Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Otherlands - Lewis Taylor

Hey Guys and Gals,

Hope you're all doing ok. I find myself in Memphis again, at the Otherlands cafe in Midtown to be precise, keeping the rest of the world at arm's length via this glorious medium of the internet. It's been a little while since my last one of these, so I thought I'd do another installment of...


And today's subject is the curious, enigmatic, mysterious and downright bewildering Lewis Taylor. There's a chance if you were into the blue-eyed soul or nu-soul movement of the 1990's that you may have happened upon his name on some compilation or another, or maybe were even one of the few that bought his self-titled debut record when it came out in 1996. At any rate, I think it's perhaps best we kick off with how I happened to come across his music, as this is an artist you can seemingly only find out about by word of mouth.

The first music of Lewis Taylor that I heard was actually possibly never going to be heard at all. It was an album called The Lost Album, released in the U.S. on the Hacktone label in 2006 that was originally a bunch of re-recorded demos Lewis had originally made for his then label, Island records, in the late 1990's. I instantly appreciated and loved his music, which is probably why my friend Greg Reding from Memphis decided to lay it on me. The album is sun-kissed west coast meets progressive soul-psychedelia (think Brian Wilson-era Beach Boys meets Todd Rundgren at a party at Marvin Gaye's place), and is quite different from his other work on Island and to a certain extent his own releases in the early 2000's, which have one foot very firmly planted in nu-soul (albeit another one in progressive rock). Though, in accordance with the progressive rock taste of Mr Taylor, this record does not shy away from a face-melting guitar solo or two, and even odd time signatures. But it's really Lewis' talent for arrangement (vocals, in particular) and excellent songwriting is at the core of this entire album. Given that Lewis' incomparable presence throughout the record is maybe its sole defining characteristic, and when one takes his other work into account, perhaps he should simply be put in a new genre called Lewis Taylor. Although who says music even needs to be categorised, anyway? Good music is good music, period.

The story of Lewis Taylor is a difficult one to tell, mainly because there is a distinct lack of ready information available on the man himself, and on his music. One has to dig very deep to find any information at all, and very little of it can be classed as 'official'. Having said that, though, this lack of information is chiefly due to the man himself and his apparent wish to erase himself from the music history ledger after his 'retirement' in 2006. What brought this 'retirement' on is a matter of much debate for Lewis' small but rabid fanbase on the internet. There are reports of vocal nodules forcing him to quit after a hamstrung American tour in 2006, where he cancelled more gigs than he played by most accounts. In fact, when one tries to find out what exactly went wrong with Lewis' career, and why we ALL haven't heard of him, the answers are even more elusive. To add to this, the man himself isn't speaking. He even went to the trouble of taking down his old website, removing all videos from youtube, and to this day the appearance and use of his music is carefully monitored and if it is 'in breach of copyright', it very quickly disappears. The only place you can get a hold of his catalog (apart from second hand stores) is through Itunes, or by streaming through Last FM or Pandora or other such sites. This is someone who clearly doesn't want anyone to know anything about him, or not right now at least.

So let's jump to the beginning. Lewis Taylor, according to one source, started to learn music after a car accident in his early 20's which encouraged him to spend his recovery time developing his musical knowledge and talent. Within a few years, he scored a gig as guitarist in the mid 1980's with the Edgar Broughton Band, a progressive rock band that had already been in existence for nearly 20 years by the time he joined. He then released through Chime records in the late 1980's two albums of his own progressive rock-influenced psychedelic material under the pseudonym 'Sheriff Jack', and after further developing his singing voice (apparently the last instrument he claims to have developed in his diverse portfolio), found himself signed to Island records in the mid 1990's based on the strength of demos of his new material alone.

His first record Lewis Taylor was released in 1996 to phenomenal critical acclaim, and soon had many famous and influential tongues wagging (Elton John and David Bowie, amongst others) through the sheer audaciousness of the talent displayed (Lewis plays most or all of the instruments on his recordings) and the smooth soul-like quality of his singing voice, which drew frequent comparisons to honey-voiced artists such as Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. However, Island records did not seem to know how to handle or properly promote the music of their precociously talented new artist, and an album that was an unprecedented amalgamation of soul, groove-based psychedelica and rock. As a result, despite critics falling over themselves to throw superlatives at the artist and record, sales barely managed to move the needle. Island put out a second record, Lewis II, in 1998, which was enthusiastically received by critics, but unless you were one of the few who buys records based on a good review, you probably never even heard it or knew of its existence, again most likely due to Island's inability to sell their artist to the general public. In Island's defence, however, it must be said that Lewis Taylor is no ordinary pop artist, so they set themselves a challenge to begin with. After submitting demos to Island for the songs that would later become The Lost Album (apparently in response to the label's request he pen more 'commercial' material), he was dropped, and he found himself - quite happily, I imagine - a free agent.

