Weekend Music Break: Offa Rex, “The Queen of Hearts”

Image: Offa Rex (Olivia Chaney + The Decemberists)

[Offa Rex: Olivia Chaney (third from left) and The Decemberists]

While I’ve known of The Decemberists for years, and appreciate their reputation (among folks whose musical taste I trust) as musical geniuses, innovators, and so on, I confess that I’ve not spent much time listening to them. I should probably be embarrassed, too, never (until now) to have heard of English folkie Olivia Chaney. But plenty of others have heard of her, raved over her songwriting and performance… So as it happens, this “Offa Rex” joint project has given me plenty of opportunity to listen to all of them together.

The Queen of Hearts, says NPR, is “an interpolation of vintage British Isles folk music as filtered through electric guitars and a sinewy rock backbeat. The result is both a tribute and translation, connecting the dots between contemporary indie music and a deeper cultural legacy.” Adds The Guardian:

You’re not going to go far wrong with Chaney — a thrilling singer, the Anne Briggs of her generation — on a set of folk standards, but [The Decemberists’ Colin] Meloy and co also deliver. A shimmering, echoing ambience includes chiming guitars, drones, cello, harpsichord and harmonium; the churning “The Old Churchyard” is a standout.

I can’t think of much to add to either estimation (or, to pick just one more, this). But yes: “The Old Churchyard, especially,” grabbed me from the first listen. And Chaney’s rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” while having almost nothing in common with Roberta Flack’s, can stand right alongside it.

Here’s Offa Rex then, and Queen of Hearts:

The Queen of Hearts

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Weekend Music Break: Sarah Beatty, “Bandit Queen (Acoustic)”

Sarah Beatty, in performance

[Image: Sarah Beatty, onstage during an unidentified performance.]

Like writing (especially fiction), music  (especially rock/pop) seems to resist categorization more often than it accepts it. The term “genre” suits the purposes of marketers and distributors at least as much as those of performers and audiences: How do we pitch the products in Category X, using what language, images, and metaphors? How much shelf or disk space, or how much bandwidth will we need to display our Category-X holdings? How much money should we set aside to promote a Category X artist, versus one in Category Y — what will customers pay? And so on.

The artists themselves often try to duck the question (making liberal use of the slash character, as in “punk/power-pop/postmodern,” or claiming a revolutionary fervor the work may or may not deserve, like “a genre-busting novel”); sometimes, they answer it apparently head-on, but in a way which allows the audience to cast its own hopes or disregard on the work (“I write mainstream fiction,” or “I’m a singer-songwriter”).

All of which is to say: my sympathies are heartily extended to Sarah Beatty, her record label, and her management. In various places around the Interwebs I’ve found terms like these to describe her: “singer/songwriter,” “folk,” “old fashioned folk/country blues,” “blues, jazz, country, and soulful styled roots music”… And really, I have no idea what to call her, either. Maybe the best clue about what to expect appeared in a 2012 interview at the 100 Mile Microphone blog. The interviewer asks for an explanation of her first album’s title, Black Gramophone, since it contains no such song or other reference:

[SB] I thought about using a song title, or just my name, but the words ‘Black Gramophone’ just came to me one day, and made sense. Gramophones have this long musical history—RCA, the Grammies—but for me, my music is inspired by old styles. There’s a certain gravitas to my songs, and black represents that, visually.

[100MM] But it’s not funeral black—it’s little black dress black!

[SB] Oh! Thank you! Yes, it’s not meant to be dour. However, there’s a seriousness about it.

If you read between the lines here, you’ll see why this exchange appealed to me: she thinks about her work, and she knows how to use language, and she welcomes light and dark in equal measure.

These traits are all borne out in the debut single from her new album, both called Bandit Queen. While the album’s SoundCloud page, not yet publicly available, self-identifies using a lot of the same terms from the above list (folk, Americana, jazz, blues, etc.), it also includes a new one: folklore.

