CONFESSIONS OF A CRITIC standing the test of time
by Norman Warwick
I was lucky that my involvement in music, as a lyricist and as a vaudevillian partner to Colin Lever (left) in the folk duo, Lendanear and subsequently as a freelance writer for various music magazines brought me into contact with a number of like-minded people. This meant I didn´t ever have far to go to hear a second opinion about any comments I made in my reviews or articles. Usually we would all be of one accord, and anyway my reviews would often be of albums or artist that one or other of those like-minded people had recommended to me in the first place.
I never saw it as part of my remit to be damning for the sake of it. I was, after all, working on my own patch, in terms of both geography and genre and so whenever I wrote a review I intended it to be the bearer of glad tidings. Of course, there were occasions when I felt disappointed in a work I had been looking forward to, though I have come to realise that I would very often grow to love a piece that I had initially not taken to. With understanding comes wisdom and all that !
I had a problem, though, in that I would often feel a bubbling anger towards any artist or music that in some way let me down. I´m not sure that at the outset of my unpaid career I fully understood the artist´s need to diversify, and yet I was a constant crosser of borders in my own fictional writing.
I so loved Guy Clark´s first couple of albums full of sand, sawdust and sagebrush and tumbleweed characters that when he released Boats To Build I felt devastated by what I perceived as an increased sophistication that moved him into the high art world of Picasso and the visionary architecture of a man with boats to build! It was ridiculous of me, but I wrote a slightly less than enthusiastic, (well, pretty savage actually) review and only a week after that review was published I tuned in to BBC Radio 2 only to hear myself being taken to task by the presenter, and destroyed them by playing the appropriate tracks and adding more analysis than I had. The dj defended Guy´s right to create art to satisfy his own emotional needs rather than the emotions of this needy critic. Ouch, lesson learned, albeit in a rather too public arena.
That presenter, of whom there is more in another post later this week, nevertheless actually did me a great favour during a formative part of my journalistic work.
Before I catalogue my three worst disasters, (and no, even the above doesn´t qualify) let me first say how delighted I was to learn from the Country Matters back-copy that those positive reviews written twenty five to thirty years ago are, to my heart and mind, still perfectly valid today. That, of course, says as much about the quality of the artists and their recordings as it does about my writing.
It was in the 1993 October edition of Country Matters that owner and editor Clive Wynes, in the headline on page 44, that it was Norman´s Turn For A Spin, and allowed me to be the guest commenting on the new releases of the time. What could possibly go wrong?
I was a broad-speaking, tough-talking, hard-hitting, and completely stuck-up Northerner compared to my more gentle colleagues from the Bristol area, from where the magazine was published. Those colleagues were all, I have to admit, well-informed not only on the ´British local country music scene´ (albeit that those five words I never believed should have been allowed to run consecutively in the same sentence!) but also on the traditions and great stars of American country and western, which then was only just becoming country, and was still some way short of growing up into Americana. I was thankful then that the first album up for review was by an artists I knew plenty about. So I wrote,…
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Spinning Round The Sun (Elektra)
Assured of legendary status as a member of the short-lived and long lamented Flatlanders (who would later make a liar of me by reforming, thank God, to make a whole handful of exquisite albums !) Gilmore (left) has slowly but surely built for himself a sole career over the last decade. Whilst the song-writing of Butch Hancock and the rock association of Joe Ely have been given greater media coverage since that initial one-album ride with the Texas band, Jimmie´s unique selling point has always been his voice, that moans like a prairie wind and soars like a rising moon.
Several years ago it was Ely who recommended Jimmie´s name to a record label which subsequently published his first couple of albums. They were liberally sprinkled with Hancock compositions and included the wise and beautiful Rain Just Falls, written by David Halley. There was also an early preview of a song that would become synonymous with The Flatlanders, (Did You Ever See) Dallas From A DC 9 At Night?
On Spinning Round The Sun, his second album for the Elektra label, Jimmie largely eschews his own song writing talents to offer covers from his own lucky dip selection of long-time favourites. Listen to his aching I´m So Lonesome I Could Cry and ask yourself whether even Hank did it this good.