In 2001, he started his own label, Slow Reality, and released two albums in England and Europe, Stoned, Pt 1 in 2002, which was followed by Stoned, Pt 2 in 2004. These records soon gained a small but faithful underground following (thanks in part to his reputation from the previous two albums), and he found his audience slowly growing, through word of mouth and well-received performances in England and Europe. The Lost Album soon followed in 2005 on Slow Reality, but Lewis still remained frustratingly under the radar of mainstream success. Given that critics were prone to gush profusely when Lewis' name was mentioned, it was somewhat inevitable that his music should find an audience in America. With a new label Hacktone releasing Stoned in the U.S. (again to an overwhelmingly positive critical response), and about to release another one (what would be The Lost Album) with some trepidation a short tour was booked for 2006, ostensibly for promotional purposes, starting with a show in New York City at the Bowery bar. This gig has since been described with almost religious-like reverence by those who attended it, and many fans from throughout the U.S. traveled great distances to be there. Lewis himself was stunned by this welcome and recognition from his audience, getting emotional when they sang the words to his songs and responding to requests from the audience that he hadn't even rehearsed with his band (he apparently called out the changes to them as they went - no small feat considering the complexity of his songs). Success and recognition for Lewis Taylor finally seemed only a matter of time.

But it was shortly after that it all started to unravel, and there are all kinds of varying and unconfirmed reports why. The next night, he performed live on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien', and reportedly tore it up, though no footage of the show is now available on the internet. A date in Atlanta was cancelled and then a following date in Los Angeles (at The Troubadour) was also cancelled. A publicist claimed that Lewis was suffering from vocal 'nodules' and so was unable to perform, and that follow up tour dates would most likely soon be announced. But they never were.

Lewis Taylor slid back into his own private world and publicly announced his 'retirement' via his now shut-down website, and has not released anything since. Rumours abound that he has been working on new material, and perhaps we shall soon new Lewis Taylor music, but nothing has yet surfaced. Despite seemingly attempting to wipe his own musical existence off the map, you can still buy Lewis Taylor on Itunes (simply do a search and he'll come up), and in respect for his apparent wishes that no illegal or copyright infringing use of his music pervades the internet, I recommend you simply buy it. You won't regret it, and who knows, it may encourage him to come out from the shadows again.

I would recommend starting with The Lost Album, then Stoned, and find your way from there. For those curious, you can stream two non-downloadable promo interviews and live performance radio shows recorded on Lewis's 2006 tour here on KCRW and here on NPR.


Lewis Taylor - 1996, Island Records
Lewis II - 1998, Island Records
Stoned, Pt 1 - 2002, Slow Reality (U.K.)
Stoned, Pt 2 - 2004, Slow Reality (U.K.)
Stoned - 2004, Hacktone (U.S.)
The Lost Album - 2005, Slow Reality (U.K); 2006, Hacktone (U.S)

as Sheriff Jack

Laugh Yourself Awake - 1986, Chime
What Lovely Melodies! - 1987, Chime

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sleeping in Seattle (and other places)

This blog is affectionately dedicated to my friend Joel Williams, even though he has nothing to do with the content of this particular posting, but it's his birthday on March 23rd.

Hi there everyone,

Sorry, It's been a little while since my last one of these, but I've had a good excuse. I've been doing a short little tour of the West Coast with two very special people and amazing writers and musicians, Miss Savannah Jo Lack, and Miss Annie Bacon. It was the first time I've actually driven extensively around northern California and up through Oregon and Washington state, and boy, is it a pretty scenic place.

After a few days in San Francisco, where Annie and Savannah both reside (if you're a SFO resident, you should really check them out), we rehearsed, played a little warm-up show, and managed to get in a little socialising on the side. The next day we headed north in our amazing tour vehicle, the sprinter, which was big enough to take a mattress in the back, an addition that we were all extremely grateful for.

Our first stop was Seattle, via a short stop in Portland, where had had to pretty much hold each other back and not buy anything buying from an awesome music store called Old Town Music, which is right there on 3rd Avenue downtown. Portland seems like a pretty nice place, and kind of feels a bit like Launceston, although bigger, and minus all the things that make Launceston a bit of a drag at times (rednecks, I'm looking at you). Another place worth stopping in at in Portland (besides going to see a Trailblazers game) is Voodoo Doughnut, which literally had the most impressive range of doughnuts I'd ever seen. I was tempted to try one called "Cock'n'Balls", which I assume must be cooked in the shape of a ball-sports obsessed Rooster, but there wasn't one on display in the case so I never got to find out. I did however try one with vanilla icing and toasted coconut, and frankly it was so good I wished my shrunken starving musician stomach had room for another one. I'm not much of a sweet tooth at the best of times, but this was enough to make me reconsider. Even if I did feel a bit sick because it tasted so good.

