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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

October 2014: New And Old Music, New And Old Formats

One of the questions I’ve been most often asked in interviews is: ‘are you listening to anything new?’ Or, ‘have you discovered any new music that you like?’


I’m not quite sure why everyone wants to know this, or even, to be honest, what they actually mean. How new does it have to be to qualify as ‘new’? The truthful answer is that I’m constantly discovering music I like which is new to me, and I don’t particularly care if it was recorded in 2014 or 1714. I could say that I’m discovering more and more early jazz – Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Don Redman – but no one wants to hear about that. Nor are they very impressed by references to new work by long-established artists (see last month’s comments on Robert Plant and Todd Rundgren). Ultimately what they seem to be doing is trying to get me on to their territory, preoccupied as it is with youth, novelty, and, you know, coolness. About which I do not give a damn.


Nevertheless, this is new:


JAKE BUGG: Shangri-La


Jake Bugg’s second album has been recorded in Malibu, California with a heavyweight producer (Rick Rubin) - and he’s still only 20 years old. He’s a prodigiously gifted songwriter and if you can picture the photos of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney on the cover of With The Beatles, and merge them together, you very spookily end up with the black-and-white image of Mr. Bugg which accompanies this album. What’s not to like?


Well, I could suggest his adenoidal English-midlands voice – though, to be fair, it’s not as grating as this kind of voice can sometimes be. It’s just that while his songwriting has gotten off to a flying start, his singing is a bit one-dimensional, and if I were his producer, I’d spend a lot more time trying to get him to see what else he can do with his voice. Being distinctive is a great thing until it becomes relentless. (I’ll never forget how blown away I was the first time I heard Bjork, and how soon I desperately wanted her to shut the fuck up).


But this guy is so young, for God’s sake. Right now he can get away with anything: singing like Lonnie Donegan, citing Don McLean as his biggest influence, everything looks clever. I only hope he can mature in some interesting ways before everyone loses interest. (I imagine a scene on a Nottingham housing estate sometime in the future: a broken-down, wizened wreck of a 35-year-old man shuffles past two locals, one of whom asks who that sad bastard is. ‘Yes, a sad case indeed,’ sighs the other: ‘he used to be Jake Bugg’).


Bugg comes across as a cynical romantic, or a romantic cynic, something you expect of a much older artist (the cynical part comes easy; you need to build up some strength of character to be a romantic). I’m not sure that this album is better than his first, but it’s very good, with its best songs scattered throughout, rather than front-loaded, as they are with lesser talents. More power to him.


VARIOUS ARTISTS: The History of Rhythm And Blues, Vol. II: 1942-1952


There’s another kind of question I never know how to answer, and it has to do with the inexorable advance of technology and the various ways it has unravelled the music industry I grew up with. The biggest record company honchos, management Svengalis, and PR wizards in the business – or what’s left of a business – are all running around like decapitated chickens, and you’re asking me what’s to be done?!


Just for the record, I haven’t the vaguest idea, though it’s interesting (in a whistling-past-the-graveyard sort of way) to note the resurgence of vinyl. I just heard that the vinyl version of Jack White’s new album has become the biggest selling in 20 years (since Jake Bugg was born, in fact). No, I don’t think we’re going back to the 1970s, when even moderately-successful artists could sell truckloads of LPs. But I think it’s undeniable that there’s still a desire to have music in a tangible form, something with pictures and words on it, which you can actually hold in your hand.


CD is, incidentally, still the dominant format in Japan, one of the world’s biggest (and most technologically advanced) music markets. Here in Berlin, though, there are lots of small record shops, patronised by 20-something hipsters, which increasingly sell nothing but vinyl. CDs are the losers here, which is not exactly a tragedy. If I still listen to most of my music on CD, it’s more because I have so many of the damn things, than because I love them. The booklets quite often drive me crazy. They seem to be designed by people whose pet peeve is having to design CD booklets. Among my pet peeves are (a) visual fantasias laid over the text to the point of making the text completely illegible, (b) the lyrics of ten or twelve songs all mashed together like one stream-of-consciousness sentence, with no breaks; or (c) text so small as to be invisible without the aid of an Electron Microscope.


There’s one thing that CDs are pretty good for, though, and that is compilations and boxed sets. When they’re done properly, they can’t be beat. The History of Rhythm And Blues, Vol. II – the second of now four compilations from the admirable UK-based Rhythm and Blues label - has four generous CDs of immortal music, beautifully remastered and packaged, with a meticulously-researched, lavishly illustrated, and informative 64-page booklet. The whole thing is about the size of a 250-page paperback book (another dead format which refuses to die) whereas in vinyl format, it would probably include at least 8 LPs and be housed in something like an IKEA wardrobe.


This set includes some big names (Nat ‘King’ Cole, Louis Jordan, B. B. King, some early Ray Charles) but some of its greatest pleasures come courtesy of people like Lucky Millinder, Roy Liggins, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And there’s endless fascinating trivia in the liner notes. I never knew, for instance, that New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair once had a band called The Shuffling Hungarians. Or that Rubberlegs Williams (whose classic That’s The Blues has both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie jamming in the background) was employed by Duke Ellington as a minder for some of the Duke’s many girlfriends, and that he got the job mainly on account of being gay.


Where else are you going to find stuff like this?! Apart from online, I mean.