Pick of the Week #7
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 8, 2021

Mose Allison
Your Mind Is On Vacation/What Do You Do After You Ruin Your Life

I have to admit I haven't the slightest idea about how many people have ever heard the name Mose Allison (1917-2016), or listened to his music. Something which I regard as puzzling, now that the Web makes it possible for one to explore every stimulus without any intermediaries needed, in a day and age when "popular" music is a topic of interest on newspapers and "general interest" magazines - and what about obituaries? - in so differently from the past, when music was the sole province of "specialized" publications.

I have to confess that, once in a while, I've wondered if Mose Allison's politics and beliefs - I think he could be said to be a "socialist" ą la Bernie Sanders - may have contributed to the "selective" coverage given to him by various media. As a chronicler of the modern world, I have to register the "canonization" of such figures of country music - the obvious example being, of course, Johnny Cash - that once upon a time the "rock world" used to regard... with a certain amount of suspicion. I'll also mention Willie Nelson, an "atypical" musician that the "rock world" does not appear to recognize as "one of us", in so differently from "the man in black".

These are complex (but unavoidable: did anyone ever think about the mere possibility of James Hetfield having any "roots", before the release of the "black album", or consider as a possibility the fact of Metallica doing a cover of Bob Seger's Turn The Page?) issues, about which one can be seriously wrong, especially when looking at facts from a great distance, both geographically and culturally.

There's also a much simpler (and somewhat paradoxical) explanation, of course: the fact of Mose Allison being filed under "jazz", appearing at "jazz" Festivals, being talked about on "jazz" magazines, and placed in the "jazz" section of record shops. Which, as we all know, is something like "the kiss of death".

The paradox being that in the 60s famous rock groups such as the Kinks and the Who saw Mose Allison as an important figure for the development of their music; while important figures of the "British Blues" used to cover his songs - just think about John Mayall recording a cover of Parchman Farm on the highly celebrated album titled Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton (1966), the album that's commonly known as "The 'Beano' album".

Meanwhile, the cover of Parchman Farm recorded by Cactus (a group that, trying to be of help, I'll say "featured the ace rhythm section of Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, fresh off Vanilla Fudge", something that I'm sure won't be of any help to the majority of readers) and featured on their first album of same name (1970) is pure dynamite.

But the most celebrated cover of a Mose Allison song is still Young Man Blues as recorded by the Who, appearing as the opening track of their (still?) legendary Live At Leeds (1970).

Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Mose Allison studied the piano (and read a lot) listening to many forms of blues and jazz. Went to New York, recorded a few albums for Prestige. But though he was well regarded as a pianist, it was his singing - at first, covers of such classics as The Seventh Son, Eyesight To The Blind, Rollin' Stone; then, originals such as Young Man Blues) that received the wider acclaim, in time becoming a credible model of a white artist playing the blues for the aforementioned British musicians.

So Prestige released a "best of", Mose Allison Sings (1963). And in a short time Mose Allison got even better on those albums recorded for Atlantic. There are quite a few fine albums from this period, but for a first-time listener I'd suggest The Best Of Mose Allison, which I found in the second-hand bin of a record store, as a fantastic way to spend an hour.

(Funny to notice that sometimes, in his most ruminative moments, I seem to detect a few passages that here and there seem to remind me of The Doors' Ray Manzarek, something which I assume could be the effect of some shared classical influences.)

Mose Allison's repertory is vast. However, one can find that in his discography some of his pieces - both famous and obscure - appear more than once, in quite different versions.

Mose Allison's songs are sometimes funny, while at other times they present profound meditations in a simple, direct, language. Mose Allison's songs have also been called "homilies": a word that nowadays may also have a negative connotation. But if one just thinks about the deep link between gospel, blues, and the pulpit, everything will be alright.

Pragmatically, I have a soft spot for the album called Your Mind Is On Vacation (1976), which in the distant past was also released on CD by Koch (2000).

The album features excellent renditions of such Mose Allison classics as No Matter, One Of These Days, I Feel So Good, Swingin' Machine, Your Molecular Structure. Opening track Your Mind Is On Vacation (And Your Mouth Is Working Overtime), ebullient and funny, is one I sometimes sing to myself while in front of a mirror.