There is a beautiful twangy guitar sound permeating the whole production and it is a version of Al Strehli´s Santa Fe Thief that is, for me, the highlight, which is praise indeed when you consider that the collection also includes two Hancock songs, Just A Wave And Not The Water, about a lady putting someone neatly in their place, and Nothing Of A Kind.
Gilmore duets with the sadly under-rated Lucinda Williams on a track written by his first wife Carol Jo Pierce who has seen her work anthologised by poets and punks and folkies and funkies alike. Reunion is the title of this Gilmore-Williams duet and it is here that his voice most epitomises that ´high lonesome.´
It was in the seventies when that ´album was first made known to me by Pete Ryan, the Welsh specialist record-dealer and fount of all knowledge and Gilmore spent the next ten years in Denver on a spiritual and philosophical sabbatical. Thankfully for us he began recording again in the late eighties and his own songs and his own choice of covers here perfectly complement his uncanny vocals.
His lyrics are forever questioning the marvellous moments most of us overlook. Listen here to Where You Going for an an example of what I mean.
From Buddy Holly´s home town of Lubbock, Texas, Jimmy is pushing fifty these days and, whilst thoughts along the lines of what if Buddy had lived are futile, there is no doubt in my mind that Gilmore possesses much of the wistfulness that characterised some of Holly´s best songs and performances. Many of the apparent contradictions between mature reflection and child-like wonderment found today in Jimmie´s material in general, and on this album in particular, might also be being heard in contemporary material from Buddy Holly, (left) if only,….
Janis Ian: Breaking The Silence (Morgan Creek Records)
Society´s Child learned the truth At Seventeen and has remained cynical and un-trusting pretty much ever since. Her crying-in-a-corner voice suits her I´ve-been-hurt-before vocals, but it should be remembered that briefly, a decade or so ago, she released a couple of soft-rock albums and one or two almost joyous singles, one of which Beyond The Other Side Of The Sun, remains one of my favourite songs, (and remains so today, more than another quarter of a century later.)
Only two numbers here recapture that mood; Guess You had To Be, There, a nostalgic, if somewhat dismissive, reflection on the sixties and the more defiant, This Train Still Runs.
The rest of the set belongs to that middle category I used to play alone in my room on those long nights when an early Simon and Garfunkel album would draw me melancholy, Janis would colour me blue and Leonard Cohen would guide the blade sweetly across the wrists.
There are a handful of interesting collaborations, with Kye Fleming in particular, and in truth, taken track by track, this is a fine album of tasteful country picking behind thoughtful lyrics. Nevertheless, the overall mood feels somewhat angst-ridden.
My recommendation, though, is to purchase a copy. For sure, there will be a night this winter when your loved one leaves, in a fury, with the car keys. The dog will refuse to sit on your lap even though you´ve had a lousy day at the office and you have too much month left at the end of the money. This album will be heaven for anyone who has to spend a night in hell.
Martin, Bogan & Armstrong: That Old Gang Of Mine (flying fish)
Released over here in conjunction with Edinburgh´s excellent Temple label, that has a catalogue that neatly blends all the main ingredients of folk, country and blues (it seems I hadn´t heard of jazz in those days) of my preferred listening, this is a real gem, and on a personal level is a valuable addition to my record collection.
Those of you who read extracts of my book Their Name Fell Out In Coversation serialised in Country Matters last year will know it was an exploration of recordings on which the artist pays tribute to their peers and might even be aware that I mentioned a track by Steve Goodman in which he paid tribute to a string band of three old, black musicians he had once seen blow away young pretenders at some after-gig bash.
The Ballad Of Carl Martin was the title of that Goodman composition that left any listener in no doubt of the high esteem in which Steve held this trio. He described the Carl Martin Trio as ´wise old gents, grey and bent´, and in fact he regarded them so highly that nearly forty years after their previous recordings he persuaded them to the studio where he produced for them the album that bears this title.
Those of you who like your country on the ´lush´ side might not care, at first, for the pared down, simplistic instrumentation or the basic call and response technique of the vocals, but I promise you that after a couple of tracks you´ll not believe the sheer nonchalance of the amazing sounds you´re hearing. This is acoustic picking of the very highest calibre, played in an ´aw shucks´ throaway manner that places enjoyment and attitude before technique, yet never allows technique to settle for less than perfection.
