In Defense of Britpop: A Riposte to Taylor Parkes

By Fam Li

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It was 25 years ago today…

I recently read Taylor Parkes’ (who wrote a great piece on The Fall! – ed) long and very provocative think piece on Blur’s iconic third album Parklife and, more generally, on Britpop’s cultural status (and cultural worth) as a whole on the online music magazine the Quietus. It was actually written in 2014 (that’s about half a decade ago) but was recently dusted off again by the Quietus in order to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of that landmark album. Parkes was a writer for the Melody Maker throughout the Britpop era (in fact he wrote for them for throughout most of the 90s), and was therefore on the journalistic front lines, so to speak, of a musical and cultural movement that seemed, more than any other, to be fuelled and sustained by clever PR and by music press and industry hype. Parkes’ is therefore no second hand testimony, he was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have lived through the whole thing and is able to speak from his own experiences. I experienced that whole era too, although in a much more vicarious way than Taylor Parkes, that is, as a music loving teen back in the mid-90s: as an avid reader of the NME (meaning that I was, alas, unfamiliar with Parkes’ oeuvre until I read the Quietus article) and enthusiastic (although to varying degrees) member of the record buying public. Britpop happened to coincide with that time in my life when I was just starting to become seriously interested in music and was beginning to buy CDs and identify myself with different musical groups and artistes all of which means that I do have a certain fondness for the period, even if I am far from uncritical of its cultural impact or the preponderance of second rate music that characterised it.

Now Parkes’ article gets a lot of things right — and I will come to that bit shortly — but I also think that he gets a lot more wrong. And then there’s the whole question of the tone of the piece, the bitterness and the sense of sour grapes that are inescapable throughout its entire length. It seems as if the author still harbours intense feelings of resentment over the fact that he was obliged, during his time with the Melody Maker, to write about bands and music that he had no real respect or admiration for — and although he has every right to be resentful, that resentment along with an unhealthy, and at times very misleading, dose of hindsight, colours his view of the whole period, and more saliently of the music of that period, to a wholly unreasonable extent. And the main target of all this resentment just happens to be Albarn and his merry band of self-satisfied mockney minstrels. For Parkes Parklife (I’m guessing his surname might something to do with his fixation) is emblematic of everything that was wrong about Britpop, whereas Britpop in its turn is emblematic of everything that went wrong culturally, economically, intellectually, and politically (take your pick) with Britain in the last half decade or so before the start of the new millennium — and beyond.

In particular Britpop sounded the death knell of a certain kind of alternative youth culture, a sort of updated and significantly less elitist version of Bohemianism, that stood in opposition to the demeaning practises and exploitative commercial ethos of the mainstream music industry. More generally though it stood against the dehumanising and assimilating tendencies of late 20th century capital, in the form (post 1970s) of a growing and rampant Neoliberalism, and instead promoted a strong community based DIY ethic. This actually gave young people, in particular, an important degree of social autonomy in which to fashion their own aesthetic, cultural and intellectual values apart (albeit to varying extents) from the mainstream conventions so favoured by their elders. It was a sort of cocooned idealism.

Britpop doesn’t deserve to be remembered with any real fondness or nostalgia, Parkes seems to be saying — not necessarily because it was there, in the space of those three or four years, that the (counter-) cultural rot really began to take hold — but because it was in that period that it could have been, and really should have been, stopped. In other words for Parkes Britpop was the socio-cultural point of no return.

Parklife!

Where does Parklife fit into this process of cultural degeneration? Now although Parkes does begrudgingly concede that the Essex foursome were more than capable of writing the odd decent song or two, and that ‘[b]its of [the album] are really good’, his overall view of the album is strongly negative and he is deeply scathing in terms both of its impact on the music scene of the time and on what was to follow. Seriously though, the dude doesn’t hold back. He describes the album as both ‘heartless and sour’ and ‘infuriatingly bubbly’, and feels that Albarn himself is ‘phenomenally hard to stomach’, calls his lyrics ‘horribly grating’, while individual songs are described as smug and uncaring, and ‘vaguely sinister.’ However Parklife’s abiding sin (aside from any considerations of its artistic worth or lack thereof) lies in the fact that, more than any other single record — or any other cultural artefact really — it was *the* album to usher in this new phase in the subversion and co-option of a youth culture that up until then still had a few vague pretensions to being radical and alternative; indeed Parkes treats Parklife rather as if it was some kind of cultural Trojan Horse. For instance, it’s accused of (or at least suspected of having a rather large hand in) among other things: inaugurating the total gentrification and de-bohemification of London, as well as being complicit in the destruction of its traditional working class culture (Parkes describes the album as having a ‘penchant for smirking caricatures of working class culture’) being entirely cynical in its (often ironic) plundering of the past for musical inspiration and setting off a trend for the same; and of being a calculated attempt by the band to win over mainstream popularity while at the same time holding on to their pre-existing indie cred, and thereby making selling-out a respectable option for other musical groups.

Parkes, of course, doesn’t just stop there, (even if Blur are always his chief targets) he also has some very choice words to say about the unscrupulousness of a mid-90s music press that, spurred on by an ever increasing greed for sales (and the resulting move towards increasing tabloidification) decided at a certain point that it would throw all caution to the wind and go full on in with the Britpop gravy train. It thus ended up goading on and helping to manufacture some of the worst excesses of the genre, revelling in its crassness, its celebration of homogeneity, and just out and out mediocrity — all the while reluctant to do anything, aside from maybe printing the occasional snipe, that might put its new stable (probably more of a barn) of cash-cows at risk. Parkes’ critique also takes in (obviously, how could it not?) Oasis along with a whole cast list of Britpop also-rans, bands whose very names if they’re remembered at all, have gone onto become a series of cautionary punchlines over the years: Sleeper, Shed 7, Cast! At the end of the day, Parkes assures us, the music itself just hasn’t stood the test of time, and he admits to only having hung on to a handful of records from the period in question — none of which he feels a strong urge to ever listen to again. In Parkes’ view then, Britpop’s legacy is an unhappy one on almost all counts, although once again its greatest fault is in the complacency which it seemed to breed in a generation of musicians, journalists, and artists that made them unable or unwilling to perceive the downward spiral in which we were, all of us, headed as a culture, and to even just trace out an attempt at some kind of radical intervention.