After leaving Portland, we started to play a game with the self-explanatory title of "Look at THAT f*cking Volcano", the aim of which is basically whenever you see a Volcano, the first person to say "Look at THAT f*cking Volcano" gets 10 points. Suffice to say, around this area it was a very high scoring game. There are Volcanos everywhere up here (lucky for us, not spewing forth hot magma and lava into the air at the time) and it is an amazing site to see these snow capped harbringers of destruction from a distance, towering over the landscape with 'don't f*ck with me' written all over them. As you can tell, I find Volcanos pretty impressive.

After we escaping our inevitable doom (had we hung around for a few hundred thousand years or so) from these earth-shaping titans, we drove into Seattle, where our gracious host Mr John Fitzsimons was exactly that, a very gracious host. Now, if Portland is like Launceston, Seattle is definitely like Hobart, although again quite a bit bigger, but including the pre-requisite stunning harbor and stupidly beautiful surrounding mountains. Besides being the home of Grunge music and good coffee (I wouldn't know about the latter, being not much of a lover of the dirty bean), Seattle is also regarded as one of the unofficial origins of the hipster. Now, whilst you won't find that written on a plaque anywhere, it is kind of obvious by looking at the people there. They definitely seem cooler than everyone else, and I felt so uncool (somewhat akin to my goofy period in grades 8 and 9) I was tempted to get a tattoo, large-rimmed spectacles and disillusioned attitude just to fit in. Although this would not really be doing it justice by this simple surface based description. Seattle people are actually incredibly nice, even the hipsters, and are actually fans of culture, music, art and whatever creative expressions people have, which is what makes them GENUINE hipsters (ie very hip and switched on people). Our friends that we made in Seattle are awesome people and I look forward to hanging out and playing there again, even if they did make us feel incredibly dorky just by being within 30 feet proximity to them. Incidentally, whilst in Seattle I also took the opportunity to be a tourist for a couple of hours and went down to the Pike Place markets and had possibly the best fish and chips I've ever had. Go check it out if you ever find yourself in Seattle, and there are also some wicked bookstores around there too.

OK, so after a triumphant show in Seattle, we drove down to Dunsmuir, which is a small gold rush town in northern California, at the foot of Mt Shasta (yet another Volcano). Here (after a few sound difficulties) we played acoustically to an extremely appreciative audience at Sengthong's Blue Sky Room, which is a fantastic venue, and they really made some travel-weary musicians feel a lot better through some awesome food and incredible above and beyond hospitality. The town itself is pretty darn stunning too, with an one street olde-worlde western vibe to it (without any cheesiness), a stunning backdrop of mountains, the Union Pacific railroad, and it is also one of the origins of the mighty Sacramento River, which really isn't very big at Dunsmuir, but sure as hell gets a lot bigger before it opens up into the bay just north of San Francisco and Oakland.

After coming down from the mountains the next day we arrived back in San Francisco, one of my favourite places and in my opinion one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We played a gig the at The Blue Macaw in the Mission district, and those who live in the bay area know that the Mission district is the place to go to get a good burrito. The gig itself was awesome, and actually the first time I've ever played one of my own shows in San Francisco, despite spending a lot of time there. We then proceeded to party down San Francisco style, and I don't remember much after that.

After waking up feeling surprisingly good, we headed down to Los Angeles for a combined set at Room 5, which is one of the best places to see live acoustic music in LA, if you don't mind posh surroundings in your live music experience. Seriously though, it's a nice place. For lunch the next day, we headed to Langer's delicatessen in the heart of little Mexico, right opposite MacArthur park (yes, THAT MacArthur park), which is apparently the home of the best pastrami sandwich in the world. Now, given that Savannah and I aren't very good carnivores, we passed on the experience. However, Annie and our good friends Rowland and Luke Weinstein all seemed to enjoy theirs, judging by the blissed out looks on their faces upon completion of these behemoth piles of pastrami, cheese and mustard, all barely contained within the two slices of bread that are seemingly added as an excuse just so they can call the damn thing a sandwich. So if you're a pastrami fan, check it out.

Our last stop and gig on this all-too-brief tour, was Santa Barbara, home of the ill-fated soap opera and occasionally confusing series of one-way streets. Here we played a show in Jeff's Tea House for a large and extremely appreciative audience. A very large thank you to Jeff and friends for amazing hospitality and a good time had by all. We'll most definitely be back.

