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Posts from the ‘Country music’ Category

Bill Frisell at Cadogan Hall

BillSolo_Adjusted

“If somebody makes a so-called mistake,” Bill Frisell says near the end of the promotional film for his new album, “that can be the most beautiful thing that happens all night, if everybody’s open to what that sound is and embraces it and makes it sound good. If everyone’s watching out for each other and everyone feels like they can take a risk, it gives the music a chance to keep going and evolving.”

Last night at Cadogan Hall it was his turn to flub an ending, the mistake quickly finessed by his three colleagues — the singer Petra Haden, the cellist Hank Roberts and the bass guitarist Luke Bergman — with grace and smiles. And right there was the humanity of any music in which Frisell has a hand.

His mission to demonstrate and explore the consanguinity of all forms of American vernacular music — from Charles Ives to Thelonious Monk, from Hank Williams to Henry Mancini, from Muddy Waters to the Beach Boys — was accomplished many years ago, but with Harmony, the title of his first album on the Blue Note label, it seems to have reached another peak. The empathy, flexibility and modesty of this quartet make it an ideal vehicle for another exercise in creative juxtaposition.

The concert began quietly, with Haden’s beautifully plain voice enunciating the wandering, wordless, childlike line of Frisell’s “Everywhere”. The first high point came with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, on which Roberts and Bergman joined Haden in the sort of three-part Appalachian harmonies guaranteed to strike instantly at a special place in the emotions. There was a wholehearted ovation for that. “Lush Life”, fiendishly difficult to sing, was another highlight; also included in last year’s solo concert at the same venue and on Epistrophy, his recent live duo album with the bassist Thomas Morgan, Billy Strayhorn’s great ballad is clearly a preoccupation, and its intense chromaticism brought out the Jim Hall influence in Frisell’s work on his double-cutaway semi-acoustic instrument.

There was an interesting recasting of “On the Street Where You Live” (from My Fair Lady) and a lovely harmonised version of the traditional “Red River Valley”, interspersed with little instrumental pieces making sparing use of the guitarist’s loops and effects. The set ended with a segue from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, rendered in full and apparently without ironic intent. For an encore, demanded with fervent enthusiasm, they returned to stand at the microphones and deliver “We Shall Overcome”, inviting us to join in; well, at least now they know what English hymn-singing sounds like.

It was a mystery that, for the latest project from this great musician, a hall which was packed for his solo appearance a year ago should be so thinly populated last night. Perhaps the concert was badly advertised. The album is not yet out, which probably didn’t help. But anyone who wasn’t there missed a quietly remarkable night.

* Harmony is out on November 1. Epistrophy was released by ECM earlier this year. The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

Seeing ‘Western Stars’

Western Stars

“This is my 19th album,” Bruce Springsteen says towards the beginning of the film Western Stars, “and I’m still writing songs about cars.” But then he excuses himself by explaining how cars can become a metaphor for all kinds of things, including travelling without getting anywhere.

Western Stars is a performance film, but much more than that. Recorded over two days in front of a small audience in the hayloft of the 19th century wooden barn on his property in New Jersey, it features the 13 songs from the recent album of the same name, played by around 30 musicians: a basic band of various guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, plus two trumpets, two French horns, a string orchestra of violins, violas and cellos, and four or five female backing singers, discreetly directed by the album’s orchestrator, Rob Mathes.

There are a few differences from the album versions, but the sound of Bob Clearmountain’s mix is so close to the lush Californian warmth of the original recordings that I found myself frequently checking for signs that the musicians were miming. An inability to spot anyone playing the glockenspiel part on “Drive Fast” provided the only evidence that post-production work had been undertaken.

Having seen the trailer, I worried in advance that the film — directed by Springsteen with his long-term collaborator Thom Zimny — would include too much footage of wild ponies cantering in slow-motion through desert landscapes beneath spectacular open skies, close-ups of silver and turquoise jewellery on weathered hands, and El Camino pick-ups raising dust on long, lonesome dirt roads. There’s some of that, particularly in the early sequences, but the visual clichés recede as more serious matters come to the fore in what Springsteen calls “interstitial material”, the snatches of home movies and found footage with voiceovers in which he introduces the songs and reflects on their themes of life, love, loss and longing.

On the face of it, the songs on Western Stars aren’t about Springsteen. One protagonist is a stuntman, another a fading movie actor. But, as he said during a Q&A session that followed the screening I attended this morning, “When I write a song in character, it’s a way of exploring your own life and struggles.”

