Sing whatever is well made

There is a prevalent attitude towards popular music that places the artistry of the singer-songwriter above that of the singer who performs other people’s songs. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon. I don’t think that anyone expected Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra or Dinah Shore to write their own songs, or thought any the less of them as performing artists. There exists nonetheless a kind of snobbery that insists that the singer-songwriter is somehow worthier of serious consideration.

One should guard against adopting such an attitude, for there are so many pleasures to be had from the work of inventive interpretive singers, not the least of which is the well-though-out album which is, in effect, a kind of thoughtfully assembled  song recital. I’d like to explore two such albums which mean a great deal to me.

ImageIn 1966 Judy Collins released In My Life, which assembled songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Richard Fariña along with the Lennon-McCartney title track, Jacques Brel’s La Colombe and Liverpool Lullaby, written by the remarkable Stan Kelly, who has balanced his songwriting and performing career with his day-job as a highly distinguished computer science pioneer. Added to this are Kurt Weill’s chilling Pirate Jenny and Judy Collins’s own condensation of the musical numbers from the English language version of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. This Marat/Sade (to adopt its highly welcome shorthand appellation) is both a whistle-stop history of the French Revolution and a cynical political parable. And to round things off there are also numbers by Randy Newman and Donovan.

To realise this lovingly eccentric recital-programme, Judy worked closely with the arranger Joshua Rifkin (Rifkin was so much more than an arranger, and demands a post of his very own, which I have asked a friend to provide – watch this space) and they created a seductive sound world with Judy’s cool clear contralto voice at its centre. Judy and Josh do not put a foot wrong, from the quizzical woodwinds that begin the album’s opener – Dylan’s Tom Thumb’s Blues – through the melancholy string ensemble on Newman’s I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (When Collins negotiates the heart-rending intervals in the two bar phrase “human kindness is overflowing” we know we are in the hands of a truly great singer).  Of particular note is the grim sound world created for Leonard Cohen’s Dress Rehearsal Rag. A relentlessly repeated, mocking piano figure, with a prominent, sinister, augmented fourth ringing through accompanies Judy’s portrayal of a would-be suicide addressing the reflection in his shaving mirror. Soon, French horns are introduced to darken the texture further. Then, in a central section, the nagging piano suddenly drops away, and a chiming harp and airy woodwind arabesques evoke memories of a lost love and a pastoral idyll (“Once there was a path / and a girl with chestnut hair”). The effect is breathtaking. There’s a jolt when the pounding piano returns, the woodwinds arabesques now taking on a keening quality (“That’s a hard one to remember / it makes you clench your fist / and the veins stand out like highways / on your wrist”). The harp now joins in, chattering hysterically as the song reaches its climax. It’s certainly a welcome change when this leads into the final track – a beautifully placid and affectionate take on the title track, with gentle acoustic guitar backing.

The sheer variety of this album, from the skittish, hallucinogenic waltz of Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street to the creepy drama of Pirate Jenny, and the impeccable musicianship on display, make this a record that is just as satisfying as any self-penned concept album would be. Of course, Judy Collins went on to become an accomplished song-writer. On her next album, Wildflowers (also a collaboration with Joshua Rifkin), three of her own compositions rub shoulders with more Cohen and Brel, the first ever commercial recordings of Joni Mitchell songs and even a piece by the 14th Century Florentine composter, Francesco Landini. Wonderful though Wildflowers is, though, it will be In My Life that I take to my desert island. I never tire of it.

Twenty-one years after the release of In My Life, another highly distinctive songstress collaborated with an inventive arranger on an album of songs drawn from a wide variety of sources. The parallels stop there though. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast in singers: Judy Collins, projecting with clarity and purity and the minimum of vibrato or other decorations; and Irish singer, Mary Coughlan, husky and intimate, now raunchy and insolent, now tender and fragile.

