Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Anirudh-Dhanush – From Why This Kolaveri to Why Not!

March 26, 2023

In 2011, a Tamil song took the music world in India and even in places outside India by storm, notching up over 300 mn views. It was one of the early Indian videos to go viral. And…in the midst of all this, yours truly reacted with a ‘meh’!

I didn’t DISLIKE the song, mind. It was fun enough that I could see the point of it. But I also felt it didn’t go very much beyond that. You can say it’s a comedy song and doesn’t need to and I would raise you a Per Vachalum Vachalum, or a Strawberry Kanne. And you’d dub me a Ilayaraja-Rahman snob and I’d gladly plead guilty.

In a sense, I was proved right. Compared to the sheer mania Kolaveri evoked at the time of its release, it has virtually disappeared out of sight. It did give yet another fillip to Dhanush’s wonderful career as an actor and launched Anirudh as a hugely successful composer in Tamil music. But the song itself…is somewhat forgotten now. Perhaps because another song went viral…and you know which one I am talking about! However it may be, a song revolving purely around a comic vocal-lyrical hook unsurprisingly lacked staying power after a while.

But, cut to 2022, and Anirudh and Dhanush joined forces again…for a song that hasn’t set the charts afire quite the same way (it’s nevertheless notched up over a 100mn views) but one that might just be remembered more fondly by music lovers for a much longer time.

Megham Karukatha takes the same lazy swag that Dhanush exuded so effortlessly on Kolaveri but adds to it a layer of that magical thing called romance. Do watch the video…and I am posting it separately below so you can!

The video is wonderfully conceived and choreographed, bringing to mind classic song situations of yore. To wit, Anirudh leans on that wonderful thing called jazz to evoke the retro-cool he needs for this song. He keeps the arrangements relatively sparse but interesting…with a tasty bassline underlining the proceedings. And…busy! Listen a second time and you’ll notice how much is actually going on underneath the vocals, belying the initial impression of it being a stripped down jazz-strut. I can honestly say I didn’t expect to be rewarded so much by an Anirudh track. Perhaps that says a lot more about me than about him but, however it may be, at least as far as this song goes, I am a fan.

I love that there is a pause after the interlude as a new chord progression is introduced to allow Dhanush to pick his vocal cue and sing the antara. Interesting variations ensue as he finds his way to the ‘pre-chorus’.

There is even a nice little piano-flute coda to close out the song. It almost feels like Anirudh doesn’t want the song to end…and I do agree with that sentiment!

As with his casually brilliant acting, Dhanush manages to find the right tone for his vocal on this track. You can tell he is not a singer singer but he doesn’t get remotely cringe anywhere and he pitches the mood just right throughout. Sue me if you will for saying this, but his vocal totally makes this song. I wouldn’t want a, say, uber-melodic and mellow Vijay Prakash vocal on this one. Dhanush’s casual swagger gives the track a measure of relatability that retro-jazz film songs can sometimes lack, sounding too stylized. A good exhibit of that to contrast with Megham is Unna Nenachadhum, which doesn’t quite ascend to the heights Rahman’s arrangement promises. And that is due to the vocal delivery of both Shreya Ghoshal and Sarthak Kalyani being laboured for all their elegance and melodicity. Let me refine that: Unna Nenachadhum sounds like Indian singers, with their predilection for precise staccato, singing jazz. Dhanush, on the other hand, may not quite sound like Louis Armstrong (nobody can unless they’re born with that sandpaper voice!) but he manages to capture the effect of a lazy legato, of a spontaneous rather than calculated rendition.

So…the upshot is that where in 2011, I went ugh over the non stop media kolaveri over Why This Kolaveri, in 2023, I want more and more of this combo. There’s something about Anirudh-Dhanush. They seem to gel well, to get each other. More of this tastefully orchestrated swag, please!


The best songs you may never heard – Let’s Do It Again

March 12, 2023

Let’s Do It Again is an invigorating disco-funk number from the 2006 album Get Used To It by British-American acid jazz group Brand New Heavies. I say British-American because the lead vocalist on many of their albums is the American N’Dea Davenport.

You may have heard their biggest hit Never Stop, whether back in the 90s when it came out or later. Their style isn’t wholly dissimilar to what you would have heard on that track. A more melodic acid-jazz take compared to the more popular Jamiroquai. Their other track that got popular in the 90s was their cover of Midnight at the Oasis.

But they’ve had a number of other excellent tracks that should appeal to funk lovers. In that light, I could have chosen their brilliant Brother Sister from the album of the same name. Dream Come True and Have A Good Time are also wonderful tracks from that period.

But I wanted to choose a number from Get Used To It because it has more of a narrative about it. And Let’s Do It Again has narrative in spades.

The charismatic (if often erratic live) N’Dea Davenport played an undeniable role in propelling the band’s popularity in the US. She helped lend it a more distinctive and authentically R&B character that isn’t usually found in the acid jazz space. You could argue that that quality makes them sound too ‘commercial’ for acid jazz but (a) it nevertheless helped them stand out and (b) the tracks were often lovely so it didn’t matter. Funk-rockers like Brother Sister meant you couldn’t say N’Dea made them all mush.

And yet, her growing popularity and the influence she thereby exerted on the band predictably didn’t go down too well with a band that was all-male apart from her. Also, for their part, the band were interested in exploring a more hip-hop/funk blend (which they did do very well on Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol I) and N’Dea’s insistence on soul clashed with what the musicians wanted.

And so, after just their third album, the aforementioned Brother Sister, they and N’Dea parted ways. They went through different vocalists over a period of ten years. But they got less and less successful and 2003’s We Won’t Stop was only released in Japan.

In 2006, then, the inevitable reunion happened. N’Dea got back in the fold. And right away, the Heavies produced one of the best comeback albums I’ve heard across all sorts of genres. I don’t want to say, like Heaven and Hell or Painkiller, because such comparisons will only cause a mountain of upset. But in essence, the Heavies managed to pull off a stunning reinvention of their style while still connecting it to their prior work. Some numbers like I’ve Been Touched or All Fired Up are quite stunningly modern and I Just Realized even sports a rocking riff, while the lovely melody of their 90s work remains intact in songs like Sex God and the groove of old as well in Right On (which has the apt refrain Put Back The Funk In Music). For all that, though, it didn’t set the charts on fire (though AllMusic’s review is very, very favourable). The album is a huge fan favourite and remains little known to the wider listening public.

Back to the album. Let’s Do It Again brings together many of the aforementioned stylistic elements in a song that slays from start to finish. After a brief piano piece, a twitchy groove starts playing on guitar. Synth-strings a la the heyday of disco come on as the percussion kicks in. N’Dea comes in with the vocals and, immediately, you know she’s singing about the reunion itself:

“Looking Back At What Was The Past/It Was Too Hard To Stay There”

And then:

“But It’s A Beautiful Thing/Being Together Again/So Hey Let’s Do It Again”

And that’s indeed what the song is about. About putting back the past, or rather the bad parts of it, and recapturing its glory by getting together again. Let’s Do It Again is, then, a sort of triumphant anthem that underscores what this comeback album means to the band. And the band’s spirited performing of it do make ‘doing it again’ a more than worthwhile endeavour.

After N’Dea renders the verse in a perfect balance between cool and warm, beautiful vocal harmonies come our way in the pre-chorus and again in the chorus which is even better.

Brilliant bass work which provides a rousing punch where necessary and also wanders around independently at other times compliments the singing and melodic instruments. I would say the bass layer lends the song a rock-ish edge and stops it from going totally disco (which probably wouldn’t have fit so well in 2006).

A brief vocal bridge sets up a terrific synth-string break and N’Dea comes back for a second bridge of sorts that is interjected by terrific piano work (again). And then we get back to the chorus for multiple iterations of it as the song ends leaving us wishing it would keep going.

R&B/soul has changed over the years, getting ever increasing amounts of polish and gloss, a development that doesn’t please fans of the classic style of the genre. But they have probably been looking for what they seek in the wrong places, wishing for Mariah Carey or Beyonce to sacrifice multi million album selling formulas to appease their needs. Instead, a group that gets called acid jazz on wiki delivered the kind of music such fans would love, specifically on the track Let’s Do It Again and on the album Get Used To It in general.

The best songs you may have never heard – Love Is A Lie

February 26, 2023

Now here’s a complete change of the scenery (or sonic-ery, if you will) from the previous instalment’s very late 90s electro-world. A soulful, bluesy rock ballad that represents the finest of the tradition…and yet one that came from a rather ordinary band. A band with a talented singer (but who had a tremendous self-destructive streak) and a pretty good guitar player and with not a whole lot of songwriting ability between them. Which compelled them to rely on their controlling manager Alan Niven. This they did because they dreamed of becoming rockstars. And so they did…until, with some help from their own selves, the dream went sour. And Great White is now a mere footnote in rock history barring their involvement in an unfortunate accident …and Niven’s tendency to drag them back into the conversation once in a while.