So now I'm back in Nashville and the same bed for a little while, though the mattress in the back of the sprinter was certainly starting to feel very comfortable indeed. for all you west coasters, we'll be doing it again later this year I'm sure, so be sure to keep a look out for us. We'll probably even manage to get a few more stops in next time.

So take care, and you'll be hearing from me again very soon, with some exciting new music news...

Be good,


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Drum roll please....

Hey Folks,

It's Oscar night, which as you may imagine is not marked on my calendar, nor do I ever watch it. I have also often wondered what the great Oscar Wilde would think of this event that has so grandly misappropriated his name. My first reaction would be to think that he would have hated the morass and pretension, but then I'm sure his more fanciful side would like the idea of being feted in public to such an extent. I guess we'll never know, much like I wish I could never know anything about it at all, as I don't exactly hold the awards with much degree of respect as a sound barometer of quality in movie-making.

However, due to my friend's control of the remote this evening on one of the rare occasions I was actually watching television, I did get to see a bit of it. I think the last time I saw it was maybe 6 years ago, and then I only saw a small part before changing the channel in disbelief at the sheer decadence and sordid back-slapping of it all, a feature that has become all too common at most awards shows.

And I may as well say that it hasn't changed much. It's still the trademark "look at how great we all are" Hollywood attitude. Which is all part of it, and kind of always has been, so I don't want it to sound like I'm blaming the people involved. The thought just always occurs to me whenever I actually go to a mainstream cinema (and my long-suffering siblings can attest to this) that there is an absolutely ridiculously exorbitant amount of money spent on making these movies, and in particular, promoting them.

Now, I am all for movies as a form of art and expression, and a great form of social commentary and conveying messages. The movie 'The Cove' which took out best documentary is a fantastic example of this. But I just wonder if the millions upon millions of dollars that are spent on promoting stupid mindless crap like Alvin and the Chipmunks or the recent Terminator or any movie Eddie Murphy's made in the last five years, could not be better spent on more valuable causes like poverty or public health?

There's something to be said for escapist entertainment, and that it does serve a purpose. But if people want to see a movie, do they really need all the posters and cardboard cutouts and all that extra stuff constantly REMINDING them to see it? In many cases, it's actually compensating for something. The main thing that makes people go and see a movie is and always has been word of mouth, or a recommendation. So the key really seems to be: make a good movie, people will go to see it. Simple enough. So why does there need to be SO much spend on movie advertising?

Before we get carried away here, let me point out that I do recognise the issue in proposing that the money spent on movie advertising should instead go into the public benefit, feeding the starving masses or what have you. Both fields of industry are extremely different and despite one's temptation to do so, one can't simply say to the movie executives "shouldn't all this extra money you're using to make MORE money for yourselves be put towards charitable causes instead?". If only it could be that simple. But as we know, whilst corporate charity does exist and plays a very large part in helping many worthwhile causes, poverty and poor quality public health care still exist too, and quite frankly, they shouldn't.

The main problem is that while Big Movie industry does occasionally turn out worthwhile pieces of celluloid, infinitely more high-quality movies that are foreign or made independently don't reach a wider audience. Which is a real shame. I'm not really in the movie industry and I don't know how this can be helped, but I think perhaps the mainstream movie industry has come to dominate so much, and has so much control over the mediums through which movies are advertised, that it's a struggle for smaller movies to get through. It's more and more up to the individual discerning movie goer to find the quality movies that they get the most enjoyment or fulfillment from. Sound familiar, music lovers?

Getting back to the 'Academy Awards', I think my Australian upbringing may have something to do with my apparent revulsion of all things that are 'hyped' up. It tends to be a fairly consistent Australian trait that we tend to take most things with a grain of salt, especially in a situation where a big fuss is made of something fairly lightweight, and in the overall scheme of things you would have to say the Oscars is pretty lightweight.

People who manage to bring half their family across the world as refugees to start a new life, escape persecution in their own homeland and hope for something better in ours are maybe more deserving of our attention than all these moviemakers under those oh-so-bright lights reassuring themselves through the medium of interpretive dance (really), expensive staging and prompted applause.

But then, I guess that's the point of these awards shows. For a brief shining moment, we can choose to forget all these political and social issues constantly confronting us in those headlines for just a minute and focus on something that looks shiny and pretty. There's no harm in that. Providing it's for just a minute.

However, to use a filmmakers turn of phrase: keeping and maintaining proper perspective and focus on key plot elements is critical, and has the greatest power in determining how the audience follows the story.

