STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Sentimentally Yours (1962)

Review By: Michael Strait

patsy

The last in a short line. Still lovely, though not really any more or less so than the other ones.

Three four-star records in a row, eh? On the one hand, the consistency is remarkable, but on the other hand I can’t help but wonder if she ever had it in her to achieve a real masterpiece. Alas, I guess we’ll never know – the plane crash in ’63 put paid to that. Wikipedia tells me the church bell in her hometown still rings out a hymn every day at 6pm in her memory, which I’m sure she’d appreciate. Still, best not to dwell on such mortal matters of flesh and blood – the music lives on regardless, and there ain’t a blemish on it.

I’ll confess, though, that the first half of this album had me worried I wouldn’t have much to write about. The songs are all good, but for the most part they’re just, y’know, Patsy Cline songs: slow, sparse, atmospheric, nocturnal, tragic and beautiful, lovely to listen to and almost impossible to write about individually. “She’s Got You”, “That’s My Desire” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – a Hank Williams cover, though actually most of these songs are technically covers – are all perfectly gorgeous and, really, perfectly identical, save perhaps for a nice little mini-crescendo near the end of the latter. “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It)”, meanwhile, is distinguished only by the particularly heartbroken inflection she puts on the words “give me, give me, give me what I c-ry fooor”, her voice cracking as she begs.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much of Patsy Cline’s music is about not just misery, but the loss of all dignity and internal strength; it’s music about suffering emotional wounds so deep that they scar you forever, and every song carries with it the assumption that no happy ending is anywhere in sight. You can hear it on “Strange”, too, with its circling guitars and dolefully placid vocal melody underlying lyrics about a profound level of powerlessness. “Strange you’re still in all my dreams/ Oh, what a funny thing/ I still care for you”, she proclaims to her unfaithful erstwhile lover, still trapped in his memory, permanently rent in two by his betrayal.

She sounds similarly wounded on “You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)”, a song which also serves to remind me how truly tragic it is that pop music has largely forgotten how to tastefully apply the string section. The strings here are part of the tapestry, a central but minimally-applied component to the atmosphere, adding just the right amount of extra smoothness to the gleaming little globe of perfectly-polished sorrow from which Patsy croons her heart out. When did string sections in pop music become irretrievably associated with schmaltz and melodrama? There’s so much more you can do with a few carefully-applied violins than bury your singer in sap. Alas, it’s an art we seem to have buried next to dear Patsy.

I wish she’d done a few more faster numbers in her career, ‘cos the ones on here are both great and unique. “Heartaches” sounds remarkably propulsive for such a sparse song; its rhythm is derived only from a walking swingy bassline and a lilting guitar skank, with the drums almost nonpresent in their quiet minimalism, and yet it still sounds perfectly danceable without giving up that heavenglow charm I associate with Patsy. “Anytime” performs a similar trick, adding lovely little wind instrument flourishes and a string section that melds so perfectly to the choir that they fuse into one glowing instrument. All rather gorgeous, and the sort of music I’d have loved to see her explore more. Oh, alas, if it hadn’t been for that plane crash…

There are a lot of questions about Patsy’s career that crash left forever unanswered. Would she ever have come into her own as a songwriter, rather than simply a singer of other people’s songs? Was there potential in her to grow from merely a great lamenter of heartbreak to an exploratory, boundary-pushing artist, or would she have remained in a comfort zone of steadily diminishing returns for the rest of her life? It’s impossible to answer those questions now, of course, but at least she’s left us with some lovely music to relax to if the mood ever takes us. Now, what next? Another woman, that’s for sure – gotta counteract that UGK misogyny somehow. Stay tuned, I s’pose…

Advertisements

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Showcase (1961)

Review by: Michael Strait

patsy

 

Paintings of an America composed mostly of light, purity, and emotional pain.