Let’s start with some backstory about the singer – Jack Russell. A most singular character, he epitomized the most cliched essence of rock-n-roll, living it up at every opportunity to put it very mildly, and managing to look several gift horses in the mouth in the process. He had already done jail time before he ever got to pursue his dream, because he overdosed and ended up shooting his live-in maid to death! Then, as they were making it under the guidance of Niven and about to headline a sold-out tour, Russell got so badly drunk he was thrown off a plane in Phoenix, Arizona and the tour had to be cancelled. It was already the beginning of the end.

By the time of their fourth major album, 1991’s Psycho City, disillusionment had already set in, certainly in Niven’s mind and possibly for the band too. The band knew their very 80s trappings made them hopelessly passe in the post-Nirvana world of rock. For Niven, he had realized that Russell with his self-destructive streak would sabotage any moments where greatness was within grasp. In his words, “I got to a point of all dreams being realised. And then you have to evaluate whether those dreams were profound or of significant worth.”

This sense of disillusionment is rife all through Love Is A Lie, my vote for the best Great White song and, ahem, one of their few really good songs. And it’s still miles better than the next best (which would be their big hit Rock Me).

It begins in an appropriately bluesy, mournful manner with Mark Kendall channeling his inner Gilmour, down to wailing Strat (correct me if I am wrong about the equipment, though). After the soulful lead sets up the song, Russell comes in and the words hit you right away with their darkness.

“Free Me From This Restless Curse/That Follows Me Through The Dark”

And “In this World of Emptiness/That I Have Come To Know/Love Is Only A Lie”

The next verse is even darker.

“She’s Got A Soul of Ice/And Calculation Cold

This Bird of Avarice/Has Left Me Now I Know”

Aptly enough, Niven’s then wife’s last words to him were “What you don’t understand is our marriage was a matter of convenient opportunity.”

What he didn’t know then, when he wrote the song, and would later was that the opportunity she was pursuing was none other than Jack Russell, who mouths these lyrics like he really means it!

No, seriously, his rendition of these verses is stellar. Restrained and yet filled with pain and weariness. There is none of the breathy overemoting that metal singers tended to resort to on power ballads during this period. The band keep it low key at this point as well. There’s no drums for the first couple of verses, just piano and guitar supporting Russell.

And then, he sings the chorus the second time around:

“When the promises is broken/When your eyes open

When the wind whispers and sighs/Love Is A Lie”

And as he is done, the first drum strokes are heard. A decent if unremarkable piano lead follows, with Kendall offering interjections as he prepares to take off.

Before long, he gets his chance and boy, does he play one for the ages. As I said earlier, a very Gilmour-esque solo. It’s a very dark solo, somewhat comparable to Gilmour’s playing on the even more terrifying Don’t Leave Me Now. Kendall builds up for Russell to return with the now extinct-in-rock animal called a bridge.

I have to quote the words again because they are so effective on this song:

“So breathe a last and broken sigh/Oh silent night come down to me

And if I dream of light/Come down and be with me

And in the dark we will not see”

If perhaps the impact of the lyrics doesn’t come through when you read the text, it’s because you aren’t hearing Russell singing them. Once more, he renders them to perfection, switching now to a slightly gritty tone. It’s not full-on grit like Dio on the Dehumanizer album; more like he’s giving his tone a sandpaper-like tinge.

As he reprises the chorus, Kendall seems to evoke a howling wolf with guitar in the background. The darkness, the despair of sheer and utter disillusionment is almost overpowering in this song. On the last iteration, Russell even lets his voice linger a tad longer on the word ‘only’ as he sings ‘Only a Lie’. Kendall comes back for the coda, which shapes up to be a long solo through to fade-out a la Comfortably Numb. The last minute or so of this is a bit of overkill because he has already made his point by then. But it doesn’t hurt too much because the fade-out begins. This is a particularly appropriate song for a fade-out as it creates the impression of descending into darkness.

Let’s sum it up then. In 1991, as glam-rock dinosaurs were quickly driven to extinction by the onslaught of grunge, a band wholly dependent on their manager produced out of nowhere a song worthy of the finest tradition of rock. Like Chris Rea’s Road To Hell, a song of such astonishing quality you wonder how it came out in the 80s. Oh well, this is 1991 but it’s sonically very much in an 80s rock space. Except, it’s like fusing Aerosmith with the psychedelic chills of Pink Floyd (what The Wall itself sounded like, arguably) and updating the sound, especially percussion, for the 80s. A song that was perhaps too timeless to succeed in the here-and-now of its time but which speaks to rock lovers of any era.

For all that he was possessed of considerable vocal talent, Russell will never be mentioned among the greatest rock singers of all times. And Great White are in no danger of being discussed as one of the great rock bands. But they did put out an undeniably great thing with this here song. And at least for that, they do deserve to be remembered.

The best songs you may have never heard – World Out of Control

February 13, 2023

I have written about relatively unheard of/unheralded bands and artists before. But how about songs that just slipped through in a vast back catalogue and got forgotten though, perhaps, they shouldn’t have? These could be songs of pretty well known bands, indeed bands that had singles that climbed atop the charts.

One such band is Swing Out Sister. The larger populace knows them by their aptly named US #6 single Breakout, off their debut album from 1986. After releasing an album that’s aged a trifle better than milk, with only Twilight World foreshadowing their signature sound, Swing Out Sister drifted into an adult contemporary jazz-pop lane, making stylish easy listening music that would sound perfect for James Bond films (which was their professed goal) but wasn’t so hot for the charts.

And so they drifted along through the 90s before unexpectedly deciding to flex their experimental muscles with 1999’s Filth And Dreams. For their efforts, the label rewarded them by only releasing the album in Japan. But it remains their most interesting album and possibly their most poignant.

And the song World Out of Control from this album is, arguably, their best song. Make You Stay and If I Had The Heart from the same album give it competition. But right from the first notes, World Out of Control is…something else, especially for a Swing Out Sister composition.

Opening with sound effects that resemble a bubble bursting up to the surface in the sea, Swing Out Sister proceed to hit you with….a tabla pattern overlaid by string-synths! This quickly makes way for modern percussion that’s punchy and invigorating but nevertheless mixed the way they were in pre-loudness war albums. The song’s bass motif starts playing while co-songwriter Andy Connell’s electric piano does what it usually does.

Singer and co-songwriter Corinne Drewery comes in with a torrent of words, almost rapping. And what words these are – words you’d scarcely expect from a Swing Out Sister song:

“Soothing an open wound/You try to save but not too soon/You turn away and try to turn the pain into a pleasure”

After two iterations of this fast verse, comes the pre-chorus with the bass part in beautiful dissonance with a more traditional piano chord progression:

“But if you fall, you’ll rest assured”

It may seem that there’s not much to do for Corinne in such a busy song but at opportune moments like the pre-chorus, she brings to bear immaculate phrasing, easily transcending her limitations of range and power.

The verse returns with more spine-chilling lines like:

“If you should find yourself/A passing soul through someone else/Would you dare to sing a different tune/Or would it scare you/That you should care at all”

The atomization of society, even possibly the death of Joyce Carol Vincent in 2003, foretold succinctly.

We’re now introduced to the chorus, the crux:

“We’re in a world out of control/Don’t close your eyes to the future this time”

Words that would be very apt today as we now live in the shadow of nuclear armageddon all over again. But in 1999, in the unipolar moment?

But perhaps, one doesn’t have to get all geo-political about this. More likely, Swing Out Sister are simply talking about a more personal world falling apart, of midlife crisis, of a sense of no longer looking ahead. Hence…”if you fall, you’ll rest assured”. There’s a line from a little known song that would fit neatly into this one and it goes: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”

On the words “future this time”, the band leave the chorus slightly unresolved. This is by intention and tells us to stay the course and wait to discover what’s up next.

Another verse. Briefly, the tabla from the intro returns for a little dance.

Back to the pre-chorus and we’re about to hit another chorus?

Yes and no. The words are the same, but there’s a beautiful little twist as we get to “To the future this time”. The melody changes to a much more major key-ish progression. There is a breather as string synths and electric piano play on, continuing in this major vein. And now Corinne starts singing “We’re in a world out of control” again and again in a major key version as we fade out in a beautiful shower of piano.

The music would have you believe that we just had a happy ending. And yet…the words didn’t change. It’s still a world out of control. But the music resolves to a happy note as if to suggest the protagonist is now at peace with this out-of-control world and their place in it. Perhaps, when there’s no other alternative, one learns to smile even whilst spinning through a death spiral.

This is sort of already foreshadowed (but we don’t notice it then) by the fact that the pre-chorus “But if you fall…” is happier-sounding than the almost angry verse.

