Soundtrack to a Week in the Country


We spent last week in rural Mid Wales.  There was a crispness on the air and the scent of wood smoke as the local pubs started lighting up their fires. You could feel winter moving in.

Time to break out the folk and Americana.

Grey Hair Goals #Grombre

One of my ambitions in life is to have amazing grey hair.  I stopped dying my hair three years ago, but the result can’t yet be called “amazing”.  It’s ….  a journey I guess, an interesting one which I would like to write more about at some point.

When I feel insecure about it, I’m going to look at this picture of Natalie Merchant from the cover of her retrospective collection.

This is everything and I’ll be happy if I can get my hair to look half as good.

Gillian Welch’s hair is looking awesome these days too

Soundtrack to the Week

Album of the Week

Janelle Monae, Electric Lady (2013)

I’ve been listening to this a lot recently. It’s a life-affirming joy of an album. There are so many great tracks here (‘Given Em’ What They Love’, ‘Q.U.E.E.N’, ‘Electric Lady’, Dance Apocalyptic’, ‘Ghetto Women’), it’s hard to pick a fave, but right now I think I’ll go with ‘We Were Rock and Roll

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Soundtrack to the End of Winter

The last couple of months have been quite challenging, as well as cold and dark, so I’ve been looking for music to accompany cups of tea and introspection.

I love Joan Baez’s Gone from Danger (1997). All except one of the songs were written by younger artists (Dar Williams, Sinead Lohan) and Baez brings a rich maturity to the material. As you’d expect, there’s a political undercurrent, with songs about immigration, child abuse and environmental issues, but it’s all comforting somehow.  The collector’s edition features a live bonus CD of performances in which Baez is joined by some of the songwriters.

I’ve never really been into Dar Williams. This may be a British thing, but the extreme earnestness of her lyrics makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.  However, I’m getting beyond that and Promised Land (2008) is growing on me.  Apparently this is one of her more poppy albums and frowned on by some fans of her earlier, more acoustic sound. I have no opinion on that at this time.

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Soundtrack to January 2013

Johnny Cash’s American Recordings (1994) is perfect music for dark, winter evenings. It’s a comeback record that marks the beginning of Cash’s immensely creative partnership with Rick Rubin. I think it’s worth getting for the cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ alone. Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues (2000) is an all-round brilliant folk album, featuring a diverse range of songs with an Irish-American flavour.  Neil Young’s triple album compilation, Decade (1977) is just a sublime retrospective and contains some of my favourite Young songs, such as ‘Expecting to Fly’, ‘Helpless’ and ‘Winterlong’.  What’s even more amazing is that this retrospective was produced so early in his career.

Thea Gilmore’s Songs from the Gutter (2002)  is not her most consistent work, but a great showcase of her talents, with catchy protest songs, soaring ballads and some excellent covers, perhaps most notably the version of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’.  Ani DiFranco may finally be growing on me. I really like her upbeat last album, Which Side are you on? and the song ‘Red Letter Year’ was my New Year track.  PJ Harvey’s ‘Peel Session’ recordings (1991 – 2004) offer stripped down, intimate versions of her songs, some of which I prefer to the original album versions (‘You Came Through’ and ‘Victory’ are my favourites). Kristin Hersh’s sixth solo album, The Grotto (2003), is the one that I listen to the least, not because I dislike it, but because there’s a vulnerability to it that I find a little too intense and raw. It feels like the older and sadder sister of 1994’s Hips and Makers

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Soundtrack to the Autumn 2012

I’ve been listening to a lot of folk music this autumn.  I borrowed the McGarrigle Sisters’ early album, Kate and Anna McGarrigle (1975) from the library. Although they’re very different artists, something about the sound and the song structures reminds me of Leonard Cohen, who also hails from French Canada.  Also in 1970s female folk singers I’ve been listening to Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust (1975) a lot.  It’s just a really bittersweet album and the title song about her relationship with Bob Dylan is so brilliantly cutting – surely one of the best break-up songs of all time.

I’ve never been much into Dar Williams, but my partner is and I liked Cry Cry Cry.  Williams is extremely earnest, but Promised Land (2008) has grown on me since I decided just to go with it, accept the earnestness for what it is, and enjoy the tunes.  Thea Gilmore, meanwhile, is a British pop/folk singer who specialises in two kinds of songs: upbeat/catchy and reflective/melodic.  Her album Liejacker (2008) mainly consists of the latter and is in some ways her most serious and mature album (if not her most enjoyable), addressing themes such as depression and becoming a parent.

