Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Lágrimas Negras: the perfect fusion between latin rhythms, flamenco and jazz

It’s funny how we sometimes look back and think “how could I dislike this?”.  At least it has often happened to me, mostly with certain music (with food too). One of my biggest moments of bewilderment at my own blindness was when I realized how superb the album Lágrimas Negras (black tears in English) is.

Lágrimas Negras is a joint effort by Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés (who sadly passed away last year) and Spanish flamenco singer Diego “El Cigala”. I’ve never been a big fan of flamenco, although I’ve began to pay a bit more attention to it in the last couple of years, and some time ago I wouldn’t have been particularly interested in latin-jazzy rhythms like the stuff Valdés plays here either.

I don’t know why or how I changed my mind. I just know that one day I felt like giving that album a try in my room and holy cow, holy cow, holy cow. Music can’t get any classier. Who would have said that El Cigala’s flamenco groans and moans would fit Bebo’s unmatchable elegance so perfectly. I don’t know much about flamenco, but I certainly do like El Cigala’s voice a lot, the guy can definitely sing.

It should also be noted that Bebo Valdés was eighty-three years old when the album was recorded. Eighty-three. Please check out that piano playing, the surgeon’s precision with which he plays each and every note, the firmness of his pulse, the way he makes his piano sound both bumpy and smooth at the same time. It’s mindblowing and I just lack the words to praise this man’s skill at his age.

Although this album is basically about the combination of piano and voice, some other instruments (except in Vete de Mí) add a bit more substance to the music, especially the contrabass. I’ve always loved the way the cello sounds, but the contrabass is a perfect choice here. I was positively surprised by the way it made the music sound even more elegant.

All the songs are excellent, but if I had to choose one, it would be the title track. Bazillions of artists have covered Lágrimas Negras, so I wasn’t particularly excited to hear another version of the song, but this stuff is too original to stay unnoticed.

Here are a few more songs from the album. Some are live videos, but it's basically the same thing.

The next one has even English subtitles:

Finally, I'd like to remind you about the facebook page for the blog, in case someone wants to discuss music or whatever. I also post random songs there from time to time.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

She Moved Through the Fair

I usually prefer writing about bands and their history, or at least about specific albums, but I don’t really know which band I want to talk about (false, I want to talk about Jethro Tull, but I want this to be a music blog and not a Jethro Tull blog). I guess I’ll just write about one of those songs which has been versioned on countless occasions; a few months ago I did that with Greensleves, now it’s the turn for She Moved Through the Fair (or “moves” instead or “moved”).

My first memory of this song goes back about five or six years. I had been going to Ireland for four or five consecutive summers and I was (still am) in love with that country and its green landscapes, so green you can almost smell the grass when you see a photo. Still, my favourite activity was going to The Temple Bar, in Dublin, and listening to the live bands play music for hours and hours.

Ok, I’m losing my thread, my apologies. What I wanted to say is that I was becoming a big fan or Irish music at that time, so before my last trip there (to this day, at least), in France, I bought four CDs, one of them being some shitty compilation of pre-made Irish music (another one was The Road to Escondido, by the way). I didn’t really think like that back then, but I’ve learned to mistrust all those compilations with names such as “Celtic Spirit”, “The Best Irish Music” and the like. At least, the one I bought sounded kind of soulless and robotic, and that’s certainly not what Irish music is about. I don’t remember the specific name of this compilation, and I don’t remember who sang She Moved Through the Fair (and I don’t really know where I put it anyway), but the song was there. I didn’t care much about it back then though, but before saying why this changed, it’s time to talk about the song itself and not about my rather irrelevant memories. I’m starting to sound like a grandfather who loves telling stories about his childhood to his grandchildren, no offence to grandpas.

She Moved Through the Fair was first collected in Donegal by poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and musicologist Herbert Hughes (1882-1937), and published by Boosey & Hawkes in London in Irish Country Songs in 1909. The lyrics were also published in Colum's book Wild Earth and Other Poems, although the book doesn't mention their traditional origin. Here are the lyrics from Padraic Collum’s version; subsequent versions may alter them a little bit, but not really that much.

My young love said to me, “My brothers won't mind,
And my parents won't slight you for your lack of kind.”
Then she stepped away from me and this she did say:
“It will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her go here and go there,
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.

The people were saying no two were e'er wed
But one had a sorrow that never was said,
And I smiled as she passed with her goods and her gear,
And that was the last that I saw of my dear.

I dreamt it last night that my young love came in,
So softly she entered, her feet made no din;
She came close beside me, and this she did say,
“It will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”

As a curiosity, several versions omit the third stanza (by the way, is the word stanza really used? I didn’t know it existed until literally now). Also, you may have seen that the narrative seems incomplete. This may be because, although Padraic Collum collected it about a hundred years ago, the song is much older, probably medieval, so it’s perfectly possible that some verses were modified or discarded over time. For example, in some versions of the song, including one of the earliest recordings by John McCormack, we are told that the woman is dead and so it is her ghost that visits the young man rather that it just being a dream.

