Blog on the Tracks
Okay, I've gone and done it - tonight I'm the wedding DJ. I've been in this role a few times, but not that many. It's not something I seek out, to tell the truth. But tonight should be alright - I'm at least looking forward to it - because I'm a guest also, that is to say I would have been at the wedding anyway, I just happen to be taking along a couple of crates of records.
I've played at a lot of weddings though - in bands. Dozens of weddings, maybe a hundred or so actually; at one point I considered writing a book about experiences spying in on the weddings of people you don't know. As part of the band you'd bond with the kitchen staff, waiters, waitresses, the photographer and his/her assistant, venue management, anyone integral to the day but not directly connected to Bridezilla and Groomdrinka and the different versions of the Happy Couple.
It's pretty strange being a crucial part of the biggest day in someone's life - someone you don't know and won't ever see again.
Being in the band wasn't often fun - you'd play a set, and it was fine, people happy, dancing. Then the requests would start to flow. People finding you on your ten minute break. The conversation always starting with something like, "hey, great music and all, but do you think you could also play some..." and whatever followed was a) actually their idea of great music, not what we had been playing and b) fundamentally ridiculous given the type of band they had booked. You'd be an Irish band at a Scottish wedding, and that was fine - we could fudge that, plenty of the songs crossed over, and we had separate Scottish material too, and often a Scottish band-member, so that helped. But first request of the night would be to "play some ABBA" or even "Bruce Springsteen..."
Worse than that, the way - after several drinks - anyone was instantly sure of their backing-singer prowess; the way they just walk up and grab at microphones, knock over guitars and mandolins on stands, decide they're entitled to be part of the band...
The wedding DJ has it tough I reckon - they have to please the crowd, or give it a go, and span some decades generally. They have to also please the happy couple, or a member of the bridal party anyway, be it bridesmaid or groomsman or mother or father of the bride or groom. And sometimes there can be very different ideas of what is working. Then there's the requests that start to fire in and the more open the bar the more the closed the mind with regard to what should be playing. And the reasonable amount of time that can pass between a request being slurred in your face and that platter being pushed into place.
So, there's a new album by Pharrell Williams, it was rushed out, no long lead-in with this record. But it's really nothing special at all. Obviously he's riding high, his work on last year's Daft Punk album and a few other guest spots, some movie soundtrack work too.
Well, he was on two of the biggest pop hits of 2013 with Daft Punk's Get Lucky and Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines. Those songs - and a few other cameos; next thing Pharrell was everywhere, some lucky charm. About a decade ago he was everywhere too - with The Neptunes and N*E*R*D. He was both the hook-singer and hit-maker, working behind the scenes as producer and in front of the records as the face and voice - he was selling his own songs and doing the cameos. Snoop Dogg's Drop It Like It's Hot was, 10 years ago, the Blurred Lines and/or Get Lucky of its day.
And there are supposed to be no second acts in American lives.
Pharrell is only just in his early 40s, he appears to have not aged at all across the last decade - because having hits is obviously good for the skin, if not for the soul. But is he actually any good?
I've never rated his sound - as singer, and I'm not sure he was ever doing anything innovative or clever as producer/songwriter/performer. Oh, he can sing. He's not ghastly. And I have no issue with his hammy pop-hits - right time, right place, I still like Get Lucky, I certainly dig his sound on the lesser-played Lose Yourself To Dance from the same Daft Punk album. And he's appeared on other cool records that I really like - such as Frank Ocean's Channel Orange.
He picks some cool people to work with - he dives in under the radar (Ocean, Solange), as well as working with the big pop drawcards (Miley Cyrus). I have no issue with his work ethic, his choices, even if his near-ubiquity is part of what will ultimately sink him again - this second time around - I just don't think there's anything special to his sound.
The brand new Drive-By Truckers album, English Oceans, is really great. But if you already know the music of the Drive-By Truckers that probably won't be any great shock - or, maybe it still is. Maybe you moved away from their sound in recent years, forgot about them even. It happens. Let English Oceans pull you back in. As I said in my review (link above) it would be churlish to pick any one album from this band and label it their best - but English Oceans is certainly at their best right now.
And though there'll be other albums and there'll also be other reviews that rave - and then some that tell you it doesn't have the edge or spirit of the band's earliest releases - I reckon there's something very special in this new album, it's a consolidation too; the band down to just two songwriters, where previously there had always been a foil, a third writer.