The other side of the coin being What Do You Do After You Ruin Your Life: quite sad, deep, and, in a way, sympathetic. "Can you tell your friends, can you face your wife?" (...) "Do you seek the truth in times when lies are ripe?"

One last thing: Mose Allison was never "cynical". Whatever the times, this is what I'd define as an "essential" quality to have.

Lyle Lovett
I've Been To Memphis/Baltimore

I guess that nowadays Lyle Lovett is maybe more known for his being an actor than a musician. What's true is that while the list of movies in which he appears grows longer every year, his most recent album was released in 2012. It goes without saying that most people appear to know him (only, or especially) for being Julia Roberts's (former) husband.

Lovett has often been presented to the public as a "country singer". His public figure does not appear to avoid the usual traits of the stereotype: hat, boots, ranch, pick-up, horses, and bulls (and a broken leg, as reported in a long, detailed, portrait that appeared long ago in the pages of the New Yorker.

My quite tepid interest when it comes to most things country was the reason I took no interest in what the first articles I saw about him had to say. Until one day, in the year 2000, I happened to read an interesting discussion on the music Forum of which I was a member (first and only time in my life): the Forum moderated by producer, engineer, and inventor George Massenburg.

The album that was discussed, Joshua Judges Ruth (1992), appeared to be a very interesting work for a whole series of reasons, not least because Massenburg himself had co-produced, recorded, and mixed it, so I decided to buy it.

How an album like that could be ever presented as a "country" album? One had to get at track #10, She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To, in order to find a song that appeared to be there just to give "country radio" something to add to their playlist (it was also the worst song of the album, as a song, regardless of "style").

Lovett sounded as a versatile singer and as a mature songwriter, the album was quite varied. A lot of very fine musicians appeared on the album, among them: Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums), Dean Parks (guitar), and the incredible Matt Rollings (piano), not to mention those "special guests".

The sound of the album was something else: a DDD that sounded "full analogue", a CD that made a humble system sound like a million bucks, lotsa details and precision in the sound of the individual instruments, and the whole.

The "style" of the music was quite unusual to me - a simple narration like the one in North Dakota was quite difficult for me to decipher, culturally - but in time Joshua Judges Ruth became one of those "classic" albums that every time offer a different side, starting with the sound of the guitars.

Opening track, I've Been To Memphis is a funny portrait that's not a million miles from something penned by Randy Newman. Great grand piano performance, hot rhythm section, two false endings.

Choosing a particular song is quite difficult, but in time I found myself returning to the one called Baltimore, a sad story with sinister implications (but it's the whole album that inhabits gospel, blues, and country, climates) whose main elements appear to be the singer's breath, throat, and saliva (wonder how they did?); while the mix, which at first has the voice as its main ingredient, progressively envelops the main character-narrator in ways that are bound to involve the listener.

Fun fact, every time I tried to listen to another Lyle Lovett album - the last time being at the time of It's Not Big, It's Large (2007) - I wasn't particularly impressed. And since this was not a priority for me, I decided to file the whole thing under "another of life's mysteries".

'Til one day I happened to find online, in another Forum, this passage by George Massenburg from 2005:

"That was a tough record to make. I felt like I was the only one who heard it that way, other than the brilliant musicians on the record. I fought with no one more than with Lyle Lovett  himself. Not sure why... maybe insecurity, madness, during the making of this record Lyle treated me and every idea I had with suspicion and distrust. Every word I said, every move I made, had to be justified and defended (think your worst nightmare of a control freak in the recording studio). Overall, the feeling I was left with was that I was taking a very great deal of his money for doing nothing but interfering with his artistic vision. He has not made a better record since."

And so the story goes...

Ani DiFranco
Lag Time/Minerva/Recoil

I was having a look at a video of Taylor Swift's performance taped not too long ago at US "public" radio npr, as part of their famous series Tiny Desk Concerts, when I saw Taylor Swift starting to sing a voice-and-guitar version of her famous hit The Man, whose video I had watched a few times. But with no video, as played on a naked guitar, the song showed quite a few similarities to the work of a singer I know quite well, and I heard myself think: "This sounds just like a song by Ani DiFranco!". Hence, my question: Why nobody talks about Ani DiFranco?