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Soundtrack to February & March

How much Leonard Cohen have I been listening to recently? So much, that I seem to have fairly well spanned his career, starting with Songs of Love and Hate (1970) and ending with his latest album, Old Ideas.  My mother says that Songs of Love and Hate is “just groaning”, but for me this is an album so miserable that it manages to cross the line into cathartic and even strangely uplifting. 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony  has a bitter, accusatory edge in songs like ‘Is this what you wanted?’ and ‘A Singer Must Die’, but there’s also the exhilarating repetitiveness of ‘Lover, Lover, Lover’ and the poignant ‘Who by Fire?’  The most famous song on the album is ‘Chelsea Hotel’ which Cohen wrote about his brief affair with Janis Joplin.  He later said he regretted writing the song, but I find it quite touching, especially the line “We may be ugly, but we have the music”. I actually have a T-shirt with the album cover on it, which I’m not allowed to wear very often because it’s a bit rude.  Recent Songs (1979) is a jazzier, more chilled out and funky affair. I think these songs actually come across better on the live recording of the 1979 tour. Still, the album contains one of my favourite Cohen songs, the deeply unfeminist but gorgeous, ‘The Traitor’.  I haven’t really got to know the new album yet, but on one listen I found it melodic and melancholic, with Cohen’s worn-out voice making it all the more moving somehow.

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Soundtrack to January

I got Kristin Hersh’s live album Cats and Mice for Christmas.  Recorded in San Francisco in 2009, it has a generous 19 tracks drawn mostly from Learn to Sing Like a Star and Crooked, and an excellent production.  I gave the Throwing Muses’s 1996 album Limbo an outing, although I have to say this is the one album of their’s that I don’t entirely get.  I also listened to Star (1993) from Tanya Donnelly’s post-throwing Muses band Belly, an indie-pop album that stills sounds really fresh.

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Soundtrack to November

Music post even later this month.  I seem to have lost the last couple of weeks somewhere along the way.

Oh well, the seasonal listening continued in November with more of the artists that I tend to associate with winter.  I’m still working my way through Johnny Cash’s Unearthed (2003) collection, mainly focussing on the second disc, Trouble in Mind, a collection of covers which ends with a quite sublime version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’.

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Gillian Welch & David Rawlings live: 21.11.2011

I can’t remember who introduced me to Gillian Welch, but she’s become one of my favourite folk artists, an incredibly talented singer-songwriter whose expressive, world-weary voice is perfect for reinventing the appacalian and bluegrass traditions that she draws on in her songs.   So I was extremely pleased to get the chance to see her play live in Manchester last month with her long-term musical partner, David Rawlings, even if the tickets did require my spending the money I’d set aside to buy new work shoes.

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Soundtrack to October

I’m a bit seasonal about music, so now that it’s gettting colder and darker, I’m playing more of the artists that I associate with the winter months.  This usually means a lot of folk and americana.  Johnny Cash always heralds the beginning of winter for me.  I’ve been listening to his Murder anthology, which I think is the best of the ‘Love, God Murder‘ set.  There are not many tracks I find more moving than his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’.  There was also the wonderful American III: Solitary Man (2000) and ‘Who’s Gonna Cry’ the first disc in the monumental posthumous collection, Unearthed (2003).

There’s been a fair bit of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy too, especially I See a Darkness (1999) and The Letting Go (2006), which are probably my two favourite albums from BPB, the first is a dark, understated masterpiece which hooked me onto Will Oldham, and the second, a chilly affair recorded in Iceland and featuring some beautiful melodies and vocal harmonies.  Also in the folk vein, the Cowboy Junkies’s Trinity Session (1987) got an airing and Gillian Welch’s first album, Revival (1996), which astounds me every time.  I cannot wait to see her live later this month.  And from a Britain, we had a listen to Fairport Convention’s Leige and Lief (1969).

Leonard Cohen is another winter staple, and I’ve been listening to the early albums Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) (agreed with some twitter friends that we especially like the bit at the end of ‘One of us cannot be wrong’ where he sounds like he’s being dragged screaming away from the mic) and Songs from a Room (1969).  I’m glad to say my partner finally seems to be coming around to Cohen. I’ve been using the same  approach that I took (with success) in relation to olives, that of  just keeping up the exposure until she gives in.

