Sunday, 29 March 2015

"Dirt behind the daydream"

Us lucky folk here in the UK get to express our five-yearly democratic right in a few weeks, to determine which shade of blue governs our Sceptered Isle for the next half-decade. Ho-hum...

What has that to do with music you may ask? Well, thinking about our soon-come election got me musing on the relationship between the creative arts and politics. With his or her naturally inquisitive nature the creative person exercises a freedom of thought and expression that goes hand in hand with the act of being creative. This can only give rise to a liberal outlook - that is "liberal" as in open to all influences and enquiring, with a healthy thirst for knowledge, not as in the reprehensible pact with Mammon that is "neo-liberalism". Sticking to musicians, as that is what I allegedly know a bit about, that is why the vast majority are, even if not directly political, naturally on the left side of the political spectrum. Open-mindedness and conservatism are not natural bedfellows.

Indeed, how could they be anything but left leaning? Popular music from its earliest beginnings has been built on protest, railing against injustice, alongside the simple need to get those dancing feet moving. In totalitarian regimes, music has always been a way of communicating protest and bringing people together.  Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution springs to mind as the epitome of the artistic community banding together and bringing down a dictatorship. The fact that Václav Havel was a big fan of the Velvet Underground, and that according to some reports he and the leading dissidents listened to a lot of the band's music in the build up to the coup is the cherry on top of the cake. Although politics were never on the agenda where VU were concerned, there is an obvious rebellion in their work, especially when you consider that their iconoclastic music was the antithesis of the era it was made in.



The Velvet's stance was an inspiration to the punk movement over here, and their nihilism married to the Stooges primal rock'n'roll was adapted and applied to the peculiar circumstances of mid-1970s Britain by the Sex Pistols. Lydon's Anarchy In The UK remains as potent today as it was 38 (gulp!) years ago.

A more specifically targeted approach is favoured by the obstinate and wilful Neil Young, for whom politics are never far away from his muse. From Ohio to the wonderfully direct Let's Impeach The President, Young has never shied away from telling it like it is. He is not the card-carrying left wing Democrat you may imagine, for he describes himself as libertarian, as his initial support for Bush post-9/11 shows. He obviously soon saw through that evil little man, as Let's Impeach The President illustrates.



The predictable reaction of the rednecks in his audience on that video above is as funny as it is sad.

Over on this side of The Pond, we have our own Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg, who went so far as to organise a tour of the country under the banner Red Wedge with the likes of Madness, The Style Council, The Specials, and a host of others in support of Neil Kinnock's ill-fated general election campaign of 1987.

Another musician well known for his left wing views, even to the point of once being a member of the Communist Party, is Robert Wyatt, for whom Elvis Costello wrote what is probably the most well-known and best UK anti-war song in popular music. If Shipbuilding doesn't still manage to tug those heartstrings 30 years and more after its release, you're the ghost of Thatcher.



However, most musicians, while naturally inclined to the left are not that overtly political, and their views are less focused, and in a lot of cases hopelessly naive. Come on down Bob Geldof, Bono, Sting, etc etc. At least their hearts are in the right place, and they try to make a difference.

There are rare examples of musicians whose views are conservative, although one suspects the number, while still a minority is actually more than we are aware of. What musician in their right (as opposed to right wing) mind is going to come out in support of Cameron's mob in our forthcoming election? Not that the opposition are any better, as mainstream politics is now something to avoid as far as most pop musicians are concerned, reflecting the distrust felt by the general population.

Back in time, musicians supporting the right wing over here tended to be those at the top end of the success scale, probably more as a personal protest than for ideological reasons. 98% top rate tax for the highest band of income was as good a reason as any I suppose.

Over in the USA/Canada, we have gun totin' Ted Nugent, who seems to be a thoroughly repugnant sort, and Rush. Yep, I had to mention them. Their epic album 2112 comes with the dedication "With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand", a woman whose Neitzschian philosophy denies the existence of the individual and declares "Capitalism and altruism are incompatible". Adolf would have loved it, and it wouldn't be any surprise if he had the two books she published in his lifetime on his library shelf. To be fair to Peart, he was probably more of the naive rather than nasty variety of libertarian, particularly given Geddy Lee's parents' captivity in Auschwitz. One wonders if the band's disassociation with Rand came as a result of Lee realising what Rand actually stood for.

Generally though, the very act of being conservative (small or big "c") and an artist in any field are intellectually and morally irreconcilable, and long may it be so. Unfortunately, as a direct result of the main political parties' of the larger western democracies all gravitating to the centre-right over the last 20 years, thereby reducing the distinction between the so-called left and the libertarian right, together with the rise in bland and formulaic talent show pop music, protest in popular music is at an all-time low. Yes, there are reams of lyrics that grumble with varying degrees of discontent, but it takes an old-stager like Neil Young to show the new generation how it should be done. 