It goes without saying that "nobody" is a variable quantity. I bet readers won't be surprised to know this is a question I have asked myself a few times in the past, and I also asked a few people "in the know" who live in the States.

At the time of her mid-90 "explosion" - I still remember the Spin cover story, DiFranco dressed in leather, appearing at quite a few newsstands in my town - DiFranco seemed destined to become a superstar.

"It's not her", said the competent guy I had questioned about the reasons why music magazines appeared to give her a lot less ink than what in my opinion she deserved, according to such "objective indicators" as album sales and concert attendance. "It's the audience she talks to and that follows her that's regarded as being "niche", of "special interest", compared to the audience in general."

The story went on, there were a few more beautiful albums released, but the publication of her autobiography - No Walls And The Recurring Dream (2019) - had me puzzled. I hadn't heard about it, and those reviews I read last year were few and not particularly interesting. Then, I watched a few video interviews that all shared the same qualities: i.e., they all looked like "cultural programs". Which in a way it's fantastic, the only inconvenient factor being their audience, whose main characteristics appear to be: a) an age way older than the average; and b) a level of consumption that very often starts and stops with watching such programs. Many of these people don't even seem able to remember the title of the last album they bought.

All this, right at the moment when new singers-songwriters appear to mention many female musicians as an influence, but never Ani DiFranco. While "female groups" such as Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill are about to tour, Covid permitting, on a scale they never saw in their prime.

Maybe because Ani DiFranco is not "rock", but "folk"? Too many political speeches? Maybe because she didn't try for "the prize", "selling out"? Maybe because she's fifty?

There are two albums I always mention as "required listening" to the uninitiated: Evolve (2003), featuring her old, great, group, winds, her piano, and jazz; and Knucke Down (2005), co-produced by Joe Henry, featuring double bass, strings, the chamberlain, and a certain "alt-country" flavour; or, if one so prefers, not too far from climates that are often referred to as "Americana". (Interested readers will find my reviews of said albums in the dusty old pages of this webzine.)

After having to confront some serious personal traumas, Ani DiFranco asked Joe Henry to act as a kind of "objective ear", and musical coordinator. And so, this album features the artist as more of a "singer" than in the past, while the music "frames" her in ways that maybe sound a tiny bit more "conventional", but not at the expense of beauty and believability.

Lag Time is an "almost bossa nova" that shows the singer "stretching" the spaces of the phrase that acts as the song's chorus. Minerva inhabits chilly spaces, with the lonely accompaniment of a sinister-sounding melodica. The album closer, Recoil, stresses a spirit of survival, all notwithstanding. "Empowering"? "Life-affirming"? Simply excellent anyway.

Godley & Creme

The "artistic" half of 10cc (who else could have written "Does getting into Zappa mean getting out of Zen?", off Art School Canteen) always cultivated irony, wordplay, movie-like song sceneries (from Somewhere In Hollywood to One Night In Paris), with an unconventional attitude when it comes to music-making for (almost) everybody, starting with the album released under the name Hotlegs - Thinks: School Stinks (1971) - coming after the strange and impossible-to-categorize hit that the previous summer had become an ear-worm (in different ways, sure) for just everybody: Neanderthal Man.

While remaining 5cc soldiered on under the same moniker, Kevin Godley & Lol Creme went on putting "quotation marks" everywhere, with results that at first sunk them commercially (a triple album featuring spoken parts, Consequences, released at the peak of punk fever), while later making it possible for them to survive releasing albums forgotten by fashion that can be safely re-discovered today (L, Freeze Frame, ISMISM, Birds Of Prey), at not much of a price, without dangerous counter-effects.

But with the passing of time their record contract proved to be a burden, not an opportunity. Hence, a new life and a new career: film-makers. Or at least, the version of the job that found greener pastures in the field of video-music and on MTV (the list of videos conceived and directed by the duo is almost endless, and quite easy to find).

Cry (1985) is the kind of track that a quarter of a century earlier could have charted alongside Stand By Me, a perfect example of a classic "quotation mark" song by Godley & Creme.

The genial move being the concept for a video - the word "morphing" being used, the technique really being the quite more usual, but very skillfully employed, "analog cross-fading" - that's impossible to forget.

Maybe music had lost the possibility to tell a story without the use of images? Cry is a fine way to ask the question.

© Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 8, 2021