World Out of Control is an endlessly fascinating song, at least for me. I love melancholy songs with intensity and tempo. After all, often times, when one is intensely sad, one isn’t quite as tranquil as the protagonist in a Mukesh song (or Carpenters, if you will) and instead one may find oneself agitated and anxious. The fast verse of this song captures that sense of agitation. And…when you fall, finally losing control completely, there is resolution because that seems more bearable than holding on for the protagonist of the song.

I also love this song because it manages to kick ass with NO distorted guitar anywhere in sight. In fact, at a very superficial level, the trappings of this song are like an updated, trip-hoppy version of Swing Out Sister’s usual easy listening fare. The beauty lies in the immense tension they are able to produce in this mix and how they surprise you with an unexpected, and misleading, bright resolution.

A lot of people writing on music will tell you about acclaimed and unusual songs by bands and artists known for making acclaimed and unusual music. Be it Genesis’ Supper’s Ready or Jeff Buckley’s Mojo Pin. But there are more treasures waiting to be discovered if you get outside these convenient boxes that we slot music in. Yes, Swing Out Sister usually make comfortable and not particularly exciting jazz-pop. But there are songs like this one where they did go well beyond their usual fare…and they may merit the attention of those music lovers who seek unusual adventures.

It’s the song, not the album, not the artist that matters and World Out of Control is a great example of this.

Karen Carpenter and Annie In Wonderland – A tale of two solo albums

January 15, 2023

In a Facebook post that I can no longer find, Annie Haslam reminisced about the Carpenters and that when Karen and Richard Carpenter (siblings, for the uninitiated) named Renaissance as one of their favourite bands, she was humbled. In a comment to the post, she said she would have got along well with Karen. That may well have been but it may in addition have provided the latter a valuable perspective, one completely different from her West Coast bubble. Again, for the uninitiated, Karen died tragically in 1983 through complications originating in anorexia. Annie is still alive and well and sang as recently as at her annual Christmas concert.

There are remarkable similarities with equally remarkable differences between the two. And for both, their maiden solo album – eponymous in Karen’s case and Annie in Wonderland in Annie’s – represented opportunity and culminated in a turning point…in markedly different ways.

Both were blessed with angelic voices and had a goody-two-shoes image. But Karen was a contralto while Annie was/is a soprano. And where Karen was trapped in this image and had to conform to it, Annie frequently challenged this image to shock fans in the best possible sense of the word. For example, her delightful little bit of flirting with the audience at the start of this performance of Things I Don’t Understand. Even though Karen played drums and was at least as good at it as she was at singing, neither she nor Annie wrote music and were dependent, respectively, on brother/assorted songwriters/old hits to be repurposed and on the four gents in the band. Also, Karen, like Richard, was known to be an intense perfectionist while Annie was and is more happy-go-lucky, surprisingly so for such a very melodic and classically trained singer. Perhaps, she didn’t have a choice in the matter. We will get to this in a bit but continuing on this theme, Karen and Annie are both from working class and conservative backgrounds and were/are known to have a kind, good natured and cheerful disposition. However, there was intense dysfunction in Karen’s relationship with her parents as such and her mother in particular while Annie received love and the best her parents could afford her and likewise she looked after them in their dying days. They were both accidental singers in a manner of speaking but success arrived very early for Karen while Annie had to build and build and was in any case relegated to a career and life of relative obscurity once the 70s passed. In 1970, 20 year old Karen had already scored her and Richard’s first #1 hit with Close To You. Annie would only audition for Renaissance at the dawn of the new year in 1971.

So let’s get back to perfection. Some of it in Karen’s case was likely inherited from her mother Agnes who was extremely ambitious and helped the family buy their way into the nice and conservative Downey suburb of Los Angeles. They wanted to get ahead in life and early; Michael Jackson could have been writing about them when he sang “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”. Why, Agnes moved the family from New Haven all the way to LA because she believed ‘genius’ Richard would be better positioned to make it there. Annie’s family had no such ambitions of themselves nor thrust any on her.

Additionally, Annie was rendered deaf in one ear owing to a childhood accident. The reason the otherwise vivacious Annie has to stand in a corner of the stage (usually just in front of the keyboard) is to be able to hear herself and the music through the monitors, something she would not be able to do were she standing in the middle or in front of the drums. Knowing full well that, especially back in the 70s when nobody had even heard of the term ‘in ear monitors’, this made every concert potentially fraught, Annie embraced her weakness and the resultant potential for her to miss pitch on some songs on some days in spite of her brilliant technique. Eager as the then young Annie was to push her voice to its limits, she clasped her hands together in the front to soothe her nerves while she sang (something she finally stopped doing in the 80s). It may be very hard to believe that the always grinning and frequently giggling Annie we see on stage was hiding nerves but she avers she was. And I believe her. Because in one concert where the stakes were high, her nerves finally got the better of her.

On Jan 8, 1977, Renaissance performed the first BBC concert cast simultaneously on radio and TV – hence called Sight and Sound. They were introduced to hearty roars from the audience. And yet, when the camera pans to Annie, we see her close her eyes as she sings the opening line of Carpet of the Sun. She is very, very nervous (the give away is when she speaks for the one and only time in the entire set – post Mother Russia to introduce the next two songs and not only is she struggling to get the words out, she is breathing heavily). After the brief interlude, she starts to smile and seems to be settling down. And then, at 2:47, she goes quite noticeably off key on the phrase “You are the part that you’re giving”, right on the open syllable of “AAR”, making it more jarring. You may think this is no big deal but you see Annie wincing and blushing ruefully. While she gets on with it and finishes the song strongly, she continues to have pitch issues on Mother Russia, Running Hard and Touching Once in particular and maybe Ocean Gypsy is the only one she sings as well as in the best of her shows.

Again, you and I would say Annie who gave so many near-perfect and jaw dropping performances in the 70s deserves to be cut some slack. But Annie herself couldn’t shake off the Carpet…mistake. She changed the melody slightly on that line in subsequent performances to avoid that mistake. That is the only time I know of that she modified anything about a song (other than adding vocalizations within the instrumental sections or expressive variations in phrasing). Till date, Annie has never transposed down the key on any of the songs, not even now that she is 75! And yet, in 1977, she was experiencing a crisis of confidence with regard to Carpet. Also, the then new album Novella charted well but did not eventually sell as many copies as Scheherazade and other Stories or Live At Carnegie Hall. Warner Bros wanted more from Renaissance. So the band themselves were at a crossroads.

Karen found herself at a crossroads in 1980. With her brother Richard rehabilitating from his addiction to quaaludes, Karen gingerly explored the idea of recording a solo album. She didn’t want to break free from her brother but did want to explore her own identity. She obtained a very reluctant blessing for the project from Richard and headed to New York City to work with producer Phil Ramone. She was immediately showered with much goodwill and affection as musicians and songwriters all but competed to get their songs into her solo album. Sure enough, Rod Temperton (who also contributed Rock With You for Michael Jackson) has two credits, Karen sings a song with Peter Cetera, covers Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years and Russell Javors (from Billy Joel’s band) contributed All Because of You apart from playing guitar on the album. In fact, have a look at the performing credits and Steve Gadd and Michael Brecker wave back at you. You’d think they were making a jazz-folk album for Joni Mitchell with such a star studded line up (it cost $400,000 to make and took more than a year!). Did they?

In the meantime, let’s circle back to 1977. John Tout left the band for a while and Annie decided to use the hiatus to record an album. She asked her then lover Roy Wood if he would do it for her and he said yes. Wood played a plethora of instruments on the album and wrote three of its songs. Renaissance bassist Jon Camp played his axe on a few songs and also contributed If I Were Made of Music and Inside My Life. Annie also covered If I Loved You, Nature Boy and Going Home. The whimsical, mystical arrangement of If I Loved You as well as Annie’s stellar interpretation of it has retrospectively been singled out for praise. However, you can infer from the above that in stark contrast to Karen’s album, this one owed its fruition to the one man magic of Wood (apart from, of course, Annie’s singing). It was made quickly, in just a few months, and on a spare budget. The relatively sparse arrangements on the album (compared to the heavy orchestras on Renaissance tracks) perhaps helped make it sound better than it might have been with its constraints.

Annie In Wonderland offers a delightful contrast to the generally melancholic and stately sound of Renaissance. It’s on this album that we actually hear Annie’s on stage personality leap right out to us. Annie also showcases then unexpected versatility in both brilliantly tackling the theatrical If I Loved You and unleashing brilliant scat in the coda of Nature Boy. Do not miss the scary good chromatic descending run at the very end. Even where her experimentation doesn’t completely land, like in the Afro-influenced Hunioco, the transmission of her vivaciousness to audio is very winsome and helps forgive such minor complaints. The album cover perfectly encapsulates the light hearted and adventurous spirit of the album. Many a proghead insist on still taking this album way too seriously and bashing it (we will come back to this) but it was very transparently intended as a fun album (albeit we get melancholy on par with the best of Renaissance in her oh-so-poignant rendition of Going Home). And how could I forget Rockalise! Some of the most magically beautiful wordless vocalization you’ll ever hear.