Li Contra Parkes

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think that Parkes is fundamentally correct in several of his denunciations of Britpop. Yes, it was an extremely vapid and backwards-looking movement and one which would indeed turn out to herald the final stage in the (almost) complete takeover of youth culture by corporate brands and corporate sponsorship. It *was* thoroughly anti-intellectual and was undoubtedly responsible for the quality of the content and the writing in the (mainstream) music press plummeting somewhere around the mid-to-late 90s. It also gave the world lad-culture with its promotion of sexism, excessive masturbation and the over-consumption of alcohol (the last two are fine in moderate doses by the way, I ain’t no puritan). Amongst numerous other horrible things it also introduced the world to the odious Guy Ritchie and his poisonous fetishization of English working class culture, as well as setting the ball rolling on making jingoism and nationalism respectable again. (And speaking more seriously it also gave the world Blairism which was to signify endless war and the near total-destruction of the left from within). And, yes, the music (being hyped up to the ceiling week in week out the pages of the NME and the Melody Maker) could also be thoroughly mediocre, if not actually straight out piss poor. Bearing all that in mind though I still find Parkes’ criticisms far too sweeping overall, if not extremely unfair and misguided in parts. Let me explain why.

It’s all about the music, man…

The first issue I have with Parkes’ article relates to his dismissive evaluation of the music. Yes there was a fair amount of chaffy old-shite being held up as premium grade golden wheat at the time; on the other hand, however, a good deal of what was released back then actually still holds up now two decades and a half on. Let’s start with Parkes’ big bête noire, Blur. Leaving aside his criticisms of Parklife, Blur’s most influential (if not, in my opinion, their best) album, I find it strange that he doesn’t once mention its successor, the Great Escape, an album that is as close to peak Britpop as it possible to get (the other major contender for that title, Menswe@r’s second album, having only ever been released in Japan) and one which reveals a band which had, at certain points, clearly crossed over the threshold into self-parody (see especially, Mr. Robinsons Quango, the ironically named Stereotypes), a threshold they had still only been hovering in the vicinity of on their previous LP. Indeed, the Great Escape is guilty of most of the sins committed by the band on the previous album — many of which Parkes helpfully singles out in his lengthy screed — and on some counts even surpasses it (as the music press, though generally laudatory of the album, acknowledged at the time). Perhaps Parkes held the album in such deep contempt that he couldn’t even bring himself to nominate it in his article — or might it be, that despite its being as smug, and as condescending, and as full of ‘smirking caricatures’, as its predecessor, if not more so, The Great Escape doesn’t tend to grate quite in the same way that Parklife does? Indeed what saves the album from being the conceptual auto-disaster that it could so easily have been — and that actually helps to take the edge off Albarn’s infuriating smugness and cultural insensitivity, which Parkes does kind of have a point about — is the depth and polish of songwriting talent that the album ends up bringing to light. Actually, Parkes does mention Country House (the lead single off the Great Escape) describing it as ‘almost supernaturally shit’ (an accolade he simultaneously accords to Roll With It, which was pretty awful in fact), and while I do agree that certain aspects of the song are pretty dumb/questionable — the lyrics are as puffed up and conceited as ever, yet another stilted, rudimentary attempt at social commentary devoid of charm or wit; the music video is dreadfully, painfully sexist (with the transparently lame excuse that of course it’s supposed to be a ironic pastiche of Benny Hill or some shit), and features Albarn at his most fantastically punchable — overall it turns out to be quite successful as a piece of pseudo-trashy pop music, in a way that both Girls and Boys and Parklife aspired to be but never actually were (indeed I tend to place the latter pair on a level with your average novelty single); the brashness works out this time because, cocky cunt that he is, Albarn had improved, markedly, as a songwriter.

The larger point which I want to make is this, namely, that we shouldn’t let the very many cultural failings of the Britpop era blind us to the fact that, thinking in terms purely of its musical legacy, it did actually end up leaving behind some very good records — enough of them, at least, to make Parkes’ Britpop takedown feel petty and actually rather specious. Pulp, for instance, managed to release two absolutely blinding albums during those years, His N Hers and Different Class (I’m leaving aside the band’s excellent drugs and bad sex themed comedown album This is Hardcore because it was released during Britpop’s tail-end), both of which are high water marks of 90s music by any fair reckoning and both of which it would be churlish not to include under the Britpop banner, even if the band had been around for at least a decade prior; Pulp, of course, a band as subtle and as thoughtful in their social criticism as Blur were offensive and superficial and as Oasis were… well, they never even tried to give the impression that they’d ever progressed any further than Topsy and Tim in their reading.

Then there were the Manic Street Preachers who happened to release one of their best albums during Britpop, Everything Must Go — a record whose ambitious retro sound would turn out to be a touchstone in Britpopian musical aesthetics — but who were, thematically and lyrically, in a completely different league from most of their mid-90s peers (I mean they started a song off with the words ‘Libraries gave us power’ for fucks sake — you can’t really compare it with ‘I’ll take my car and drive real far/They’re not concerned about the way we are’). These two groups were everything that the overwhelming majority of second- or third-tier (and even most of the first tier) Britpop bands weren’t: that is intelligent, articulate, and (relatively) musically sophisticated — although that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be classed as Britpop (at least with respect to their output of that period).

Lest we forget then Britpop gave us such brilliant albums as Everything Must Go, Different Class, His N Hers, Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, The Bends, Elastica, I Should Coco, It’s Great When You’re Straight, Wake Up Boo, C’mon Kids, and if we’re being honest Parklife and its successor. And fuck me if the likes of Echobelly, Gene, Ash, the Charlatans, and even the Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene, and Shed Seven (who I have to confess I retain something of a soft spot for) didn’t put out some great singles too (Sleeper on the other hand are completely unredeemable) — as I hope my spotify playlist, below will demonstrate. It would be absurd to pretend that as an era in the history of post-war popular music it’s even remotely up there with the 60s or punk or post-punk, but at the same time, in comparison with the 2000s and the disgrace that was indie landfill, Britpop feels like a veritable golden age.