Belle StarrWhatever other songs on the album might deserve that label, “Bandit Queen” itself, oh yeah: folklore. It’s based on the story — “colorful,” to say the least — of the 19th-century “queen of the outlaws,” Belle Starr. (That’s her to the left, in a photo which Beatty considered using for the album’s art.) More than one party pooper has taken pains — sometimes exhaustive ones — to, er, shoot holes in Starr’s story as it’s popularly come down to us. But listen: folklore, okay? Boiled down, the shape of that story goes something as follows:

Old-West woman of some years — and a checkered domestic life — declines to go quietly into any goddam good night, thank you very much. Instead, she takes up bank robbery, horse-stealing, gunplay, murder, and general cussed criminal orneriness, and dies as she’d lived: violently and disreputably.

I mean, consider: Starr’s daughter became a madam in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Could there be a more perfect little biographical detail for such a creature as a “queen of the outlaws”?

Beatty’s lyrics here are cast in Starr’s own imagined voice. A sampling (the end of the first verse plus the chorus):

I’m a well dressed, fast talking, educated woman, with 40 dead men in sight.

I’m the baddest bandit queen, you did ever see,
I am Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr, hotter than top-rail kerosene.
I’m the baddest bandit queen, you ever did see.

Every detail in these words strikes me as perfectly balanced. But presented in the context of the kicking, take-no-prisoners music — well, I’m just knocked out by this song. That simple see at the end of the above excerpt? Somehow, Beatty’s voice manages to make of that an entire declamatory phrase, comprising what sounds like fifteen or twenty syllables.

She seems to like trying out various effects with her voice, pulling it down low and then rippling up and out: I wonder what would happen if I did this thing…? The voice goes up and down and slithers sideways; at one point, Beatty strongly reminds me of something which Aretha Franklin manages to pull off about 30-40 seconds into “Think.” Franklin’s voice itself: something of a Belle Star among a crowd of more everyday “strong woman” instruments, am I right? This is quite a stunt for Beatty, no matter how musically dissimilar the songs might be otherwise.

Over there at the right, the SoundCloud player for the acoustic version of the tune; listen for yourself. And keep your eyes (and ears) open for the upcoming February 3 release of the full Bandit Queen. What happens to it will ultimately be in the hands of all those confused marketing-and-distribution institutions I mentioned earlier, but it deserves a wide, hungry audience of music lovers.

Edit to add (2017-02-18): The Bandit Queen album, all thirteen songs, is exactly what I’d expected it to be: in short, more of the same kind of smart, idiosyncratic, generous songwork on display in the single’s acoustic version.

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “I’ve Got Sixpence”

[Video: the credit line from the YouTube uploader says, “From the LP More Do-Re-Mi: The Songs Children Love to Sing, Kapp Records, 1963.”]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

The first statement I ever heard of the “Poverty can be fun!” theme came from a 33-1/3 RPM record album my parents bought when I was a kid. The album (first described here) was one of a set — probably twelve — designed to introduce children to music of various kinds; the disc in question, I think, was called “Songs of Work” or some such.

The version in the video above is not from the album I remember. I don’t remember kids’ voices singing this song, although it has supposedly been a traditional summer-camp favorite for decades. No, my version featured a men’s chorus, strong and hearty, and you could almost imagine them marching home from the mines as they sang. It sounded more like this truncated, one-verse version, from Mitch Miller and “The Gang” (as he styled them):

Either way, whether you listen to the full-length cover or the foreshortened, you get hit with the message right there in the first two lines:

I’ve got sixpence,
Jolly, jolly sixpence…

Even if we can’t think of a single item which now can be obtained for a mere six cents, we get the point: the guy carries a mere handful of change in his sweaty workingman’s palm… and is happy about it. How can this be? We look to the rest of the first verse:

…I’ve got tuppence to spend,
and tuppence to lend,
and tuppence to send up to my wife (poor wife).

So not only does he start out with mere pennies; he looks forward to divvying his fortune up even further. A third for pleasure! a third to share! and a third, presumably, for expenses (managed by a loving — albeit poor — wife)! And if we’re still skeptical, he continues:

No cares have I to grieve me,
No pretty little girls to deceive me.
I’m happy as a king — believe me —
As [I/we] go rolling home!

The one-verse version of the song misses the finely sharpened knifepoint of the entire song, though. For with each succeeding verse, the amount of cash on hand dwindles, and he must adjust his choices accordingly:

…I’ve got fourpence
To last me all my life.

