Joe Jackson performs song from 2008 album Rain – “Wasted Time”

Joe JacksonHere’s a clip of Joe Jackson singing a key track from his new, and brilliant, album Rain . The track is “Wasted Time”.

He’s clearly following the same rays of musical inspiration as Todd Rundgren used to follow on this song, out-Todding Todd. This song has everything that the tradition of melancholy love-gone-wrong songs demand – impassioned vocals (including a falsetto which I’m not sure I’ve heard Jackson ever use), minor chords and major chords held in contrast, and of course a sense of unfinished business that equals a tension of the bittersweet kind. Jackson always dealt with shades of grey in his work, and he continues his mastery of this approach again here. And his signiture brand of irony is in place too, of course.

The entire album is his best in years – a rock/pop piano trio of Jackson singing and playing piano, with long-time associate Graham Maby on bass guitar, and original drummer of Jackson’s first three albums, Dave Houghton showing some particularly versatile playing behind the kit. And he needs to be versatile on this one, with a lot of jazz overtones (which have always been present in Jackson’s work). Like his masterpiece Night & Day, there are no guitars on this one, which allows for Maby’s bass to breathe a bit, enough to create some interesting interplay for Jackson’s piano lines . And in places, a “Becker & Fagen has drinks with Duke Ellington” vibe just shines through. As a big fan of Joe’s classic period, I was thrilled to hear it.

Joe is currently living in Berlin, where the album was recorded. And here’s another clip of Joe’s impressions of the German city mostly known as the former hub of the iron curtain.

And to round all of this off, I found this interview with Joe Jackson about the new record, and about songwriting in general.


Wilco Perform ‘Shake It Off’ from their album Sky Blue Sky

“Shake it off” by Wilco is filtering its way through my computer’s speakers. For all of the disappointment conveyed by critics who seemed to think that 2007’s Sky Blue Sky was a step backward, this record was one of my favourites of the year.

Check out this clip of the band playing ‘Shake It Off’.

To view the clip, hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing screen, click the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner. Alternatively, click the image directly to view the clip in a new browser window. Enjoy!

Wilco Sky Blue Sky

I can see why the Pitchfork set might have felt a bit let down. It’s not a noisy, off-kilter, left of centre release like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born are. It’s a record which is a bit less haunted, with more emphasis on melody, and on band dynamics (with some new members being broken in to great effect…) rather than sonic textures. And leader Jeff Tweedy, with a voice that ranges from Paul Westerberg on one end of the scale and John Lennon on the other, strays more on the Lennon side with Westerberg’s grit still making it’s presence known.

As a result, it strays on the side of rock classicism, rather than indie cool. If that works for you, and you’ve not bought the album, the question is not whether you should, but is rather: what are you waiting for? Go buy.

Records I Have Known: Jewels For Sophia by Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock Jewels For SophiaSome records you love because they are immediate and instantly gratifying. They are the prettiest girl at the dance, the one who all of the boys want to dance with. Then, there are the other ones. They have a unique character which stops them from being conventional, yet are appealing just because of their unconventionality. They are the pretty girls at the dance that don’t seem obviously pretty – a crooked tooth here, a set of out-of-date glasses or a drastic haircut there. Yet it is these aspects which make them so attractive, and in many ways so much more interesting. Robyn Hitchcock’s Jewels For Sophia is one of those.

I can’t actually remember how I first discovered Robyn Hitchcock. It could have come through my involvement with a collective of music geekery in Black Cat Bone. There are a few Hitch-heads over there. I had heard a few things here and there. There were a few acclaimed albums which were recommended to me; I Often Dream of Trains being one, and Underwater Moonlight, which is arguably Hitchcock’s best album with The Soft Boys, being another. But, it was Jewels For Sophia that made me a fan. I saw it on sale at a Virgin Megastore (of all places) in Piccadilly Circus, and decided that I’d check it out. What kind of record I was in for, I wasn’t sure. But looking back, I had discovered one of my favourite albums.

It took some time to catch on, but once it did, it completely captured me. The first thing I noticed about it was a total lack of cliché. Hitchcock is known for his absurdist left-of-centre lyrics, of course. But the music itself seemed to stand outside of what was happening at the time too. I heard Bob Dylan in there, particularly on the tracks “You Got A Sweet Mouth On You Baby”, which sounds like a lost cut from Blood on the Tracks, and the sublime “I Feel Beautiful” (with the immortal lines “I water the tomatoes and I think of you/No one’s ever watered me the way you do”). I heard the jangly glory of what Hitchcock had helped to create with the Soft Boys, handed down to bands who admired them like REM and Grant Lee Buffalo, especially on the tracks “Elisabeth Jade” and “Sally Was a Legend”, on which Peter Buck of REM plays. And of course there are the obvious Syd Barrett meets John Lennon comparisons often made to describe Hitchcock in general to be considered. There is a certain validity in this – the melodicism with English eccentricity torch is still burning through out most of Hitchcock’s output, and is particularly strong here.