Like everything else in modern life, popular music has become safe and homogenised. This is not helped by the new economic model of the music industry, where the number of bands and artists that can actually make a living from their art is restricted to the James Blunts of this world, with their privileged backgrounds and familial safety nets should it all go Pete Tong. Sadly, there will soon come a time in the UK, and elsewhere, when the number of conservative-inclined pop musicians will outnumber those with a social conscience.


There's only one song I could possibly end this with...

Monday, 2 March 2015

jh - Morning Sun - The Best Of jh

Jon Hunt aka "jh" is a London based singer-songwriter, and as such a slight departure from what usually gets written about on these pages. What gets him here is the eclectic nature of his work, and this compilation draws together tracks from his three albums to date.

With influences as diverse as Britpop, prog, post-rock and indie and much more, this compilation is the sound of a muse in a blender. As such it is stylistically diverse, but it works as a whole rather well, for it is held together by a keen ear for a tune and wryly observational and archetypal English lyrics often distilled through a metaphorical raindrop flecked window, keeping alive a modern pop tradition that goes back to the likes of Ray Davies. 

The wistfully reflective but still somehow summery groove of opener Next Time is followed by the Supergrass pop of I Wanna Spend My Summer With A Rich Girl and then by the longingly melancholic sigh of a song that is London Road.

 

Long gone are the days when I vainly attempted to "play" a guitar, although I still have three of them for strictly ornamental purposes only you understand, but the somewhat jarring ending of London Road where within a few bars a promising chord sequence collapses in on itself with angry frustration definitely made me smile nostalgically! Not quite sure what the point of that strange ending was, and the song would have sounded better on this compilation with it edited out. However, it hopefully made far more sense in context, as this song is the first part of a near 40-minute (!) song cycle from Jon's second album Wanderlust. This boy does not lack ambition, for sure!

Speaking of song cycles, included here in its 18-minute entirety is Making Tea Is Freedom from Jon's 2008 debut Truth & Bullshit. A curious mix of Pete Townshend, Paul Weller and Roy Harper, the piece is in six distinct but joined parts. First part Alfie is enunciated by Jon's disillusioned Londoner voice spitting venom. The protagonist then goes through the redemption of companionship aided by a good old British cup of tea, with "Now there's sunshine in my stomach" making me smile, to the realisation that he can rise above the bullshit, and the song ends in a healthy spirit of defiance. Personally I prefer his more concise and self-contained songs, but this is a departure from the average "epic", especially instrumentally, being built on simple acoustic guitar patterns, enlivened in the instrumental section Afternoon Grey by some angsty Weller-like guitar, leaving only its length to suggest any prog traits, which has to be a good thing, as this album is not "prog" in the slightest, oh no.

From the modernistic beats of Lucy's Party to The Sky Is Breaking which is initially structurally vaguely and somewhat weirdly reminiscent of Safety Dance by Men Without Hats, Jon is a stylistic magpie where the music is concerned, but overriding all that is the storytelling of the lyrics. Sometimes slightly surreal (Lucy's Party again) but mostly rueful, the lyrics are the focal point of the album. If I were to make a comparison away from these shores, Jon could be a soulmate of Sufjan Stevens, as they both share an eye for detail and a liking for idiosyncratic twists and turns.

The way the album is compiled neatly contrasts Jon's influences; the angular and almost arhythmical instrumental Fort Dunlop, the most interesting piece of music on the record by a mile, co-written with drummer Claude Trejonis and replete with disembodied voices knowingly sits next to the straight ahead slab of classic indie rock that is In Ascension, a kind of cross between the Manics and Sugar, and a juxtaposition that might sound jarring actually works perfectly.

The seemingly autobiographical I'll See You Tomorrow In A Different Light sums up Jon's knack for telling a story, the captivating tale only slightly spoiled by a rough sound, but that could just be down to my review download, hopefully.

Closing the album with The End - natch - a bittersweet tale of a failed relationship, this compilation is a great introduction to a talented songwriter, whom I'll admit I had not come across before. Let's hope it gets him the exposure his undoubted talent deserves.

The album is out 16th March from those fine folk at Bad Elephant Music. Pre-order HERE.

Tracklist:
1. Next Time (3:40)   
2. I Wanna Spend My Summer With A Rich Girl (3:56)
3. London Road (4:36)
4. Lucy's Party (3:21)
5. Wartime Spirit (3:51)
6. Fort Dunlop (6:45)
7. In Ascension (3:03)
8. Angels (6:49)
9. I'll See You Tomorrow In A Different Light (6:32)
10. Making Tea Is Freedom (18:17)
11. The Sky Is Breaking (3:55)
12. Collapse (3:11)
13. Something's Happening Here (3:28)
14. The End (5:57)

Total running time - 77:21

Line up:
Jon Hunt - Plays everything, except drums on tracks 1, 2, 6, 7, 13, which were played by Claude Trejonis

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