In terms of woman in rock, I listened to Patti Smith’s cover album Twelve (2007), Kate Bush’s shimmering Hounds of Love (1985) and, in preparation for last week’s gig, the swirling rage of Throwng Muses Hunkpapa (1989).

Tracks of the Month –  with links to You Tube videos

Johnny Cash, Highway Patrolman (the bit where he sings ‘And I hit the lights’ gives me chills down the spine everytime)
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Black
Cowboy Junkies, Sweet Jane
Gillian Welch, Orphan Girl
Fairport Convention, Crazy Man Michael  and I just came across this live version by Natalie Merchant
Leonard Cohen, The Stranger Song (live on the Julie Felix show in 1967)
Patti Smith, Smells like teen spirit
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love (Official video – always fun!)

And finally, Throwing Muses performing ‘Mania’ live in 1988, supported by The Pixies apparently – can you imagine that gig?!

My evening so far

I’ve been making a country mix CD for my Dad’s birthday.  It was very difficult to choose, but here’s the final listing:

Disc 1

  1. Reckless Burning, Jess Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter
  2. Dark Skies, Alison Krauss
  3. The Coo Coo Bird, The Be Good Tanyas
  4. Look at Miss Ohio, Gillian Welch
  5. Things that Scare Me, Neko Case
  6. Sweet Jane, The Cowboy Junkies
  7. Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris
  8. High on a Mountain Top, Loretta Lynn
  9. Barricades and Brick Walls, Kasey Chambers
  10. Sugar Cane, Mary Gauthier
  11. Blue, Lucinda Williams
  12. Flaming Red, Patti Griffin
  13. Jolene, Dolly Parton

Disc 2

  1. Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival
  2. River in the Pines, Willard Grant Conspiracy
  3. Come Pick me Up, Ryan Adams
  4. No Lonesome Tune, Jimmie Dale Gilmore
  5. LA Freeway, Guy Clark
  6. Sunday Morning Coming Down, Johnny Cash
  7. Helpless, Neil Young
  8. Man in the Long Black Coat, Mark Lanegan
  9. St John the Gambler, Townes Van Zandt
  10. The Mountain, Steve Earle
  11. Come on up to the House, Tom Waits
  12. Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi, Jim White

Soundtrack to my Life, Mary Gauthier

I first saw Mary Gauthier in 2002 in a small crammed cafe bar playing from her Drag Queens in Limousines and Filth and Firealbums. She was funny but subdued and I was delighted to discover a lesbian country singer. One of the women I was with called it “sad songs about dead dogs”, but she was pissed off about something else. The woman sitting next to me kept crying. I didn’t know why at the time, having only just joined this particular crowd and being oblivious to underlying drama, so I just went on and drank as much wine as I could hold. I’ve never forgotten the hangover I had the next.

I can’t find the tear-stained ticket stump from my second Mary Gauthier gig in 2005. I usually keep these things, but perhaps it dissolved. Needless to say, by the time I saw her again I was myself deeply embroiled in drama. She sang mainly from her album Mercy Now which I think is her saddest and, to this day, I can hardly bear to hear even though I think ‘Wheel Inside the Wheel’ and ‘Mercy Now’ are two of her best songs.

In 2008, entirely by accident, I saw Mary again in St Louis. My girlfriend and I booked tickets to see The Cowboy Junkies and she just happened to show up as the supporting act. I was on THE big decision-making trip to the US and it seemed both appropriate and a little portentous to find Mary at yet another juncture in my lesbian life. And, like me, she was a lot more chipper this time around, playing songs from Between the Daylight and the Dark with raucous good humour and delight. We bought a signed poster.

I saw Mary for the fourth time in the North of England last week and of course I’m at another crossroads in my life.  She was on very good form, still seeming happy, telling hilarious stories about hobos with laptops, medicine women who recommend books by Harvard psychiatrists and staying in the kind of motel where the folksinger has the best car in the parking lot (so you know it’s not a family place). My girlfriend and I were a little perturbed to find ourselves the youngest people in the place and that no one wanted to sit next to us, but we had a ball nonetheless.

Roll on next time.

Here she is performing Drag Queens in Limousines.