The Man, The Myth, The Misty

Chances are that if you follow alternative/indie/folk music with any degree of interest you’ll have spotted a review of Father John Misty’s excellent new album, I Love You, Honeybear. You’ll probably have spotted an interview or two as well. The critical reception has been rapturous, yet conflicted. There are discussions around sentiment and snide-ness, sincerity and irony, humour and, well, just being jerk. I’m not going to talk about that, because this interview here does it all with skill and aplomb, and it’s massive, and in-depth, and, frankly, is better than my dashed off thoughts will be. And actually if you just listened closely to the album you could use your own brain and hear it all yourself. Just click on the album down there…

So, what am I going to do? I’m going to talk myths. Rock myths. Because in both that Grantland article I already posted, and this Picthfork interview something quite interesting gets discussed. We hear, at some length about the origin story of Father John Misty.

In brief, it goes like this: miserable (but actually still rather excellent) and under-appreciated singer-songwriter J. Tillman joins Fleet Foxes for a bit, then leaves Fleet Foxes, does a load of mushrooms, runs away to Laurel Canyon and, lo, the hedonistic “only son of a ladies man” Father John Misty is born. Fast forward a few years, and Tillman – still Father John Misty to music buyers and critics – is happily married, and suddenly, that character of a womanising, drug-taking misfit is looking back at himself, sardonically, is baring his soul, flippantly, and declaring his love, reservedly, and sometimes beautifully. He’s also performing tracks like ‘Bored in the USA’ live on Letterman, with a canned laughter track as he bemoans the evils of American life (sub-prime mortgages, prescription drugs, shoddy education etc.). You should watch the video. It’s one hell of a performance.

What’s interesting though, is how much reviewers – almost to a man (or woman) – pick up on that drug-fuelled origin story and run with it. It’s the stuff of true rock’n’roll legends. It includes psychedelics, Laurel Canyon (with its links to Zappa, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Byrds, Love and others), and being bare-footed, in a tree, on a mountain and having a Moment of Clarity.

And it’s odd, because that stuff, as well as being the stuff of legends, is also the stuff of tiresome cliche. It’s so easy to read those kind of tales and sigh, and move on. It’s a dated story of debauchery which we’ve heard too many times before, which you kind of think is probably half made up, or insincere. But, there’s something about how Tillman tells it – his self-awareness, his humour, and the fact that these stories have coincided with two excellent albums (2012’s Fear Fun is also well worth a listen), that makes it feel like more than just a ‘cool story to tell the press’. The drugged up tales coincide with a period of creative achievement – a step change in the music he created. And, now, that they’re a thing of the past, he’s surpassed his last high.

Is there a point to this – I’m not sure – beyond calling out that those old stories of drugs and destinies aren’t perhaps as tired and washed up as I thought. It’s just they’ve come from tired bands with nothing to say. With Tillman he’s shared a story that sounds like something from an old legend, but, more importantly, he’s created a truly standout album. And it’s no wonder that we want to hear the story behind it. And it’s not because it’s a ‘cool story’, it’s because the story helps us to understand the songs he’s created, and those songs tell a complex story that we want to hear more about.

What drives a man to country?

Right now I’m listening to the lovely new album by Natalie Prass. It’s really rich, lush, heartbreak laden country music. Before that I was probably listening to last year’s gorgeous Beck album, or that soulful Matthew E. White record.

Why am I telling you this? And who are you anyway, dear reader and why on earth would you want to read this? What has me listing albums got to do with anything? I’m telling you this because I’m getting old. My music taste is getting old. I’m a a dad, and I can’t help but feel that my music taste shows this, somehow.

When I was a young teen, my music taste was discordant, aggressive, loud. It was awful – and I can hardly listen to a lot of it now. But it had an edge, it was hard listening, an assault on the ears. As I got older, my tastes matured, but never got ‘safe’. I sought out music that tested my assumptions, that could shock my or surprise me.

Now, surprise, shock, discordance, they are not what I seek. The music I find myself defaulting back to is, well, comforting. It treads well-worn genres and styles, it’s inevitably got a real analogue warmth to it, it’s at best nodding it’s hat to predictable musical convictions, and often doing less than that and merely embracing them.

Yep, I’ve reached a life stage where music has become about calm, and comfort. I’m seeking songs I can listen to through headphones and feel embraced and looked after. I want lyrical themes I understand and can grasp.

