Blog on the Tracks

Writer/reviewer Simon Sweetman covers music for The Dominion Post and North And South. He cares far too much about music, and the list of bands he loves is far longer than the list of groups he has shown no love.

2014's Great Songwriters

06:19am 25 Jul 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

The cream rises to the top - if you're good enough you'll make it, the best will shine through. Even in the stacked-deck world of whatever is left of the music industry you have to believe this I reckon; it pays to - well, maybe it doesn't quite pay to - but you know...it's still the best measure, you have to figure that if it's good enough it'll find its way through, enough people will hear about it, be converted, start singing along and shouting out to their fans about it. In this social media age we're all the gatekeepers, we're all the followers, we've all got little - or big - audiences. We're all spreading the word and sharing the song and adding to the noise. Everything's simpler and so much more complicated. Everything's messy. And clear as mud.Southeastern

This year I've found that what's winning through for me is the song. I can hear it again. It's shining through. Never mind the arrangements, never mind the tricks. It's never been about the gimmick for me, but sometimes the song gets lost in the hype, in the PR-spiel, in the hope that the artist actually has something different, something worthwhile. This year some of the very best music I'm hearing is about quality songwriting. Less-is-more songwriting. Simple stuff - that which you can't teach. Debut albums and sophomore albums and third albums; records from people still learning, still cutting their own path...

One of the first hints of this was Jason Isbell's Southeastern  - though I probably can't count that as it's an album from 2013. It was new to me this year though, I was slow to catch up on this one. Well, actually, I was slightly sceptical at first of the noise - more than one person told me it was the best new Americana, best country-roots, best acoustic song-based album. And though I believed them, in a sense. I didn't believe any of them enough to follow-up. It was only this year that I caught on. And even if it mostly made me think it was the best Ryan Adams album in a long time it's still an example of great songs shining through. Also, the song Elephant. Man, that's the one. That's one any songwriter could only hope to get down. That's a gift.

Lights From The Chemical PlantMoving into 2014 the first album that really wowed me from a songwriting point of view was Robert Ellis' The Lights From The Chemical Plant. There's some amazing guitar playing here, and a high, lonesome sound to the voice - a yearning quality. But it's the songs. It's what he does with them too - an exquisite cover of a Paul Simon tunes shows that Ellis is clever with his bag of tricks, and he's bent it to suit the mood of his album, to fit it in almost as if one of his own songs, but before it's about any studio ensemble or wizardry it's about Ellis' approach to the song.

Then there was John Fullbright's album simply called Songs. There's obviously quite a boast in that title - you have to be pretty confidant and Fullbright deserves to be. Jackson Browne and James Taylor and Graham Nash were some of the names of thought of with this music, a return to that apparently simpler time, gentle songs that have a weight to them.

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To be Frank

09:49am 24 Jul 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

Dark Horse is the film that opens this year's New Zealand International Film Festival - that's Jon Ronsontonight in Wellington. I'm sure it's going to be great, but I'm also sure I've seen the best film from this year's festival.

Well, I've seen the one that's spoken to me, that meant the most to me. A true dark horse too. And that film is Frank.

Now, be warned, this isn't at all about Frank Sidebottom, though it is inspired by his look, his mask and the film was co-written by Jon Ronson. Before Ronson made it in the world as a documentarian, broadcaster and writer he was schlepping about like any hopeful, aspiring creative - and one of his gigs, fleetingly, was playing keyboards as sideman to Sidebottom.

So the film is in part a tip of the hat to that character - but this is pure fiction. Take from what you know, lace traces of your own life in the story, Ronson has obviously done that.

To clarify he's released a book about the making of the film - it's worth reading. If you're a Ronson fan already you'll want to check that slim volume out.

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John Frusciante's solo career

10:54am 23 Jul 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

The best thing John Frusciante ever did was leave The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was such a good idea he did it twice.

Frusciante was a member of the band during their first wave of massive success, his guitar a crucial ingredient, part of their strange brew of funk flavours. As time goes on I think that band more and more absurd - I struggle to hear what I once heard in them, but I can't deny that I was a big fan of their material pretty much up to and including Californication. 

I had time for the records without Frusciante - I'm one of just a handful of people prepared to admit that I liked One Hot Minute. In a weak moment I might bend for some of the early pre-Frusciante material too but beyond an annual listen to Blood Sugar Sex Magik - still largely fantastic if you concentrate on the efforts of Frusciante and in particular drummer Chad Smith but also still really silly - I'm totally done with the Peppers.