Whilst stories are important, it's how we apply the lessons in these stories to our own flesh-and-blood existence, and maintain perspective on the tangible issues of our time that can make all the difference in this real, not celluloid, world. I think if the movie industry keeps trying to make dollar signs instead of changing lives for the better, then this is a great missed opportunity.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Brush With Corleone

Hey there folks,

Yesterday I was asked a question that I have never been asked before, ever. And I couldn't answer it right away on the spot. But it really got me thinking.

You see, recently I have made good friends with another band over here (they are staying in the same house I am staying in), although I should point out, this band isn't actually FROM here, as they come from Washington state. They're just staying here in Nashville for a couple of weeks while they do some shows in town and thereabouts. Anyway, the bass player has his girlfriend and 3 month old son Gunner (the name's Swedish, apparently) in tow, and we have been getting along like the proverbial (not literal - fortunately) house on fire. So well in fact, that last night they asked me to be their little boy's Godfather.

Now, after I sadly realised that this didn't mean wearing a snappy pinstripe suit and fedora and granting any favour asked of me on my daughter's wedding day, you can imagine I was kind of stunned. I mean, I've known them for all of two weeks. But I guess they thought enough of me to want me to have some kind of role in their offspring's life, which is very nice of them (and potentially disastrous for the poor unsuspecting young one). I am very flattered of course, but also very confused. I don't really know what a Godfather actually DOES.

Now I've been to a few baptisms before, where the traditional role of the Godparents is to be the child's religious and spiritual compass, to ensure that the kids grow up to be good god-fearers just like their god-fearing godparents. That and to step in and take over care of the child in the unfortunate event of the parent's passing when the child is still, well, a child. Which is a little silly, really, as I would have thought most couples would normally have their own parents or other close relatives take over the custody and care of any children should that situation arise.

So, I did some research. Seeing as how I didn't know exactly what the duties of a Godparent is (I never had one, to my knowledge), and how my immediate reaction was that I am not obviously qualified to undertake such a thing, I set about to find out what the role of the Godparent is in today's society. I am not especially religious, so for me to be the religious guide for any young human is a little bit of a stretch. Fortunately in this case young Gunner's parents aren't too religious either, so this poses the question of what do Godparents do in a non-religious context? Is it even a valid role, and given that the term is GODparent, should it be called something else in this case?

I guess 'mentor' or 'guide' would be pretty apt, and wouldn't be too bad. You know, like having a cool uncle or aunt to counsel you on stuff you don't want your parents to know about. I could do that. A scary thought, I know, but I possibly could. I can be pretty responsible when I need to be.

As it turns out, according to many web forums on the subject, that's pretty much what people who aren't religious, but still want to fill a kind of 'Godparent' role in their child's life, are doing. I guess it's kind of like having an additional person on board who pledges to do their best to look after the kid's best interests and stuff like that. That would make sense. It's kind of like the whole 'it takes a community to bring up a child' ethos. I can understand and actually identify with that, from personal experience. Ultimately, it's really up to the parents. I don't think kids need 'Godparents' in order to be brought up emotionally stable and well-balanced, though it doesn't necessarily hurt either, and there are countless examples of both. It all depends on the family and their educational and parenting philosophy. Says me, who doesn't really have any practical parenting experience AT ALL, besides looking after my younger siblings as soon I was responsible enough to. And as my mum would point out, that hardly counts.

So, I haven't given an answer yet, as they said I can take my time to think about it (which I need, quite frankly). It may just give them enough time to rethink their offer, which may put my mind at ease. Gunner's still going to turn out great, whether I get to see how he's doing every so often or not. But, you know, if I was his 'backup-parent', that kid would definitely have a good appreciation of soul music...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Snow - The Jayhawks

Hey People,

Well, I'm in Nashville, where we've had a bunch of snow and 'flurries' lately. In fact, it was 'flurrying' today, to use the term as a verb, which I'm not sure is technically possible. 'Flurries' are a meteorological term denoting patches of light snow, and I've never heard that such a thing existed until about a week ago. That's what you get for being brought up in country Queensland, which could be famous for its lack of snow. Well, unless you're from Stanthorpe, where it does snow occasionally, I'm told. I never saw it though, which was my parent's fault really, neglecting to take me down there and enrich my childhood (just kidding Mum, you're ok). Instead in Warwick we had frequent below-zero temperatures (that's centigrade, folks) that could freeze off the parts of a Monkey he would consider quite valuable, and ice over our horses' water trough (literally). But it would never snow. Come to think of it, I didn't actually see snow until I was 21, and taking an overseas jaunt to Europe. I first sighted this magical by-product of the cold weather in Switzerland, on the top of a mountain just above the village of Leysin, which is above Lake Geneva (if that means anything to you). It was very pretty, and kind of an amazing place to get your first up close experience of snow.