ImageCoughlan’s second album, Under the Influence, sees her in partnership with the Dutch jazz musician, composer, arranger and producer, Erik Visser. And a fine piece of work it is, too. Visser himself has a composer credit on four of the 14 tracks.  There are a couple of standards, Good Morning Heartache and Don’t Smoke in Bed as well as a Cole Porter number that has never quite become a standard, The Laziest Girl ( or The Laziest Gal in Town). Perhaps the most arresting song is Fifteen Only, Michael Dress’ setting of Frank Wedekind’s poem Ilse about teenage prostitution. Visser provides a restrained string quartet accompaniment for  Coughlan’s unsentimental delivery. But there’s lots more to relish, such as My Land Is Too Green in which Coughlan expresses contempt for her homeland (“My land is bogged down in religious tradition / We nod our heads in humble submission”). Apart from the contribution of the string quartet as mentioned above (this group also makes a memorable appearance on Visser’s The Dice) and very skilful use of synthesizers, Mary’s accompaniment is, for the most part, by a fairly standard rock bank set-up. Fortunately, Coughlan and Visser didn’t settle for anonymous session musicians. Instead the members of the backing group have considerable personality and are each able to contribute something distinctive and characterful to the record. Conor Barry, for example, provides some really fine guitar work. But it is the saxophonist Richie Buckley who really shines. Buckley provides several really well thought-out solos as well as a great deal of decorative accompaniment. He is often jokey and wilful, but always helping to further the drama of the song he’s playing on, and always impressive.

Finally I really must say a few words about Davey Spillane, who is listed as an “additional musician” and who provides a fleet-fingered uilleann pipes solo at the end of Ride On. It’s a great moment, switching between jazzy note-bending and more “orthodox” celtic jigging. It’s just a shame that the producers fade it out so quickly. It would have been great to see what he and the other musicians could have got up to in an extended jam. But it wasn’t to be. But, this quibble aside, Under the Influence is a truly exceptional piece of work, and one to return to.

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Posted in Popular music
8 comments on “Sing whatever is well made
  1. JDB says:

    Well, first I had to admit that I didn’t know what a curlew is; now I have to admit that a) I wasn’t familiar with Collins’ ‘In My Life’ and b) that I’d never even heard of Mary Coughlan. My musical education continues, and that’s a good thing! I’ve started sampling the Collins tracks on iTunes, and will say that I love her rendition of “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”…in particular the words “Lonely, lonely….”, and how the strings are the predominant accompaniment the first time she sings them, while the piano is the second time around.

    Regarding your comment about singer-songwriters vs. non-writers. Your examples of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are great ones: no one thinks any less of them as performing artists (indeed, many consider Sinatra THE preeminent interpreter of others’ works), but I do think the really great singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, insert your favorite here…) are worthy of extra admiration simply because the creative/writing/composing process can be so difficult. To sing and interpret is great, to WRITE and sing and interpret is…wow! (Just one person’s opinion).

  2. G.H.Bone says:

    Thank you for your comments. I’m so glad that you’re giving “In My Life” a whirl. If you get one tenth of the pleasure I’ve received from it over the years you’ll be thanking me (!) Yes, the piano writing on “Rain Today” is very telling. I like the poignant dense chords when she’s singing “tin can at my feet … that’s the way to treat a friend”. As a pianist, you might well be able to work out what’s going on there harmonically, but to me they sound almost like note-clusters rather than orthodox chords. Incidentally, since Judy originally trained as a concert pianist, it’s quite possibly her fingers weaving the magic.

    Oh, and don’t get me wrong about singer-songwriters (the ones you mentioned plus Neil Young, Randy Newman, Janis Ian, Paul Simon etc etc etc). Musical composition is a kind of alchemy and those that do manage to distil gold are truly to be cherished. And there’s something oh so special about hearing the composer present his or her own work. It’s just that so many people seem to have adopted the notion that there’s something definitive in the performances of songwriters, and this can lead to a kind of prejudice against cover versions. Going back to “Rain Today” as an example: much as I revere Randy Newman and greatly enjoy his renditions, I have to say that Judy (and Joshua Rifkin) found something new and special in that song. For my part, I prefer Collins to Newman in this particular number. But which performer is “better” is – let’s be honest – irrelevant. The important thing is that we now have more than one version of the song and this opens up the opportunity to compare … when that happens, it’s riches indeed.