Taking a higher level, much more zeitgeisty, view of the situation, the fact is that, even if Britpop was, in large part, a creation of the music press and the music industry, its popularity remains to a decisive extent, an organic phenomena: part of a virtuous/vicious push-pull cycle in which a cultural industry attempts to carefully manipulate the tastes of a target audience and to capitalise on — or more accurately hijack — what it discovers to be popular, and at the same time to figure out what the next big thing will be and which it can co-opt in the next round. No popular musical movement is completely top down (regardless of what ‘Cultural Marxism’ obsessed conspiracy theorists might think) and while it’s true that hype and wall to wall media coverage can often be instrumental in helping a band’s career take off, history is littered with examples of bands or movements that the music industry and the press wanted to happen but that never did, due either to the inherent shiteyness of the original product, or not even that: due to something else that no one has so far managed to pin down.

There has to be something there that can appeal to people in the first place, even if that is the lowest common denominator, and even that doesn’t always work. And so I find it hard to pin so much of the blame on the music press or the industry let alone on a character like Albarn as Parkes does — how could he have predicted any but the most trivial ramifications that recording Parklife would have on the British cultural scene? That it would, in Parkes’ terms, ruin guitar music over the next couple of decades or so. While we’re playing the blame game here, then, the record buying public deserves some of that opprobrium too, just as it deserves praise when it lavishes attention and success on artists and musicians that you and I are much more favourable towards.

What Happened Next…

And then there’s the other fact that Parkes weirdly (but perhaps understandably, given its awkwardness for his main theses) decides to occlude, and which he could easily have found room for in his very length diatribe, that is, no sooner had Britpop’s corpse been freshly laid upon its bier (it was probably still at the twitching stage) than the serious contestation of its legacy, of what Parkes calls Britpop orthodoxy, began in earnest. So while it is true that Britpop turned out to be a particularly unadventurous time for popular guitar based music– one that not only looked to the past for its inspiration, but to a past that was completely sanitised and, in many ways, falsified — it didn’t take long after its demise for the anti-reactionary reaction to set in: for musicians and journalists to start name dropping everything from Krautrock to Detroit Techno to Slint as big influences and for the couldn’t-be-more-progressive-if-it-had-been-called-prog-rock genre that was post-rock to start to gain some sort of critical momentum and extended coverage in the music press — for instance Tortoise, the post-rock group par excellence had already begun to win numerous plaudits back in 1995, during the very height of Britpop. And it even got to the point that the NME decided that drone obsessives Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen was the most important album of 1998 (even more important than OK Computer, which, as much as I like the record, it absolutely wasn’t) and celebrated Jason Pierce’s whole career, from Spacemen 3 onwards, in a lavish two page centre spread on the eve of the album’s release. For fucks sake they even went and put Godspeed You! Black Emperor on the cover, for what turned out to be that particular music rag’s lowest selling issue to date (although that record probably didn’t hold very long). Even the DIY scene had its ever so fleeting moment in the sun when Teen-C Glasgow funsters Bis were declared the next big thing for about a couple of weeks in 1996 (it’s probably pointless wondering what they’re up to these days, it’s very likely the exact same thing they were doing 23 years ago).

But that was just the way the wind was blowing back then, as we found ourselves accelerating ever more breathlessly towards the turn of the new millennium — and all of which began to prefigure what had once seemed almost impossible, a critical re-evaluation of prog which even took in those perennial music press whipping boys Yes. Even Blur themselves had moved on — the big giveaway was just before the time that their eponymous 1997 album came out when Damon Albarn wouldn’t stop going on about Pavement in all his press interviews, signalling what became a drastic shift away from his previous London-centric Ray Davies pseudo-Cockney obsession and a greater openness towards cross-Atlantic, and in Albarn’s particular case (and he should be lauded for this) worldwide, influences. All of which ended up being eclipsed by what turned out to be Rock’s very own singularity, or rockism’s own version of the end of the Mayan calendar (except unlike 2012 no one was predicting it and it actually ended up not being a non-event), the release of Radiohead’s OK Computer, an album which turned out to be the zenith of British guitar based music.

The message being; you can’t just isolate a period of, say, five years, and then talk about its influence on events a decade or so later and barely mentioning what happened in between. Yes, there was something particularly nauseating about Britpop’s dumb, semi-ironic, semi-serious attachment to the flag along with its spurious nostalgia for a past that was as halcyon as it was (mostly) non-existent, but it’s too simplistic to trace back the current re-awakening of nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment to Britpop via a straight line. Certainly the current, parlous state of the music scene (at least as it pertains to guitar music) should not be attributed in such a simplistic manner to the artistic and moral deficiencies of Britpop and certainly not to the pre-millennial success of one band, as patronising and as self-satisfied as that band could at times be.

In decontextualising Britpop to the extent that he does, Parkes’ article completely fails to take into account the cyclical nature of the different scenes and movements which composed the British alternative/independent music scene in the years which followed punk: with one set of predominant trends sparking off a reaction was to determine the character and sound of the ensuing (artistic) generation of musicians and popular beat combos. More importantly it fails to take into consideration the longer term trends that cut across and were sustained throughout those individual cycles. For instance, the strong hedonic, anti-intellectual (proto-Nathan Oakleyesque) tendencies which Parkes locates in Britpop, and which he can’t stop castigating it for, were already a prominent feature of Baggy/Acid House (with the former as enamoured of MDMA as the latter was of cocaine and lager), it just never went away — blame it on the availability of different kinds of stimulants, the multifold failures of the British education system, people reading less with each passing generation etc, but don’t (just) blame it on the Britpop.