Anyway, seeing as how I'm harping on about snow, I'm going to draw a rather tenuous link between it and the next band I'm going to talk about in my ongoing series of...(drum roll)...

Bands or Artists You Should Know But Have Probably Never Heard Of.

Yeah, I know, I need to work on the title. I'll come up with something catchy eventually.

Anyway, the band that I'm about to talk of come from one of the coldest places in the United States, and always gets a lot of the white icy stuff come wintertime. I'm talking about the northern state of Minnesota, and the so called 'twin cities' of Minneapolis and St Paul. This is an area that has been the birthing ground for a number of great bands, but today I'm going to focus on just one, which is The Jayhawks.

The heart and soul of the Jayhawks is the fantastic pop songwriting partnership of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, though this wasn't always the way it was from the beginning. When the band formed in 1985 in Minneapolis with Stan Perlman on bass, Norm Rogers on drums and Louris and Olson on vocals and guitars, most of the songs were written by Olson. The band's first release was self-titled and put out by small independent label Bunkhouse records (a label started by the band's first manager Charlie Pine) in 1986, with Olson dominating the songwriting duties. The album didn't garner any interest from major labels however, so the band went right back to work recording new demos and performing as often as their day jobs would allow. During this time, Louris (despite a brief respite from the band to to being injured in a car accident) gradually started to contribute more songs to the proceedings, and the pair collaborated more frequently on new material.

In 1989 these collected demos from the past three years were collated, ironed out and molded into the album 'Blue Earth'. This was released on Minneapolis label Twin-Tone and the band set about touring the U.S. in order to promote it. After a couple of years and a few lineup changes (by now, Rogers had been replaced by Thad Spencer on drums, and after the tour Spencer was in turn replaced by Ken Callahan) the legend goes that in 1991 Dave Ayers, the president of Twin Tone records was on the phone to George Drakoulias from Def American records, while 'Blue Earth' was playing in the background. Drakoulias was curious about the music in the background, and so Ayers told him all about the band, which led to the eventual signing of the Jayhawks to their first major label deal with Def American later that year.

In 1992, the band had their first major label American release, 'Hollywood Town Hall', produced by George Drakoulias, which was a big critical success and gained quite a bit of airplay. The band continued touring (with new member Karen Grotberg on keyboards and vocals) and in the process found themselves gaining a solid core fanbase, but wider success still eluded them, and the album failed to break into the charts, peaking at #192, although the single 'Waiting for the Sun' reached #20 on the Billboard charts. The album 'Hollywood town Hall' is considered to be a fan favourite, but it was their next record, released in 1995, that introduced me to them.

'Tomorrow the Green Grass' is my favourite Jayhawks record. It was again produced by George Drakoulias, and for me is the moment when the chemistry between Olson and Louris reached its peak, in regard to both songwriting and vocal harmony. The album doesn't have a bad song on it, and for me was immediately reminiscent of another of my favourite bands (and subject of another chapter in the series), The Flying Burrito Brothers. The harmonies between Olson and Lourisstrongly evoke the harmony blend of the Burrito Bros.' Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, none more so on the slower country numbers like 'Two Hearts'. It's a truly great record, and without a doubt one of the best albums of the decade. The album did chart, but due to its expensive production failed to sell as expected, and did not build on the success of their last record. The band toured the record to support it, and found their fanbase and profile growing, but breakthrough mainstream commercial success still eluded them.

Disillusioned with the music industry, Olson unexpectedly left the band in late 1995 once touring had finished. In his words: "We were cooking on all cylinders, and playing shows, and it seemed like before we knew it, the touring was done. I was a little shocked at that, I was sort of thinking like we were going to get through this first round, and then we were going to go for it on our own and make it happen. But that just didn't seem like it was on the cards; we were already having a meeting about the next record. I blew a fuse inside for some of the things that were basically not that big of a deal, so I left the band."

Olson's departure left a big hole in the group, and after a short break where the remaining members (Callahan had been replaced on the drums by Tim O'Reagan in 1995) tried to work out what to do next, they decided to keep going with touring and making records, with Louris as leader and main songwriter in the band. The band released three more albums; 'Sound of Lies' (1997), Smile (2000) and Rainy Day Music (2003), which are all very good records with Louris coming into his own as a bandleader and songwriter.

In 2009, a Jayhawks anthology was released titled 'Music from the North Country', and provides a good retrospective covering all periods and stages of the band's existence. The Jayhawks were a seminal and extremely influential band for just about every serious musician in the 1990's that didn't pick up a guitar just because they saw Kurt Cobain do it. For those who dug deeper and loved classic pop harmonies and melodies, the Jayhawks were a one-stop shop, whose classic records still sound great today. I recommend you start with 'Tomorrow the Green Grass', then 'Hollywood Town Hall', and after that you'll be a fan for life.