I’ve a penny to spend
And a penny to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got tuppence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got no pence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

[Read more…]

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Weekend Music Break/What’s in a Song: Various Artists, “The Skye Boat Song”

[Video: opening title sequence from the Outlander television series]

The Missus and I have been watching, with pleasure, the Starz TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. The pleasure is personal, since we both know Ms. Gabaldon. (As we have since her first drafts of individual paragraphs in what would become the first of the book series, twenty-five years ago.)

And the pleasure is also aesthetic, I guess you could say — of particular interest, today, the music.

When I first heard the Outlander theme song, I was dazzled — the lyrics, melody, arrangement, and accompanying visuals during the open credits: all seemed of a piece. Mysterious, mystical, wistful… all those adjectives that I thought to apply as well to (say) the closing title theme in The Return of the King.

Here are the lyrics:

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye…

It fits the story, sorta-kinda, and features a disappearing lass, and lots of rich imagery. (Outlander‘s protagonist is a 1940s-era British nurse who falls through a sort of temporal discontinuity into the Scotland of the 1740s.) From the start, I — grammar nerd alert! — liked about the theme that the lyricist used the first-person singular pronoun for those end-rhymes… exactly as s/he should have.

But then during the season finale episode, one thing suddenly grated on me. They hadn’t used “I” consistently perfectly. Last line of the middle stanza: see it? a subjective me. ARGH. You lazy bastards, I thought. And you were doing so well

As one does, over the next day or two I looked to the Internets for support from others outraged by such minutiae.

…and, um, well… I was wrong. (Sorta-kinda.)

[Read more…]

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Midweek Music Break: Hannalee, “Valhalla” and “Never Been to Memphis”

Hannalee: Fidelia, Michael, Anna-Lisa

Seattle’s Hannalee comprises the almost impossibly photogenic threesome of husband-and-wife Michael Harley* and Anna-Lisa Notter, and childhood friend Fidelia Rowe. When you look at any of their group photos — even without having heard their music, or knowing anything more about them — you might think: Wow. I thought I’d heard of most of the San Francisco groups from the ’60s… how’d I miss them?

If you take a gander at some of their other photos, like this one, you may find the San Francisco folk-rockers comparison almost too apt for coincidence.

Looks (as we all know) can be deceiving. But in Hannalee’s case, you might not be far off the mark. Oh, they don’t specialize at all in psychedelia or any such genres; but the sense of the late ’60s is there, all right — the sense of distant possibilities, brought suddenly within reach via music.

It’s folk music, sort of, and that’s how they seem to identify themselves. (Their Bandcamp profile says: “Blending the sounds of traditional folk music with elements of dark, neverland whimsy, Hannalee creates a unique music strange and familiar at once.”) But their three-part harmonies can also verge on something older, even choral. And of course, if they’re singing in an old church (Seattle’s Fremont Abbey) with strings behind them… The song is “Valhalla,” from the first of four seasons-of-the-year EPs (the autumn title, Cucurbita — the pumpkin genus — just released a few months ago):

[Lyrics]

And here’s how they sound in the studio, also on the Cucurbita EP; the song is “Never Been to Memphis.”

[Below, click Play button to begin Never Been to Memphis. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:28 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

[Lyrics]

The series’ winter release, Brassica, just came out last week.

By the way, I don’t know how they chose the name Hannalee. But The Kingston Trio (among others) recorded a song called “Hanna Lee.” (It was written by a Stan Jones — perhaps the one who penned “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”) The words to that song, at least as performed by the Kingstons, go like this:

Your dusty eyes were soft and glowin’ when first I met you, Hanna Lee.
There was no way for me a-knowin’ the sorrow your sweet caress would
bring to me.

Chorus:
High, high, high is the gallows. (Yeah, and it’s long) long as the rope that
waits for me.
High as the gallows. They’ll hang me for your sins, my Hanna Lee.

You shot and killed your cruel husband because you found you loved but me,
And then you lied before the jury and they blamed for your sins, my Hanna Lee.

Chorus:

Down at the jail on hangin’ mornin’, I heard you tell them you had lied.
Your dusty eyes were soft and glowin’ and I saw you hang your head and cry.