Which brings us back to today…

Of course the reaction to the (relative) conservatism of the Britpop era wasn’t just limited to the music getting a bit more interesting: the political atmosphere also became much more radical in the years which followed with the growing worldwide influence of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements — as was so notably manifested in the success of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and the backlash against the sinister quasi-cultish advertising tactics of multinational brands such GAP and Nike, and culminating in important turn of the millenium G7 protests and the massive, should have been era defining, No Iraq War movement. In the end though it was all to no avail: all those various, forward thinking late 90s, early 00s tendencies eventually led to…well, politically, they led to the fucked-up, hyper-gentrified situation in which we currently find ourselves in — a less hopeful, in many ways, version of the Gilded Age. Music wise they led to a dead end for British guitar music. The fact is that Indie or Rock or whatever you want to call it ran out of steam as a genre, or as an incestuous cluster of genres, round about the 00s — in fact around the time that the Strokes and Libertines were being touted as the saviours of music by the now moribund music press. But that running out of steam and that lack of inspiration and sheer honest-to-god fecklessness which essentially typified British, and actually also American, guitar music in the years following the millenium (and which was soon to lead to the moral musical Waste Land that was landfill indie) was fundamentally a result of the genre’s relatively limited musical set up (with a line-up that usually consisted of a vocalist, a guitarist, a drummer, and a bassist, none of whom were supposed to be particularly adept at their instruments). It was a musical genre which didn’t really have anywhere much left to go on either side of the Atlantic, not least after the clutch of genre-bursting albums, the likes of (the aforementioned) OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen… and the Soft Bulletin, that came out in the late 90s, and in the face of a genre like hip hop which creatively speaking was going from strength to strength — nowhere to go, that is, except in a backwards direction (unless you were as freakishly talented and exceptional as a band like Animal Collective, which most new groups weren’t).

Now this is something that often happens to genres of music, most if not all of which seem have an inherent sell-by date, after which they can be carefully and ritualistically preserved as part of a folk tradition, and/or incorporated into other newer genres and transition into something completely different, in the cultural equivalent of a paradigm shift. But even if this all this seems obvious to everyone now, that is really only thanks to hindsight because it sure as fuck didn’t seem obvious back then. No one had the foggiest clue as to how things were going to pan out, and there were no cultural Cassandra’s we were all blithely ignoring as far as I can recall. Reading Parkes’ article, on the other hand, you come away with the opposite feeling, as if everyone, or at least everyone involved in the so called creative industries, could see what the ‘consequences’ of Britpop were and therefore is culpable for what came next.

Give me playlist a listen

In conclusion, then, it’s obvious (or at least it should be) that the almost unimaginably complex interplay of factors — socio-cultural, geo-physical and (above all imo) economic — that have led to our current, intemperate and absolutely dysfunctional, social reality cannot be boiled down to those few specific tendencies which Parkes is desperate to localise within the Britpop era — but as obvious as it is, the content of Parkes’ article shows that it still bears repeating. Parkes is, in fact, guilty of projecting the cynicism of the present back on the past, and as much as I share that cynicism with regards to our contemporary situation, and as much as I agree with a lot of his criticisms of Britpop, I keep coming back to the music, which as I said above, and contrary to Parkes’ rather disdainful attitude, still stands up to scrutiny, even after all these years. I admit, however, that this opinion might be unduly influenced by my own nostalgia, by my own (much happier) memories of the time. To this end, and to compensate for the inadequacy of all my rhetorical efforts above, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist which features a lot of my favourite Britpop tracks and, which I’m convinced, shows the genre/period at its best and thereby offers the best antidote to the ill-tempered anti-Britpop negativity of a Taylor Parkes. Listen for yourselves!

Continue reading “In Defense of Britpop: A Riposte to Taylor Parkes”

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Bobbie Gentry – Fancy (1970)

By Michael Strait

Once again, Bobbie sings other people’s songs – with one remarkable exception.

There are ten songs on this album. Eight of them are covers, one of which (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) was also present on the last album. One of them (“He Made A Woman Out of Me”) was written for Bobbie by the minor pop songwriter Fred Burch.

And one of them is “Fancy”.

Gotta be honest: after “Fancy”, most of the rest of the songs on this album kinda just pass me by in a haze. I said before that “Ode to Billie Joe” is probably Billie’s best song, and that may well be true. But if it is, “Fancy” is nipping right at its heels, and there are certainly times I think it’s the superior song. It’s the only self-penned tune on this album, and the effect of hearing it after having last listened to the light-hearted, airy-smooth Touch ‘Em With Loveis resemblant of a brass-knuckled sucker-punch to the gut. Anybody who considers themselves any sort of country fan, feminist, or class-conscious leftist should have this song somewhere in their library, even if it’s the only Bobbie song they own. It’s incredible, and solidifies Bobbie’s place among the finest storytellers in lyrical history.

Melodically, it’s a return to the bluesy style Bobbie employed so much on her first album, complete with the usual aggressive acoustic riff, funky horns and shimmering strings. There’s a big, strong hook, powerful enough to propel the song into the billboard top 40 ( twice, in fact) despite the uncompromising subject matter. Unlike “Ode To Billie Joe”, there’s no mystery here to keep the public guessing; there’s just deep, deep misery, of the sort that’s been carefully designed to make anyone listening sit up and think for a while about the depth of crushing poverty throughout the richest nation in the world. Here we have the story of a mother who spends her last few dollars, and her last few days in this world, preparing her daughter for a life of prostitution because it’s the only option that doesn’t mean certain death. It’s not shy about it, either, and it doesn’t couch the misery in softer language – witness this verse and marvel at the fact that this song was a successful pop hit in two decades:

Momma dabbed a little bit of perfume
On my neck and she kissed my cheek
Then I saw the tears welling up
In her troubled eyes when she started to speak

She looked at our pitiful shack and then
She looked at me and took a ragged breath
“Your Pa’s runned off, and I’m real sick
And the baby’s gonna starve to death.”

There’s only so much I can actually say about this song, because after a certain point I’d definitely just be reduced to quoting all the lyrics and pointing at them, asking you to just goddamn see for yourself. Suffice it to say that the narrative is incredibly vivid, full of the memorable scene-setting imagery Bobbie has long been so fond of, and that this story contains enough depth, moral complexity, and narrative power for a full movie adaptation if someone got the notion. If you ever needed a reminder of why the working class must always remain a fundamental part of any feminist movement, this is it.

And then there’s the rest of the album.

