So Cool and So Right
Some things seem so cool and so right. Take the recent reissue of Jackie DeShannon’s early ‘70s Jackie set as part of the Rhino Handmade Series. Here we have the great songwriter, the beautiful iconic figure, with a set of her own songs and some interpretations of others’, all specially recorded in Memphis. And it’s beautiful, but what makes it even better is that there is a song called 'Anna Karina', which is just so perfect and such a lovely surprise. I have loved Jackie DeShannon for so long, and I have loved Anna Karina for as long. So to know Jackie adored Godard’s muse, and soaked up the works of the French New Wave, is an absolute joy.

I really thought the whole Rhino Hand Made thing was not for me. I thought the prices were way too high, even if the editions were numbered limited editions. And with records like Jackie only available in quantities of 2500 I thought I had little chance of getting copies anyway. But shopping around there are still some bargains to be had, and I am not too sure I like what that says about the number of people out there snapping up such important salvaged sets.

While I seem to have missed out on the Rank And File collection in this series, I have got hold of some absolute gems at reasonable prices. The Judee Sill sets are particularly exquisite, and highly recommended if you love the slightly odd and haunted singer/songwriter soul baring thing. Judee’s is a name one sees dropped by the likes of Sonic Youth or someone as though we all ought to love her madly, and we nod knowingly but rarely hear her. But yes her records are great, her life tragic, and the Rhino reissues come with lovely sleevenotes by Michelle Kort, who wrote that Laura Nyro book recently.

Michelle has been really getting me deeper and deeper into the “confessional” singer thing, through Janis Ian, Phoebe Snow’s first record, Judee Sill, and now the very wonderful Essra Mohawk. Her first two LPs in the early ‘70s were things of incredible beauty, and yes they are available on one Rhino Handmade set. So, trust me, if you like your Laura Nyro, Bobbie Gentry, Dory Previn, Ruth Copeland and that side of things, Essra really is for you!

Speaking of things so cool and so right, can I also point you in the direction of the Milton Nascimento collection salvaged by Far Out? This collects the original soundtracks to two ballets the great Brazilian magician worked on in the late ‘70s, and whether you are familiar with other great works of beauty by Milton like Courage and Cluba De Esquina or not this is essential stuff.

The second of these soundtracks (from 1980) is Ultimo Trem, or literally ‘the last train'. It’s an incredibly moving, ambitious, adventuresome, and colourful protest about the closure of a local railway line, and the effect this has on a community.

Part of the lyrics can be translated as: “Weep oh my people, weep oh my engine driver. Those who take away the railway take away some of your life. At the end of the railway is a leap into the void.” Now, over here, we’d probably get three scruffy old blokes in tweed jackets and old brogues turning up at a meeting in a dingy hotel to harangue some poor bloke from the Strategic Rail Authority. How many great songs have there been about the railways in the UK? It’s a serious question, and one I shall return to.

I have seen it mentioned in several places recently that one of the great US rail songs is 'City of New Orleans' by Steve Goodman. And I have got hold of a copy at last on a Buddah CD salvaging his debut 1971-ish set. Goodman’s a name I confess I first came across recently in Jonathan Lethem’s phenomenal Fortress Of Solitude. At one point it mentions a collection of sleevenotes, and how any such collection should include those on Goodman’s debut. There is a real Kris Kristofferson link anyway, but Goodman is in a similar vein to John Prine I guess. Very clever songwriters, sort of country, occasionally funny, sometimes astonishingly moving (check out my favourite 'Yellow Coat'), but not exactly handsome. Ironically on Jackie there is a cover of Goodman’s 'Would You Like To Learn To Dance?'

I have to say I prefer my country-ish singers to be a lot more dark and doomy than Goodman, which I guess is why I am loving Terry Allen’s recently salvaged 1976-ish set Juarez so much. It’s been described as a Sam Peckinpah film with words and music by Tom Waits, which gives you some idea what it’s all about. I prefer to point you in the direction of Barry Gifford’s awesome Sailor & Lula books, with the soundtrack you sort of hoped the hopeless David Lynch would use. Desolate, literate, inveterate, desperate songs and people living in them with nowhere to go but down and missing or dead.

I know next to nothing about Terry Allen. He sounds like he should be playing right wing back for Rotherham, and looks like he would be eating a very unhealthy fry-up at the local greasy spoon if it hadn’t have been converted into an anything-for-a-pound store full of things you don’t want, don’t need, don’t approve of, and don’t believe people are wasting their money on just because it’s cheap.

But on this record he sounds as great as Mickey Newbury and David Ackles, who are anyway even better in the dark than Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. And speaking of singers of sad songs reminds me of one other Rhino Hand Made set I stumbled across, which was Jack Nitzsche’s Three Piece Suite. This contains buried treasure in the form of a lost early ‘70s LP and related demos, which contain some gorgeous, achingly sweet numbers, like 'Sleeping Daughter' and 'Marie'. The cornerstone of the set is the classical score named after the London church it was recorded in, 'St Giles Cripplegate', and this is totally invigorating and uplifting, and painfully reminds me I am woefully ignorant about classical music.

But I do know there are links between Jack Nitzsche and Jackie DeShannon, and we can surely argue their contribution to the development and revealing of the possibilities for popular music merits mentions on a par with al those old classical cats? I mean did Mozart write a song as cool and right as Anna Karina or name a record after a London church?

© 2004 John Carney