I can’t quite wrap my head around the idea that this song and Hannalee’s ethereal look and sound might be connected, but who knows? Musical history, especially of the folk variety, traces some mysterious pathways.

[Hat tip to Simon of Beat Surrender for the intro to Hannalee.]

_______________

Is Michael Harley’s last name really Harley? It’s very confusing: Web sites seem split about 50-50 in identifying him as Michael Notter or Michael Harley. At Bandcamp and their own site, he goes by the latter. I tossed a (loaded) coin.

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Midweek Music Break: Jazzy Joni

Joni Mitchell, or so I thought around the time I first heard of her, epitomized the sweet-and-fragile visuals of hippie-folk culture.

(With her long straight blonde hair, oh-so-slender frame and a voice to match, with her acoustic guitar and simple attire, she seemed a Mary Travers wannabe — maybe her gawky delicate second or third cousin, who admired her from a distance at family reunions and weddings.)

Sometimes her songs seemed to come out of that culture, too, especially the hits like “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” They cemented (in my mind) the image of a dreamy mystic tinged with social consciousness. I saw her in person in 1969, at the Atlantic City Pop Festival held a couple weeks before Woodstock; that restive crowd, especially in the context of her preference for small clubs, drove her from the stage in tears before she’d even finished a single song. (I vaguely remember thinking something adolescent-male shallow like, What the heck is her problem?!?) Obviously — obviously — she was way too delicate and inconsequential to have much staying power in the rough-and-tumble of rock…

Haha. Yeah, I know: what a jerk.

Eventually it sank in that her songs were complex little bundles of sound and sense, which only seemed simple if, like me, you had never really listened to them. Even when it’s just her and her guitar or piano, she interacts with her music, plays with it, responds to it — especially when she moves out of contemplative mode, relaxes, and takes up the rhythms of jazz.

Her first song which hit me that way was “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” from 1972’s For the Roses. The grinning-over-her-shoulder, winking lilt fits the lyrics like a saddle. “If your head says forget it / But your heart’s still smoking”: oh, what I’d give to have written such a poised, nuanced line!

[Below, click Play button to begin You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:39 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Lyrics:

You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio
(Joni Mitchell)

If you’re driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who’s bound to love you

Oh honey you turn me on
I’m a radio
I’m a country station
I’m a little bit corny
I’m a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

And I’m sending you out
This signal here
I hope you can pick it up
Loud and clear
I know you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks

It’s been dirty for dirty
Down the line
But you know
I come when you whistle
When you’re loving and kind

But if you’ve got too many doubts
If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, ’cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head
And you wind up cracking
And the day goes dismal

From “Breakfast Barney”
To the sign-off prayer
What a sorry face you get to wear
I’m going to tell you again now
If you’re still listening there

If you’re driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who’s bound to love you

If you’re lying on the beach
With the transistor going
Kick off the sandflies honey
The love’s still flowing
If your head says forget it
But your heart’s still smoking
Call me at the station
The lines are open

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The Steam Drill Only Made Nine (Lord, Lord)

When my siblings and I were kids, at some point Mom and Dad bought us a huge collection of LPs of music of all sorts — a passive music-appreciation course, of sorts, for kids in a small town. The entire set arrived in a cardboard box which none of us (but Dad) could lift. Each album was enclosed in its own slim box, with its own little brochure full of lyrics and other notes. (One album came with an additional surprise: the one about orchestral music included a small, slender conductor’s wand.)

I sometimes wonder whatever became of that set. Some of the albums got broken, for sure, but it’s hard to believe they all did. Maybe they ended up in the homes of my adult sisters and/or brother, or maybe — less likely, but you never know — maybe they’re taking up space down in Mom’s basement.

On the other hand, I don’t wonder what happened to the music itself. It — much of it — remains stuck in my head.

Among the hoariest of complaints by an older generation (any older generation) about the younger are those about “the music nowadays.” I try to keep an open mind, myself; I’ve heard too much wonderful music by people decades younger than I am to do otherwise. But I do worry from time to time about the looooong golden thread of folk music… and the prospect that it may be in jeopardy.

Well, no, that’s not quite right. Not the music per se. Let’s say I worry about the future of the stories which the music tells, and the language in which those stories are told.

[Read more…]

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