In a way, this feels more like a debut album than even her actual debut album. I’m not sure what the actual timeline was, but it certainly feels like the rest of this thing was frantically thrown together in the wake of the title track’s unexpected success, just like Ode To Billie Joe. The other songs are almost all covers, and there are some baffling choices. None of the songs are bad, of course – Bobbie’s still yet to let me down there – but a lot of them feel a little out of place following the opener, especially “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”. Great song and all, but seriously, guys – did it occur to nobody that it’s difficult to appreciate this sort of whimsy with desperate prostitutes and starving babies still occupying one’s headspace? Maybe it was less of a problem in the vinyl days, since it’s on the second side, but I dunno. Listening to stuff like “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Something in the Way He Moves” (from a musical and a James Taylor album, respectively) after “Fancy” really creates a whiplash effect that never goes away. I’ve certainly got no real desire to describe most of these songs – they’re all just uncomplicatedly good, smooth, string-laden pop tunes, pretty much indistinguishable from the stuff on her last album. No misfires at all, on a song-by-song basis, but the concept renders the whole end product a little screwy.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” is the only other one I really feel any urge to actually talk about, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the only other non-cover on the album. The funky organ riff is fantastic, and the way the verses transition into the hook is absolutely divine in exactly the way Bobbie loves. If I didn’t know someone else had written it, I’d have assumed right away that she penned this herself, what with its blues-soul feel and miserable, country-focused lyrics. She sings it with great passion, too, really showing off her soulful chops. It’s not truly much better than most of the generally solid songs on this album, but it’s possibly the only tune here that fits with the tone “Fancy” sets, and as such it’s the one I always end up remembering.

So, there you have it. My lamest review? Maybe. But I feel like I’ve basically summarised this album as well as I can. It opens with one of the best, most affecting, and most powerful songs ever written, and then follows it up with a jukebox. It would be a malicious lie to call it a bad album, or even a mediocre one – but it is, to me at least, a misfire of some description, and I’d have loved to see a full album of self-penned tunes backing up the title track. As it stands, the song feels like an orphan, or an alien living among another species. Get it, for sure, and maybe get “He Made A Woman Out of Me” too, but the rest here is entirely optional.

Bobbie Gentry – Touch ‘Em with Love (1969)

touch_27em_with_loveBy Michael Strait

She cedes the spotlight mostly to other songwriters on this one. Good thing she’s got great taste.

So, most of my reviews dealing with cover songs tend to compare and contrast ’em with the originals and/or other versions. That’d take me too long here, though, so I’m not gonna bother. Exactly 50% of this album is covers, and of the rest, only two are self-penned. That disappoints me a little, because Bobbie is one of my personal favourite songwriters, but I needn’t have worried too much – she’s not sung a bad song yet, and she’s not about to start now.

For the most part, this is a straightforward exploration of the soul end of Bobbie’s influences. The folk and blues stuff is mostly left by the wayside, though the fingerpicked “Seasons Come, Seasons Go” – one of the aforementioned self-penned ones – isn’t too dissimilar from her earlier lush folk songs. Still, it doesn’t take long for all the smooth soul elements to come in and remind you that Bobbie, on this album at least, really didn’t want to be mistaken for a country singer anymore. The song is lovely, if not particularly memorable; the second of her songs on the album is far more likely to stick with you. “Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing” has one of her characteristically smart verse melodies and some of her most vividly visual lyrics, as well as brief, loud hook that stays memorable mostly on account of cleverly-built contrast with the verses. It always leaves me momentarily a little sad that she didn’t write more tunes on this thing, but truth be told it isn’t the best song on it anyway.

That honor, honestly, probably goes to the most obvious choice. “Son of a Preacher Man” was always one of my favourite songs in the endlessly-syndicated classic pop pantheon, and Bobbie’s take on it is stupendously excellent. That cool, badass riff that opens it sets the mood for the rest of the song, and the rhythm section maintains a strong, self-assured presence the whole way through as she sings those unforgettable melodies with her characteristic complete confidence. There’s no simpering dependence here, nor much weepy nostalgia; there’s just a woman proudly expressing her justly-earned love for a man who deserves it. I’m not a fan of the fadeout at the end, but other than that I’ve no complaints at all – it’s short, sure, but so is the original, so what can you do? The other super short track on the record, the title track, is similarly excellent and opens the album on a suitably arresting note. Bobbie didn’t write it, but I can see why she chose it – the hook comes swooping in out of nowhere in an incredibly memorable fashion in just the sort of clever way I can tell she really appreciated, and the lyrics, while a little nonsensical, are rife with the sort of intrinsically Southern religious imagery she loves. I also like how the guitar and organ take turns, on the first and second verse respectively, to do their little flourishes over the solid base that is the piano. The sonic variety on this album is a real treat.

There’s one more non-cover left on the first side, and it’s excellent. “Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere” manages to perfectly capture the strange mysticality of America’s vastness and the allure of losing one’s troubles in it. It strikes a difficult tone to hit – it’s regretful, especially the mournful, harmonica-assisted conclusion to the chorus, but it’s also full of undeniably yearning and not a little relief. That’s partly due to the excellent pacing – the way the hook is built up to and then segmented, cut apart by little instrumental moments – but also due to Bobbie’s excellent vocals, which manage to sound wistful in two ways at once, as if she simultaneously wants to be better at holding stable relationships together and wants to be going off somewhere and exploring. The first side is completed by “Natural To Be Gone”, which has possibly my favourite verse melody on the album and manages to throw in a softly cantering banjo in a way that doesn’t feel remotely out of place in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward smooth, string-based soul song. Bobbie was just as inventive an interpreter as a writer.