Life’s busy, and at home, with two kids and cat it’s noisy and demanding. My music can’t be that.

I’m seeking something easy and edifying, something that isn’t there to challenge my ears or my mind. I’m after records that are nice, that make me feel looked after. I’m searching for country.

A struggle with the internet

I like to think of myself as pretty tech-savvy. I’m the kind of person people will ask if they can’t get their phone to do something, or they want to understand what unique users means and what page impressions means.
I’m in no way a digital expert. I can’t code. I don’t really know html. I know enough to ask annoying questions to web designers, but not to actually do anything with it. 

But yeah, I like technology. I use social media, lots of different types of social media. I love that last.fm can track my listening and make recommendations, that I can logon to Google Chrome at work, and the bookmarks and search history with mirror across my iPad and my phone and my home computer. I think the digital world is pretty smart, and full of possibilities and opportunities. But I have a personal struggle with it. It’s about time, capacity and the infinite possibilities the internet creates.

I have a near-constant desire to learn new stuff, to be intellectually stimulated and to hear interesting sounds. I say near-constant, because I also quite like X Factor and 24 and enjoy football phone-ins while I’m washing up. If, like me, you’re always on the look out for interesting new articles, blogs and opinions and read; and new, exciting music to hear; and new, cleverly narrated podcasts to digest, then the internet is dangerous.

I spend my time streaming new music on Spotify, while using its own recommendation functions and last.fm and various good music journalism sites and blogs to cue up more interesting music to listen to. My Spotify ‘library’ is probably two years old and full of stuff I’ve never listened to, or barely listened to – and that doesn’t even leave me time for a near full 80gb iPod. Also full of music I don’t have time to listen to.

My podcasts are managed through Overcast – much nicer than Apple’s own podcast app – and it feels like every day I’m subscribing to something new and interesting (and always American, and always in a narrative, long-form journalism vein). Podcasts were my way of making a 35 minute commute interesting. Now they’re slowly taking over my listening.

And then there’s the reading. Good old Instapaper is excellent at saving links and keeping them available offline for whenever I have time to return, but there is just so much quality writing out there – especially on tech and music – that my lists grow and grow, no matter how much time I put aside for reading.

You get all these figures quoted at you now about how we receive more information now in a day than people used to receive in a lifetime – obviously the ‘fact’ version of this stat includes some more concrete dates and so on – and boy do I feel it. As someone who’s online a lot, but lacks free time, I need to find some way to filter, to know what to leave lingering on the internet, never to pass by my eyes or ears, and what is truly essential reading or listening. 

There are tactics – learn whose opinion you trust online and whose you don’t; use services like Last.fm and GoodReads and follow their recommendations and their recommendations only; or just get philosophical about it. Yeah, you’ll miss a good record or a good article sometimes, but who cares? If it’s really good you’ll hear about it again and again and again and then you’ll know to follow it up. 

I half thought about delaying music discovery until the end of year lists. But everyone’s done top 100 albums and top 100 songs. ONE HUNDRED! I’ve not even listened to 100 albums this year, let alone got a top 100. And then, of course, there are Spotify playlists of all the best songs of 2013 and 2014 to explore. And then you’ll find some new artists to explore; and decide to find some interviews with them to find out more, and the cycle returns.

The internet is an amazing place, and the opportunities it creates are vast, but by god we’re going to have to learn how to control all that it offers us, or we’lol all end up with to-read and to-listen-to lists that never end.

Pondering Podcasts

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(Ira Glass, pinched from Lifehacker)

Something’s happened in the world of audio recently. And something’s happened to me. It used to be that every spare minute I’d be listening to music – either discovering something new or returning to a familiar old sound. In the world of Spotify and streaming (I’m a fully paid up subscriber), there is more music available at my finger tips than ever before (or at least there is if I’m near a WiFi connection), but now the options are there, I find my interest consistently takes me somewhere else, somewhere where discovery isn’t a new set of sounds or melodies, but rich narratives, clever sound design and ultra smart story telling.

I’m becoming a podcast addict.

It started pretty innocently. Just listen to a couple of football podcasts every now and then. Then someone told me about This American Life, and someone else told me about Radiolab. Then This American Life borrowed stories from Snap Judgement and Love+Radio. And then I read about Welcome to Night Vale. And then This American Life told me about Startup. And Startup told me about Reply All. And then This American Life told me about Serial….