Lightness wasn’t exactly alien to Carpenter-world so Karen supplemented it with a touch of risque. Song titles like My Body Keeps Changing My Mind and Remember When Lovin’ Took All Night say it all. However, the groove of disco that informs My Body Keeps Changing My Mind liberates the drummer residing within Karen to inhabit her singing. With previously unheard of (from her voice) soaring high notes, Karen shows very appealing (to me) qualities that were all but taboo in Carpenter-world – gusto, verve and footloose-ness. As much as her phrasing always had a delightful touch of looseness even in melancholic numbers like I Need To Be In Love, Body…really brings the footloose quality up front. And for those aching for the ‘old’ Karen, If We Try should surely wet many a handkerchief. If I had You, Last One Singing The Blues and All Because of You are also unqualified winners in my book. Lovelines overstays its welcome a tad and Guess I Just Lost My Head needed better writing. But once again, nothing is horribly bad at all though, yes, this is no Joni Mitchell jazz-folk classic (not that it is trying to be). Or so you’d think…

Richard and A&M Records head honcho Herb Alpert disagree(d). They didn’t like the album at all and shuddered at the modest element of risque (once more, the prudish streak within the Land of The Free coming to the fore). So…they basically told Karen to can the album because releasing it would risk exposing her to heaps of calumny and affect her confidence. The hundred grand that the label had spent on the album (the rest coming from Karen’s pocket) was offset against future royalties.

Thus, what should have been the moment of Karen flying gloriously out of her nest instead further dented her psyche. Feeling trapped from all sides, she sought to be a good old American mum…and married a guy who turned out to be a fraudster! She never truly recovered from this double whammy. And though she did at least seek medical help (which was hard to come by for anorexia at the time), she cheated on her physician all the time anyway. When she fatefully chose to consume Ipecac to regurgitate any food she had eaten, it fatally affected her cardio-vascular system and brought about her demise.

Whereas…Annie In Wonderland! Herb and Richard weren’t completely wrong about the stodgy preferences of the American listening public. I cannot find it anymore but I have read a vicious, vicious college magazine review of Annie In Wonderland. And it was an East Coast college so, essentially, the album was not accepted by the core Renaissance fanbase. They simply wanted more symphonic rock from her and felt cheated even though the artwork so clearly indicated what the album was about. The album did, however, do well in the UK. More importantly, Annie did not worry about the level of approval or otherwise received for the album and focused instead on the immense growth in her singing while working on it. One could say Wood finally encouraged her to get rid of the last remaining strains of diffidence within her, the diffidence that had haunted her on the evening of the Sight & Sound concert. Her admirers already knew Annie could do anything with her voice but it was Annie In Wonderland that helped Annie convince herself of this. While recording Northern Lights in the studio, she felt it wasn’t quite coming out right and then remembered how Wood had multi-tracked her voice on …Wonderland and sought him out to do likewise for Northern Lights. With the result that Renaissance earned their first and only hit single in the UK and at least temporarily soothed Warner Bros’ worries.

The script didn’t, of course, follow a happily-ever-after pattern post this success and seemed to instead presage their greatest troubles. But as the band broke up around her, Annie had already been armed with the knowledge that she could make solo albums and that she would in fact be able to find musicians willing to write and play songs for her. Working solo, she also discovered a lyricist within her and began to explore this talent as well. When she turned painter in the 2000s, she began to also paint the artwork for new releases of the band. This joy of exploring life, exploring herself has sustained her through unrelenting difficulties that she wears rather lightly.

To make a tennis analogy, after ‘choking to defeat’ on Sight & Sound, Annie made a winning comeback with Annie In Wonderland and even if commercial rewards were hard to come by, she certainly didn’t look back as a singer nor as a person. It opened up a new chapter in her life. Whereas for Karen, she wasn’t allowed to play her best shot and so, her ‘match’ was over before it began. Instead of opening up new vistas, her effort to make a solo album only hastened the tragic end of her existence.

At long last, in 1996, Richard gave in to public demand and hesitatingly released Karen Carpenter’s eponymous solo album. With scant publicity, the album still eventually clocked worldwide sales of a million copies. That’s more than the lifetime sales of all of Annie’s solo albums and probably as many as the sales of all the classic Renaissance mk-ii albums (Prologue to Azure D’Or) put together! Go figure. What a steaming pile of failure it was…NOT!

What makes Rahman different/unique

January 1, 2023

Writing this for Quora and simultaneously posting it here to preserve a record of it.

Rahman’s uniqueness, as with any other great composer, is multi faceted. You need to be more than a one trick pony to score hits consistently across decades (coming up to 30 years now since his debut!).

The aspect everyone knows and which is discussed widely is the manner in which he revolutionized the very manner of producing and recording music in the film industry. He showed it was not only possible to get an acceptable sound from a set up involving nothing more than a computer, a keyboard, a guitar and a limited set of percussion instruments but in fact this sound could even shade the sound of recordings produced in large studios with huge orchestras.

But it is important here to dispel a misconception – I say misconception because I have even seen one Marathi composer write in his blog that he would tell producers to give him a bigger budget if they wanted a Rahman-like sound. The misconception being that Rahman used ultra-expensive equipment that nobody else could have afforded to obtain this sound. Well, it’s true that he invested in advanced tech but that was back in his days as a sessions player (so the amount he spent could not have been something that, say, Ilayaraja could not have afforded).

But what accounts heavily for the quality of his sound is he was a pioneer in sampling instrument and other sounds to then use a keyboard to play notes on these sounds. That is, he could get a very violin like sound on keyboard without using a single violin in the recording.

As such, 90s synths could produce much better approximations of orchestral instruments than before. Here’s an example of Rahman approximating a saxophone sound on synth:

It’s NOT that Ilayaraja didn’t use such sounds. You can hear a similar synth-sax tone in the intro of Allah Un Aanai Padi:

But do you notice how much of a mess, sorry to use that word, the mix is on the Ilayaraja song compared to Rahman’s 90s compositions. For whatever reason, mixing suffered in Ilayaraja’s songs in the 90s compared to the 80s (even with the improvement in recording technology).

For another example, um, Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen. Sreejesh Nair’s (I believe that’s the youtuber’s name?) best efforts to polish the song with his remaster cannot hide how glossy the sound is:

Rahman’s recordings were by far the most pristine and beautiful in that period and he continues to make some of the most beautiful recordings in film music to this day (even though the gap with the others may have closed over the years).

Another very important aspect is Rahman recognized the sheer ground MSV and Ilayaraja in Tamil and the myriad great Hindi composers of the 50s-70s had covered…and consciously chose to write melody in a manner that would not resemble them at all. To be clear, when I use the word melody, I mean the vocal melody or what we, imprecisely, call ‘tune’ in our colloquial English. In our Hindi/Tamil terminology – mukda/antara or pallavi/charanam.

Previously, every composer had adhered to the existing templates and built on them with his own organically developed style. That is, we know Ilayaraja’s melodies are undeniably his own but they don’t sound radically different from previous film music and are more akin to a new chapter from the same book.

But Rahman decided to completely break away from such patterns . He would tap ragas his predecessors had not explored much or use patterns within them that they hadn’t. Or he would go to the Hindustani equivalent of a Carnatic raga and fit this Hindustani treatment within a Tamil song.

He explains this in terms of why his music ‘takes time to grow on you’ in 17:00 in this interview:

The third unique aspect of Rahman is he introduced hip-hop the genre (as opposed to rapping, which is merely a singing style/technique) in film music (also certain underexplored Latin American genres including reggae on Mustafa Mustafa). Again, late 80s to early 90s was where the golden period of hip hop really began. So Rahman was very ‘with it’, a first mover in some ways. The fact that a song like Pettai Rap from 1994 was already written completely on a hip hop base while still incorporating not only elements of Indian music but even a local Chennai-oriented vocabulary is, again, revolutionary.

Where once trends in Western pop/rock music took a good 5–10 years, if not even longer, to make it to film music, Rahman closed the gap both by being more than abreast of developments in the West in terms of new styles but also by producing his own music to a superlative level.