    • JDB says:

      GHB,
      I thought of you and this post of yours last week while out doing errands in my car. I was listening to a popular Public Radio show here in the States called “Fresh Air”. The host was interviewing Barbra Streisand, whose new album, “Release Me”, is comprised of previously unreleased material she has recorded through the years. One of the songs they played–not in its entirety–was “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, with Randy Newman himself at the piano. I have to honestly say that, with the first version of the song I’d ever heard having been Judy Collins’, Streisand’s offering did almost nothing for me…..one more example, among millions of others, of how different voices/arrangements/orchestrations, etc. can make two versions of a song so very different!

      I hope you haven’t abandoned the blogosphere; I look forward to your next posts.

      JDB

  3. G.H.Bone says:

    Hi JDB

    Thanks for your kind message, and the info about the Barbra and Randy track. It seems such an unlikely combination that I am now longing to hear it, though I’m not sure I want to rush out and buy the new Streisand album. I do have a bit of a soft spot for Streisand, though. I’ve liked some of her records, but for me, she’s at her most cherishable in that lovely film “What’s Up Doc?” which was a favourite of mine as a child / teenager. I haven’t seen it for many years, though. It doesn’t seem to have much of a reputation these days, alas.

    I certainly haven’t abandoned the blogosphere. I just haven’t had much time even to read posts on blogs that I follow, let alone complete any posts of my own. I have been tinkering with several things though and hope to rectify this very soon.

    Best wishes. GHB

    • JDB says:

      GHB,

      This link should take you to the Fresh Air Streisand interview, so you can at least hear a snippet of her singing ‘Rain’: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/26/178841563/guilt-trip-streisand-on-songs-film-and-family

      Also, I have to tell you I’ve always loved “What’s Up Doc?” There’s a scene where Streisand’s character is on the phone….I think she’s pretending to be someone else. First she says her name is Sylvia, but later she says it’s Louise…the person she’s talking to says something like “I thought you said your name was Sylvia”, and she responds “It’s Sylvia-Louise. You know, with a hyphen!” For whatever reason, that always made me howl with laughter.

      Cheers, and Happy May Day.
      JDB

      • G.H.Bone says:

        Thank you.! I listened to the whole of the interview which was very interesting. I did enjoy the closing moments – Judy Garland singing “Get Happy” and Barbra singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” in counterpoint to it.

        Your comment has also made me realise that I need to track down a dvd of “What’s Up Doc?” and see it again – pure indulgence, and just what the doctor ordered.

  4. I sympathise with the thrust of your argument, and I find it it ironically instructive that you should take the the example of Judy Collins. It was, I think, Dylan (or at least the critical response to him) who triggered the view that the songwriter’s own interpretation is somehow privileged. At the time, it was all to do with ‘authenticity’ – strange then that Dylan followed the American tradition of inauthenticty in the entertainment industry by swapping his Jewish surname for a Celtic one, and ironic that he compounded the inauthenticity through error by performing his early material in a ‘voice’ that was an imitation of Woody Guthrie’s ‘false voice’ as imposed by Huntington’s disease.

    However, in thinking about Judy Collins in this connection, I am left in two minds. By far and away my favourite Collins performance is the live recording ‘Open the Door’, one of the few songs in her oeuvre that she wrote herself. It is as though she moves through the songs of Dylan, Cohen et al as an accomplished actress, but then with this song, allows the dramatic mask to slip and shows us, briefly, the person behind the actress behind the performances….

    On the Dylan/Guthrie/authenticity theme, I was delighted, many years ago now, to find Dylan’s recitation of his poem ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’:

    Plagued by my own mixed up confusion as to Dylan’s authenticity and general role in the scheme of things, I exorcised these demons by writing a poem of my own in response:

    Last Thoughts On Bob Dylan

    It’s no longer a question of whether he should have got the Nobel Prize For
    Literature,
    It’s become a question of who should get the Dylan Prize For Dynamite.

