Hits and Ms.es
Recent Listening August 2004
Annette Peacock’s first records were fantastic forays into early synthesizer music. She and partner Paul Bley blagged an early Moog from the doctor himself and taught themselves how to patch their machine and also put a vocal through it. When playing live it used to take them 20 minutes between songs to re-patch, but you wouldn’t know that from Dual Unity, Improvisie or Revenge, the three LPs released at the beginning of the 1970s.

Soon after, Peacock built on the song structures of Revenge [the other two records contain lengthier, more improvised pieces] and released I’m the One, which gained critical acclaim and few sales. But it did bring her to the attention of others, including David Bowie, who swung a major record deal that didn’t really pan out. But it gave Peacock time in the studio, and money for new equipment; and in the late 1970s she signed to Aura Records, who released the astonishing X-Dreams, which is now reissued, along with the follow-up LP The Perfect Release and a couple of outtakes, on CD as My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook…

Later on Peacock would dismiss these recordings as “that rock stuff” and move into jazz territory [her last release was on ECM], but this “rock stuff” is fantastic, fizzing, cynical, feminist songwriting of the highest order. The first three songs are snarled over gigantic fluid guitar and bass riffs - I don’t think it wouldn’t be too hyperbolic to see this as a forerunner to rap. The next four, originally the second side of X-Dreams, are softer ballads, but all have a lyrical and musical bite within their deceptive fragility.

The Perfect Release is less surprising and more straightforward, but Peacock’s songs and her ability to move from enticing temptress to bullying dominatrix via anarchic feminist still mark them out as something special. If you want to see what can be achieved within rock songs, check this long-overdue release out.

Whilst Bley and Peacock were investigating synthesizer at the beginning of the 70s, other sorts of investigation into songs were going on. Laura Nyro drew on her New York Jewish background and jazz interests to subvert the singer-songwriter genre of the time, and Spread Your Wings and Fly, a new live recording from the Fillmore East, finds her alone and charismatic at the piano. Here she visits a wide range of her own songs as well as revisiting numbers such as ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Dancing in the Street’, along with Carole King’s ‘Natural Woman’. It’s enticing stuff, though less radical than her three classic studio albums.

Meanwhile over in England, Norma Winstone was firmly rooted in the jazz scene of the time; most of the expected names of the time - Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, etc - turn up accompanying her. At times the occasional wordless vocals or the relentlessly awkward vocal gymnastics grate, and the whole thing is slightly mannered, but when it works the music is engaging and intriguing, though definitely of its time.

Today, of course, country and folk music are what perhaps feed into singersongwriters working in the rock genre [if such a thing exists any more]. Kathryn Williams seems to have come out of folk but Relations finds her with a CD full of covers. It’s a good mix of stuff, from Neil Young to Tim Hardin, via Lou Reed, Big Star, Leonard Cohen and Stephen Malkmus but nothing really grabs you as a passionate reinvention. It’s all a bit mundane and squeaky clean for my taste.

Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, however, is a far more delicious, almost cranky, collection of quirky, original songs. Her squawky voice is pretty unique, and Griffin calls musical favours in from her Nashville pals Julie and Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris here to contribute towards a gloriously original take on country music. On ‘Top of the World’ she says ‘There’s a whole lot of singing that’s never gonna be heard / Disappearing everyday without so much as a word…’ - don’t let these releases go unheard.

© 2004 Rupert Loydell