Man, I’m still kind of amazed that this music was once as popular as it was. I had no idea the American public once had such a fondness for atmospheric minimalism! “Crazy” is still a bar karaoke classic in the South (and possibly elsewhere too – I can only speak from my experiences) to this day, and that usually stops making sense to me the moment I leave the establishment. It’s a heartbroken ballad, sure, but it seems like kind of a weird one by my modern standards. The instrumentation is more concerned with creating an atmosphere than conveying a specific emotion, as if it’s trying to construct the sort of environment in which a loving connection could, conceivably, be found and then lost rather than actively trying to evoke the way it feels. But what’s most fascinating about the song – and, indeed, the album as a whole – is that this atmosphere is conjured mostly by suggestion, with sparse, barely-there instruments sketching faint outlines of an emotional universe that you are encouraged to fill with your own experiences. I, personally, think the faint pianos and barely-audible rhythm guitar scratches of “Crazy” evoke the lovely emptiness of the American South on a not-unpleasantly warm summer’s night, but that’s almost certainly just my personal biases leaking onto the canvas. The architecture is here for you to provide your own setting for Patsy’s plaintive wailing, and that’s true of much of the album.

It’s evident right away, with “I Fall To Pieces”. Like the rest of the album, it’s mostly very sparse – just a bassline and vocals, really – but it sounds like far more is hiding in the distance, occasionally making suggestions of itself visible for a second or two at a time. Par example: there’s a little three-note guitar refrain that pops up repeatedly in the verses, laden with softly chiming echo effects and matched by a quiet male backing choir, casting a dim and momentary glow over the fields from the heavens before folding back into the vast, velvet darkness that blankets all things, smothering the world in tranquility and peace. Shortly thereafter, we reach “The Wayward Wind”, which sounds as if it has entirely disconnected itself from human foibles and flaws and exists in some ephemeral dreamworld, floating atop tremulous string arrangements and egoless guitar. The flawless beauty of these environments does not, of course, do much to ease poor Patsy’s soul – still she wails out her heart about missed moments, lost love and the miseries of life without companionship, immersed in the ceaseless beauty of this American dreamscape and yet lacking a soul to share it with.

“I Love You So Much It Hurts” is the other song that immediately jumps out at me as a big highlight. It’s barely two minutes, but the world itself seems to slow to a crawl as you listen, with a glacial mist of low organs, near-imperceptible guitar chimes and soft backing vocals coating the world in a ghostly, angelic haze that shields one from the passage of time. It’s easy to get lost in this world, at least until the dancier, more energetic “Seven Lonely Days” jolts you out of the dream-haze and into a more physical, motive world with fewer distractions from poor Patsy’s endless heartbreak. If it seems like a weaker song in comparison, then that’s only fair – it’s a great song, but how can it compare to the rich tapestry that preceded it?

If there’s a flaw with this album, it’s that it’s a little frontloaded. “Crazy” is the last real highlight, save perhaps for a rerecording of “Walkin’ After Midnight” which is just a teensy bit more polished and, alas, less devastating than the original. The other songs on the post-“Crazy” second half are all beautiful, but they contribute to the overriding atmosphere of the album more than they set themselves apart as individual pieces. Great for laying back and bathing in, but if I were to analyse them I’d pretty much just be repeating myself, so I won’t bother. Of the couple of songs on the first half that I’ve not covered, “Foolin’ Round” is very intriguing in that it is nearly impossible to identify any of the individual instruments played on it save for the bass, so successfully do they meld into one unit. “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”, meanwhile, isn’t quite on the level of brilliance of its immediately surrounding brethren but nonetheless feels like it exists in a far less corporeal world than our own, evoking mystical concepts and distant lands only vaguely corresponding to the places we know as Mexico or suchlike.

Pop music, eh? Amazing what the public is capable of appreciating so long as it comes packaged with relatable lyrics. This is as painterly and atmospheric as any ambient music, and it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of emotional impact for it. Certainly worth your time as much as any Oren Ambarchi record. Now, how long shall I make my dedicated three-or-so readers wait until my next review? I’m thinking maybe five hundred years…

 

 

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Patsy Cline (1957)

Review By: Michael Strait

patsyc

Misery itself. As beautiful as it gets.

“It’s nice to know that there’s music that isn’t rooted in misery.”

– Dave Grohl, idiot, on country music

I plan to review a lot of country artists in my time here, but I’m not entirely sure how I’m gonna go about it. Country artists are a prolific bunch, and the legends tend to have discographies that stretch off into distant solar systems. I’ll come up with a way of reviewing them in depth one day, but in the meantime I’ll start with Patsy Cline, who had the decency to die in a plane crash after releasing only three albums.