They died for me when By The Way - which should have been called By The By - was delivered in all its lacklustre non-glory. I couldn't even give Californication the time of day now, it's just Frusciante circling back around over his familiar licks. Worked at the time, we missed them, we needed him back - they needed him back. But these are grown men, still almost-finding sex and penis euphemisms, still mastering the single-entendre, still name-dropping L.A. It's dull. And tired. And whatever funk-shtick they once had, though never in any sense real, is completely gone.

But anyway, I've told you all before I'm done with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That remains the case.John Frusciante

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The film about Pulp

08:59am 22 Jul 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

I wasn't ever the hugest fan of the band Pulp. I really only knew them when they exploded amid the Britpop hype and when the press was getting all silly and creating that Blur/Oasis war and even decided that Blur was The Rolling Stones of Britpop and Oasis was The Beatles it was interesting to hear Pulp, perhaps The Kinks or Small Faces of the movement?

Well anyway, that silliness aside, for me it was only after I grew sick of all that Landfill Britpop and the second and third waves of grunge too that I really started to enjoy the music of Pulp. Different Class still, sure, a few monster songs on that one, and back to His'n'Hers too for a bit. But the one that really sold me, made me realise there was a huge depth with this band, to this band, was This Is Hardcore. It's always more interesting to see what a band will do when the alleged limelight, the apparent movement, has died down, moved on.A Film about Pulp

It was only after hearing Hardcore that I found out that Pulp had been making music - on the fringes - since back in the early 1980s. A compilation served as the catch-up and though I gave 2001's We Love Life a few spins it was hearing Jarvis Cocker as solo artist that returned me to This Is Hardcore and Different Class, that gave me an appreciation for Cocker the lyricist and frontman, that gave me some real purchase on Pulp.

As time goes by I find myself appreciating the band more and more - I'm caught, almost, in a false nostalgia in fact, lamenting a band I didn't care nearly enough about at the time. It's my interest in Jarvis Cocker as artist/renaissance man, his charm and abilities - that's been a huge part of the selling point. That and my love of Richard Hawley's music - a sideline player in the Pulp story, his own music nothing to do with the sound of his money-gig, but it's part of the interest for me, wanting to understand this musician and his motivations.

So all of that - a quick summary of where I'm at with the band, how I arrived at the band - is meant as much to say that the timing is right for me to enjoy a documentary about Pulp.

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Oh, the places a Neil Finn show will go!

07:27am 21 Jul 2014

SIMON SWEETMAN

It was great news to wake up to - Neil Finn will tour New Zealand in September of this year. Not only is it very quiet on the touring front at the moment (well, it's winter...) but it's the first time Neil Finn has toured NZ in quite a while, the first time too since the release of the very strong (return to form) album, Dizzy Heights. So these shows will be well worth seeing.

But even if Dizzy Heights wasn't a good album - or even if it didn't exist - you'd still have a great time at a Neil Finn show. He's the consummate showman - always a great band, impeccable set-list, often with a surprise or two thrown in, sometimes he pulls out a surprise guest or two. For this tour Bic Runga is supporting, she hasn't played shows around the country since 2011.

I've seen Neil Finn perform in a few different contexts - in a few different cities too. I've seen him heading Crowded House and Split Enz reunions, I've caught him a few times with brother Tim, sometimes billed as The Finn Brothers, or Finn, and there's been a bunch of Neil Finn shows, though not many in New Zealand in recent years.

You go to a Neil Finn show and you get to see what an extraordinarily good guitar player he is - he'll hit out Suffer Never or some such. And you'll be genuinely amazed, even if you've followed his career. You'll hear him rework something like Message To My Girl, a song from so many years ago, recast as simple, tender piano ballad. You'll wonder all night about whether you might get to hear I Got You - and you will. And it will kill. Every time. You'll also get to hear Private Universe, potentially. And that'll transport you, take you away on its journey. You'll get to hear Sinner, most likely. What a strange and wonderful tune that is.

You might, if you're lucky, get to hear the likes of Fall At Your Feet, and remind yourself of the exquisite charm of Neil's writing, where even throwaway pop lyrics can be shaped into something magical due to his deft skill with a melodic line, his way of creating instantly hummable choruses.

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