After feeling initially indifferent towards much of the album, it came as a surprise to discover how rewardingly the film illuminates their qualities, both via Springsteen’s commentary and the performances. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” was a song I quite disliked until seeing it contextualised in a social setting. “Somewhere North of Nashville” acquires greater depth. “Stones”, sung as a duet with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 30 years, is now almost unbearably moving in its evocation of the undercurrents of a long marriage. (“I should have had Patti on the record,” Springsteen said during the Q&A.)

The songs I already liked gain a new lustre. “Moonlight Motel” adds a couple more shades of gorgeous soul-weariness. The soaring “There Goes My Miracle” is introduced with a rumination on “losing the best thing you ever had — the perfect formula for a pop song.” Or maybe it was “the formula for a perfect pop song”, which it is. Watching the string players tear into it with such joy, I thought of how I’ve always believed the special E Street secret is making every person in the audience feel as though they’re up on stage, playing in the band, sharing that special exhilaration; this lot made me wish I’d carried on with violin lessons.

* This weekend’s London Film Festival screenings of Western Stars are sold out. It will be in cinemas around the UK on October 28, three days after the release of the soundtrack album.

Lucinda Williams in London

Lucinda Williams 1It had been an enjoyable enough concert for the first 40 minutes or so, but when Lucinda Williams dismissed her band and introduced “The Ghosts of Highway 20”, the mood of the evening deepened. “I’ve been filled with the need when I’ve sung this song lately to say that not everybody from the South is a bad person,” the woman brought up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas told the crowd at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They knew what she was getting at.

Delivering the title track of her most recent album alone with an acoustic guitar, she managed to surpass the fine recorded version, which featured the entwined lead guitars of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Somehow she found a lilt within the song that added an emotional dimension. It introduced the evening’s satisfying central section, which included the exquisite “Over Time”, from the 2003 album World Without Tears; it had, she said with pride, been covered by Willie Nelson (here’s their duet version), and in London the band found a lovely gliding gait.

Earlier she had talked a bit about how, when her long career began to take off, she was criticised for writing too many dark and gloomy songs. So it was amusing that, when she did lift the tempo to a rockabilly shuffle late in the concert, it accompanied a song (also from the last album) called “Bitter Memory”. And it’s true that the bleakness in her raw voice might not be what you want all the time. But sometimes she can confront a distressing subject such as her late father’s Alzheimer’s disease (in “If My Love Could Kill”) and make it not just painful but uplifting.

Another of last night’s highlights was “Sweet Old World”, the title track of a 1992 album which she has re-recorded in its entirety for release next month on her own label. It features the band with which she is touring: Stuart Mathis on guitar, David Sutton on bass guitar and Butch Norton on drums. They’re a capable unit, and Norton in particular is a fine colourist and energiser, but to me it was interesting how the evening lit up each time the music reached for something beyond the generic shuffle and boogie of the old roadhouse beside the two-lane blacktop.

Don Henley’s Cass County

Don Henley - Publicity Shot #2 (Credit Danny Clinch)During one of the interviews given to promote his new solo album, Don Henley mentioned that he writes poetry. When his voice gives out, he said, that’s probably what he’ll turn to. This would have been no surprise to admirers of “The Boys of Summer”, his solo hit from 1984, which has an opening verse whose perfect cadences seem to come complete with punctuation: “Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air: the summer’s out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets; the sun goes down alone. I’m driving by your house though I know you’re not home.”

It’s a great pop song, of course, with a dark undertow — just like many of the best Eagles songs, from “Hotel California” to “King of Hollywood”. In the Eagles’ world, no pleasure was ever unmixed. The same trait also marked out the best products of Henley’s solo career, including the four great songs from The End of the Innocence, his third solo album: “The Last Worthless Evening”, “New York Minute”, “The Heart of the Matter” and the title track. These were songs that had something to say about the human experience back in 1989 and have lost none of their truth and resonance.

His new album, Cass County, contains many outstanding moments, beginning with the opening track, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose”, a gorgeous slow waltz with a killer chord change, in which Henley takes the first verse, Miranda Lambert the second, and Mick Jagger — in his “Wild Horses” mode — the third. It’s one you can play over and over again, just waiting for that change, which Henley brings out more effectively than Merritt did on her excellent original version in 2002 (clue: listen for the words “a bramble rose”).