Now, I’m not the most knowledgeable bloke when it comes to this era of music. I know, however, that this album isn’t what you might call pure country. It’s got that cosmopolitan Nashville style, pulling all sorts of different influences into a great country-shaped melting pot that bears a striking resemblance to just about every form of American popular music of the time without actually committing fully to being any of them. That sounds like a sneering insult, but it’s not, because the end result isn’t the beige pile of mud one might usually expect from such a collection of distilled references. Instead, all the styles ultimately end up subservient to country music’s peculiar lightweight gorgeousness, where all the individual instruments seem to disappear into a shimmering, ephemeral cloud of divine beauty, annihilating the musical ego entirely as the individual musicians disappear into the collective. Atop this glowing fog resides the heartbreak of Patsy Cline, screamed and wailed out with the power of a thousand suns. This dichotomy between the divinely perfect and the brokenly human is what motivates much of my favourite country music, and this album is as lovely a representation of it as you will find anywhere.

Across this album’s runtime – less than half an hour, as was normal in country music (and, indeed, much other music) of the time – there are two components that remain constant, undergirding all the tracks and binding the influences together. The first, most famously, is Mrs. Cline’s gorgeous, sonorous voice, resonant with overwhelming emotion and occasionally inflected with just a little bit of ugly phlegm to get the point across. The second, more subtly, is the backing vocals of The Anita Kerr Singers, present (unless my memory doth deceive me) on even the roughest, bluesiest tracks here. That serves to smooth down the edges of some of the grittier influences here, making sure that even the r&b riffs of “In Care For The Blues” and the swingy horns of “Too Many Secrets” ultimately sound as if they are in the service of some omnibenevolent being. This goes both ways, though. The opener, “That Wonderful Someone”, is ostensibly a plain-and-simple worship song for that aforementioned omnibenevolent being, and the softly clean instrumentation sounds as tranquil and bright as a clear mountain stream, but Patsy’s voice still peals across the shimmering waters like a doleful horn, reminding us all – I guess – of the perpetual fallen sinfulness of humanity, tragically heartbroken even as surrounded by the natural wonders erected by that wonderful someone.

I don’t know how genuine her pain was – I’ve not properly read up on her biography – but it certainly sounds real. I’ve never heard anyone wail quite as desperately as she does on “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again”, which may contain the most wince-inducingly convincing scream (so to speak) of the words “I feel like dying” ever uttered. “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray”, too, is truly tragic, as Patsy wails her heart out in a smoky, empty room lit only by sparse chiming guitars and soft backing vocals. That’s a continuation of the implicitly nocturnal theme found on “I Can’t Forget”, with its quiet, intimate piano and sleepy rhythm guitar laying contentedly atop the angelfeather bed conjured by the backing choir. Patsy herself, sadly, enjoys no such contentedness – she’s still up, bathing in the meagre light of a fading fire, sadly reflecting on her lonesomeness. Even amid the comfiest domestic bliss a set of instruments and a choir can evoke, she gets no rest.

That nocturnal theme is finally made explicit on the album’s big, famous standout, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which is far more evocative and atmospheric than a two-and-a-half minute song about loneliness has any right to be. It’s got a lovely, meandering slide guitar riff and a bit of a doleful rhythm, but most of that atmosphere comes from the echoey resonance of Patsy’s voice and the painterly fullness of the lyrics, sketching a fulsome picture of an emotional state rent between lonesome anguish and the tranquil peace of midnight solitude. “I stop to see a weepin’ willow/ Cryin’ on his pillow/ Maybe he’s cryin’ for me”, she sings, drawing out the last syllable into a mournfully climbing peal of despair. As someone who finds very little in the world as relaxing as being alone at night, I relate; I just hope I never experience pain like this. What was it Young Thug said? “I ain’t never been in love, I don’t know how pain feels”? If this is what love leads to, maybe he was right about it all along.

There isn’t a bad song on the album, but I guess I have to concede that “Walkin’ After Midnight” is the only really big standout. “Then You’ll Know” is so gorgeously tranquil that it seems to make time itself stop when one listens to it, but I’ll freely admit that it kind of disappears fairly easily from the memory after it’s done, as do most of these. It’s a great album, but ultimately it’s not a masterpiece and it’s far from the best country album I’ve ever heard. Still, come on – ninety whole ratings, RYM? Ninety? This lady deserves so much better than that. I’ll do what I can to correct this grave collective error myself over the coming weeks.