And what was something I did from time-to-time on my drive to and from work, became a fully on commitment. Every drive, every day, else the backlog gets unmanageable and my phone runs out of room. Having to drive somewhere never feels like a chore. It’s a chance to jump back into the unravelling of a murder case; to follow a new business as it’s formed and starts grow; to learn about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly; or discover the latest goings on in an absurdist small town dystopia. 

If you want to know where it’s all come from, and why, then there is loads of stuff out there on the internet (try here, here and here). In short, it’s about Bluetooth in cars, technological disruption catching up with radio and, of course, money. The business stuff is all pretty interesting really, especially if you’re interested in technology, but more interesting is the podcasts themselves.

I hear tell of people multi-tasking while podcasting. They’re cooking, they’re doing emails, they’re working. If you ask me, they’re probably doing it wrong. These stories are so rich, so immersive, so engaging that they require my full attention. They’re like reading a novel, not listening to the news. There’s nuance and fine, exquisite detail. It needs you to give in and get carried away.

What I find really interesting though, is just how well these stories are told; and that it’s always told by Americans. I’d kind of hoped that the BBC would be able to produce something to match the brilliance of the Americans, but as far as I can tell, they can’t. BBC Radio 4 Extra has even imported This American Life. Certainly us Brits can find good stories and report on them, but there’s something in the narrative style, the bringing it back to people and making the stories human, the cut and paste approach to storytelling through multiple voices, and that craft of storytelling that we don’t do. Yet. We have some catching up to do.

David Thomas Broughton, Revisited

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David Thomas Broughton & the Juice Vocal Ensemble at Howard Assembly Room, photo from James Yorkston via http://www.twitter.com/jamesyorkston

I only wrote some words about David Thomas Broughton a few posts back. I don’t want to get into the habit of repetition, or become a David Thomas Broughton tribute blog (though you may argue that if anyone deserves such a thing, it’s DTB), but when I wrote those words, I didn’t know that David Thomas Broughton was returning to Leeds play a gig alongside James Yorkston. I didn’t know his performance would be augmented by the Juice Vocal Ensemble. I didn’t know they’d have an album out. And I certainly didn’t expect the gig to be quite as good as it was.

DTB, the artiste, is, as far as I can tell about three things. 1. crafting and performing beautiful, melodic simple folk songs. 2. taking the songs mentioned in part 1 and distorting and disturbing them, unpacking them to core elements, building them up again in new, different, and odd ways. 3. arresting and eccentric theatrical performance.

I was going to try and describe the gig in more detail, but then I read this review and gave up, because it’ll be better than whatever I write.

What struck me though, is the man’s confidence. He writes these poignant, powerful – and occasionally quite funny songs – he sings with a rich, lustrous baritone, but he doesn’t revel in the songs. He sets out to drown them and damage them. At one point he’s singing over a rape alarm, then he’s playing a rape alarm solo against his bared stomach. Then he’s back, just him and his guitar and his voice. To write such songs and treat them with such irreverence suggests a real surety in their power.

My last post about Broughton talked about his theatricality. And there was plenty of that on show. Playing with a creaky stage to create a drum beat, jokingly grabbing desperately at a bottle of water between finger-plucked guitar lines, wandering into the crowd, dramatically adjusting the crotch of his trousers then returning to the stage.

But this gig wasn’t just Broughton. It was the three piece Juice Vocal Ensemble too. The interplay of their voices was a delight, and they added layers of meaning and atmosphere to Broughton’s song. Especially in ‘Unshaven Boozer’, adding the sound of a bar in the backdrop. But they also toyed with their performing. Staggering drunkenly during the aforementioned ‘Unshaven Boozer’, tangling themselves up in their wires, sitting amongst the crowd and noisily – and deliberately – struggling with mic stands and noisy water bottles.

The end result was chaotic – yet underpinned by a clear sense of purpose and just a little control. It was regularly laugh-out loud funny, something just a little unsettling, and often just – beyond that – quite beautiful.

I do wonder what the James Yorkston fans who hadn’t yet heard of Broughton made of it all, though.

The Articulate Rock Star

I watched the Nick Cave ‘biography’ (I put the word in inverted commas because it isn’t really a biography at all, it’s semi-fictionalised film that captures some of Cave’s life, a lot of his philosophy and, of course, heaps of his wonderful, wonderful music) tonight.