Robyn HitchcockThere aren’t many songwriters out there writing about cheese, antwomen, Buzz Aldren, and Seatac Airport all on one album. This is a record where rock clichés have no purchase. And Hitchcock’s voice – very English, deep, almost spoken – makes the odd imagery work. It’s like hearing an eccentric-but-cool uncle speaking. With that said, it’s easy to get sidetracked by all of the absurdity and fun, and miss the poignancy underneath. If “NASA Clapping” comes off as a punk-meets-Dylan-meets-the Surrealists barrage, then “I Don’t Remember Guildford” and “Dark Princess” stand as more sombre pieces, tracing the memories of a forgotten chapter in a life, and the idealised vision of love which takes on the characteristics of an act of worship respectively.

There is so much included here; top flight playing, quirkness, grit, beauty, and a seemingly willful approach to songwriting that attempts to cut any connection to rock conventions. It is charming, and a little bit unpredictable too. Because it diverges from the norm, it gives the impression that it could go in any direction. For some, this is off-putting. But in this, Jewels For Sophia does what the best albums in rock/pop music does; it provides the escape route from where songwriting often settles, with a set list of subject matter, language, and sound. With this, and with Hitchcock’s other work, anything goes. Anything can become a song. The pretty girl at the dance can be anyone.

Further listening:

Robyn Hitchcock

Watch an interview with Robyn Hitchcock

Records I have known: Night & Day by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson Night & DayJoe Jackson was a part of a new wave singer-songwriter triumvirate, with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. From 1978 to 1980, he would mold a trio of albums which would exemplify the best of that genre, along with a couple of hits in “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “It’s Diffferent For Girls”. But the new wave tag, like most tags of musical genres, was beginning to age. By 1982, it was practically antiquated. And Joe Jackson and his band had left it behind a year earlier, going from the drums-bass-guitar-voice conventions right to a jump blues album Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, in the traditions of Louis Prima, Big JoeTurner, and Louis Jordan. Of course he was about 15 years too early for that particular musical revivalism. But, that’s another story. The point is, Jackson was getting restless. He wanted to expand his palette in the traditions of some of the composers he most admired – George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in particular.

It was soon after a divorce that Jackson would re-locate from England to New York City, and the move itself would inspire his next record Night & Day. This was a record far removed from his first three albums in a number of ways. The most obvious was the addition of jazz and latin sounds that were added to the mix. A more subtle difference, but one which is significant, was the absence of a guitar. This is Jackson’s most cohesive artistic statement to date, and one into which he poured his heart and significant musical talent. Overall the album stands as a testament to an artist bucking a system he helped to create in the new wave sound of the late 70s, and succeeding both artistically and commercially.

Joe Jackson Night & Day bandThe musicianship on this album is exemplary. Stalwart Jackson bass player Graham Maby sits in, filling the gaps, while Jackson himself leads the way on piano, organ, and even on alto saxophone. Sue Hadjopoulas adds latin percussion to the mix, which changes the approach of the whole completely. Effectively, the aggression of the guitar is made redundant because of her textures, making this a prime record for showcasing how a percussionist can make a song shine, rather than just be a part of the background. LarryTolfree rounds out the quartet on drums.

The hits are high-profile – the immortal and optimistic “Steppin’ Out” being the biggest, an ode to leaving the worries of life behind for while and becoming child-like again, exploring the wonders of the world at night with a loved one. But that song was the lighter side of what Jackson was exploring here. The main themes are about alienation – being in places, and in times, where one feels out of step, and slightly fearful perhaps of what the future may hold.

New York City is virtually a character here, as illustrated in the album’s opener “Another World”, which has the stranger in a new town looking at the possibilities of what a new life in a new place may have in store. “Chinatown” is about the dangers of the city and being unaccustomed to the instincts required to survive living there. “Target” furthers this theme, with a barrage of percussion and jazz piano which seem to voice the frenetic energy of a city which is both dangerous and equally vital. It is clear that like Jackson’s compositional heroes like Cole Porter (who wrote a song called “Night & Day“, of course) he was greatly inspired by the city as a backdrop. But, the alienation and underlying unease of a new life alone in an unfamiliar location seems to shine through.

Joe Jackson and pianoAnother great theme is the alienation of being in the middle of changing times. Songs like “A Slow Song” and “Real Men” seem to touch on this most, with the changing face of sexual politics and gender roles becoming more and more blurry at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. Although many of these areas changed for the better, Jackson’s materials covers some of the lesser discussed issues that come with changing times – the fear of change, whether for the better or not. The song “Cancer” touches on the innate fear of our times that often stops us from living life to its fullest – and features some of Jackson’s superlative jazz piano chops. “Breaking Us In Two” is another hit, dealing with the real life complexities of love in a modern age – that the boy-meets-girl happily ever after paradigm of the past had passed into something more involved, more challenging, and less easy to grab a hold of.

Night & Day is one of my albums, one of those ones which feels like home. Despite some of the darker tones, I love the contrast it provides with some of the lighter touches too. “Steppin’ Out” to me is one of the best songs ever written – an ode to innocence in a sea of jaded experience. And perhaps this is the beauty of the record as a whole. It is smart enough to celebrate one, without discounting the other.