The only non-cover on side two is “I Wouldn’t Be Surprised”, which has a very nice choir and some passionately-banged drums but otherwise is probably one of the less essential tracks on here. It’s still good, of course, but it’s good in a kind of unsurprising way, which makes it a lesser effort as far as Bobbie goes. “Where’s The Playground, Johnny” does the same sort of things, but it does ’em better, with its smooth strings backing up a hook so melodramatic that it should by all rights sound kind of silly. It doesn’t, though – it sounds very pretty indeed, even if it clashes slightly with the worriedly metaphoric lyrics. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, meanwhile, is her shimmeringly pretty take on a song from a musical, and she delivers the simple, slightly kitschy lyrics with such conviction that it’s difficult not to be at least a little moved by them. Finally, we come to the closer, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, which has possibly the prettiest strings and most tasteful rhythm work on the album, not to mention that beautiful moment when the hook sort of holds off on attaining climax for a second, repeating the same string motif a couple of times in anticipation before it blossoms into a full-blown chorus. She really belts in this one, too, showing off the singing skills she’s usually been content to let play second fiddle to her songwriting and lyricism. It’s another display of her outstandingly well-rounded talent, in other words, which is basically the story of this whole album and, really, her entire career.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’d still rather be listening to an album of Bobbie originals, so for the most part I tend to play individual highlights from this record (especially “Son of a Preacher Man”) rather than throwing on the whole thing. But whenever I do, I certainly enjoy it, and that’s ‘cos there’s nothing to really not enjoy here. On its own merits, this album is lovely indeed, and it’s only twenty-six minutes long anyway so it’s not like it ever gets tiresome. I’d have more problems with Bobbie spending this section of her career singing other people’s songs if those songs weren’t all so good. I’m not entirely sure what she’s wearing on the cover, but whatever, man. When you’re Bobbie Gentry, you can dress how you like.

Bobbie Gentry – The Delta Sweete (1968)

By Michael Strait

I believe this is what the young’uns refer to as a “glo-up”.

1244947Alright, so it’s at this point that I start to sort of understand why so many people insist on calling Bobbie Gentry a country artist. I guess this is a country record, even if it only feels like it arrived there by combining folk, blues and soul in a way that sort of ended up accidentally resembling country music. There’s still lots of souly horn arrangements and folky string arrangements, and the songs are still mostly written like blues or folk songs, but the funny thing about hearing them in this context is you kinda start to realise that country music is basically just what you get when you combine blues and folk anyway. The end result, then, is a highly idiosyncratic record, and it also happens to be an utterly brilliant one.

It’s barely four minutes longer than the last one, but it’s an order of magnitude better, and I already liked that one a lot. Just about all the flaws in Ode to Billie Joe could be traced back to its rushed nature, and that constraint wasn’t present here. So, what you’re left with is a selection of twelve distinct, unique, excellently-written songs, all so tremendously rewarding that I really have no idea which track I’d pick as my favourite. Actually, I don’t really know that I could pick a least favourite track, either, which really is an exquisitely unusual achievement.

If there’s one trait this album shares with its predecessor, it’s that it’s split roughly evenly between folk songs and bluesier stuff. Most of the bluesier stuff here resides on the first half, and that includes the opening track, “Okolona River Bottom Band”, which is something of an immediate mission statement. That reserved, growling guitar riff, melding so perfectly with those blaring horns, almost gives one the impression of ominous danger before Bobbie comes in with a few “la-la-la”s and makes it clear that the song is, in fact, mostly an excellent farce. The vocal melody might be described as mock-serious, and she throws in this glorious recording of some old Southern man cackling like a lunatic at a couple of points to make it extra clear that there’s nothing particularly worrisome going on here. She has a lot of fun with her silly rhymes in the chorus, backing herself up with what are either backing vocalists or multiple tracks of her own voice to create a sense of overriding mirth. Thinking about it, I actually can’t think of many songs that pull that off – I can think of plenty of comedy songs, sure, but songs that successfully give the impression of participating in a hilarious, raucously fun communal event, bringing you right into the fun and allowing you to have a good time along with them? That’s more difficult than you’d think. The song is ridiculously catchy, layered, and – as usual for Bobbie – totally unique. On most albums, it’d be an easy favourite, but here I’m not so sure.

Of the remaining bluesy tracks, two of them are Bobbie originals. “Sermon”, the last track on what would have been the A-side back in the horrid days when vinyl was the only option, is sung remarkably quietly for being so fast-paced, as if to show reverence for the sermon she’s relaying the details of, with horns and distant choirs of backing vocalists heralding the message. I always thought it seemed a little bit like she was quietly mocking the preacher, too – “You may run on for a long time”, she repeats, ostensibly quoting him but also perhaps making fun of his long-windedness – but for the most part it doesn’t appear that she’s making much commentary on the message; she’s presenting it without comment, a slice of her life growing up in Mississippi, not to mention using it as an opportunity to deliver some of her usual beautifully-written lyrics. “Great God Almighty, let me tell you my need/ Yes, my head’s been wet with the midnight deed/ I been down on my bended knee/ Talkin’ to the man from Galilee”. I’m doubtful that the preacher used precisely those words, but I expect Bobbie’s version is an improvement.

The other one, “Reunion”, is one of the most unique creations in Bobbie’s mostly-unique catalogue, and certainly the song you’re most likely to remember the first time you listen to the album. It’s remarkably ambitious for such a profoundly silly song, seeking to sonically recreate both the physical and emotional atmosphere of an extended family gathering, piling Bobbie’s silly lyrics (“Mama make Willie quit pulling at my hair!/ Mama ouch! ouch! mama, just make Willie quit it!”) atop a choir of children singing dinner table gossip as if it were angelic verse and then interjecting the rhythmic spoken-word rhymes of an old Southern dad, or perhaps uncle, giving lackadaisical orders and making easy boasts of the sort that flow easily when there’s plentiful food. It should be an absolute mess, but instead it’s an absolute joy, and it brings a smile to my face every time. It’s not got anything resembling the usual pop song structure, because how could it? It’s very catchy, though, and I’ve had the uncle’s lines stuck in my head for weeks now. “I told you, my mama didn’t raise no fool – I can do anything if I got the right tools!” (If you listen closely, you’ll notice one of the things the choir sings about is the suicide of Billie Joe at the Tallahatchie Bridge. Bobbie was building a whole-ass shared universe before it was cool.)

