The Radio Is Gathering Dust
MORE GREAT MOMENTS OF VINYL HISTORY : Various Artists. (Wrasse Records. WRASS 122)
JOLIE HOLLAND : Escondida (Anti 6692)
PO’ GIRL (Diesel Motor. MOTORCD1014)
I went through a fairly lengthy phase of taping entire Andy Kershaw programmes from Radio 1 and 3 then making compilations of the best bits. I’m certain I’m not alone. People I’ve never heard since, like Wally Brill or Anson Thunderbird, share tape with the likes of Rachid Taha, Half Man Half Biscuit and Dick Dale. That’s what I liked about Kershaw, you might just catch something that you were glad you’d heard , even if you never heard any more. And equally, it might set you off on a quest for more of the stuff.

These nights, for various reasons, I don’t tend to set the pause button as often as I did, in fact I barely listen to radio, but this compilation is a close evocation of certain evenings that were magical and remain stored on tapes somewhere on my shelves. I have fond memories of Jona Lewie and his ‘I’ll Get By In Pittsburgh’, like trying to decipher the words for a start. Was he drunk or simply impersonating a dead blues singer ? Whatever, it’s a great track.

More recently Ian McMillan, who has a way with words too, joined forces with the Angel Brothers and delivered his tribute to a particular record store in Barnsley in the Seventies. I love the image of his dad going in and passing a note saying ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’ to the girl behind the counter. ‘Captain Beefheart & Mr Neal’ celebrates the vinyl even though it has never appeared on the black stuff itself.

Kershaw has always had a penchant for cheesy country’n’western and I might have gone for Carl and Pearl Butler’s ‘Heartaches For Lunch’ but a close second would have been their ‘Sundown In Nashville’, with those immortal lines “Each evening at sundown in Nashville they sweep broken dreams off the street”. I wish I’d seen them, the squat little man with the big guitar and wooden wife, but I guess I’ll just have to imagine that particular sight.

I don’t recall John Martyn being on too many programmes but maybe I missed him. His ‘Johnny Too Bad’ was a strong closer on his ‘Grace and Danger’ album and it’s great to hear that squalling, choppy guitar ricochet off those inimitable vocals. Another fine singer who I heard Kershaw feature not so longer ago is Dorothy Masuka. She’s represented here by an ancient single ‘Ghana’ that finds her in superb voice and is infectiously exuberant still. It features an unnamed guitarist peeling off equally exciting riffs. Who was he, I wonder ? We’ll probably never know. Typical of a vintage Kershaw night.

As with any Kershaw programme there are a couple of duds and in this case one is Jim Eldon, the Bridlington fiddler, no doubt a bit of a cult figure among the pleasure steamers but his version of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ is just plain grating. I’d want to throw him overboard despite the anti-Thatcher sentiments. I never much cared for the original either. Another turkey, probably beloved by devotees of the quaint, is The Rootsman’s ‘General Synopsis’ which is basically the BBC Shipping Forecast given an ambient dub styling. Why ? As I said, quaint. But those irksome little trifles aside this is a fitting reminder of the variety and sheer pleasure of Andy K’s choices on many a good night.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him extolling the beauties of Jolie Holland’s singing sometime between any of the above. Her ‘Catalpa’ was a rare and mysteriously compelling release that relied, for some of its charm at least, on the surroundings in which it was made. The clarity of ‘Escondida’ enhances rather than detracts from the seductive qualities of the former and ensures that the intimacy of her singing is still this cd’s prime focus. Her unforced phrasing and wonderful accent are captured intact and deliver the songs in a way that is, perhaps, unique.

If anything, ‘Escondida’ has an even more charming and inviting sound with some subtle additions and colours being bought to songs that might have been conceived on a mythological back porch somewhere. The range of her material takes in the blues, folk, country, jazz and other influences that were evident on the previous cd and widens out a little. It is also difficult to tell which songs are originals and which are time worn and traditional but to her credit almost all are her own.

Her resigned blues inflections on ‘Poor Girl’ couple effectively with minimal acoustic, slide guitar and drum accompaniment. Somewhat eerily her vocals echo the otherworldly voice of Canned Heat’s Al Wilson, a similarity also apparent on ‘Lil’ Missy’ where she bends notes in the same plaintive way just enough to make you shiver. This track benefits from an unfussy trumpet solo too, just one of the complementary instrumental colourings to be found here.

There is more subtle brass on ‘Old Fashion Morphine’ where she adopts a further bluesy stance tinged with a little of the spiritual. Her voice and the horns make a fitting partnership; a satisfying development from the work on ‘Catalpa’. This spiritual element also infuses ‘Amen’, a travelling love song with only muted piano, more of which accompanies her on ‘Damn Shame’ a low key lament graced with such poetic lines as ‘the smell of burned exhaust drifts into the bar, it’s midnight in California, it’s high noon where you are’.

The chords on ‘Goodbye California’ must have graced many a tune out of Nashville. I bet Carl and Pearl Butler used them. But the words manage, on one hand, to be removed from country cliché whilst referring to age - old notions of ‘moving on’. A weirdly compelling mixture, the song declaims and swaggers through its spirited farewells aided by more of that liquid slide guitar. She is equally at home on the traditional ‘Mad Tom Of Bedlam’ where she has nothing but brushed drums to support her own hectic vocals. It’s combinations like these that make Jolie Holland worth much more than a cursory listen.

In times when many manufactured and bland female singers are coming out of the woodwork and radio it is a real joy to hear this music. Holland is never going to be found in the middle of any particular road, she’s got her own track to follow in her own way and time. She is the real thing.

Trish Klein has been a fellow traveller of Jolie Holland’s, musically and otherwise, and now, taking time out from the Be Good Tanyas, she is moving in other directions. Her musical accomplice this time is Allison Russell, vocalist and occasional player of clarinet and whistle. Their sound owes more to soul than country or folk, though there are traces of the latter too.

The sound is basically the stripped down mix of guitars, banjo, harmonicas and fiddle, mostly acoustic, through which the songs drift and resonate with the warmth of southern summers, the south of New Orleans rather than Newquay. ‘Shameless’ basks in a lazy and countrified way with fiddle, laidback vocal harmonies and pennywhistle.

But overall it is perhaps a more urban sound than that of Jolie Holland, especially on tracks like ‘Bleak Street’ with its chopping electric guitar and busy percussion. ‘Bad Luck Day Baby’ too has a grittier feel, with bluesy, soulful vocals from Russell. She also provides the very mellow clarinet that contributes another jazzier dimension that comes as a bit of a surprise. A good one though. She does it again on Klein’s gentler ‘Wheels Are Taking Me Away’ and it runs a darker, sensual line through the song giving it a refreshing flavour.

Darker, in another way, is ‘What Sad Old Song ?’ with an abusive relationship exemplified by lines about being his ‘black and blue lady’. But out of this darkness comes the uplifting, spiritual second part of the song, a regeneration full of singing, dancing and escape. And if you let the final track, ‘Lullaby’ finish there is another ‘hidden’ song, a languorous version of ‘Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans ?’

All things considered there have been plenty of great moments recently, on cd rather than vinyl, which is maybe one reason why I don’t often find myself tuning into Radio 3 on Sunday evening.

© 2004 Paul Donnelly