    Who is there now out of whom the words come pouring like a flood of righteous
    vengeance?
    Who is there now to create a heritage of instant Americana in our midst?
    Who is there now to conceal himself in a cloud of homespun surrealism?
    Who is there now to crash a motorcycle into all our hopes?
    Who is there now to dance on our bed of nails?
    Who is there now to howl in the night like a lonesome locomotive?
    Who is there now to tell us who is real and who is not?
    Who is there now to deal us the dead man’s hand from the bottom of the deck?
    Who is there now to re-release our youth so that we can buy it all back in a box of re-
    mastered memories?
    Who is there now to rage at the thought that he might owe us anything at all?
    Who is there now to come amongst us like a thief in the night to steal our unformed
    dreams and clothe them in the majesty of song?
    Who is there now to take the gig when the world needs another Woody Guthrie?
    Who is there now to set us all marching and then go missing?
    Who is there now for us to trust with the keys to the highway?
    Who is there now to scream psalms from the scrap-heap?
    Who is there now to rearrange the ancient rhetoric of revolution?
    Who is there now to turn the old mountain ballads into hellfire and brimstone?
    Who is there now to lead the chorus of utopian dissent?
    Who is there now to be a skinny kid who sounds a thousand years old?
    Who is there now to calculate how many times a man must reinvent himself
    before he can become authentic?
    Who is there now to hold the empty shell of genius up to our ears?
    Who is there now to explore the unmapped badlands of the Appalachian soul?
    Who is there now to remind us of the lost and broken poets of the soup kitchen?
    Who is there now to write hymns for us in a cowboy hat?
    Who is there now to question the inevitable?
    Who is there now to point the finger and sing out for freedom?
    Who is there now to conjure the true spirit of a nation out of its rejects and left-overs?
    Who is there now to paint injustice with a crooked brush?
    Who is there now to clip the coupons of infamy?
    Who is there now to create product out of anti-product?
    Who is there now to enter the dead end of tradition and escape as a legend?
    Who is there now to spend a lifetime failing to achieve what he had already
    accomplished?
    Who is there now to enter fame’s cocoon and carry on singing like he’s learned
    nothing at all?
    Who is there now to enter fame’s bank vault and carry on singing like he’s earned
    nothing at all?
    Who is there now to enter fame’s furnace and carry on singing like he’s burned
    nobody at all?
    Who is there now to enter fame’s basement and carry on singing with his face turned
    to the wall?
    Who is there now to hire and fire the blues, country and folk like they were so many
    worn-out sidemen?
    Who is there now to forgive us this day if we all go and change our names to
    ‘Zimmerman’?
    Who is there now to stalk Greenwich Village like a ragged prophet denying all
    knowledge of his own prophecies?
    Who is there now to ride the D-train like a ragged messiah denying all knowledge of
    his own destiny?
    Who is there now to leave us convinced that American evil is at least heroic evil,
    bigger and better than any other evil?
    Who is there left to haunt the Grand Canyon at sundown?
    Who is there now to explain America to itself?
    Who is there now that the circus has left town?

    • G.H.Bone says:

      I assume the Judy Collins track you refer to is the one on the 1971 live album “Living” (which also, of course, includes her performance of a W.B. Yeats setting). I know it well. It’s a lovely heartwarming track. I hardly listen to that record these days since I have it on vinyl only and it always seems such a chore…

      As for the thrust of my argument, it seems to me that:

      As the sixties progressed into the seventies there was a generalised view that grown-up / intellectual people listened to singers (or groups) who performed their own music (and, as you point out, Dylan was perhaps the first such “privileged” artist). Meanwhile pop groups sang catchy tunes chosen for them with a cunning eye (or, I suppose, ear) to the market. The one is authentic, the other manufactured. This holds true but only in a very generalised sense. My point was that, anyone sticking too rigidly to that generalised view would be in danger of missing (or at least undervaluing) some truly great music, such as the two albums I mentioned, and many others (do you know, for example, k d lang’s Hymns From the 49th Parallel?)

      Thank you for the Dylan clip. I can’t resist telling you that one of the first thoughts I had on listening to it was “I wish someone else were reading this”. Dylan rattles through it like an embarrassed teenager asked to read out a composition in class. I found it very difficult to concentrate. I will listen to it again, however, as I did have the sense that it was a remarkable piece and probably deserves the effort of concentration.

      I must also add, though, that your poem (allowing for the fact that I didn’t give Dylan’s poem the fairest hearing) struck me as being rather better than the piece that prompted it. It was excellent. Thank you.

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