The remaining bluesy songs are all covers, and every one of them is way better than “Niki Hoeky” off her last record. I actually prefer her version of “Big Boss Man” to Jimmy Reed’s, mostly because I love the quietly contemptuous way she sings it, not to mention the extra context that’s injected by those same lyrics coming from the mouth of a clearly-seething woman rather than a sardonic, depressed man. The energetic guitar riffing helps convey the unhappiness, and I love the sections where all the instruments drop except for the bass, rumbling under her nearly-whispered words of suppressed anger. There’s a similar current running under “Parchman Farm”, which is Gentry’s version of Mose Allison’s cover of Bukka White’s incredible original (linked here for the curious only, as it has little in common with either Mose’s or Bobbie’s versions). Bobbie sings it slowly and deliberately, never raising her voice and choosing to switch the perspective to third person, giving the unmistakable impression of judgement as she sings with sardonic contempt. One is unsure why, exactly, she’s being so implicitly judgemental until you reach the end, when she finally unveils the song’s famous plot twist: “Well he’s gonna be there for the rest of his life/ and all he ever did was shoot his wife”. No surprise, I guess, that a woman might see something markedly less relatable in a song about a domestic murderer proclaiming that he’s never done anything wrong, and I take the light, airy strings that come in after the conclusion of the tale as signifying happiness at justice done fairly and right.

“Tobacco Road”, meanwhile, is a song she probably knew from The Nashville Teens’ 1964 version. My favourite version of the song is probably the original, but they’re all great, and Bobbie’s is no exception. I love the way she alternates between the hard, bluesy riffing and the lush folk arrangements as she sings the brutally matter-of-fact lyrics, as if to contrast the harsh reality of deep Southern poverty with the lushness and beauty of the natural environment that surrounds it. The last of the covers is the only one that was, originally, a true-blue country song, and while I like the original just fine I must confess I’m a much bigger fan of Bobbie’s version. She conveys what sounds like genuine excitement when relaying the tale of life on the bayou, and the various extra instrumental arrangements that flourish up behind her really flesh out the picture. It’s really good fun, and a sadly rare example of totally non-toxic working class Southern pride, with no ties to any confederate nostalgia or even so much as a hint of any rebel imagery.

Even the shortest track on this album feels fully fleshed-out. “Penduli Pendulum” doesn’t break two minutes (despite the protestations of both RYM and Wikipedia, which incorrectly record the track length as nearly three minutes), but it’s got one of the catchiest melodies of the whole bunch, and the way the strings steadily build up to swirl around her voice as she sings on is just gorgeous. It’s not a particularly complex song, but it doesn’t feel like it’s lacking anything at all, and I didn’t even notice it was so short until I looked at the track listing. I’m not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but they’re very pretty, and I love listening to her sing them. That voice is still gorgeous and unique in its faintly harsh warmth, and it fits the music like a glove.

It’s not the best folk song here, but it’s certainly not the worst – although, again, I’m not sure there even is a worst. They’re all so good! “Mornin’ Glory” is a deeply pleasant three-minute love song, containing no complicated message and no huge, attention-grabbing hook because it just doesn’t need either; it simply exists in a glowing state of loveliness, casting light and heat on all around it, sounding like the musical equivalent of reflections in a placid pool as the sun rises. “Jessye’ Lizabeth” is similarly placid, although not quite so warm; it’s a much more baroque folk song, evoking old England more than the American South, even as the lyrics remain an expression of devotional love (this time to our narrator’s little daughter). But it’s just as lovely to listen to, chiefly because the melody, for all its baroque, glacial slowness, is well-constructed enough to pop back into one’s head whenever one wishes it to, even as it deftly avoids getting stuck there and becoming irritating.

If held at gunpoint and forced to choose, I guess I’d probably pick “Refractions” as my favourite folk song here, though it’d hurt to feel like I was disrespecting the others. It’s also a little baroque and ancient-sounding, but the melody is truly, totally gorgeous, all soft and bright and huge in scope. It melds with the strings perfectly as it climbs and circulates to climax in each verse, sounding as crystalline as the bird she describes in the beautifully abstract lyrics – lyrics which are certainly some of the most gorgeous on the album, even if I’m not sure that they mean anything particularly deep. It’s a gorgeous ray of light masquerading as a song, and it truly baffles me that the woman who made it isn’t more widely celebrated.

Finally, we come to our lovely closer, “Courtyard”, which has the honor of containing my favourite lyrics on an album where almost all the songs have great lyrics. The song itself is slow, light and gorgeous, gliding softly along like mist as she sings longingly and lovingly of the tragic, love-resembling illusions in which she has trapped herself. The final couplet contains vastly more depth than most artists are able to squeeze out of entire songs. “Patterns on a courtyard floor/ Illusions of all I’m living for”, she sings acapella, the music having trailed off and left her sitting there alone, awaiting fulfillment that will never come. It’s a bit of a downer ending, considering the various mixed emotions one can find elsewhere on the album, but it’s beautiful all the same, and certainly deeply pleasant on the ears.

Looking back, I’m amazed at all the stylistic variety, emotional depth, and musical creativity she was able to squeeze into these thirty-three minutes. This is a highly efficient album, without so much as a wasted minute and lacking anything I can immediately pinpoint as a flaw. It’s an album that knows how to have fun without being embarrassing, knows how to be ambitious without being pretentious, and knows how to be heartfelt without being corny. It’s an expertly-made, remarkably perfect piece of art, and it’s a tremendous injustice that it isn’t given more credit as such. It’s unique enough that no genre gatekeepers really feel like claiming it for their canons, except for country music, which has such a frankly overpopulated canon that it can be easy to miss Bobbie in there. I can’t remember how I discovered her, but I’m very glad I did. Now y’all can too. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of the best albums of the late sixties. You deserve it, I promise.

Bobbie Gentry—Ode to Billie Joe (1967)

odetobillyjoeMichael Strait

I don’t really want to focus on music history here, so I’ll just hit you with the abridged version: Bobbie Gentry recorded the song “Ode to Billie Joe” as an intended B-side, ended up releasing it as a single in its own right, and was stunned at its prompt, immediate success. She proceeded to grab a guitar, a producer, and a bunch of string musicians, and together they set about frantically recording a debut album to capitalize on her success. The end result was barely half an hour long, and about half its runtime was occupied by either “Ode To Billie Joe” or songs that had almost the exact same chord progression as “Ode to Billie Joe”. In other words, it should, by all rights, be kind of a mediocre album at best, and it certainly has absolutely no business being this good.