The last aspect is controversial to an extent but must be discussed. The previous film music, warts and all, was a completely homegrown and indigenous sound. Even a song like Ilaya Nila Pozhigiradhu from 1982 with very sophisticated guitar and bass part writing and NO tabla cannot be mistaken for anything other than film music. Rahman created, instead, a ‘global’ sound of Indian film music. Aka what Westerners THINK Indian music sounds like or the Indian music sound that THEY would be able to digest. Even a rural based song like Pachakilli Paadum (Karuthamma) is too refined in its production to evoke the rural heartland in quite the same way as, say, Pachamala Poovu (Kizhakku Vaasal). You could argue that even that Ilayaraja composition is too Westernized with its incorporation of guitar and symphonic violin passages. And the history of our film music is indeed the history of the Westernization of Indian roots. They found no other way to ‘update’ the sound and refresh it once every few years. Ilayaraja himself anticipated this ‘global Indian’ sound with songs like Chinna Chinna Vanna Kuyil or Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu. But it was with Rahman that we reached the tipping point, after which the balance leaned more towards Western than Indian.

I am not saying this to accuse him of bringing in ‘corrupt Western culture’ as my own collection is heavily dominated by rock, R&B, jazz etc. I am just saying this is yet another aspect that makes him work unique. The reason why his music doesn’t sound very much like previous film music is also because this is the point from which Indian film music became very much about accommodating Indian elements in a Western base where it had previously been the other way round.

As some of you blog readers would know already, I devoted a large sub section in my chapter on A R Rahman in my book Raga 2 Rock to the question of ‘What Makes Rahman Rahman’. Consider reading it here.

Supernatural – one of the biggest selling albums you may have never heard about

December 17, 2022

Fair warning: this is as much a write up about the music as it is a recounting of times that seem so, so far away from today.

Did you know that the legendary guitarist Carlos Santana released his best selling album ever not in his 60s-70s heyday but in 1999? That the album sold over 30 million copies worldwide and yielded not one, not two but a whopping nine Grammy awards (the most for a single album, besting even Michael Jackson’s Thriller)? And yet, it’s likely that neither your favourite pop critic nor your favourite rock critic has ever told you that this is an album you should listen to. And, this was the very first time I heard a standalone album (as opposed to a best of compilation) by a Western artist, particularly one associated loosely with rock.

The album I am talking about is Supernatural released by Clive Davis’ label Arista Records. As you can see from the foregoing para, it was a monster seller. And yet, forget highly acclaimed 90s bestsellers like Nirvana’s Nevermind or Radiohead’s OK Computer, it is likely you will hear about Backstreet Boys or NSYNC when you hear about 90s music, long before you hear about Supernatural.

How and why this has happened I do not know. Maybe, though, it is somewhat comparable to James Cameron’s monster blockbuster from 1997. Yes, you guessed which one already – Titanic. Titanic was the first film to surpass $1 billion in worldwide box office collections and, taken together with its 20th anniversary re-release collections, grossed a total of $2.2 billion. Not only that, it received 14 nominations at the Oscars, winning 11 of them, including the coveted Best Picture and Best Director awards. And yet, this is not a film that’s often mentioned when you think of memorable films from the 90s. To say that opinion about it has undergone a drastic revision would be an understatement as epic as the scale of Titanic itself. But…you had to be there to have known. And if you were there in 1997-98, there was no way you could have escaped Titanic. This was the first time I could attend an English screening (that is, not Hindi dubbing) of a movie in the far flung Mumbai suburb of Dombivli. Previously, you simply had to go to South/Central Mumbai to watch a Hollywood film with the original English dialogues (yes, if you are an American or European reading this, the Indian urban conception of a suburb simply meant a far away place with matchbox apartments for people who couldn’t afford a similar matchbox apartment in the city proper, not an enclave of upper-middle class affluence the way it is in the Western world – and the way it is now in pockets of urban India). And it stayed that way for the four years post-Titanic that I lived in Kalyan (a locale adjacent to Dombivli) – I watched Lost World in English in Central Plaza, Charni Road, not in the suburbs.

On very similar lines, Supernatural was such a breakout release in 1999 that it managed to shatter the invisible ceiling that separated the posh set in Mumbai from us plebs. Heh, it does make me chortle to remember those days considering I am very much a rock/jazz lover now and have been for more than fifteen years at this point. But you need to cast your mind back to 1999 to understand. We did have internet but it was a slow dial-up connection (to say it was slow doesn’t do justice when compared to the 100 mbps and upwards internet speeds people take for granted today). Downloading of mp3 off the internet hadn’t taken off yet. Google had been launched but we didn’t know about it and still used search engines like Yahoo and Altavista. What is Altavista, you say? Wiki will help you. Oh yes, no Wikipedia either! I had a bulky Dorling Kindersley encyclopedia. I mean an actual, physical encyclopedia. It was about science, though, and certainly had no space for rock music, let alone Santana!

This, then, was the world that Supernatural, living up to its name, infiltrated. It started with a Sunday Review article about the album in Times of India. Uh yes, Sunday Review was a pretty nice supplement they used to print on, duh, Sundays. My father read the article and his curiosity was piqued. With no way to ‘sample’ the album, he bought it as-is-where-is from Rhythm House. What is Rhythm House, you ask? It’s a now dead music store that was regarded as the best, or at least one of, in Mumbai.

From the opening bars of album kickstarter Yaleo, we were mesmerized. We didn’t and do not understand a word of Spanish. But the sound of it was beautiful, at least on this album (yes, yes, I vaguely knew about Ricky Martin at the time and wasn’t interested in his own big hit La Copa de la Vida). That is, I wasn’t coming from a place of “gee whiz, Hispanic!”, fetishizing something for its otherness. There just was (and still is, to my ears) something intuitively sonorous about the words on Yaleo and many of the other Latin American tracks on the album.

But, really, it was the guitar. Neither my father nor I had ever heard guitar playing like this. Imagine what a quantum leap from the guitarwork heard on the Beatles compilation this would have been for us! Not to disparage Harrison or Lennon but this was my first exposure to the notion of the electric guitar as a simply exhilarating instrument that could traverse what sounded like a million notes per second. Man, the surge of adrenaline when Santana ‘shredded’. Those were the days when I didn’t know of the very existence of players like Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman, John Petrucci, etc, so even Santana sounded impossibly fast.

But while that part of his guitarwork may have dated to my ears, his tone and sweet sensibilities haven’t. Maybe, like somebody I converse with on a tennis forum, I sometimes take my ‘geezer millennial’ trappings too seriously. But I do lose patience when people evangelize the positivity sermon about modern pop and try to tell me it has the exact same transcendental quality it’s always had.

With the growing popularity of vernacular hip-hop in India, I have no doubt that a Dombivli teen of today would be able to connect with popular hip hop artists (from the West) of today. But his/her parents may not, not if they grew up on a diet of even Nadeem-Shravan and Jatin-Lalit, let alone RD Burman.

That is, Supernatural didn’t just transcend cultural barriers (which, perhaps, is easier to achieve with respect to a less opinionated teenage cohort) but also demographic ones. And the reason for that is its wonderful sense of melody. And its underrated musicality. My sample size in saying so does extend beyond myself and my father and I will return to this later.

Try listening to the album without prejudice, without judgment. Yes, it’s commercial, but not necessarily in a way that capitalizes the C in commercial, in a way that severely dates it to its time or informs itself as only concerned with the need people have for music they can dance to. There is a level of musicality to it that would be considered entirely unremarkable in art rock or jazz, but was quite unexpected in a pop vehicle.

I use the word pop advisedly. The album isn’t teeming with crunchy riffs at all. Santana’s playing has the slightest hint of edge on the Rob Thomas-rendered Smooth while the Everlast-sung Put Your Lights On ventures closest to rock (which is to say, it’s still a long way off the real McCoy). This is music that would not unsettle the squarest of musical tastes. But it has to still find a way to bedazzle and not come across as bland and boring.

And that’s where the sheer quality of its melodies as well as its musicality deliver. Funny thing about the album – the melodies on the Latin American songs are comfortably more beautiful than on the English language ones. It’s not that the English language songs are bad – I never dug the Clapton-collaboration The Calling but I do still have time for both Smooth and the Dave Matthews-rendered Love of My Life. But…even Corazon Espinado, which is essentially the LatAm counterpart of Smooth, easily outshines it. Migra and Primavera are simply and utterly gorgeous.

Yaleo…Yaleo has a decent enough melody but is decidedly more rhythmic. Its hook instead comes from this very rhythmic nature, imbuing it with a very brisk tempo. And the bridge/solo. Make that solos. Seriously, how many pop songs, especially of the present day, can you think of that would have a piano solo followed by a guitar solo? The interlude is quite jazz-like though it may fall well short of whetting the appetite of a hardcore jazzhead. But placed in a song like this, it is at the very least interesting. For the uninitiated, like my circa 1999 version, it is just thrilling!

A word about the production and mixing. It’s lovely too. The drum sound is just the way I like, nay love, it. It’s soft and sweet but deep and powerful. I didn’t know then that this sort of drum sound was already on the way out in modern recordings and would become very much a thing of the past in the 2000s (art rock purveyors like Steven Wilson have brought it back in the 2010s but the production of most pop music is irredeemable at least from the point of view of dynamics).

