Archive for October, 2014

Words and music.

Iconic Australian songwriter Richard Clapton has celebrated 40 years of writing and making music with the simultaneous release of his autobiography together with a three CD (plus DVD) set.

Iconic is a lazy word, overused in the relentless sales pitch that is post-war popular music but in Clapton’s case, it is entirely apt. His music has been as much a part of (and a reflection of) Australian life as Lou Reed’s or The Beach Boys have been to the American landscape or Ray Davies to the British. And it is this intertwining of his words and music with our births, deaths and marriages that un-lazys the word ‘iconic’ in his case.

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The 50-track CD set ­– Best Years 1974-2014: The 40th Anniversary Collection – shows the consistency of his vision from the beginning. The tugging yearn of ‘Blue Bay Blues’ (from 1975’s Girls on The Avenue LP) has much in common with ‘Vapour Trails’ from 2012’s Harlequin Nights – an emotional directness, an almost country-perfect meld of words and melody, a crisp and  beautifully realised production.

What raises these songs – in fact, what raises all fifty of these songs and beyond into Clapton’s back-catalogue ­– is their deep humanity. No lyric cannot be understood and felt – whether poetic or everyday (the lines “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road/I’m so drunk and the car won’t go” somehow mean so much) – no melody fails to serve the words, no chord fails to serve the song. Nor does any production trick rankle or obscure the deep effect on the heart of these tunes. Which is triply remarkable since Clapton’s recordings have always taken production values from each of his four decades – to these ears, the best values: yes, his music even survived the synthetic, gated textures of the 80s.

Clapton’s voice of course is a big part of this. Always a little wounded-sounding, mellow or raw, its limits – like Dylan, like George Harrison – are its strengths. His is the voice of us, singing tunes that any of us can sing. (Check Jimmy Barnes’ grating howl on the live DVD reading of ‘I Am An Island’ to see how easily that spell can be broken).

Another big part of Clapton’s songs is the feeling of place, always vivid and undilutedly Australian. Songs such as the triple crown of “Goodbye Tiger”, “Deep Water” and “Down in The Lucky Country” from 1977’s Goodbye Tiger seem to breathe with a salt-breeze off the Pacific, and conjure brown-skinned girls, beach promenades, beer and humid Bondi nights. Remarkable that all three were written in a creative blue streak in a farmhouse in the freezing north of Denmark, Clapton snowed-in in more than one sense, self-exiled from Australia.

richard_clapton_best_years_1974-2014_0814It seems he took an ever glowing ember of Australia (or maybe a handful of warm Pacific sand), in his heart with him wherever he went. And went he did, and went and went – his autobiography, The Best Years of Our Lives, charts his pin-balling travels from Australia to Britain, from Germany (and all over Europe) to the US and back again. A geographical manifestation of Clapton’s truly restless creative spirit – one of many parallels to Neil Young, who also rocks like fury, yet writes clear-water ballads, and never ever stands still ­– his travels were as much driven by disaffection with Australia, his homeland, as they were by beckoning global fame.

Toby Cresswell in his liner notes to the CD set refers to his early impression of Richard Clapton as “a man on a mission of becoming”. The book maps this trajectory in great detail. Yes, there are the salacious titillations of parties, glamour, INXS, drug fun and boozy swashbuckling. Yet, there is the impression of Clapton as an artist always just a little on the outer, looking in on it all – not judging or voyeuristically but with affectionate observation, loading his palette and his brush with the hues and tints of beloved, fast-paced Life.

The book also gives the impression of a man to whom the music was all. There is nothing of his childhood or early teenage (beyond pale mention of boarding school and a distanced family), nor of his more recent divorce and its associated pain (which ironically, fuelled Harlequin Night’s sweetest moments). The book starts when music starts for Clapton and you gather this is when life started for him too.the-best-years-of-our-lives

The partying also stops when there is work to be done. Clapton as ‘headmaster’ while producing the second INXS album, 1981’s Underneath The Colours. Clapton working through the night to get things just right. The exceptional musicians he used on his albums ­– such as Kirk Lorange and Cold Chisel’s (often uncredited) Ian Moss – shows the value he put on the final work. Throughout his life we see Clapton bail out when the music seems to take second place to the satyricon.

Words and music. Please read the book, and listen to the music – take it all and enjoy it all. But leave the DVD till last.

The Best Years of Our Lives was recorded (for a live album) and filmed before a small invited audience at an Artarmon sound stage on 16 April 1989. It was a relatively drug-free event. Hardly a recipe for rock’n’roll fireworks. It was a retrospective of Clapton’s work over the years and featured a rotating band of musicians from his various past projects, such as Venetta Fields, Jimmy Barnes, INXS’s Jon Farris and Garry Gary Beers and the unknown Ben Butler (who bloody well shines on lead guitar). Despite the strong material, it could have been a self-conscious damp squib.

