The seasons come, the seasons go
Summer’s here! Hurrah! All this sunshine, people in parks with dogs and footballs, tables basking outside pubs and cafes crowded with men in shorts and shades and women in light clothes with dots on. No doubt about it. If further proof were needed, there’s been a sudden proliferation (at least in the places I go) of acoustic guitars. Which sound better the sunnier it gets, so it must be plenty sunny, summer’s here hurrah.

There are acoustic guitars and acoustic guitars, of course. The ones which have sounded the best have been indoors, by and large. The one which has sounded the worst is the one played by my local busker, who sits in a small subway singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ most of the year round. It does make me wonder who it is he wishes was spending time with a shouty busker in a subway most of the year round, and whether the wish is inspired by regard or loathing. He sometimes mixes things up with a ‘That’s Entertainment’ or two, but you can make up your own joke about that.

The Mountain Goats played in a venue called the Subway only the other week, and they too had an acoustic guitar. They were ace, but apocalyptic ace, from deepest winter. The sing-a-long encore went something like ‘Look at Ma / She’s SAWING OFF HER OWN JAW!’ lots of times, and John Darnielle surprised me twice over by looking extraordinarily like a younger Robert Forster, and by his veryfastspeechindeed. A sample:

    This is the first song on the new record. The new record is the first record almost entirely devoid - well not the first record ever, but the first record by myself - almost entirely devoid of love songs. But they are love songs. But the object of love is neither fish nor flesh nor fowl of the air but a chemical compound. It’s a record about speed freaks and these people like to write odes to the peanut butter crack that they buy off the dealers that drive up from New Mexico and it’s called ‘Slow West Vultures’.

Quite the best introduction to a song I’ve heard since the other chap with the same face preceded ‘Spring Rain’ by announcing gravely that it had ‘One of the most difficult intros in the history of rock ’n’ roll’.

That was three, four weeks ago though. The last gasp of seasonal gloom around these parts. A gloom blown away not to return for ooh, months, by Jonathan Richman a week later. I’d never seen him before, which is really rude considering how often he plays. I suppose you just think ‘Oh, it’s Jonathan again. He’s legendary. Everybody loves Jonathan. I love Jonathan. I’ll go next time.’ Well now I’m going to go next time. Every time from now on, every time I need cheered up. Do you know what he does? You probably do. He brings along a drummer, and he limbo dances. Conceptually, this is up there with The Flaming Lips’ gong, or Brian Wilson’s dumb keyboard, and DAMN I wish I’d gone to see the ‘Smile’ show. Because isn’t it THE summer record of all time? Bicycle riding merrily in the sun through a day glo bone deep American history, then finding yourself engulfed in a forest fire and only being put out when the surf’s up.

Where was I? Jonathan, on a boat (a permanently moored venue boat, but a boat nonetheless - it sloped, you could get seasick if you wanted), limbo dancing with a drummer. Swinging his guitar around like it was a bundle on a stick over his shoulder containing his worldly all, singing ‘Pablo Picasso’, ‘Girlfriend’, an epic ‘I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar’. To an enthusiastic yell for ‘Ice Cream Man’, Jonathan tilts his head and asks ‘Have you people ever heard of such a thing as an alcoholic beverage?’ A what? No! Ice cream man, ring your bell! But no. He sings some songs in Spanish, troubadour that he is, dances some more, loverocks the joint. Leaves a room full of smiling faces.

Sometimes it seems to be no wonder that musicians strive for authenticity. For all that it’s easy (and generally wrong) to latch on to some tradition (blues, country, whatever. Old things. Lazily re-used things) and think it validates what you’re doing, and for all that what’s brilliant about pop is it’s reliance on inspiration over other peoples’ perspiration, that occasional sometimes when just those elements it’s so easy to distrust hit home (an accordion, a gritty singing voice) is a helpful reminder not to go discarding babies along with bathwater. That those things aren’t always bad. That a bloke with an acoustic guitar accompanied by some other blokes on double bass, piano and ever so gentle drums, singing simple songs about this relationship and that, can be an uplifting and warmhearted thing. And what else could you want from music? What else could you want?
Not that James Yorkston’s voice is all that gritty. More gentle, hazy on its lazy way. His songs sound stumbled across; James enchanted by the discovery. There is an accordion though, which has my preconceptions up in arms. Played by a guy with a shock of unruly blond curly hair, who probably studies Chemistry by day. Apart from the bass player, the band are sitting down. The accordion player and Mr Yorkston have a musical banter during one song, exchanging deliberate bum notes and horror movie chords. During the few more raucous numbers the unruly hair gets shaken this way and that, and James’ left leg stomps. Is there no taboo this band isn’t going to tackle head on before the night is over? I wonder this for the first ten minutes or so, before being completely drawn in to their gentle, relaxed ebb and flow. Listening to their ‘Moving Up Country’ album in the last few days, the set they played at Triptych was no fluke.

Movietone pulled a similar trick the day before. In the same packed theatre bar they touted something a bit closer to indie rock in that they stood up to play, and whispered to sing. With not an electric guitar in sight and a clarinet and melodica combo providing an enriching mournfulness, it was delightfully easy to get drawn in to their sound too. I’d listened to them for the first time the preceding week and, being in the midst of a fairly intensive bout of Heavenly, was unconvinced by their lack of massive tunes and lines like ‘He’s saving up for a new Ben Sherman / He says he’d like to fuck Uma Thurman’. If there’s some prize for missing the point of Movietone by the largest distance, I’ve an idea I might romp home. For the final song of their set they climbed down into the audience and wandered around with all their acoustic instruments (a mobile clarinet is an alluring thing, conjuring up the feeling of being in the middle of one of those linen seas you get in children’s theatre productions), and we had a hippy happening, pretty much. Very lovely.

Walking home yesterday late at night from a friend’s house where we’d watched some of an exceptionally bleak adaptation of ‘Bleak House’ from the ’80s, all fog and foreboding. Spitting rain in the cold. Summer and acoustic guitars seemed far away. That’ll be my annual over-reaction to a spot of sunshine over then, I thought, and deliberated whether to give James Yorkston and the Athletes another spin on the way home, or go for some band I’d never heard of on a CD from Chris, the Tenniscoats’ ‘The Ending Theme’. On it went, and… melt. Oh thank Christ. A warm cushion blanket glow to tide me home. Like tumbling into Madder Rose’s ‘Panic On’ or the chorus of Broadcast’s ‘Before We Begin’, but sustained. It was dark, so the guitars had to turn on the electricity, but there was space in this record, a lightness of touch and a darkness underneath, flutes ’n’ feedback, English words Japanese sung about climbing mountains and a flag of hope. A piano, an organ, some la la las. Summer’s gone, bringing with it autumn soft.

© 2004 Chris Fox