“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

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Titanic Rising, bewitching new album from Weyes Blood.

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising.


From the moment those piano chords serenely chime as the opening track on Titanic Rising gently departs, you’re instantaneously transported to those arrangements Richard Carpenter used to craft for his sister Karen. And the album that follows comfortably delivers on that promise, and then some.

This is the sort of sophisticated, grown-up and unashamedly romantic pop music that the Brill Building churned out with such apparent effortlessness. The melodies of Burt Bacharach and the lyrics of Hal David were the perfect fit for Richard’s lush orchestration and Karen’s transcendent vocals. 

Carole King’s Tapestry.

Carole King became the Brill Building’s most successful graduate when she moved out to pursue a solo career. Her 1971 album, Tapestry, sold over 25 million copies, as she merged those perfectly crafted, classic pop songs with the introspection and doubts of the newly emergent singer songwriter.

And Natalie Mering, whose forth album this is in the guise of Weyse Blood, is very much continuing here where King left off. If anything, Mering cuts even more of an impressive figure. Carole King, after all, was aided in her endeavours by some wonderful lyricists. Mering is doing all of this on her own. 

Caren and Richard Carpenter

The result is a collection of personal, questioning songs that recall Hunky Dory era Bowie, but which are given the sort of orchestral, soaring majesty that only a Brian Wilson or a Phil Spector would have attempted to produce.

The album gets a suitably impressed 8.5 from the boys from Pitchfork, here. And you can see the official video to Everyday, here, and you can hear that beguiling opening track A lot’s gonna change, here.

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Dionysus, the new album from Dead Can Dance


Dionysus, Dean Can Danse.

Dead Can Dance established themselves in the 80s as one of the archetypal indie bands, and were part of a triumvirate that included the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. Each offered up a heady mix of ethereal female vocals over an intoxicating cauldron of industrial goth, post punk and world music. And it was the corner stone upon which the era-defining 4AD records was founded.

Though always based in London, 4AD came increasingly to be associated with underground American acts such as the Pixies, Throwing Muses and the Red House Painters, who they signed in the 90s, and, more recently Bon Iver, St Vincent, Iron and Wine (see my earlier review here) and the National, who all form part of the current rostra.

It’ll End in Tears, This Mortal Coil.

But it was that core trio, and more specifically their three totemic sirens that gave 4AD its distinctive hue. Liz Fraser with the Cocteau Twins, Alison Limerick with This Mortal Coil and Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance.

Gerrard and Brendan Perry are the musical duo around which dead Can Dance revolve, and the pair have been joined by an assortment of musicians over the course of their nine albums. The best known of which is probably the Serpent’s Egg, with the soaring and gloriously cinematic the Host of Seraphim, which you can hear here

The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron and Wine.

Dionysus is their latest offering, and their first since their comeback album, Anastasis, in 2012. Ostensibly in two acts, the 7 tracks come in at a curt 36 minutes but there’s a heft and a genuine sense of substance that belie its brevity. 

As ever with a Dead Can Dance project, there’s an intellectual seriousness to the album that sets it apart in a world obsessed with merely getting noticed. There’s something pleasingly refreshing about a band who are unapologetic about taking what they do seriously. 

Bluebell Knoll, the Cocteau Twins.

The result is a rich and complex soundscape formed from propulsive north African rhythms and densely layered Arabic vocal lines, brought to life thanks to an assortment of exotic, esoteric near eastern and central European instruments such as the zorna, the gadulka and the gaida (see Ben Cardew’s review on Pitchfork here).

You can see the video for the Mountain here

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Marissa Nadler’s new album, For My Crimes.

Marissa Nadler’s For My Crimes.

For My Crimes is Marissa Nadler’s eighth album, and it has the distinct air of being the culmination of everything she’s being circling around for the last decade or so. As such, it feels as much like a greatest hits album as it does a new record. Which makes it the perfect entry point for anyone yet to sample her very distinctive and ample charms.

Marissa Nadler.

Dream folk is the somewhat reductive label sometimes applied to her sound. What you get here on this album is that combination of lush, Gothic-pop, anchored by plaintive, indie country, buoyed by the sound of melodic metal, each of which she’d previously toyed with, individually, on previous albums. But all of which she melds so that they cohere here, on one rounded album.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Sharon Van Etten meets Lana Del Rey via Roy Orbison. Van Etten actually provides guest backing vocals on one of the tracks here, as does Angel Olsen. The title track, which very much sets the tone for the rest of the album, began as a test that her husband set her, to write a lyric in the voice of someone on death row, as Olivia Horn writes in her review on Pitchfork here, where she gives it a respectful 7.2.