The album arrived on a Saturday morning. I put it on while I was having breakfast and ended up playing it all the way through three times, non-stop. Among the other notable tracks are Jesse Lee Kincaid’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”, a favourite from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite album back in 1968; the rocking “That Old Flame”, with a great lyric on which he’s joined by the wonderful Martina McBride; and Jesse Winchester’s ever-lovely “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”. Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton are among the album’s other participants.

On these songs, the poetry isn’t in the words. It’s in Henley’s voice. That sound of bruised longing is one we know so well,  immediately evoking good and bad times and the complex feelings that went with them. Whatever he had back then, he’s hung on to it.

* Cass County is out now on Capitol Records. The photograph of Don Henley was taken by Danny Clinch.

Ronnie Milsap says goodbye

Ronnie MilsapIf you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville this Saturday night, go and see Ronnie Milsap at the Ryman Auditorium. He’s one of the great singers of the past half-century’s popular music, even though no one talks about him much any more. And, at the age of 71, he’s in the middle of what he’s decided will be his farewell tour.

Sadly, I’ll be 3,000 miles away. But I’m so glad I saw Milsap before his famous run of 40 No 1 country hits, which started in 1974. Nothing against his country records, of course. Some of them still sound great. But the night in 1971 when I saw him at TJ’s in Memphis, Tennessee, a musicians’ bar to which, at that time, you had to take your liquor in a brown bag, he was still in that state of grace to be found somewhere between country and southern R&B, with the balance tilted in favour of R&B.

It was a late night at the end of a long day, and I had a brown bag with me, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember that he had a terrific little four-piece band — what else, in a musicians’ hangout in Memphis 40-odd years ago? — including himself on piano. He also had, when heard in person, one of the great white soul voices, in a line of devout Ray Charles worshippers including Charlie Rich, Dan Penn and Troy Seals. The only specific song that I remember from the set is the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which was on the charts at the time, because it seemed such an improbable choice but worked so brilliantly.

As far as I can tell, he made no records that sounded much like the set he played that night. In 1966 he’d cut  “Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes” with the producer Huey P. Meaux for the Scepter label; released on Pye in the UK, it became a Northern Soul favourite. From the same year there’s a very nice version of an early Ashford and Simpson song, “When It Comes to My Baby”, produced by Stan Green.

All that later success on the country charts seemed to take the R&B edge off his voice, but he could still sing beautifully. Here’s an example: his smooth version of “Any Day Now”, one of Burt Bacharach’s finest. My favourite of his later recordings is the Grammy-winning “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)”, which I love no doubt partly because I was in the USA when it came out in the summer of 1985, cruising the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Washington DC  in a rented Buick.

* The picture — uncredited — is taken from a very interesting 2009 interview with Ronnie Milsap by Ken Norton Jr on Engine 145, a roots music blog (www.engine145.com).

Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.

 

Snowed in with Emily Barker

Emily Barker : Vena PortaeThe first time I met Emily Barker, eight or nine years ago, she was working behind the counter at Brill in Exmouth Market, a small but perfectly formed Clerkenwell coffee-and-CDs shop. She’d come over from Australia a couple of years earlier, and soon she was recording an album and playing gigs with her band, Red Clay Halo (including one memorable performance to about 50 people crammed into the shop). A stroke of deserved luck arrived when “Nostalgia”, a track from her second album, was used as the title music for the BBC’s remake of Wallander, winning her a BAFTA award.

Her latest project is an album by a trio with Dom Coyote and Ruben Engzell, called Vena Portae. They recorded it in a temporary studio in  Mölnbo, a small town in Sweden, while snowed in during the winter before last: a kind of Scandinavian Big Pink. It came out a few weeks ago on the Humble Soul label. Here’s the lead-off track, “Summer Kills”: listen out for the subtle touches of saxophones and bass clarinet (all played by Magic Gunnarsson) behind Emily’s lovely voice.

She and Red Clay Halo — Anna Jenkins (violin, viola), Jo Silverston (cello, bass, banjo, saw) and Gill Sandell (accordion, piano, flute) — are on tour in Britain next month. I’m going to try and catch them at St James’s Church in Piccadilly. Meanwhere here are a couple of video clips: first at the Union Chapel in Islington two years ago, performing “Nostalgia”, and then in the studio this month with a quite heartbreakingly beautiful cover of Tom Waits’s “Day After Tomorrow”.

* The photograph is from the jacket of Vena Portae and was taken by Johan Bergmark.