On the other hand, Padraic Colum, claims he was the author of all but the final verse of the poem, and he described how Hughes collected the tune and he, Colum kept the last verse of a traditional song they heard and then composed a couple of verses to fit the music. One verse was not included in the first publication of the collection published by Boosey & Hawkes in Irish Country Songs in 1909. Colum soon realised that he had not put in the poem the fact that the woman had died before the marriage, and so he wrote the verse which begins: "The people were saying, that no two were e'er wed, but one had a sorrow that never was said ..." and sent it on to Hughes. It was too late for publication in that particular collection, however, and was subsequently published in other collections, along with the other three verses. No earlier version of those three verses written by Colum have ever been found, and so there is no doubt that he is the author of the first three verses of the poem. This may explain why many versions lack the third verse, or stanza. Personally, I don’t really care much if both the melody and the song are medieval or if Colum wrote most of the song.

Loreena McKennitt
Back to my personal memories, I was totally jawdropped and breathtaken when I listened to Loreena McKennitt’s version on the Elemental album. It’s sung a cappella, which is the best thing she could have possibly done, because her voice is mesmerizing. That’s how you do it, crappy pre-made compilations. Then I heard Alan Stivell’s version on Chemins de Terre, one of the best folk albums I’ve ever listened to, if not the best. The guy can definitely play the harp; again, a beautiful version. Some time later, I heard Fairport Convention’s cover on What We Did on our Holidays; that one, as I wrote on another post, was dull and disappointing.

Here are a few more good versions I just found online. This is it for today, but do not despair, I’ll torture the internet with my rambling soon enough.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Jethro Tull (VI): back to normally structured albums

After the two epic concept albums Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, 1974 saw Jethro Tull go back to “normal” albums, meaning a bunch of songs without any specific connection between them. The first of them, Warchild, was unfortunately not as brilliant as previous Tull recordings.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad album at all. Actually, when I think about most of the songs, they’re much more than decent, and there are a couple of real gems. However, the album feels somewhat “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” (guess where this quote comes from). It never properly hooks you (well, at least me!) for some reason, unlike other band efforts.

First of all, it’s interesting to point out that Warchild was originally meant to accompany a film project, specifically a metaphysical black comedy about a teenage girl in the afterlife. Kind of weird, yep. I’m curious about how that film would have been, especially because Monty Python veteran John Cleese was penciled in as “humour consultant”. It Monty Python were somehow involved, it looked interesting. Pity nothing came out of it.

The album cover is a funny one, with the front cover being a composite photograph featuring a positive colour print of Melbourne at night (no idea why, but I kind of like it because I went there a few months ago, and yes I know that doesn’t make much sense), and a negative print of a studio photo of Ian Anderson.

The back cover, on the other hand, contains images of people, including the five members of the band, friends, wives, girlfriends, Chrysalis Records staff, and manager Terry Ellis, all related to the song titles. Anderson's personal touring assistant (and future wife) Shona Learoyd appears as a ringmaster, while Terry Ellis appears as a (I’m quoting Wikipedia here by the way) leopard skin-clad, umbrella-waving aggressive businessman.

Three of the songs are leftovers from those recording sessions that took place after Thick as a Brick and didn’t finally come to anything: Only Solitaire, Bungle in the Jungle and Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day. Although some parts of A Passion Play were inspired by those sessions, these songs (as well as the rest of the Warchild album) have a much lighter mood, as they are both less somber and less intrincate. The second is a simple catchy single that was well received by the radio, while the first and third are delightful acoustic songs.

It is in fact the acoustic stuff (the aforementioned songs plus the lovely Ladies) what probably stands out from the rest on this album. Skating Away is particularly beautiful, one my all time Jethro Tull favourites, at least these last few months. Several live versions can be found online, and, although the one from 1977 is probably the best, the one from 1980 is the most interesting, and a good example of the skill the whole band had. In that version, Anderson plays acoustic guitar, David Pegg and Eddie Jobson, who then played bass, the first, and violin and keyboards, the second, also play different kinds of guitars (Pegg plays an electric mandolin, I’d say), and then-drummer Mark Craney plays the bass. So much guitar… and yet Martin Barre doesn’t play. In conclusion, all members except from Anderson switch instruments (why does the bassist play the guitar and the drummer play the bass?) and, while there are three guitars, the guitarist is taking a break. Brilliant. Sorry for the overexcited rant, by the way.

On the other hand, although the mood, as I mentioned, is lighter, the lyrics are not necessarily so. Several critics are found: of established society (Queen and Country and Bungle in the Jungle), religion (Two Fingers; not surprisingly, this is a rearrangement of Lick Your Fingers Clean, a leftover from the Aqualung sessions) and critics (the peaceful sounding and yet hilarious Only Solitaire).