One track both my father and I loved listening to over and over didn’t even have vocals, though. It was a slow instrumental, dominated (naturally) by Santana’s guitar. The track is called El Farol.

Once again, if you have had more than your fill of Comfortably Numb/Firth of the Fifth/Spectral Mornings, you probably don’t think El Farol is great shakes. But for the uninitiated, ‘mass’ listener, El Farol was heaven. It was just impossibly magical. And when you break it down, you can spot its virtues without much difficulty. It has a memorable and haunting motif, executed with delicate panache by the master. The arrangement is as minimalist as can be and stays out of Santana’s way. They end the coda just at the point where you’ve had your fill of it (and before it overstays its welcome).

Now think about whether a 2022 pop album would take a risk with a guitar instrumental like this, where the playing is super-clean and, for all outward appearances, entirely conventional. In 1999, Clive Davis, ace record producer, was counting on you, the listener, not being that impatient or that cynical and just letting the melody wash over you and let it win your over, slowly and gently.

In 2022, surrounded as we are with innumerable social media distractions, we can neither be that patient or that trusting. We must perforce submit to the game of endlessly second guessing everyone and everything. The opportunity to scoff, “Ha, this is no good, the guys who suggested this are clueless” is too tempting, far more so than the opportunity to just enjoy a nice little piece of music that may provide a soothing balm to an angry soul. And heaven knows there are many angry souls today.

But I digress way too much. In 1999, an album that mixed English and Spanish songs and combined the jazz-lite of Yaleo with a meditative, Mediterranean instrumental in El Farol and even hip hop in Do You Like This Way (rendered by none other than Lauryn Hill!) sold like nobody’s business. And not just in USA and Latin America but in Poland, in Denmark and in Japan. And word of it travelled all the way to the most widely read English daily in India. And eventually reached the ears of a suburbanite kid who had no idea such music even existed. And accepted it gratefully with open arms.

There may have been internet but there was no information superhighway in 1999. And yet, a band (and multiple guest performers) led by Santana spoke to me through a humble audio cassette and planted the seeds of my eventual interest in the world of rock. A gorgeous and infectious album whose only fault was that it was completely non-edgy and respected the average music listener’s innate capacity for appreciation rather than talking down to them in the name of targeted demographic appeal. Perhaps the fact that an album like Supernatural can be (relatively) forgotten says something too.

But I am not done just yet. Didn’t I tell you my sample size extends beyond myself and my father? So….many, many years later, in 2012 thereabouts, I was now working at a large company where people from all over Mumbai were employed. One day, a colleague’s phone rang and what should be the ringtone but the opening bars of Smooth! The colleague in question was a temp worker, working on a low salary (possibly in the 15-20k per month range) and doing essentially data entry work. He did not have high minded musical sensibilities. He just liked this song, or so I presume. I don’t quite remember where he lived but it may have been a suburb whose name starts with D….

RIP Christine McVie – The Anchorwoman

December 8, 2022

Christine McVie, who gave this rather entertaining interview only a few months ago to The Guardian, passed away at the age of 79. But if you were never into Fleetwood Mac at all (as I wasn’t until sometime last year!), chances are you have no idea who she was or what she achieved. That she was only outlasted by founding members Mick Fleetwood and ex-husband John McVie in one of the biggest selling rock bands of all time. That she contributed three top 10 singles (You Make Loving Fun, Hold Me, Little Lies) to the band and co-wrote a fourth (Don’t Stop) with Lindsey Buckingham. And that’s not counting eternal fan favourites like Songbird, Oh Daddy, Everywhere. Or her contributions to the pre-Lindsey/Stevie lineup.

Whether in terms of her personality, her singing voice or even the kind of music she typically wrote, every aspect of McVie exuded smoothness almost to a fault – so that she was little hyped for one of such storied achievements.

After all, she joined the band in a manner of speaking in 1970 and had two writing credits already on her first album as a full time member – Future Games. Here was a woman singing, playing keyboard and writing songs in the early 1970s, a period in which she had relatively few gender peers in so doing. She was a full time member on every subsequent Mac album going up to 1987’s Tango In The Night. She had three writing credits each in Bare Trees and Penguin and at least four in every album thereafter.

And yet, for so prolific a songwriter, she said once in an interview that she didn’t exactly have musicians coming up to her to tell her how influential she had been or so forth and that she wouldn’t mind some of that attention. Or maybe she would have. She preferred to operate from the shadows, playing the keyboard and singing along rather than taking centre stage. Though, she was ever the able MVP, stepping in to play a bigger role when required (I have read people mention on Youtube of McVie stepping in on days when Nicks couldn’t sing and filling the void with ease).

It would be tempting to call her the backbone of Fleetwood Mac but for the small matter of Mick Fleetwood’s imposing presence. And that it is indeed he who has kept the band together through its myriad iterations, arranging a replacement with efficiency that would shade the best football team managers. At least…until the band was all but eaten up by the undeniably luminous presence of Buckingham and Nicks. His efforts post-Tango In The Night to replace them came to nought where he had previously kept the band going in spite of losing Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch. And note that for all of Fleetwood’s prowess as a skin beater, he wasn’t a songwriter and nor was John McVie.

And this is where Christine McVie played a pivotal role in both the transitional (post-Peter Green) and the ‘classic’ (Buckingham-Nicks) eras. The role of anchorwoman. In the transitional phase, she bound the band together through its chaotic line up changes and gave it a modicum of stability, while always ceding space to the more frontline ambitions of Kirwan or Welch. In the classic phase, her role as the unofficial personnel manager perhaps became as important (if not more than) as that of singer-player-songwriter.

As Buckingham and Nicks split and the group as such turned into a volcanic soap opera, McVie kept the group from breaking apart. She was good friends with both Nicks and Buckingham. If the presence of Nicks offered her a fellow woman companion in an otherwise male dominated band in a male dominated industry, she enjoyed collaborating musically with Buckingham and their styles arrived at interesting intersections. Indeed, it was with Buckingham that she co-wrote the 2017 album (named after the two of them) that managed a UK #5 position as well as silver certification.

This business of being friends with two strong and volatile personalities who were at loggerheads with each other did of course put her in tight spots at times. When Buckingham was unceremoniously ousted from the band in 2018, McVie had to clarify to him that she had no part in this (it was rumoured that Nicks had engineered his ouster). It is also rumoured that McVie and Nicks were not on talking terms post-the ouster. Even if that were true, Nicks nevertheless referred to McVie as her best friend in the whole world in her obit. One could even deduce that Buckingham and Nicks were more concerned with competing with each other in paying tribute to McVie than holding anything against her!

But as I have alluded to earlier, McVie’s contributions went far beyond merely balancing two big egos and being in the good books of both.

Here’s a ‘practical’ example of McVie’s MVP-ness. As Nicks renders the legendary Rhiannon (I am linking here THE performance of the song – Midnight Special 1976 – rather than the more insipid one I am about to post), she is clearly out of it for whatever reason and struggling to even remember some of the lyrics. At 2:54, she turns away from the audience and behind towards trusty McVie whom, if I had to guess, was prompting the words for her:

This may not seem so impressive a feat to you unless you consider the epic amounts of junk the band members helped themselves to in order to keep going (as manager, Mick Fleetwood had forbid show cancellations unless the member demanding the cancellation would personally bear the cost of the cancellation!). So…imagine if McVie too had been too coked up to help. But she was there, reliably holding fort while the others dealt with their issues.

But let’s talk about her songwriting in the Buckingham-Nicks period and its role in making Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac.

The problem with volatile forces is they can get too big for their britches or have their own priorities which don’t align with the band’s. As the allegedly least coked up member of the band, Buckingham found himself drawn to more avant garde and futuristic ideas. Qualities that I as a proghead admire but Mac-post Rumours was a precious cash cow and needed to deliver the goods everytime. The expensive Tusk was thus seen as a ‘failure’ for Mac even though it still sold 2 million copies anyway. As for Nicks, she felt discomfited both on account of the tense relationship with Buckingham and having to squeeze in her songs in a band that already had two prolific songwriters. She went solo (without leaving the band) via 1981’s Bella Donna which outsold Mac’s 1982 release Mirage, selling 4 million copies in the US alone. Perhaps as a result, she ‘used’ more and more during the time she spent with the band and was only intermittently present during the making of Tango In The Night.

It was thus left to McVie to both provide something more accessible in the pop-rock vein that the record-buying public looked forward to from Mac as well as fill the breach for the increasingly uninvolved Nicks. In both Mirage and Tango put together, Buckingham had just the one top 20 single – Big Love. McVie’s Hold Me (Mirage) reached #4 while Love In Store from the same album got up to #22. Tango yielded #4 Little Lies and #14 Everywhere. A large part of the credit for sustaining the post-Rumours momentum of success would then have to go to McVie.