It is a triumph – the songs seems to galvanise the players, and Clapton’s obvious delight pushes the band into some white-hot areas. It is really what live music is all about ­– and Richard Clapton, that denizen of the all-night studio, shows his live chops in all their tooth and fang glory. (I saw him a couple of years back at Byron Bay Bluesfest and he thrilled the shit out of me there, too).

The DVD finishes with the song ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, performed only by Clapton with spare piano backing. This song of universal hope and love of this gift that is life is hugely affecting in its full band setting. But done in simple duo like this, by its songwriter many years on, it takes on a sweet nostalgia that every one of us will always be able to relate to, and cherish.

As Clapton sings, we keep waiting for the band to come in – heralded by a thunderous drum fill – to take it up to the anthemic place which awaits these words, this melody. But it never does. Bruce Springsteen would have taken it up there, but Richard Clapton leaves it down here, amongst us.

After all, it is where the song – where all his songs – live.

 

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Queensland musician Ben Craven describes himself as a cinematic progressive-rock singer-songwriter-performer-producer. But internationally he is regarded as a true Prog Lord.

His last album – Great and Terrible Potions – was entirely created, performed and recorded by Craven. Great and Terrible Potions gained kudos from the international progressive rock community, including Beach Boys’ collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Cover art was designed by YES album-art wizard, Roger Dean and Craven’s album track ‘No Specific Harm’ was included on a UK PROG magazine cover-mount CD.

tuneleak1‘No Specific Harm’ sounded powerful and lush on its own, but set amongst the beautifully sequenced suite that is Great and Terrible Potions – complete with overture and coda-outdo – it is something else again: part of an experience as rich and dramatic as a film or novel. It is meant to be heard as part of the larger work – but in today’s world of fragmented, half-digested, fast-forward pop culture stream that experience seems almost lost.

Ben Craven has gone beyond just creating astounding, world-class music. He has applied some truly progressive thinking and some impressive web skills to creating his own digital music platform, TuneLeak – a unique hybrid of individual tracks and album-consciousness that allows listeners to absorb the album as it is being built, ever mindful of the symphonic architecture of the thing.

I asked Ben a half-dozen questions on this idea (and others). He was generous with his responses.

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1. What is TuneLeak?

TuneLeak is a release and funding platform for albums. It features albums as they’re being recorded. It allows artists to “leak” early versions of tracks, and fans to download and purchase them. When the album comes out, fans get a discount equal to the total amount they spent purchasing the leaked tracks.

2. What is the idea behind it?

I’ve been watching fan-funding models with interest for a long time. The ones I’ve supported in the past generally involve the artist asking for funds up-front, then they disappear for a while and eventually deliver an album, or a book, or whatever it might be.

I’m not all that comfortable asking people for money up-front. And I think the radio silence that can happen between funding and delivery is a wasted opportunity. I’d much rather see people get something for their money immediately, and often.

This idea fits in perfectly with the way I record albums. That is, I tend to take my time. The downside is for most of that time I’m sitting on music that I’m pretty excited about but have to keep to myself. TuneLeak is the excuse I need to release songs as I record them, safe in the knowledge that they don’t have to be completely finished yet. Plus I get to engage with people during the whole recording process, so it becomes an event rather than a secretive activity.

3. Why is the idea of the ‘album’ so important to you?

I spent an unreasonable amount of my childhood and teenage years listening to music, both in the foreground and the background. I took many long journeys, figuratively speaking, absorbing albums from start to finish and embedding them in my consciousness. Most major events in my life I can remember by which album I was listening to at the time.tuneleak2

And that was before I started recording music myself. Now I see the album as a snapshot in time of a musician’s journey through life, and hopefully an important cohesive artistic statement.

Not everyone sees it that way of course, and it was much easier when I was younger and had a much smaller music collection to invest the time to appreciate it. One thing I’m trying to do with TuneLeak is to recreate some of those circumstances where someone can get to know an album gradually over a meaningful period of time.

4. Do you think platforms such as iTunes and Spotify are hurting music – or can all platforms, yours included, co-exist in a valid way?

Unfortunately for musicians, a new generation of listeners has grown up not paying for music. The horse has already bolted. Music now has no value. Spotify reinforces this notion by tapping into what’s left of the market and making it uneconomical for people to even bother pirating music. It’s terrific for consumers and might be a useful tool for discovery. But I don’t think any artist can reasonably expect to make any significant income from Spotify unless it’s part of a greater business model that includes touring, being a judge on television shows and endorsing fast food.