On a different note, we can hear Anderson flirting with the sax for the last time, most noticeably in the title track. Back-Door Angels is dense and whereas some passages are very cool, it gives an impression of aimless wandering for the most part. The same thing more or less happens with Sealion, although it’s ok because a wonderfully lunatic outtake was made out of it: Sealion II, lyrics by Jeffrey Hammond. I promise he wasn’t on drugs when he thought of them. At least not officially. Also, The Third Hoorah may be excruciatingly repetitive or totally brilliant depending on your mood, but there’s no denying that the instrumentation is amazing.

The 2002 remastered version has a few more bonus tracks apart from Sealion II, and most of them are worth mentioning: Quartet is weird but cool in its own way, Warchild Waltz is a brilliant piece of classical music made out of various themes used in the album (and it's also blocked on youtube for some reason I don't understand), Glory Row will lift your spirits and Rainbow Blues is a song that should have never been left out of the album.

All in all, a good album, but not a classic. Not as good as its predecessor and not as good as its successor (you’ll see). But it has Skating Away.

Check out the facebook page for the blog if you want to listen to some random music from time to time!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Thirty-eight minutes of pure joy with Al Stewart

I had heard there was an album and a song called Year of the Cat several times, but I had never really paid attention. Something in the back of my head told me it must be a Cat Stevens album. Yes, my head often goes for the easiest option. Anyway, a few years ago a friend of mine told me it was a great album and I should really give it a try. What can I say, I’m very happy I did. And by the way, Year of the Cat is an album by Al Stewart, not by Cat Stevens.

Al Stewart is a Scottish musician born in 1945, which means he’s not exactly a teenager anymore. He got involved with music since a very early age (he already wrote songs when he was eighteen). Stewart has befriended and played with many other musicians. He played with people like Sandy Denny, and became good friends with Paul Simon.

I’d talk about his whole life and discography and so on, but I’m not going to lie, I only know Year of the Cat and Time Passages. I couldn’t find other albums available for download a few years ago, I guess I should give it another try. What I do know, from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, is that his music has a very distinctive sound, and I highly doubt he’s ever been seriously influenced by the trends of the moment.

Year of the Cat came out in 1976. It was produced and engineered by Alan Parsons, who, as I said in the posts I wrote about The Alan Parsons Project, worked for The Beatles and Pink Floyd, amongst others. Lucky guy. Back to Stewart’s album, it’s one of those records that doesn’t have a single bad song on it. Just flawless.

While you’ll occasionally find a guitar solo (a very decent one finishes the fantastic One Stage Before), the whole album is more of a folky pop thing. Don’t mistake pop with simple music though, the variety of instruments make the record entertaining throughout its entirety, and Stewart’s sweet voice is a real delight. Piano, harmonica, saxophone, accordion and violin, amongst others, are successful in cheering one up for almost forty minutes. Maybe the only songs that are not properly “happy” are Broadway Hotel and One Stage Before, which are rather mysterious. Also, the music is rather slow, except from If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It, which by the way has some very true lyrics.

I can’t really talk of two or three best songs. All of them are amazing, Midas Shadow being maybe the only one which is not that excellent (but still good). My recommendation is simply this: listen to the whole album, enjoy each and every one of the songs.

And as I don’t really know what to write anymore, here are a couple of random facts about the album I just found online. First of all, the title comes from Vietnamese astrology. The Year of the Cat is also called the Year of the Rabbit. It comes every twelve Years and it is supposed to be a stress free year. The Last Year of the Cat was 2011. It was also the Year of the Cat in 1975, the year before this came out.

Also, Year of the Cat started off as a completely different song. Al Stewart originally wrote the lyrics after seeing the British comedian Tony Hancock in Bournemouth, England in 1966. Hancock was very depressed, and the show was a disaster, with the comedian going to the front of the stage and addressing the audience directly and pouring out his soul. In Al Stewart: The True Life Adventures of a Folk-Rock Troubaodour, Stewart is quoted: "He came on stage and he said 'I don't want to be here. I'm just totally pissed off with my life. I'm a complete loser, this is stupid. I don't know why I don't just end it all right here.' And they all laughed, because is was the character he played... this sort of down-and-out character. And I looked at him and I thought, Oh my god, He means it. This is for real." Hancock killed himself in 1968 with a drug overdose. Stewart's song was originally titled Foot Of The Stage, with the chorus "your tears fall down like rain at the foot of the stage”.

Many of Stewart's songs have alternate lyrics (sometimes even four of them), and he wasn't happy with the Hancock-inspired words, as he didn't want to take advantage of the man's tragedy and besides, no one in America knew who Hancock was. Al re-wrote the lyrics as Year Of The Cat, which he delivered to Parsons. 

Finally, here is, as always, a link for the blog's facebook page.