Case neatly summed up the dual strands of American music when he wrote in the sleeve notes to Peter Case that he didn't know any songs about America but that these songs were about "sin and salvation". Like Bruce Springsteen, Case has an ability to speak in the voice of those people struggling for a nickel, shuffling for a dime who find themselves caught in relationships that have ensnared them. Theirs is the voice of hope deferred - to someone else (Turning Blue), and the voice of harsh experience - "You don't know it but it's plain to see/You can't tell when you're workin' for your enemy" (Workin' For The Enemy). His eye for colourful detail authenticates his character's tales and adds extra layers of meaning - "So we made love in that place out in back/The last time that we took off our clothes/We took other things and took more than that/I took off with my clothes in a sack and I froze"

Rated "rock’s last great obscurity" by Melody Maker Bruce Cockburn has quietly made a living as a singer/songwriter since 1970 and his self-titled debut while never going all out for fame and fortune. As literate a guitarist as he is a lyricist he fuses sparklingly complex jazz/rock rhythms with metaphor loaded lyricism, as often spoken as sung – "sometimes things don’t easily reduce to rhyming couplets". Forty years plus of consistent, intelligent exploration of the personal, political and spiritual, often within the same song, is no mean achievement. When combined with both an honesty about his own relationship and faith frailties and a willingness to campaign with the likes of Oxfam raging against US and IMF oppression in the two-thirds world, you have to give the man respect. In 1992 in a song, Closer to the Light, written following the death of Mark Heard, Cockburn wrote the line - "There you go/Swimming deeper into mystery" – which seemed to sum the direction in which Cockburn’s work has headed over the course of his long career.

Like Gordan Gano of the Violent Femmes, David Eugene Edwards has a preacher in the family - in Edwards case, his Nazarene preacher Grandfather. Edward's songs not only oscillate around the twin poles of sin and salvation but use the language of the King James version as they do so. If any current music fully inhabits the Southern mindset then surely it is this. 16 Horsepower released their debut album Sackcloth 'N' Ashes in 1995 and, after the eventual demise of 16 Horsepower, DEE continued in similar vein with Woven Hand. As he has said: 'The myths of our country are in the songs. The untold stories and gaps in history books are in the songs – our recollection is preserved in this music. Those songs as well as the stories that my parents told me, the bible and the books I read, all this is the foundation of my imagination of America.'

Formed in 1982 and discovered by Chrissie Hynde busking outside a Pretender's gig, the Violent Femmes were among the first to combine punk's frenzy with country's resignation and gospel's jubilation. That full on clash of contradiction is the raison d'etre of the band (and something they were into long before the idea featured in U2's third coming). "That's the thing about this band," said Gordon Gano their singer/songwriter, "in the songs, in the whole performance of them, there's all different levels of total contradiction going on at the same moment where we are serious and as far from being serious as possible, it's important and also far away from being important". It's also part of the "American tradition" - "Country music has a long tradition of singing horrible songs about drinking and sinning and then doing some sincere gospel numbers". This is where 'Country Death Song' gets its dark inspiration from - "I even think 'Country Death Song' is happy because all the awfulness of the song, it came out of my love for country music and I feel happy when I sing it. I must have a different perspective".

Mark Heard wrote, in 'I Just Wanna Get Warm', "The mouths of the best poets speak but a few words/Then lay down, stone cold, in forgotten fields" - in retrospect that seems prophetic. Just a glimpse into the soul of a man known by so few and yet so deeply missed by so many. The liner notes from the tribute album say it best: "Mark Heard left behind a legacy of music that will undoubtedly impact the lives of many, just as he has impacted the lives of the artists who participated in Strong Hand of Love. The testimony of his brilliance as a poet and artist is undeniably evident throughout this inspiring tribute."

Los Angeles group Love were, in the words of David Fricke, 'the bi-racial folk-rock pirates who made Love and Da Capo in 1966, then the silken psychedelia of Forever Changes in 1967.' 'Although Arthur Lee was the main writer, [Bryan] MacLean contributed some fine songs, including Orange Skies, Old Man and the haunting Alone Again Or, with its flamenco-style guitar and dramatic trumpet flourishes.' ifyoubelievein is a collection of MacLean's music written when he was in the band and written with Love in mind. 'After an aborted attempt at a solo career ... [MacLean] joined a Christian Fellowship Church called the Vineyard ... During Friday night Bible stints [MacLean] took the concert part of the session and was so amazed at the reaction he gradually assembled a catalogue of his Christian songs.' Taken from the Latin and literally meaning 'within the walls', Intra Muros is the album of "spooky" Christian music MacLean was completing at the time of his death. Due to 'the great strength of songs like the amazing Love Grows In Me and My Eyes Are Open', Intra Muros 'stands as fine testament to the ability of a great songwriter.'

Michael McDermott's trademark embrace is "of faith and hope in the face of adversity." His lyrics are "uniquely evocative" as he "sings in poetry", his tunes being "literate story-songs." Stephen King wrote of him: “Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock ‘n’ roll talent of the last 20 years.” In “Mess of Things,” McDermott sings, “the trouble with trouble is that it sometimes sticks/plays tricks with your mind while it gets its kicks/And slowly there’s a momentum shift/And the weight becomes too great to lift.” McDermott sings about a world where “everybody is bleeding, or everybody is filled with doubt,” and yet he sings, “say the word/And I shall be healed.”