Yes, Pappy, Yes and Ice Cream Parlour Blues best illustrate my point and Steve´s production never intrudes on the fun being had. He uses the technology only to enhance and never to disguise and Flying Fish are highly to be commended for also including on this cd an entire eponymous album recorded in the nineteen thirties and it is fascinating to hear how age served to improve the abilities of the players and tangibly increase their own enjoyment of their playing. The highlight of this set is the country-blues of If You´se A Viper, but really there are wonderful items all over this beautifully packaged cd with its cover-drawing by Howard Armstrong and inclusion of well-researched and revealing liner notes.
Altogether there are over seventy minutes of perfect pickin´ and if you want to hear some musicians in total mastery of guitar and mandolin then this is for you but I doubt if too many copies were pressed and I´m sure it will become a collectors´ item. So. to borrow a phrase from Goodman´s tribute-to-the-trio song, which is actually a quote from Carl Martin, remember that
´from the cradle to the crypt is a mighty short trip
so you´d better get it while yuou can.´
My first collection of album reviews for Country Matters are contained in an issue that also featured the writings of American singer-writer Cathryn Craig as its cover artist and is signed with a message from her to me. Its contents included my introductory piece about this lady who appeared on Gary Hall´s Nashville recorded album and also a piece resulting from an interview with the two of them, called An Evening At The Bluebird Café. There was aldo an article I had written on John Graeme Livingstone, singer-songwriter, music promoter and owner-editor of the excellent Stillwater Times and an exclusive interview I had conducted with Norwegian singer-writer Steinar Albrigston.
There was another cd in this short selection fo reviews by a triple-barrel named Welsh-born artist, who, then approaching fifty had lived in the States since he was five years old.
I described him as having the ´rugged, good looks of The Fugitive from the original tv series.. His voice I described as ´big, booming and melodic.´ His material I referenced as being of dirt trails, small town loves and the rambler´s wanderlust; the staple diets of country music´. The arrangements, I said, were ´spot-on´, and I spoke of the female backing vocals ´lending lovely harmonmies.´
Ín short,´ I said, ´ít could be any country album by any top middle-of the –road vocalist.´
Had I left it there, perhaps there might have been no harm done, but I added caveats.
´There is no element of risk, no hint of danger and not a decent rhyme in earshot.´
I was in full flow, by now, and like an imminent banjo-solo I wasn´t going to let anything get in my way.
When (this artist) sings about being an old rock and roller and recalls his early days hustling agents for gigs, and lovin´ and leavin´ and all the rest he is as credible, I said, as Del Boy selling a dodgy Rolex down Peckham Market. The sleeve photography of a seemingly suited and sstetson was wearing moody, guitar picker identified as the recording artists must have been intended for some other album, I suggested, adding insult to injury.
I quoted some of the lines that bothered me, well, bemused´me, well, bloody annoyed me actually, like ´on the road of rock and rollin´ a man can lose his way´ and the inane ´I took my guitar off the shelf and to an agent I did go´.
Perhaps realising I had been brusque I relented somewhat in my final paragraph and pointed out that there were a few good couplets and rhymes of Love Is, and that If Wishes Were Horses was a pretty song,….. but I negated all that again with a final observation that ´all in all, though, this is the kind of music that forces me to write the kind of review that costs me friends´.
photo 10 mag cover With twenty four hours of that issue of Country Matters being published I was getting phone calls from several people associated with the singer calling me all sorts of names and saying how unfair my review was. However, whatever I think now when I look back at that piece of writing I would defend to my death my right to have written it. Although I perhaps said things that needn´t have been said, I was seeking to make a point that the artist didn´t seem to me to have found his own voice, let alone his genre or his own identity.
Reading those reviews again, and indeed reading back on previous pages on even this sidetracks & detours blog I realise I have a dreadful tendency to keep bring my writing back to me. Its called self-aggrandising and has something to do with an inferiority complex that is really all about ego. See, there I go again….
The fact that these callers were so irate, though, made me wonder what I had missed, so I played the album again.
I hadn´t missed anything !