Songs of the South

Rosanne CashYou have to wait until the 11th and final track of Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread, for the latest evidence in  support of my theory that there has never been a bad record featuring the electric sitar, that curious hybrid invented in the late ’60s by the Danelectro company of New Jersey.

Among my own favourite examples would be not just obvious things like the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (1968), Joe South’s “Games People Play” (1969), the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” (1971), and Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” (1972), but the Hollies’ “The Baby” (also made in 1972, after Mikael Rickfors had replaced Allan Clarke, and the group’s greatest single, in my view), Paul Young’s stormingly soulful and brilliantly arranged “Tomb of Memories” (1983), and Pat Metheny’s piercingly beautiful “Last Train Home”, a track from the 1987 album Still Life (Talking) and a treat even for those who might not otherwise have much interest in Metheny’s work.

Anyway, back to Rosanne Cash. I bought The River and the Thread — released on the Blue Note label, an example of the broadminded approach of the company’s current president, Don Was — after reading an eloquent 10/10 review by Luke Torn in the January issue of Uncut. I don’t often find reviews to be very reliable guides these days, but this one was pretty close to the money. In more senses than one, actually, since I’m now going to have to embark on an expensive trawl back through the Rosanne Cash albums I’ve missed in recent years.

I found it to be an album that creeps up on you. The first time I played it, I got through half a dozen tracks thinking, “Well, this is pretty nice, but I don’t know about 10/10…” Then the songs started to grip, and by the last couple I was thinking it was excellent. The electric sitar topped it off, like a seal of approval. So I went straight back to the top, listened through again, and it turned out to be that good from start to finish.

Yes, it’s Americana, a somewhat over-familiar genre (particularly if you think that a genre that doesn’t include, say, bebop, doo-wop or hip-hop has no right to that name). But in Cash’s hands, and in those of her producer, guitarist and husband (and electric sitarist) John Leventhal, this voyage into the South — a set of songs, her first new material in seven years, inspired by Memphis, her birthplace, and Arkansas, where she grew up, and recent trips to the Delta, where she visited Dockery’s plantation, Faulkner’s house and Tallahatchie Bridge — largely sidesteps the cliched responses.

Lazy shuffles, slinky swamp-rock boogies, a great Derek Trucks slide guitar solo on “World of Strange Design” and a couple of lovely Leventhal arrangements — strings on “Night School”, trombones on “When the Master Calls the Roll” — typify the immaculate musicianship on show. The lyric make extensive use of geographical and cultural references — “combining the personal with the mythic,” as she puts it — with a constant presence of rivers. “A feather’s not a bird / The rain is not the sea / A stone is not a mountain / But a river runs through me” is how it starts, and “I was dreaming about the deepest blue / But what you seek is seeking you / You can cross the bridge and carve your name / But the river stays the same” is how it finishes.

Here’s the official eight-minute trailer for the album. It’s airbrushed, as these things usually are, but not indecently so. If The River and the Thread isn’t 10/10 for me, it’s certainly a solid eight, maybe eight and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing her London concert on April 30, at the Barbican. And if you happen to know of any bad records featuring an electric sitar, I’d be glad if you kept the information to yourself. This isn’t one of them.

* The photograph of Rosanne Cash is from the cover of The River and the Thread and was taken by Clay Patrick McBride.

Charlie’s angels

Haden Triplets 2Richard Thompson once told me his theory, rooted in an early devotion to the Everly Brothers, that there is nothing quite like the sound of blood relatives singing together. Tanya, Rachel and Petra Haden might be a case in point.

They were born in New York on October 11, 1971 to Ellen Haden and her husband Charlie, who had come to prominence as the double bassist with Ornette Coleman’s great quartet of 1959-61 and later as the leader of his own Liberation Music Orchestra. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Haden’s classic solo on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, from Change of the Century, and over the last 40-odd years the Liberation Music Orchestra has been one of the great positive forces in the music.

Charlie was born in Iowa; at the age of two he started singing with his family’s band, who performed country songs on radio and at country fairs. When polio ruined his voice at 15, he switched to the double bass and developed an interest in jazz. Later he moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is part of jazz history. A few years ago he explored his roots in a fine album called Rambling Boy.

His triplet daughters, born (like his son Josh, who leads the band Spain) to his first wife, grew up surrounded by music. On visits to their father’s parents in Missouri, they learnt the country songs of his childhood. At home there was usually something good playing — “whether it be our mom playing Billie Holiday and Nina Simone records, or our dad playing Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman in the living room,” as they write in the notes to their first album together, The Haden Triplets. They’ve all worked in music for many years, with credits including the Foo Fighters, the Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Green Day and Todd Rundgren. Almost 10 years ago Petra recorded a acappella album called Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out, which was exactly what it said and earned Pete Townshend’s admiration.