Jason Isbell is off making fantastic music on his own now, last year's Southeastern is a record I've only just recently caught up with - but it's one of the better country/Americana releases I've heard in a while. (Damn shame there's no Wellington show for this guy but he plays Auckland next month). His former wife Shonna Tucker has also walked from the band. She replaced Isbell as the third songwriter in the group and was a crucial presence as bass player too. So now it's just Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, tuning and churning their guitars, lighting up songs, puffing out their vocals. And they're driving this band as good as they ever did - and the songs still light up first pop. English Oceans is brand new but already I can hear - in songs like When Walter Went Crazy and Pauline Hawkins and Shit Shots Count and When He's Gone and Grand Canyon - some of my favourite Drive-By ditties.
My way into the band was through Hood's first solo record, a collection of demo-sketches; I still love that record. I knew who he was, knew he was the son of Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, knew that Patterson was the co-leader of this fearsome unit known as Drive-By Truckers.
Working in a music store, as I did at that time, you collected names, filed them for later. Sometimes you needed a reminder to investigate the name you'd stored away. My prompt to start working through the Drive-By catalogue arrived when a sales rep handed me a copy of the Hood album, Killers and Stars. That album sold me. This guy could write. Loved his voice, and the way he told a tale. The songs were so strong.
So then I get to the band, and there's this real sting in their tail too - some references to 1970s Rolling Stones and early 1980s R.E.M. The band is just such a great unit. They fit in with the likes of Uncle Tupelo and the early Wilco and Son Volt. And they're all favourites of mine at this time too. But this group isn't just a country group, and isn't any old rocking band - they go on to play the backing-band role on "comeback" albums by Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Not unlike The Roots in their second-guise role outside of their own albums.
The other day I reviewed the latest album from British jazzers, Get The Blessing. Man, this is super-cool, I love it. A gem. It plays to everything I love - reminds me of the Sons of Kemetalbum (one of my favourites from last year), there's hints of John Zorn in there, the band formed around a love of Ornette Coleman, apparently.
There's something very soundtrack-y too, in the sweep of the brushes, in the drive of the basslines. I realise I've probably scared plenty of people away by the mere mention of jazz - but so be it.
Get The Blessing is a band that's released a few albums now - is its own thing entirely, even though the band members are all busy with other projects. But I arrived at them due to the fact that the rhythm section is part of Portishead.
Actually, drummer Clive Deamer has been playing as part of Radiohead's live band, I understand, as a second drummer to add punch to their live sound. He's certainly a start of the Portishead band - and here with Get The Blessing.
Bassist Jim Barr is a crucial part of the sound too - his basslines are so prominent here.
It's funny, a few people have asked me if I've heard the new album by St. Vincent - if I'll be reviewing it, if I'll dare even listen to it...
I guess the reason people have wondered is because I declared St. Vincent the worst interviewee I've ever had - and she was, in the sense that I was really looking forward to the interview. And it tanked. It was a dud. Maybe I wasn't on my game, sure. But she certainly wasn't. She admitted this too, after. I read the transcript of another interview she did that day. One she did directly before she spoke with me. In it, she frantically begs to have the rest of her interviews cancelled - says she'll pay someone whatever she can to not do any further interviews that day.
When I read that I felt sad. I felt really sad for her. We all have days when we don't want to do our job - we also, of course, have to step up and just do it, grin and bear it, lie back and think of England. Whatever. We had to brave-face our way through a lot of situations we'd perhaps prefer not to have to deal with, that's just life. Right? But to be at a point of stress and exhaustion where you simply don't want to just er, phone it in, that seems a lot place to be. The St. Vincent I talked to was no fun whatsoever. And I'd always detected a great spark of fun, a sharp wit and playfulness in the records. There was no reflection of this in the conversation I had. No spark at all. We flatlined pretty quickly in fact.
I had been a huge fan of the music Annie Clark had made as St. Vincent - right up until I spoke with her. When I wrote about the dud interview, the painful way she refused to answer a question properly, scoffing ridiculously at anything I asked, constantly sabotaging any real chance for a connection, I was hoping to put across the flip-side of the always plucky suggestion you get from others that you are "so lucky" to get to speak to famous musicians. It can be awful. It can kill your fandom. It can make you feel a little sad.
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