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.

Mental Notes is 40

11:37am 06 Oct 2015


I grew up listening to Split Enz. I'm not alone in this and I've told you all before. But, still, I think of Split Enz - often - as being one of the most significant cultural forces in my life. Beyond music, beyond a band. They were my Beatles in a way, and linked to Split Enz the solo careers and sideline projects and other bands from all of the members, the art of Phil Judd and the fact that Split Enz is a New Zealand group - the first New Zealand band I was aware of; it meant a lot to know that a group of people from this part of the world made music so great. It meant anyone could do it. We all know that's true - but it was the discovery of Split Enz's music, my parents' passion for it, that got me on the right track.

Then I found out that Phil Judd went to the same school as my mum, they knew each other, my brother's art teacher had taught Phil too; he had also introduced my brother to the music of Schnell-Fenster (in so many ways that meant as much to me as discovering Split Enz, though it could only come after, it took beginning with the Enz to know the weight and worth of Fenster). The Split Enz story just felt so important. It always has for me.

One day, after years of asking, emailing, working out a strategy - and a reason/pitch - I interviewed Phil Judd. It was a highlight of my time as a music journalist. Still is, still rates up there as one of the most important interviews for me. I planned a day off work. I was nervous. I knew he was fragile. It could all be over before it started. Instead I got 90 minutes and a career overview, I got to ask about the albums and songs I loved and the film soundtracks, and art, everything...

The chance to then talk to Tim Finn was more a case of the standard 15-minute plug-an- album/tour-interview but I was still pleased to have the chance. The music of Split Enz - and before that Split Ends; the music, then, of Phil Judd and Tim Finn, has forever had me Spellbound.

When I wrote On Song it made immediate sense to me to start with Crowded House's biggest hit and end with a slightly more obscure track by Split Enz. I was probably trying to say too many things, that Judd had influenced Neil Finn as much as Tim Finn had ever influenced Neil Finn, that one of New Zealand's great triumphs on the international stage (Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over) owed something to back when Split Enz was quirky and weird, and "arty" and being booed off the telly, and baffling crowds, but I liked the arc in reverse. That provided the only structure I needed to start writing. It gave me a belief in the book, another book about New Zealand music...
When I first heard Mental Notes my jaw dropped. I still have that reaction - it's 40 years old now. It's theSpellboundstarting point for the Split Enz that I grew up with, that I came to love and understand as the most important band New Zealand ever created. The early Enz is easy to gloss over now, the legacy points to Tim and Neil and their triumphs and competitiveness in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I love that version of the band - and it's madness to me when anyone writes that off as sell-out stuff, as the band becoming a mainstream pop act. But, I get lost in the weirdness and wonder of Mental Notes and the couple of albums that followed.

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Getting excited about Soulfest

11:14am 05 Oct 2015


The Labour Weekend Soulfest in Auckland is fast approaching. And just recently the timetable has been announced (see pic below right) it's a pretty fantastic line-up, seeing it all laid out like that. It flows well, not too many problems there in terms of crossover/double-ups, and there's time to see a little of everything - or very nearly. A day out at a festival is a long day of music so there's probably the chance to catch your breath and relax a bit too - one or two acts you might not be as interested in, or just head over to catch one of the DJ sets (an ongoing entrée - an alternative for when the main dish of the time is not to your taste).Soulfest Timetable

I guess I'm pretty excited about this year's Soulfest because it looks like I'm going to make it - I'll be happy just to see Kamasi Washington (reason enough to make the trip I reckon). I finally got around to writing a review of the album (having already declared it the best record of 2015; best meaning biggest - biggest, boldest effort). But if you don't believe me this live concert footage is a must-see/must-hear and the chance to see anything even vaguely resembling that has me sold on Soulfest.Soulfest Poster

The reformation of Black Star, a no doubt fun set from De La Soul (despite having seen them a bunch of times already) and shows by Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott - well, that's the deal right there. And I was enough of a Lauryn Hill fan (that first solo album particularly) to be curious at what she's going to offer.

There are a few names there that have me curious too (Eric Benet, Miguel, Charlie Wilson) - I know what they do, what they can offer, and though I'm not heading along specifically to see them I'm looking forward to what they might serve up, I'm interested, hopeful.

It feels like the perfect amount of music for a (long) day out. And a pretty much perfectly arranged line-up.

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Payin' the cost to be the boss

09:24am 02 Oct 2015


Every Thursday, as long time readers and/or followers of the Facebook page for Blog on the Tracks will know, I post up a question, I ask for a suggestion for Friday's blog. And sometimes one sneaks through and I use it. It's been a while since I've taken one of the weekly suggestions but today is one of those occasions.

So, my thanks to Jumpin' Jimmy Jazz who asked "What song would you pay cash-money never to hear again? If someone could guarantee it, what would you stump up the big bucks for?" Jumpin' Jimmy went on to suggest two of the overplayed staples, Hotel California and Stairway To Heaven. But there are others...and this is where you come in. Also - some people are happy, still, with Stairway. And possibly with Hotel California. Though I'm not interested in meeting such a person, nor the added requirements such a meeting would hold, such as shaving their back, corking the end of their fork, or hosting any kind ofMaybe... necessary "awakening".

