Blog on the Tracks

Writer/reviewer Simon Sweetman covers music for The Dominion Post and North And South. He cares far too much about music, and the list of bands he loves is far longer than the list of groups he has shown no love.

Guest Blog: Steve Earle's I Feel Alright

11:35pm 23 Apr 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

You'll remember that I asked you all to Gush Over Just One Album - today Michael Ross talks to us about Steve Earle's album, I Feel Alright.

I don't like gushing about albums as a general rule. Not in writing anyhow. It's not that there aren't albums I love; it's just that gushing about them isn't normally very interesting. It always seems like the writer is trying to convince the reader to like something, and I can't really see the point in that.

I mean, I can tell you that the songs, arrangements and performances on Steve Earle's 1996 album I Feel Alright are fantastic. I can explain how the mid-90s saw Earle eschewing the reverb-drenched production of his 80s output for a more natural, gritty, and still occasionally fairly raucous, sound. I can rave about that voice of his, such an unmistakable instrument. But you can just look up the album on YouTube and hear it all for yourself.I Feel Alright

Your tastes are probably quite different than mine though, and so you likely won't feel the same way about the album. And even if we are simpatico, even if your taste runs right alongside mine, there's still every chance you'll think to yourself, "Well, it's good I guess, but I'd rather listen to the new Drive-by Truckers album".  Nothing I can say will change that, so normally I would rather discuss the eccentricities or uniqueness of an album, its place in history, even its failings. Those things are interesting. Saying how great something is, trying to sell it... not always so interesting.

But I do think there is something to be said about why I've always thought this album is so great. I mean, there's not a bad song on it, and at 19 years old it opened me up to a style of music I'd never contemplated before. But beyond that, what makes I Feel Alright interesting is how the context in which it was created grants it a meaning and coherence that elevates it from a set of great songs, to a great set of songs (if you see my distinction).

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Guest Blog: Down Colorful Hill

08:00am 23 Apr 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

You'll remember that I asked you all to Gush Over Just One Album - today John Iscariot tells us all about Red House Painters' Down Colorful Hill.

i went as far as losing sleep
i went as far as messing up my life
unloving still strike me different
a million miles away from home
and fifteen from a payphone
Japanese to English

I blame Hal Hartley, which is as good a place to start as any. 

I first heard (the song) Japanese to English when I was dragged along to the Hartley-directed Amateur at some anodyne film-festival. While the film was actually pretty good, and will be forever remembered for the sliver of dialog that intimated that one, virginal character was, in fact, a nymphomaniac - but choosy, the overriding point of note was that song.

Of course, I immediately forgot about it - as you do.

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Guest Blog: 1969 - The Velvet Underground Live

07:32am 22 Apr 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

You'll remember that I asked you all to Gush Over Just One Album - here Waldo Jeffers reaches his limit discussing The Velvet Underground's Live 1969 album.

"You should give people a little chance..." - A personal appreciation of The Velvet Underground: Live 1969

Imagine this: it's the summer of 1990 and around a year earlier I picked up this so-called 'Banana' album I'd heard of for some time that was supposed to be one of the 'coolest', 'most influential'  albums of all time, according to nearly every other music know-it-all source I read back then. It's impossible now to look back and try and remember exactly what it was about it that grabbed me on its first impressionable listen. Perhaps it was the combination of street poetry, unbridled rock & roll, relative pop sensibilities, taboo realities and pure attitude that made it so damn riveting. It was my baptism into the life-long obsession with Lou, John, Sterl, Nico, Moe, Doug (a.k.a. The Velvet Underground) that still rages on to this day. 

And then I made a rookie mistake - I bought Loaded next. Well, in my defence I was still a kid and I didn't know. Of all the Velvets albums available at the time, this and The Velvet Underground and Nico were the easiest to find in the small selection of 'alternative' music that they had in Belfast's many record emporiums. Now there's nothing wrong with Loaded (I love it, in fact!) but back then after the crunchy-bam-bam art-house cool of the first album, it seemed like the band had ended up as another early 70s rock band looking for the 'radio' hit to validate their existence. It seemed like a real letdown at the time. But then this other record started popping up regularly on my travels - a green thing with a drawing of a lady in high heels, knickers exposed to world and walking on the wild side (as it were).  It was a double slab of vinyl and - bam!  just my luck - it was part of a very nicely-priced contemporary budget series on Mercury Records. It seemed incredible value for nearly two hours worth of undiscovered live material by my brand new favourite band from an era I didn't know at all. Sold to the new fan in the corner! 1969: The Velvet Underground Live