But even on Rumours…McVie provided a balance between the mysticism of Nicks as expressed on Dreams and Gold Dust Woman and the folky angst of Buckingham (Second Hand News and Go Your Own Way). Notice that Nicks’ melodies, beautiful as they are, can come across as fragmented without the Buckingham guitar glue shaping them. Now cut to You Make Loving Fun and you can hear an accomplished and sophisticated songwriter at work:

Likewise, Songbird and Oh Daddy are…sumptuous. That’s the word to sum up McVie’s songwriting. You could perhaps accuse her of making predictable choices at times and generally sticking to the soft-and-gentle but she always gave you melodies, chords and an organised structure to bite into.

Thus, she offered the same stability with her songwriting and musicianship that she did to the lineup with her ‘personnel management’. Dependably yielding hits that have aged well, she solidified the legacy of Fleetwood Mac…and by her very being, made them more than just the Buckingham-Nicks show.

For one who wasn’t so much in the limelight when alive, McVie has received a steady stream of tributes in death (with this here tribute adding to the pile). In a rock world that’s more sensitive of the consequences of its male-centric legacy, one hopes that at least post-death McVie’s work will receive more attention and that more aspiring songwriters will walk up to her grave to pay tribute to what they had and what they’ve lost.

Magazine: The Light Pours Out of Devoto

November 28, 2022

The prog-punk battle of the 1970s is classified, somewhat regrettably, as one between over the top ambition on the one hand (dubbed pretentiousness or, even less kindly, wankery) and raw back to the basics rock on the other. This reading of the era has permanently affected the critique of progressive rock (even though listeners have to some extent forgiven and welcomed back prog, the critics apparently have a doctrinaire allegiance to the 1970s line on prog) as also, most importantly, critique of the rock that followed prog. For, do tell, if punk was the great saviour of rock from the mess prog had plunged it into, how come we went in very short order from Who, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Poison, Cinderella and Def Leppard? And why did it take grunge to bail out rock all over again?

I submit then that the real battle was one of rooting rock in the non-trivial and the intense. By the second half of the 1970s, the original prog rock bands (called the First Wave, including Yes, ELP, Genesis, King Crimson) were either running out of steam or on a hiatus and the second wave either just lacked the brilliance of the first or were descending into frivolity. Abstraction was as much a great strength of prog (at its best) as also its terrible Achilles heel at its worst. A music that could be about nothing in particular at all was somehow not as appetizing anymore in the then economically embattled UK and US markets. This was further accentuated by the lack of guitars or at least biting rock guitar in many prog rock bands of the time. It was punk that captured the zeitgeist, so to speak.

But a formula based on two-to-four minute tracks with very basic chords and singing that bordered on ranting would also hit its limits soon. The band that, among others like Television, presciently recognized these limitations was Magazine. Magazine originated from the vision of ex-Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto. He recruited then little known John McGeoch on guitar and saxophone (who moved onto Siouxsie and the Banshees in their brilliant Kaleidoscope to Kiss In the Dreamhouse phase), Barry Adamson on bass (later of Birthday Party and Nick Cave) and Martin Jackson (later of Frank Zappa and, well, Swing Out Sisters). Keyboardist Dave Formula didn’t exactly move onto illustrious pastures post-Magazine but his contributions to the band were nevertheless stellar.

To wit, then, Devoto made the then-radical decision! (in a punk context) of retaining keyboards but fused it with the grit, the angst, the gloom that punk captured and which prog increasingly lacked in. Without unleashing ten minute plus tracks (let alone sidelong epics), Devoto still emphasised the sense of orchestration that prog had brought to the table. This is why Magazine is often described as important-sounding. Christgau went further and called it pretentious. And you know that when Christgau doesn’t like a rock band, especially a British rock band, it is to be worn as a badge of honour.

At this point, let me talk about Devoto’s vocals in particular. I am not as such a fan of technically limited singing being contextualized by critics as not only apt for the songs but in fact even better than ‘proper singing’ (maybe Steve Perry gives a huge complex to critics because they can’t fetch the notes he can?). Safe to say I don’t belong in the camp that thinks Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Bruce Springsteen were the best parts of We Are The World. And this is no disrespect to their songwriting abilities which I do obviously admire. But the notion that this is actually how Stevie Wonder and the rest should have sung the song…no, that I don’t agree with!

With that said, Devoto! There is just something about the powerful, majestic baritone timbre of his voice that compels me to hop along for the ride even though I realize he is generally half-speaking the lyrics. His timbre is not essentially very different from Peter Hammill (who otherwise has a volcanic range, of course) and I could easily imagine Hammill rendering these songs. Also, in Devoto’s case, the resort to speaking-singing isn’t an accompaniment to simple and folky songs (a la Dylan) but a sort of narrative device to songs that are so dramatic, indeed so theatrical, they could be scenes from a play (hell, Motorcade or Parade, both from Real Life)could be entire plays by themselves!). Devoto’s searing, piercing delivery is our guide to the drama unfolding in these songs, verily imploring us to join in and play a part too. This is particularly the case on the anthemic The Light Pours Out On Me (also from Real Life).

But to me, the finest moment of Magazine arrives on You Never Knew Me (Correct Use of Soap). Here, Devoto modulates – while still in speaking-singing mode – from the towering presence projected on Light or Parade to achingly vulnerable. His lyrics here are some of the finest even from his already exalted work. Formula opens with utterly delicate piano that perfectly sets the mood for what is to unfold. And as for John McGeoch’s brief but scintillating and unforgettable guitar solo, words cannot do justice to what he achieves.

If Devoto was the brains behind Magazine, McGeoch was its soul. One more reason why I hate the stupidly narrow canonization of rock guitarists where we endlessly circle-jerk about the same old, same old Page, Gilmour, Blackmore, Clapton, Harrison (and needless to say, all of these are brilliant guitarists in their own right) – the result is somebody like McGeoch doesn’t (didn’t, RIP) get his due. When you combine his work with Magazine with what he achieved along with The Banshees, it’s an incredible range. As creatively textural as he was for the latter, with Magazine he operated much more in a classically rock mileu and yet carved out a distinct and unmistakable niche, crafting memorable riffs performed with sumptuous crunch as well as brilliant leads where required (but which were never force-fitted into the song and which never extended on and on into eternity as was often the wont of rock guitarists at the time). Consider that McGeoch was able to swing from his work on Light and You Never Knew to Me to Shot From Both Sides.

This was brilliant, hard-hitting rock that didn’t have to lean into heavy metal-level distortion. It is and always has been about the notes played; a riff that’s ‘merely’ rock can still crush you without having to sound like Black Sabbath.

Yes, Magazine was essentially the last stand of rock before the genre was bullied by metal (as in heavy and extreme)on the one side and softened by the commercial imperatives of hair/pop metal on the other (blows from which it has never, as a genre, recovered though brilliant bands like Radiohead have periodically lifted it out of the abyss). Shot from both sides, pun intended. This was rock that offered you memorable riffs to air-guitar away to as well as generous dollops of humour but for all that, took itself and indeed where it located itself in society pretty seriously. Devoto reached for the spaces pop wouldn’t and couldn’t get to because it was meant primarily as commercial music. He along with his bandmates made music that without being too structurally complex was still uncomfortable and unsettling to listen to. I mean, how can a line like “Do you want the truth or do you want your sanity?” (from You Never Knew Me) not be unsettling? Music that wanted to provoke thought and without always being directly political, engaged with the socio-political dimension fearlessly. In essence, the Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese of rock.

The success of those celebrated directors eluded Magazine in their time. Critics didn’t generally follow the lead of cranky Christgau and were greatly appreciative of the band’s work. But Shot By The Sides’ #41 charting position was the peak of their ‘success’. The lack of success frustrated McGeoch and he left the band after Correct Use of Soap. Magazine did one other, universally panned, album and I have not dared listen to it for fear of spoiling the taste of Real Life and Soap. Second Daylight is a good, ‘serious’ effort but rather hard to penetrate and still a work in progress for me. I would also add that, notwithstanding the brilliance of You Never Knew Me, Correct Use of Soap is a step-down from Real Life while still a wonderful, wonderful ride.

Magazine have experienced a revival of sorts over the years as their albums haven’t been forgotten at all, leading to the band 2008. And yet, I could only find the lone worthwhile appraisal of theirs on the net, via Popmatters. Perhaps this is why rock is, in a manner of speaking, dead (though legions of bands carry on its existence, albeit more in a metal light, in the underground). Even after all these years, word about the wondrous work of Magazine has only travelled thus far and no further.