Album Discography

The Jayhawks (1986)
Blue Earth (1989)
Hollywood Town Hall (1993)
Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
Sound of Lies (1997)
Smile (2000)
Rainy Day Music (2003)
Music from the North Country (2009)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Harrisburg Diaries

Hi People,

So here I am in Harrisburg. "Where?" I hear you all ask simultaneously? Why, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, of course. OK, a few things about Harrisburg:

It's actually the state capital of Pennsylvania, which was apparently decided after one of the former national capitals of the USA, Philadelphia (also in PA - the two letter abbreviation for Pennsylvania), was deemed to be inappropriate as the state capital as it was already the nation's capital. But then it was decided (by the powers that be, I guess) that the capital of the USA needed to be in a neutral territory, to prevent bias and favouritism amongst the states, and thus the capital was moved to the newly created city of Washington, in the District of Columbia.

At least, that's what the nice lady I was sitting next to on the plane on the way here yesterday said, who may or may not have had a few drinks before she got on the plane. But her explanation, although overly and perhaps unnecessarily flirtatious given that the subject was American history, seemed to make sense at the time to me, seeing as how my brain was fried after a 5 hour delayed layover in Washington-Dulles airport. For those after cold hard facts, a better version can be found here.

Harrisburg is also the home of the famous Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979 and nearly destroyed the world. So wish me luck while I'm here. Although this could be the perfect opportunity for me to mutate and get special powers, providing that special power is perhaps an ability to glow bright green in the dark.

Anyway, I'm here to do a showcase for the Millennium music conference, which I in fact did earlier tonight in the lovely Midtown Scholar Bookstore. If you're ever in Harrisburg, then I recommend a visit. It's one of those stores that won't necessarily have a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for you, but if you're interested in Huguenot Silverware in England (1698-1764) then you just might find what you're after (I actually saw a book with that title).

Anyway, being at another one of these music conferences I am again forced to try and find my relevance as a musician, artist, and performer, which is always a fairly confronting task, particularly when faced with the possibility one may not be so relevant after all. The whole thing about the music industry than can be so disenchanting is that everyone's trying to make a buck or fame out of it and you can smell the desperation in the air. It's enough to actually make me consider a career change, as I don't think I particularly fit into this ethos. Sure, I'd like to be able to make a living out of this, but it's not WHY I do it. In fact, if you did ask me why I do it, I might not be able to tell you, but it has to do with the music; the creation of music, what it means to be able to create music, and how it makes me feel to listen, play and create MUSIC. So yeah, while being at one of these things is good in the way it challenges you to think about your relevance to the music industry, it is also a very sobering experience, as it does make you think about your career.

Anyway, as I sit in my hotel room at the end of the day with the TV on mute (a left-wing satire show - on HBO of course) sitting here writing this and thinking about the bigger picture, these are my thoughts. On Sunday it's back to Nashville and a different slice of music industry reality. When one is an artist, it's hard to look objectively at what you do and see it as commerce. Maybe the trick is not caring about it so much, and not applying any set of guidelines or pre-conceptions.

As Frederick Nietzsche once said: "We have art so that we do not die of the truth".

Over and out.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Memphis - Big Star

Hey Folks,

Hope all's going well. I'm writing to you from one of the most historic musical places, or musical hallowed ground, if you will, in the world. It's a city in the southwest of the US state of Tennessee called Memphis, which you may know from the title of the Chuck Berry song called, um, "Memphis, Tennessee". Chuck doesn't really talk to much about Memphis in the song, other than referring to "the southside" and "the Mississippi Bridge". Instead the song is actually a brilliantly executed lyrical gem, where Chuck writes about a young girl called Marie trying to get in touch with him but he missed her call. We of course initially think that Marie is of course a character of romantic interest for Mr Berry, but in the third verse, we are turned onto the truth by the line "Marie is only six years old", and it turns out that she is his estranged daughter, giving the song all new added poignancy. It's really a masterpiece, and I never cease to marvel at how well written a song it is. Chuck Berry, aside from being the first "guitar hero", really was one of the most lyrically talented songwriters that Rock'n'roll has ever seen in my opinion, and the deftness and structural genius of his lyrics is often criminally overlooked when discussing this giant of Rock music. Instead, everyone just thinks of that guitar riff from 'Johnny B Goode'.

But anyway, I didn't come on here to write about Chuck Berry, although maybe I will at a later date. I thought Memphis would be as good a place as any to start writing my blog series about bands and artists that you've probably never heard of, but should have. The first chapter in this series is about a band that is now regarded as one of the most influential, yet completely unsuccessful bands and thus one of the greatest commercial misfortunes of the modern rock era. This band's name is Big Star.