Sharon Van Etten in Twin Peaks season 3.

Though clearly autobiographic in the feelings they describe, Nadler’s are songs filtered through the prism of the craft of story telling, in much the same way that those of Nick Cave and Bob Dylan are. As such, they are expressionistic rather than confessional. The result is duskily atmospheric and gloriously cinematic.

You can see the video for Blue Vapor here.

 

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The Handmaid’s Tale: the future of television.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the first decade of the new millennium the music industry was destroyed, felled in a single strike by Napster. Suddenly, indeed overnight, every song that had ever been recorded was freely available over the internet.

Traditional media was a thing of the past, and any day now, television, newspapers, magazines and all of those other relics of the twentieth century would likewise be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Napster himself, Sean Parker.

But as we move into the third decade of the new century, newspapers and magazines are still around, TV is thriving and even the music industry is actually doing rather nicely, albeit in a diminished form.

There are two perspectives on the digital revolution. One says that the future is digital, and everything else is doomed to go the way of vinyl. The other slightly more nuanced view goes as follows; we all have a certain amount of money that we enjoy spending on stuff. All the digital revolution does is to change the way that we distribute whatever that sum is, by adding a new outlet to channel those funds into.

So if you had a certain amount of money that you looked forward to spending on cds in any given year, the fact that any album you might be interested in is now freely available on the internet will very probably mean that you now spend little or none of that cash on actual cds.

The handmaids.

You’ll still spend that money on the music industry though. It’ll just be on going to gigs, on downloads or on merchandise, say on a rare, deluxe cd boxset, or on a vinyl edition of an original recording.

Indeed, what all the research shows is that you’ll very probably spend more than you used to now, whether that be on music, film, television or publishing. As the internet creates further synergies for all of the other mediums, in much the same way that television, and then video and cable did for cinema, in the 50s, 70s and 80s. Having access, in other words, to all that free music just makes you want to spend even more of your money on music than you used to, before everything was available for free.

Amazon’s Seattle bookstore.

The same thing has happened in publishing. When ebooks began to take off about ten years ago, the death of the printed book was confidently predicted and was, more over, a matter of days and weeks.

But ten years on, ebooks have plateaued and been superseded by audio books. Neither of which, we now realise, are going to replace the printed word. Rather, ebooks and audio books are an added source of revenue for a rejuvenated publishing industry. And it’s not just the industry that’s bouncing back. Independent book stores are experiencing a mini renaissance as well. Indeed, the big bad wolf itself, Amazon, has started opening up its own bricks and mortar, actual physical books stores.

Most obviously of all, television is alive and well and booming. Which isn’t to say that the digital effect has been negligible. Far from it, digital has completely disrupted every conceivable corner of the media landscape. So that the way that we now watch, read and listen to films, television, music, the radio, books, newspapers and magazines has been completely transformed. It’s just that none of them are about to disappear any time soon.

Apple’s view of the future.

If you want to see what the future of television is, all you have to do is look at screen size. Mobiles want to be smart phones, smart phones want to be laptops, laptops want to be desktops, desktops want to be TVs and TVs want to be cinemascope. Everything is getting bigger, not smaller. And all content is following suit, and is trying perpetually to move in the same direction. How many TV stars do you know that dream of one day being on the internet?

Try watching the Handmaid’s Tale and see how you feel. Of course you could watch it on your laptop, or even on your mobile. But as you do so, you’ll have this increasing itch to see it on a proper screen and with a grown-up sound system. So you can really luxuriate in the tactile sound of an old fashioned fountain pen, as it scrawls and scrapes its italic script clumsily across the fibres of an actual piece of old fashioned paper. And you can pick

out with pleasing clarity the dusky book covers as the Commander runs his finger lovingly over their corners, as he appears from the depths of the shadows to gaze greedily on his mahogany bookcase.

Elizabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes square off.

And the people who make the best television, and the television being made at the moment is some of the best that’s ever been made, the Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point, feel exactly the same way about making their programmes as we do about watching them.

Nobody’s going to choose to watch something on a laptop if given the choice of seeing it on a 32 inch television. And no-one’s going to be satisfied with watching it on that 32 inch screen if offered the chance to see it on a 55 inch one. Television’s not dead. On the contrary, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

You can see the trailer of the Handmaid’s Tale here.

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