This new-to-me album opened up a chapter of the band's short history that seemed as radical as the debut: 1969 - the dark and lesser-spotted era where the band desperately tried to spawn some commercial clout whilst still clinging on to their post-Warhol credibility. I had yet to hear the 'Third' album at this stage as finding that anywhere in the early 90s proved to be nigh on impossible, but this live snapshot of two nights at the Matrix in San Francisco and the End Cole Avenue club in Dallas, filled me in quickly. The sound was intense yet loose - gone was the unhinged yet amazing imagination of John Cale and in its place, the tight focus of (the much-maligned) Doug Yule. Here was a band confident of its newly unhindered energy, with oodles of new songs and full of an admirable bonhomie with its audience ("yeah, ya better believe it").  The rough, hissy sound gave it a fashionable air of illegality as if this was taped not using traditional methods but perhaps via a secreted mic or two, capturing the band on fire at the right moment when no-one was looking. (In fact, the source was a vinyl acetate of both shows owned by band manager Steve Sesnick. When the album was released on CD in the late 80s, the re-mastering exposed the previously inconspicuous crackles within. In addition, a high-quality bootleg of the full Dallas show began circulating c. 1991-3, taken from a high-generation tape source, not vinyl).

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Guest Blog: Rowland S. Howard's solo albums

12:25am 17 Apr 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

You'll remember that I asked you all to Gush Over Just One Album - well Grant McDougall asked if he could gush over two - but both are by Rowland S. Howard. And since he's a favourite (Rowland, that is, not Grant) I said yes. I got to interview Rowland S. Howard a few years ago. He opened the interview by telling me he was dying. A couple of months later he was dead. Here's Grant McDougall's guest post...

To me, the very best music is comprised of several key qualities: a truly original sound and styleTeenage Snuff Film or a highly innovative new slant on an established genre; no or little heed to prevailing trends, fashions or - most criminal of all - what the music industry thinks will sell; songs played with a clear and obvious passion by musicians truly expressing themselves; and, crucially, songs that genuinely display the soul, personality and thoughts of a musician in a stark, uncompromising, raw manner.

Rowland S. Howard's two solo albums, Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes, do all of this and then some.

Born and raised in Melbourne, Howard (1959 - 2009) first came to prominence in landmark Australian post-punk act The Birthday Party, in which his scabrous, serrated guitar lines were a major factor in their feral, fearsome racket. After they split in 1983, he remained in Britain and played guitar in Crime and the City Solution for the next few years, before leading his own band, These Immortal Souls in the late '80s - mid '90s, before returning to Melbourne.Pop Crimes

If you want a more in-depth overview of Howard's life, I warmly recommend the excellent Autoluminescent documentary. It's a fascinating watch which superbly explains the man and his music.

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Guest Blog: Dire Straits - Brothers Arms

09:42am 16 Apr 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

You'll remember that I asked you all to Gush Over Just One Album - we kick off the guest-post series today with duckduck girl.

Brothers Arms is singularly the most important album of my life. I regularly describe it as the key anchor of my life when I meet new people and that's because it is like an anchor. It's a great touchstone and over the years I've become close buddies with some of New Zealand's coolest musicians because of it, like Greg Johnson and Mark Tierney. There is an invisible chain that ties me back to this album all the way back to 1984 and any time I find myself in doubt or feel like I'm getting too far away from me, well, I just remember Brothers Arms and I can reel myself back in along that invisible chain until I'm back in Levin, high school, 1984, when I used to be popular with the girls.Brothers In Arms

In the first song - So Far Away From Me - Marc Kofler's girlfriend has gone on holiday - "you've been in the sun" - perhaps Spain, or Cairns, and he is alone and therefore sad that he can't see her. He sings the words "so far away from me" about eighteen times in the song, which shows how much he really feels the distance. You have to remember this was 1984 so when Kofler sings, "I'm tired of making out on the telephone" it's because there was no Internet, otherwise he could have Skyped his girlfriend or used Facetime.

No one could reasonably sing, "so far I just can't see" these days unless they were in a very poor country with no world wide web or smart phones - today that would be a slightly more third world version of New Zealand such as Moldova for example. Thus we can see this song is a portrait of the eighties. The hook is gorgeous, chiming, and the synths icy, airy.

The song's closest cousin would have to be something off Heartbeat City by The Cars, that one other classic eighties band whose credibility and fan base has only increased in the years since their disbanding. Listen out for the heavy grunge chord in this song - clearly a precursor to the grunge movement that began four years later with Dinosaur Jr's grunge classic Bug and led to the grunge anthem Smells Like Teenage Spirit by the 90s grunge band Nirvana.

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