Another one of the aims of TuneLeak is to get listeners involved early-on during the recording process, so they can appreciate and feel invested in the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Maybe that way we can help promote the idea that music still has value.

5. Your chosen genre of Progressive Rock has seen many changes since its inception in the 1970s. What are your thoughts on the current state of the genre form?

I don’t know what the current state of the genre really is. On the one hand we have “progressive rock” which refers to an ambitious but static style of music that peaked in the early-to-mid seventies and featured fantasy-landscape artwork. And then we have “progressive rock” which is now applied to anything from metal to post-rock, whatever that is!

Today though I suppose “progressive rock” is a rallying cry to a specific audience which enjoyed the 70’s prog bands and finds little pleasure in any music in the charts today. That audience can be incredibly loyal and incredibly demanding, not least because most of them are probably musicians themselves. It’s not hard to imagine some of the classic prog bands feeling trapped within the genre, yet they’re incredibly lucky to have such devoted fans.

But ask anyone outside of that fanbase what “progressive rock” is and they’ll probably stare blankly at you.

6. And finally, what are you thoughts on music today in general?

There is still great new music being produced. It’s just harder than ever to find it amongst all the background noise. The old adage they tell you, that in the end it all comes down to the song, is wrong. It doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t have anyone’s attention.

 

Ben Craven’s site is www.bencraven.com

TuneLeak can be found at www.tuneleak.com

 

 

For her latest album, Nightlight, Sydney singer, songwriter and pianist, Rachel Collis has reinvented herself.

For many years a creator and performer of music at the sharp and witty end of cabaret in a series of one-woman shows, this time round Collis has dug deeper, painting bleaker vistas of both landscape and the heart with her songs.

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And there is some serious songcraft at work here. At a time in pop-musical history when the various Song(s) of The Year are too often simple-minded earworms more suited to tipsy beach sing-a-longs than anything to do with our deeper lives, Collis’ songs are a welcome jolt – a jolt back to the time of Jim Webb, Carole King (circa Tapestry), Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell.

Beautifully realised by the sympathetic yet full-blooded production of Collis and Sean Carey (Thirsty Merc), the ten songs on Nightlight range from the heart-swelling and wide-screen to the introverted and folded-inward. Collis and Carey’s musical vision never gets in the way of the songs, remaining transparent and thoughtful.

The supporting musicians equally read the songs beautifully – two tips of the hat to bassist Michael Galeazzi and drummer Michael Quigley for their sure yet light footprints over all this. Jack Wiard‘s clarinet solo deserves a mention for lighting up the faintly silly but charming ‘A Duck Named Sybil’ (yep, you can take the girl out of cabaret, but you can’t, etc…)

Yet speaking of cabaret, it is those lessons learned from Collis’ previous musical incarnation(s) that give this music so much of its drama, ease of storytelling and direct emotion connection. Lighter forms of music – music tooled for ‘entertainment’ rather than cap-A Art – have often informed the supposedly ‘higher’ levels of the form: Miles Davis transformed popular Broadway showtunes of the day for his exquisite mid-1950s jazz quintet recordings; the Beatles, especially the early 60’s tunes of Paul McCartney, drew heavily on showtunes, cabaret favourites and pop hits of previous decades for their bittersweet loveliness.collis2

The direct yet personal voice across opener ‘Tomorrow’, the smoothly strident ‘Those Words’ and closer ‘Make Room’ – a delicately held piano ballad – is reinforced by Collis’ smart piano voicings: here Top 10 cap-P Pop, there Aaron Copland autumn rustic, each track knits the piano around and behind the voice to variously luscious, bleak or colourful effect. Comparisons to early Elton John and Billy Joel are obvious – yet i was reminded more of Joni Mitchell’s piano songs, such as ‘Court and Spark’.

Nightlight‘s centrepiece is the seven and a half minute ‘Winter In Munich’ – a long-form song that rises and falls through several cycles, as Collis meditates on loss and transformation, her piano icing the edges of our window. The Kinetic String Quartet‘s strings (arranged by Collis) widen the screen, painting the bleak winter of earth and heart.

The ambition of ‘Winter In Munich’ appears to be Collis’ mission statement with Nightlight –  a banner of her maturing and growing as an artist. The ten songs here hit the mark in every way and i know we will hear more of the good stuff from her.

One does wonder though whether there is a place for songs this good anymore? In an age of fast-forward-to-the-good-bit, instantaneous gratification and throw-away downloads dripping like a tap, do pop listeners still give anything the chance to grow and unfurl, as Collis’ songs do? I do not know the answer and am betting on the side of quality over convenience, despite all indications to the contrary.

Whatever the answer, Rachel Collis’ Nightlight deserves as much of your time as it asks.

 

Rachel Collis’ website is http://rachelcollis.com