Big Star was founded in Memphis in 1971 by original members Alex Chilton (guitar/vocals), Chris Bell (guitar/vocals), Andy Hummell (bass/vocals), and Jody Stephens (drums/vocals). The band was formed when Alex was invited by the others to join their original band Icewater, after hearing some of Alex's songs, which he played for them on his trusty acoustic guitar. The band befriended local music figure and owner of Ardent studios, John Fry, and immediately started working on their first album. The band also adopted the new name of 'Big Star' after the grocery store nearby that the group visited for snacks during recording sessions. According to Jody Stephens and John Fry, Chris Bell was the 'tinkerer' of the band, spending hours in the studio playing around with new guitar parts or ideas for songs after the band had already cut the original rhythm section 'beds' for the tracks. The resulting album was called '#1 Record', and is often considered to be the first power-pop album; combining elements of British invasion-esque pop harmonies and jangly guitars with riffs and bass lines not unlike those in rhythm and blues music. The album was released in 1972 on Ardent's own label, and distributed by powerful Memphis record label, Stax records. It was critically acclaimed (Rolling Stone called it "exceptionally good"), but due to mismanagement and mishandling by Stax the album was virtually unavailable in stores for purchase, which practically eliminated any chance of sales or charting.

The subsequent disappointment in the lack of the record's success resulted in a lot of tensions emerging within the band, resulting in some physical violence between band members and destruction of equipment. Chris Bell also left the band, being very frustrated and disheartened by the poor commercial performance and handling of the record by Stax. Nonetheless, the band returned to Ardent to record a follow-up record, which would become their second album 'Radio City'. The record was recorded at Ardent by Chilton, Stephens, and Hummell, with technical assistance from John Fry. Chris Bell had already collaborated on some songs with Chilton before recording, and his influence is still felt in the harmonies, but it is really Chilton's edgy guitar that dominates this record. Released in February 1974 it was again met with great critical accolades, but due to a disagreement between Stax and a new deal it had made regarding its own distribution with Columbia records, the album languished in record label limbo. As a result of the disagreement, Columbia refused to distribute Stax's catalog, not promoting the release and additionally making the record extremely hard to get, and subsequently the record only sold around 20,000 copies (which was still more than '#1 Record). To compound the band's woes, Hummell left the group just before the record's release to finish his studies, and the record sank almost without a trace.

In late 1974, Chilton and Stephens, aided by an array of other musicians, returned to the studio to work on a third record, which was to be produced by Memphis luminary Jim Dickinson. More a series of recordings than an album, the record is still regarded as an essential part of the Band's ouevre (there's a fancy word), despite its dissimilarities to the first two records. The sounds are more disjointed, minimal, and contain synthesisers and horns and female backing vocals in place of the jangly guitars of previous releases. It is easily the most innovative record by the group, and well worth a listen, as it contains some great songs and incredible vocals from Chilton. It was regarded as too uncommercial for release, despite John Fry and Jim Dickinson's best attempts to sell the record to a new label following the demise of Stax in 1975 (another story). It was finally released under the name 'Third/Sister Lovers' on a couple of small independent labels in 1978, and was well received by somewhat puzzled critics at the time, yet still retained the unfortunate characteristic of all Big Star records: it was a commercial flop. It has recently developed more attention due it being the great 'lost' Big Star album, and was re-released on CD by Rykodisc in 1992.

Following the recording sessions for 'Third/Sister Lovers', the band officially broke up and Alex Chilton went on to a solo career of mixed success, and Chris Bell was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after the release of their final record in 1978. After leaving the band Chris Bell actually recorded and released a phenomenal solo record called 'I Am The Cosmos', but it too was a commercial failure, though it has now been re-released on CD. It is really worth checking out, and is a bit of a lost masterpiece.

Big Star actually re-formed (with Chilton, Stephens, with the assistance of Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from The Posies) in 1994 due to a renewed interest in their music, released a new album 'In Space' in 2005 and still does the occasional gig. However, the unfortunate circumstances and label disputes that combined to ensure the commercial failure of a group that was seemingly destined for success due to the quality of its music, is really nothing short of a rock'n'roll tragedy. I strongly recommend you check out Big Star's music, and revel in the superb songwriting, production and undeniable talent of these four young men, who never really got to fulfill their musical career aspirations, but still created some of the best music ever recorded. '#1 Record' is a good place to start, and just go on from there...


#1 Record (1972)
Radio City (1974)
Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
In Space (2005)
Keep An Eye On The Sky (Box Set - 2009)