Bent Knee – letter of good tidings to an old friend

November 12, 2022

I remember Bent Knee, an art rock (the most accurate classification possible of their music) outfit made up of Berklee alumni. I remember when and how I got into them better than with most bands and artists I got introduced to post-2007 or so. You can’t discern a moment when it’s one among a pile of recommendations or one among a hundred albums in a CD burnt for you by a friend.

But it was different with Bent Knee. At that time, I was briefly a ‘collaborator’ on the website Prog Archives. What do ‘collaborators’ do? Nothing fancy, just the grunt work of vetting bands put up to be added to the website’s vast database of prog rock bands from all over the globe and recommending which to be added to the website and which to be rejected. And it’s honorary, of course, so a lot of work for no money. Being that there are sub genres in prog rock – symphonic prog, eclectic prog, crossover prog to name a few – collaborators are split into sub genre wise teams and their mandate is to assess whether a band is fit for the sub genre in question.

At the time, there was a deluge of bands that fitted the crossover prog classification – as it was the closest to a catch-all term that could accommodate bands that didn’t adhere to more specific characteristics unlike symphonic or prog metal – and so I as a long time forum member and reviewer was asked by the ‘bigwigs’ at Prog Archives if I would be a collaborator for the crossover team. I said yes. Within a year, I decided that the workload was unmanageable – by this time, I had got married – and stepped down. But in that one year, the one band I still remember very distinctly among so many I vetted was Bent Knee. It was a pretty quick yes from our side and they went through. But afterwards, I had to go back and listen to the whole album (Shiny Eyed Babies). I would get that, Good Girl and, later, Say So off bandcamp.

If you weren’t in that bubble, it is hard to explain how and why, within the progarchives community, it felt like Bent Knee were superstars . Long time members crawled out of the woodwork as they got interested in this new band that ‘everyone’ seemed to be talking about.

And why not! Somehow and from somewhere had come about this band that completely avoided the generic-ness and the by-the-numbers-ism that had afflicted the prog world by then. Even the best new bands like Haken felt like they were carefully ticking boxes that affirmed their suitability to be called prog. But Bent Knee actually wrote songs that just happened to sound proggy. Some of the songs weren’t even prog at all but the ones that did have those characteristics made the case so overwhelmingly that the prog community or at least the prog archives community had no problems ‘welcoming’ them into the fold.

I could write and write futile words to attempt to describe their sound but I will simply post the track that blew me away and got me hooked onto Bent Knee.

As you can see, the track Being Human is like a tumult, a tidal wave of emotions, of quiets and louds that seem to veer out of control but still somehow coalesce into a very coherent pattern. Indeed, once you have got a hold of this song’s ins and outs, you can see that it’s quite mathematically put together and not random at all. A very important element, the glue that holds together the proceedings is vocalist Courtney Swain. Her ability to sound gentle, vulnerable, furious, frenzied all in the space of four minutes is simply mind blogging. If Bent Knee were stars in prog archives world, Swain was a goddess already. In all, there really hadn’t been anything like Bent Knee in the prog world for a long time and we imagined the sky to be the limit for them.

While Being Human is my pick from the album (Shiny Eyed Babies), I would highly recommend Sunshine, In God We Trust, Toothsmile, Dead Horse and I’m Still Here. But really, most of the album is flat out brilliant and there’s nothing that’s bad.

This is a live performance of In God We Trust which doesn’t technically do complete justice to the recording but there’s a different reason why I have put it up here.

After the release of Shiny Eyed Babies made a splash, Cunieform Records signed them on. So I had super high expectations for Say So. But while Say So wasn’t a bad album by any means, it seemed to lack that arresting quality Shiny Eyed Babies had. Maybe the melodies were too meandering this time and lacked the precision of the attack on the predecessor. But the upshot was I was already less invested in the band that I had been when I listened to Shiny. They moved to Inside Out Records for Land Animal. But this one too, like Say So, seemed a bit confused/confusing and didn’t land its punches the way Shiny had. I checked out at this point. Partly, I was (in hindsight) unkind to a band that I didn’t realize were still relatively young and finding their way around and partly my life got busier. I also made new discoveries along the way that now took up my time and attention – the Russian (I know, how could I!) duo Iamthemorning and UK artist Lianne La Havas. The latter particularly rewarded me with an incredible self-titled album in 2021. Bent Knee, sadly, slid to the back of my mind.

Until yesterday. In a whatsapp group of music lovers that I am part of, we were discussing prog and I made the point that old prog (70s) would start with a simple and accessible hook and then introduce the complexity after getting you into the song while prog metal bands had the annoying habit of hitting you first up with a super complicated riff played over a complicated time signature in turn, already creating distance between you and the music. I mentioned Bent Knee and the track Being Human as an example of starting with a simple idea and moving to big changes.

I remembered that I hadn’t listened to Bent Knee in a long time and pulled up my favourite tracks from the album. What with my still persisting – but much reduced – brain fog, I had some difficulty remembering the names of tracks (other than Being Human) but it started coming back to me and I certainly remembered the tracks immediately the moment they started playing.

I noticed that this time, Being Human and Sunshine in particular really hit me hard. In 2015, I was getting married and in a very happy place. I approached progressive rock in a more nerdy way, albeit still not all the way to math-y nerd types caring only about the level of complication and not the craftsmanship. But I appreciated the emotions and their delivery from a distance, like admiring a great performance, like admiring a great set of tennis by Federer or a great innings by Tendulkar. I wasn’t living the emotions with the music (I rarely have, in general).

But here we are in 2022 and for a variety of reasons that I don’t care to go into (but mostly to do with a double covid infection and the resultant long covid effects), I have been dealing with a difficult time. And as much as I try to be resilient and keep reminding myself that I am so much fortunate than so many others have been in the post-pandemic world, it has been a tough road (and one where my parents and wife’s support has got me through the journey). I would say I genuinely experienced what emotions can be like for the first time (at least, the first time since exiting adolescence) and found it terribly scary.

In this state of mind, listening to Being Human was absolutely cathartic. It felt like a release of the emotions inside me which don’t get out, not because I suppress or hold them back but because I really just don’t know how to vent. Fascinated, I kept listening. And I started browsing the net to see where my once-absolute favourite band were at.

I had naively believed they would be in at least a good place considering they got a record deal which has become as elusive as an unicorn for independent bands. And then moving to Inside Out Records, how bad could it be?

Well, I really should have known better and this CS Monitor article musicbizsplained it to me!

There’s plenty in there to take stock and I PDF-ed it for future reference but early on is a crushing passage for anyone who loved the heck out of Bent Knee back in 2015:

“Bent Knee realizes that it’s not likely to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine or on a Marvel movie soundtrack. Its goal is more modest: to make a living wage as musicians by building a robust fan base that is willing to pay to hear its music and see it play. “

Reminds me of the line about the movie biz being where dreams go to die.

I had to search a little for Courtney Swain in the photo taken with their touring van. And then, I realised, she was there but she just got older.

Here’s a video of a song from their second last-to-date album.

You can tell that while Swain is still an effervescent and passionate presence, there is a tinge of pain in her eyes. The pain of adulthood, of reality, of life, if you will.

If you think I am reading too much into it, you might be wrong because the CS article makes references to a band member’s struggles with depression and of Swain’s search for a purpose. Which, when she found it, she was more at peace with herself.

The article mentions that guitarist Ben Levin and bassist Jessica Kion (also his wife) are moving on from the band after this year’s tour being covered in the article. Lineup changes are normal in rock and roll….but Bent Knee have stayed constant since 2014’s Shiny Eyed Babies. They made five albums together. As the article says in more or less as many words, they have also been each others’ emotional support group. And Levin and Kion aren’t leaving because they feuded with the rest. They just got worn out of the hard and totally not glamorous touring life and reassessed their priorities during lockdown. I am sure it must have been a hard decision to make.

Is the band going to slowly unravel from here or will they work out a pathway to keep going? I would ordinarily absolutely plump for the latter but so much is up in the air now. It’s a difficult time generally and 2023 promises to be even more difficult. But I find myself fervently wishing they do find a way and welcome the news that their 2022 tour, against the odds, managed to make a profit. I also want to now make amends and should soon be getting the albums I didn’t pay for on bandcamp, even though I wasn’t crazy about them when I streamed them.

On the same progarchives forum I mentioned, somebody once likened songs you love to friends and in fact said he valued them more than close friends. I scoffed then. To some extent, I still do. But I can see the point today…at least if I extend the scope from a ‘song’ to the larger, living entity of a ‘band’. Bent Knee and myself knew each other (check that, I knew them, not the other way round) intimately well back in 2015 and drifted apart. Checking back in 2022, it’s clear there have been some victories, some disappointments and reality has sunk in. We both got older. But I’m still here and so are they. Maybe making it through is what success looks like.

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