Here’s a short promo film for the sisters’ album, which is released on Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. Perhaps a little confusingly, Tanya Haden’s husband is the actor Jack Black, and the album was recorded — at the insistence of Ry Cooder, who produced it — in their house, with one microphone for the singers and their accompanists: Cooder on guitar and mandolin, his son Joachim on drums and Rene Camacho on bass, with occasional touches of fiddle from Petra and cello from Tanya.

The bulk of the repertoire is drawn from hallowed country and bluegrass sources: the Louvin Brothers (“Tiny Broken Heart”, “My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”), Bill Monroe (“Voice from on High” and “Memories of Mother and Dad”), the Carter Family (“Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?”, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Oh Take Me Back”), the Stanley Brothers (“Lonesome Night”) and Kitty Wells (“Making Believe”). It suits their voices very nicely: while none of the three seems to be a particularly distinctive singer, together they make close harmonies that are appropriately plaintive. When they step outside the idiom, with the poppier “Slowly” or Nick Lowe’s “Raining Raining”, the results aren’t quite as convincing, although never less that pleasant.

On the best songs the sense of intimacy is very appealing. The Haden Triplets has the atmosphere of music made in the family parlour, for their own enjoyment and for that of their circle of friends, of whom we are made to feel a part. And sometimes, as with the glorious “Voice from on High”,  you just want to lift your own voice and join in.

* The photograph of Rachel, Petra and Tanya Haden is from the inside cover of The Haden Triplets and was taken by Jo McCaughey.

Still melting in the dark

Jimmy WebbJimmy Webb has been giving interviews to promote his new album, and when someone asked him which he considered to be the best of the countless recorded versions of “MacArthur Park”, I was pleased by his answer. “Richard Harris,” he said, clearly harbouring no resentment over the Irish actor’s insistence on rendering the title as “MacArthur’s Park”, despite attempts by the 21-year-old composer, arranger and producer to correct to him during the sessions in 1968 for A Tramp Shining, the album from which the seven-minute track would be plucked to become a huge hit.

Forty-five years later, the composer sings it as he originally intended in the version included on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, in which he recruits a bunch of guests to help him on the album’s 14 tracks. Lyle Lovett appears on “Sleepin’ in the Daytime”, Joe Cocker on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, Art Garfunkel on “Shattered”, David Crosby and Graham Nash on “If These Walls Could Speak”, and so on. Mostly, these aren’t real duets: the guests either add background vocals or, like Rumer on the title track, pop up to deliver a verse or two. Webb is unquestionably at the centre of the stage, ensuring the album’s overall coherence, something assisted by Fred Mollin’s production, which is full of banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros on top of a de luxe rhythm section: the epitome of LA-goes-to-Nashville polish.

The tracks I like best include the singularly beautiful “Elvis and Me”, in which he touchingly outlines the story of his real-life meetings with Presley, assisted by the Jordanaires (recorded before the death of Gordon Stoker, their last original member, earlier this year), and the duet with Keith Urban on “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”, a lovely song which didn’t do quite as well for Glen Campbell in 1968 as its trio of Webb-composed predecessors, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. But the pick of the lot is the remake of the thoroughly eccentric song that turned a wayward thespian into a star of the pop charts.

The wonderful choice of guest on Webb’s new version of “MacArthur Park” is Brian Wilson. We’re given the full seven minutes and 21 seconds of this extraordinary song, all four movements, without the lavish orchestration of the original but with an arrangement that more subtly reproduces the full dramatic range and makes marvellous use of Wilson’s celestial harmonies, stacked behind and around the lead (and we won’t ask how they were achieved: just enjoy the result). The third movement, originally the orchestral interlude, is now opened up to feature a majestically soaring dobro solo from the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglas, as the rhythm team races alongside him.

There’s always an extra dimension of poignancy that a composer with even half a voice brings to a performance of his or her own song, and Webb sings his great lyric — what an opening: “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance” — as well as it has ever been sung. His homespun delivery makes him sound like a modest sort of chap. But in the future, if anyone asks him which he considers to be the best version of “MacArthur Park”, he can say: “Mine.”

* The photograph of Jimmy Webb is from the insert to Still Within the Sound of My Voice, and was taken by Jessica Daschner.