'After the Flood' from Lone Justice's debut album neatly fits Maria McKee's description of country music - "originally Country music was very raw and very spiritual and very gut-level". With a half brother (Bryan MacLean) from seminal 60s LA band Love and Victoria Williams as a next-door neighbour growing up ("she taught me my first guitar chords", McKee has said and they sang briefly together before their separate careers took off), the emphasis was always likely to be on the raw, spiritual and gut-level rather than the country aspect of the definition. By the time McKee recorded her second solo album You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, with a band that included Jayhawks, Gary Louris and Mark Olson (then Williams' husband), she felt she was standing still, merely reprising her work with Lone Justice. She responded by recording the critically acclaimed album Life Is Sweet. Here she felt her songwriting becoming "crystal and dramatic ... this larger-than-life grandiose thing, sort of riding the fine line of bad taste". Grunge based and coruscating on tracks like 'Scarlover', Life is Sweet sounds a far cry from the cow-punk of Lone Justice but it remains "very raw and very spiritual and very gut-level". At the end of the day that's what matters.

Julie Miller writes nakedly emotional songs which in their aching beauty combine perseverance and faith with sorrow and heartache. Her songs have featured in her solo work, her husband Buddy Miller's solo albums and on several jointly recorded albums. An early song reflecting on the crucifixion asked, 'How can you say No to this man?' The same question can be asked of Miller's confessional work - how can you say no to the grace and openness found therein?

Neal Morse is a US prog rocker who first made his mark in the band Spock’s Beard and then formed the prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic. Following his conversion to Christianity in 2000, he left both bands and has since produced a substantial and well-regarded body of solo work exploring different aspects of his faith. His fourth solo album Sola Scriptura, across four tracks and 76 minutes (this is prog rock we’re talking here!), tells the story of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Morse says, “The point of it is to point us … toward the light of God's truth which is laid out wonderfully before us in the scriptures. Of course, this is a lofty goal for a mere CD, but, with God anything is possible!”

Over The Rhine's Linford Detweiler and Karen Bergquist say: "... we try to write music that in little ways helps to heal the wounds that life has dealt us or the wounds we’ve dealt ourselves. We try to write songs that can hum joyfully at the stars when something good goes down. We try to write tunes capable of whispering to a sleeping child that in spite of everything, somehow, all is well. We try to write words that help us learn to tell the truth to ourselves and others." “We’re really only reflecting what we’ve already heard,” Detweiler explains, “a mix of all the music we grew up with and were drawn to: old gospel hymns, the country and western music on WWVA, the rock and roll records the kids at school passed around, the symphonic music that my father brought home, the jazz musicians we discovered in college, the Great American Songbook performers that Karin’s mother loved, and of course the various singer-songwriters that eventually knocked the roof off our world. But when this music is reflected back to the listener through the filter of our own particular lives, hopefully it becomes a much different experience (maybe even somewhat unique) for those with ears to hear.”

The Innocence Mission hail from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and own up to a "religious upbringing where our parents lived out their faith rather than evangelised". They formed in 1982 and initially attracted the support of Joni Mitchell and her then husband, Larry Klien. Mitchell called Karen Peris "one of the most interesting  singer/songwriters around at the moment", while Klien produced their first two albums (The Innocence Mission and Umbrella). Peris summed up the band's approach when she said "I saw something in a book Float Planes. In the beginning there's a quote from a hymn that said, "When I die hallelujah! Bye bye I'll fly away ..." and that's exactly what I think we want to say." In 'Wonder of Birds', from the first album, they talk of building homes with windows to fly through and this is an apt description of their songs. 'Bright As Yellow' for example, from their third album Glow, is a joyful celebration of that open-handed, open-hearted approach to life, as exemplified by Peris's mother. Peris writes conversational songs that draw significance from the everyday while the band on the earliest albums set these to a swirling, chiming, transcendent version of the 'big' music.

Leslie Phillips sang in Sunday School with Maria McKee and recorded several albums for the CCM label Word before a name change to Sam, a marriage to T-Bone Burnett and a series of critically acclaimed albums often produced by Burnett. Phillips combines a cool pop sensibility with razor-sharp lyrics. A mix that finds her ethereal voice, tinged with melancholy, soaring over like a seagull skimming waves.

Jim White inhabits a world where the natural and supernatural are intertwined and where the ordinary slips seamlessly into the extraordinary. White says in 'Still Waters', "Well, don't you know there are projects for the dead and projects for the living?/Though I must confess sometimes I get confused by that distinction". White's characters have ghosts in their homes, curse ships which promptly sink and serenade the dying ('Still Waters').

Victoria Williams has a naive, folky style which uses images and characters that would not be out of place in a painting by Marc Chagall. This style, however, conceals a great subtlety of approach and a willingness to experiment with musical form in a similar to fashion to that of Van Morrison. Williams builds songs that are not simply a melody running through verses and chorus but which, in tandem with the lyrics, veer off in directions that are consistent with the emotional ebb and flow of the song as a whole. She sees the divine through the local, the ordinary, the common-place, and the natural finding the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through the building of a raft and duets with a fellow-traveller on the New York underground ('Holy Spirit').

I write more about some of the above in my co-authored book 'The Secret Chord'.


Bill Fay - I Hear You Calling.

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