It's just a bit of Friday-fun, a silly hypothetical - which doesn't mean you can't be deadly serious in your rage, in your hatred for Bohemian Rhapsody or whatever else.

First pick for me, off the top of my head, would be Under My Skin by Gin Wigmore - but then, I just read a review of Maroon 5 playing in Christchurch and I straightaway figured that never having to hear any Maroon 5 song ever again would assist in a life of bliss.

Yes, yes, you can change the channel, you can choose to not buy - or buy into - the hype or the hits but this, being a silly hypothetical, goes a bit bigger than that. We're talking ubiquity here, songs you can't avoid. And I'm sure we've talked about this before. But I liked that framing of it, the idea that for an undisclosed sum, you could shut down a song forever, kill all chances of ever having to bump into it.

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Keith Richards vs. David Gilmour

03:45pm 01 Oct 2015


I mentioned in passing the other day that I quite like the new album by Keith Richards, well, I was surprised by it as much as anything. I'm not going to go telling you it's a must-have, there'll be plenty of people not receptive to it at all - if you never liked Keith's non-singer voice you're probably not about to start now (I think he's getting closer and closer to Bob Dylan in some ways - that voice/non-voice becoming even more of an instrument the more gnarled it gets). But I just didn't think there'd be anything much going on with a new album by Keith Richards, his first in over two decades. It's now been over a decade since the last album by The Rolling Stones - what could he/they possibly have to say; there's certainly no need to have to say it too. They're doing just fine living off past glories, accumulated funds and can strike up a reason to start up a tour whenever they feel like it.Crosseyed Heart

But what works about Keith's album is that he gets to play to his strengths, including those ballads, especially those ballads. The last 30 years has seen a Keith-cooed closer on most of the Stones' albums - even those so-called howlers (like Dirty Work)  have a song by Keith Richards (in that case, Sleep Tonight) which really works. So, on Crosseyed Heart, Keith gets to play four or five of those rather than his usual allotted one or two.

Around the same time as Keith's new album - the ghastly new solo record from David Gilmour arrived. I couldn't help but draw parallels, connections between the two. It's been a single decade between Gilmour solo records but last year's final Pink Floyd album, The Endless River (basically just 'leftovers') was the first from the band in twenty years.

There'll be no more Floyd. We know that now - there were hints across the two-decade silence, and Endless River didn't really need to happen. Sure, it sold a heap, people wanted to hear it - I was sucked in too, I was enough of a Floyd fan to hope for the best - but it didn't need to happen. Proof there that even hoping for the best isn't always enough. I'm pretty sure The Endless River is the best Pink Floyd album we could have hoped for in 2014 (even if most of it was made in 1994).

But Gilmour's new solo album, Rattle That Lock, makes The Endless River sound like the second coming of your favourite Floyd - whatever that may be for you.

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02:25pm 30 Sep 2015


Recently I've been listening to this Frank Sinatra album, Watertown. It's the second old Frank Sinatra album that's become a new favourite for me this year. Listening to the great podcast, You Must Remember This I got hooked on Trilogy. Trilogy is kinda-bonkers, kinda-fun. Watertown, however, is a masterpiece. A lost classic - underrated in its time, forgotten, crushed by dismal sales, made by a man falling out of time and sitting out of place.Watertown

I grew up digging a bit of Frank Sinatra, my mother's influence. She loves Frank - and we used to play some old records and later CDs. We used to enjoy those big, brassy, bold arrangements - the big-band stuff. There was a DVD I had a decade or so ago, it had a performance of Frank with Buddy Rich - my mum had taught me about Buddy before she'd ever mentioned Frank. Buddy was my hero and he clearly dug Frank; they'd not only worked together, Frank was a massive influence on Buddy Rich - there are a couple of albums where Buddy Rich puts down the sticks and steps up to the microphone. His singing voice comes from Sinatra. He's not as good - obviously. But he's one of the best singing drummers you perhaps never knew about. And for someone that good at the drums - a virtuoso, a child prodigy - it's remarkable to hear that he could have had a shot as a singer.

After a while that big-band jazz and the "start spreadin' the news" shtick seemed tired and silly. And besides, I was absorbing the Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy worlds. Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner and George Benson and Roy Haynes were the names that meant things to me and Sinatra was just an old crooner.

But then I returned to Sinatra when I found out about Forlorn Frank. The world-weary Sinatra of those 50s records - some of the world's first concept albums, Sinatra singing about pain and loss, about long, dark nights of the soul, up all night drinking, thinking, remembering the love he once had...
Those are the records that still get me - every time - when I think about Sinatra. When I listen to Sinatra.

And then earlier this year I listened to Trilogy, after checking out Karina Longworth's episode, Frank Sinatra in Space, from the aforementioned (must-listen) podcast. And I was suddenly hooked on all things Sinatra. Again. Yes, the Forlorn Frank is best, but the big-band guy can be fun too. That Rat Pack stuff, the movies, the insecurities...part of the appeal of Frank Sinatra is the myth around him - the all-powerful guy with alleged mob-connections, ringing up radio DJs and having them fired for passing comment on his work. This same guy was reduced to nothing when the women in his life would leave.

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