It’s a wonderful film, it’s charming, emotional, philosophical and it sounds bloody amazing. But the thing I took away from it more than anything else is just how awesome Nick Cave is. He’s a proper, proper rock star.

Prior to watching this film Cave’s bonafide musical genius was never in any doubt to me, nor was his magnetic presence, but listening to him talk, and act, he was so smart, so well spoken with such sharp, interesting thoughts that you just stop and think ‘wow’. (Of course, it does help that it was semi-scripted…)

So often you read or watch interviews with bands and they’re just such a crushing disappointment. They have nothing interesting to say for themselves, and what they do say is poorly delivered. Cave speaks with conviction and passion, from a place of deep interest.

This is what a rockstar should be like. He is a little self-aggrandising, and yes, he thinks highly of his art – but so he should. Listen to his back catalogue, try Push the Sky Away (his latest album). How many artists hit a real creative peak aged 57?

And anyway, that’s what you want. Your rock star needs that raw charisma and confidence. They need that surety that they’re delivering something of importance, of value. And that’s what you get from Cave; musical and lyrical depth. But he offers more than that. Look at him on stage, he’s a performer, a true mighty presence. He’s just a true fucking rockstar.

You didn’t strike me as a football fan

I get that comment quite a lot when I reveal myself as a semi-dedicated follower of Leeds United.

There’s an assumption that a quiet, non-confrontational, softly spoken reader of books would not, could not be a football fan. And I get it.

There’s a lingering perception of football fans back from the sport’s darker days, when the National Front was highly active around some clubs – including my own Leeds United – and from documentaries on hooliganism.

And undoubtedly some fans are racist, violent, sexist, xenophobic. But so are some non-football fans. And yes, I’ve heard racism on the stands at Elland Road. And homophobia. Some people are racists or homophobes. Football gives them an excuse to express these opinions. A space that for whatever reason feels safe to them.

It’s not necessarily though. I’ve also seen fans challenge racism. I’ve heard inappropriate chants face the counter-chant of “You’re the scum of Elland Road”. Not elegant or erudite. But what do you expect, chants need to be simple to be repeated (hence one of the most popular chants at Elland Road involving repeating the word ‘Leeds’. A lot. And yes I join in).

At the same time some chants are genuinely witty. Or at the vert least funny. I won’t share them here, because out of context they’re, well, not that funny.

What I really love about football is being at the games. You get a better view of the game, a better perspective and better analysis on telly (the pinnacle of analysis round where I like to sit is ‘he’s shit’ or ‘he shouldn’t have lost it here’. Phil Neville ain’t looking over his shoulder, let alone Gary).

What you don’t get though is that sense of togetherness. For 90-odd minutes there are 20,000+ of you, rich and poor, young and old, North Leeds and South Leeds etc etc and you’re all agreed on a common purpose and goal, you all know your part it in. If it goes well you’ll be jumping up and down screaming, your arms round a stranger, if it goes badly you’ll quietly bemoan the team’s failings as you stand side-by-side in the urinal or trudging back to the city centre.

There’s no question of who you are, or whether in the ‘real world’ you would ever speak to each other. At the football you’re all equal, and you all want the same things. The assumption is that you’re all friends. There ain’t many other places where you get that.

And in those all-too-rare moments of glory (I’m a Leeds fan I don’t get many of them), and those all-too-common moments of livid frustration (I’m a Leeds fan I get many of them) you get a rare kind of release. Utter joy and sheer rage aren’t things that are socially acceptable to display most places, but they are at the football. You’re weird if you’re not doing it. And I swear doing it feels healthy. I often leave games with a sore throat, frozen feet and that kind of odd stiffness you get from standing or sitting in what can only be described as ‘economically designed’ stands. But I also leave feeling kind of better. Even after another tiresome tedious loss.

We’re often told that us Brits lock away our emotions. That it’s not good for us. But if football helps us get that out, then it’s proving a useful service. And again, yes, that does sometimes mean the more unsavoury – and downright ignorant – emotions come out too, but that’s not a symptom of football, it’s a symptom of society, and it’s  unfortunate that historically, that was acceptable. But that doesn’t mean we’re all intolerant. Being a football fan does not make you a hooligan.