Top Tunes

It’s the silly season. I don’t have a television and it’s too hot to walk to the shops for a newspaper. As a result my posting has been suffering. Sorry. I’ll attempt to fill in the gaps with random thoughts on some CD’s bought recently.

1. Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece: I always liked Moondance and Astral Weeks but disliked the later more stodgy work Van the Man released after these two classic albums. He seemed to have lost his energy and mad experimentalism I liked. Veedon Fleece is from 1974 and I was never sure, when I saw it in the shops, whether it would be a good one or a stodgy one. In fact it’s a curate’s egg – good in parts, but the parts that are good are very good. He sings with real conviction and energy on most of the songs and there is a bit of an Astral Weeks feel to the instrumentation. If you see it for a fiver snap it up. Listen out for the flute in Streets of Arklow if you have any celtic blood in you at all. Even if you don’t a couple of pints of beer will do just as well.

2. Joni Mitchell – Travelogue: This is apparantly her last ever release. It’s also a real grower. She revisits her back-pages and gives her best songs from the last 30-odd years an orchestral backing and a jazz swing (yes, often in the same song and at the same time – it shouldn’t work but it does). Try her new version of Woodstock for a taster. She turns a hopeful hippy anthem into a brooding filmic epic and the contrast between her voice when she first sang the song and now is amazing. She had a bit of a reedy high-pitched voice until the early 1970’s but 154,800 Marlboro Red’s later it’s just magnificent. Not for the casual fan but rewards (and confounds) those who know the songs in their original guises.

3. Fela Kuti – Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense: Newly remastered Nigerian funk from the 1970’s. This man was tipped to be the new Bob Marley and the second third-world superstar but somehow it never happened. The music is difficult to classify but political afro-jazz funk might be a good start. Try it in your car on a motorway but don’t blame me if you get pulled-over by the police. I think that must be what happened to Geoffrey Robinson.

4. Patti Smith – Land: This is a career-spanning compilation and includes all her great songs like Because the Night, Dancing Barefoot, and Free Money. I first heard Because the Night when I was twelve years old when it was a single in the British charts and I can still remember the effect on me, total slack-mouthed awe. There is something about her voice which still does something to the hairs on the back of my neck 25 years on.

5. Ludwig Van Beethoven – The String Quartets: It took me a while to “get” chamber music but Beethoven helped a lot. His music was considered shocking and avant garde in the early nineteenth century and I think some of the late quartets are still pretty revolutionary today. It’s difficult to listen to some of the stuff here without staring at the speakers and thinking “you can’t do that”. Most of the usual Beethoven emotions are present and correct on these discs but they take on a less overblown, more flexible character when you get rid of the orchestra. Expensive but worth every single penny.

6. Emmylou Harris – Pieces of the Sky: This woman provided backing vocals for the Clash in the late 1970’s and it has taken me since that time to buy one of her discs. This is a pretty good place to start. There are some real saccharine lyrics (try Coat of Many Colors for an example) but her wonderful voice makes up for one or two dodgy songs. It’s desperately unfashionable to like country music but I get a warm glow inside when I know that Emmylou doesn’t share her charms with everyone. All very immature really this desire to be part of a cultural minority. If I’d been born in the USA country music mightn’t be as attractive to me but I know I’d still love Emmylou’s voice.