To be fair, though, we might’ve expected that the woman who wrote “Ode to Billie Joe” would turn out to be an expert at doing a lot with a little. That song is fascinatingly, deeply brilliant, and it’s certainly not encumbered with an overabundance of moving parts. It’s got a few lovely strings to fill some of the space, sure, but they don’t do much more than basic textural work, and that’s all they need to do. The melody, too, is perfectly catchy and not a little haunting, but its real purpose is to direct as much attention as possible to the lyrics. The words are the real meat of this song, and they are, in my humble opinion, among the best ever set to music.

It’s one of those stories that’s more about painting an environment than it is about the actual plot itself, and accordingly the central mystery – the one that’s occupied so much popular discourse about this song – is never resolved. Why did Billie Joe throw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge? We’ll never know, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you’re left with a fulsome picture of the world in which he lived and died, and it leaves you with the impression that life is rather transient around here anyway. The Mississippi Delta of this song is not quite a dystopia, but it’s an anachronistic relic from an earlier, less prosperous, more brutal era, full of backbreaking farm work broken up only by the weekly church visits and the occasional devastating virus. It’s no wonder the brother ends up moving to Tupelo; it doesn’t sound like there was much for him here. The most indelible mental image the song leaves us is of our poor narrator throwing flowers off the same bridge, no emotion described because no description is necessary. She’s surrounded by death, despair, and abandonment, and there’s little indication that she’s got prospects for anything else. In the end, I’ve always thought this in itself was, in its own way, enough of a resolution to the old mystery. This was the world in which Billie Joe lived, and it was all he had ever known. What more reason did he need to throw himself off that bridge?

“Ode to Billie Joe” is the best song on this disc, very probably the best song of Bobbie’s career, and one of the best songs of the era. It is not, however, the most memorable single moment on the album. That honor goes to “Mississippi Delta”, which is, on my 2007 re-issue, the opening track. I went into this album having been told Bobbie was a country artist, so I expected something like, I dunno, Patsy Cline. Imagine my shock when I throw this baby on and the first thing I hear is that aggressive r&b groove, complete with hard guitar stabs, ominous textural horns and that astounding harsh roar emanating from Bobbie’s mouth, sounding somewhere between an old whiskey-drowned bluesman, a passionate soul singer and a macho rock ‘n’ roll firestarter. She spends half the song’s runtime just repeatedly spelling out the name of her state, and it really has no business sounding as utterly badass as it does. But she makes it sound absolutely natural, and her charisma is instantly enrapturing. On this edition, the title track is the closer, so I spent my first few listens so wowed by the opening and closing tracks that I barely noticed the flaws in between. Sadly, they become more obvious on closer listens, but they’re still quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

You can slot all the remaining tracks into one of two camps. First, we have the songs that are basically clones of the title track, at least in terms of the chord progression; all have very similar bluesy melodies and open with the same little guitar motif, and it’s easy to get a little bored by the time you hit the last one. Second, you have the nice, pleasant folk ballads, usually played with intricate fingerpicking and full of lush string arrangements to add some extra sun. Of the former, my favourite is probably “Bugs”, which remains a song just about anyone living in any part of the South can relate to in the summer. It’s a silly joke song, I guess, but so what? It’s funny, and it works. The way the strings and drums do their best to evoke the motions of various insects in the second verse is highly endearing, and the hook is really very catchy. I’m also quite a big fan of “Chickasaw County Child”, which melds some of that lovely fingerpicking with the bluesy melody and throws in what may be the most optimistic lyrics ever written about Southern poverty. “Niki Hoeky”, despite fitting mostly the same template as the others here, is a cover, and while it doesn’t sound much like the (admittedly superior) original, I wouldn’t say it’s without any charms. I like the quiet piano underlying the whole thing, and those slightly exotic drums do sound quite nice. “Lazy Willie” is probably the most inessential of this lot, but I quite like that quaintly memorable Southern saying she throws in the last verse. “Don’t you remember, Lazy Willie, what Momma used to say?/ That all summer long the grasshopper would play/ The ant would work hard storin’ up his winter supply/ When the snow came, the ant lived, the grasshopper died.” I’m not entirely sure I could vouch for the ecological accuracy, but it brings a smile to my face all the same.

The fingerpicked folk ballads, meanwhile, are uniformly lovely on the surface, even if they aren’t all necessarily equally engaging on a deeper level. “I Saw an Angel Die” ties with “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go to Town With You” for the title of best. The former is a gorgeous, placid sonic portrait of a sun-baked, lightly wind-kissed Southern meadow married to a very prettily metaphoric narrative that seems to suggest a devastating heartbreak, all grounded in Bobbie’s earthen, slightly raspy voice. The latter isn’t as layered, I guess, but it’s still lovely to hear the various instruments introducing themselves and building up as the song progresses, transforming it from a simple girl-and-guitar ballad to a swirling mess of crystalline strings and regal horns that give the father’s trip to town the air of some great royal expedition. “Sunday Best”, meanwhile, is probably the least essential, being just a fairly lovely-but-unremarkable love ballad. As for “Hurry, Tuesday Child”, well, I guess I’m a little mixed on it; I love the ambiguously tragic lyrics (is the child truly leaving to find a better life, or is he leaving this world altogether?), but the song itself kinda plods along without doing much to draw anyone’s attention. It’s nice, but I don’t find myself listening to it very often.

And… huh, that’s it. I always forget how short this album is! It’s all good, though, ‘cos it keeps the flaws from becoming particularly noticeable and allows you to listen in the briefest little windows of time. There’s a lot of promise here, and she’d largely go on to realise that with the albums to come. This isn’t her best record, nor her most interesting, but it’s a solid start to a career and contains a lot of lovely music nonetheless. I’m still not really sure I’m prepared to call it a country record, but I guess I can see why a lot of people do – she’s a white girl from the South playing acoustic guitar songs about poverty and heartbreak, and even if her particular brand of heartbreak is very different to that of most country singers it’s easy to see how one might make the leap. Myself, I’m not really sure where to properly file her, but I know she’s a goddamn great musician, and you should at least have her somewherein that library of yours.

Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs (1970)

By John Short

220px-Sydbarrett-madcaplaughsThe very first Syd Barrett solo album, The Madcap Laughs is generally considered to be the best Syd solo outing, and while I may not entirely agree with that verdict, i will concede that it is almost certainly the most honest. Continue reading “Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs (1970)”