Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Mikel Laboa: elegance and fragility

A few months ago I wrote a post about a Basque songwriter called Ruper Ordorika and one of his songs, Martin Larralde. This time I’ll write about Mikel Laboa, another Basque songriter who was, I believe, a big inspiration for Ruper Ordorika and definitely one of the biggest Basque singer-songwriters of all time.

Mikel Laboa was born in San Sebastián and lived between 1934 and 2008. He was actually a doctor and worked as such for about twenty years. Meanwhile, he was one of the founders of the cultural group Ez Dok Amairu (There Is No 13) with the goal of revitalizing Basque culture, which was having a tough time under the Franco dictatorship.

I am ashamed to say I only know one of his CDs, Sei (Six), which has mesmerized me in the last few months and which is obviously the one I will talk about.

The first thing that stroke me when I listened to it for the first time is his voice. Sei was released when he was 51 years old and yet Laboa’s voice gives me the impression of belonging to a teenager, as if it wasn’t fully developed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing but rather an interesting combination of fragility and elegance. The fragility reaches its peak in the song Sorterriko Koblak. I don’t know what it says because I barely know a few words in Basque, but in my mind I imagine it as the desperate cry of an introvert teenager for whom music is the only way to properly express his emotions. Yes, I’m sober, thank you very much.

Melancholy is the general mood of the album, which has the piano as the main instrument, always accompanied by Laboa’s guitar and sometimes by an accordion, violin, txalaparta (a sort of huge wooden xylophone for two people) and/or synthethizers, which give this generally traditional sounding album a more experimental sound. There is also one song, Lizardi, which, although not from my favourites, is very interestingly tango-like (or something like that).

Here are a few of my favourite songs from Sei, which I strongly recommend you to listen. As always, here is the facebook page for the blog, in case you are interested.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Jethro Tull (X): changes

Going from the 70s to the 80s was not just a change of numbers for Jethro Tull. Firstly, John Glascock died in 1979 and soon after that Barrie Barlow, who was perhaps hisclosest friends, quit the band. Also, Ian Anderson decided he wanted to work on a solo album, which made John Evans and David Palmer leave the band as well (and not in the best of terms either, I believe).

At that point, only Anderson, Barre and new member Dave Pegg remained. Two more people joined: drummer Mark Craney and pianist/violinist Eddie Jobson, who made it clear he was only there for one album. Craney would finally leave after one album as well; a real pity, as both he and Jobson were extremely talented.

Ironically, this Ian Anderson solo album ended up being the new Jethro Tull album. The thing is Chrisalis Records pressed Anderson and he gave in to that pressure, naming the new Tull album A (taken from the labels on the master tapes for his scrapped solo album, marked simply "A" for "Anderson", according to what I’ve read in Wikipedia and one or two more websites).

A is a very different album from the previous one, Stormwatch. While the second was quite folky and extremely dark, Jethro Tull took the 80s very seriously in A and Jobson’s synthethizers made themselves heard in pretty much the whole album.

I’ve read many fans complaining about how Stormwatch was the end of Jethro Tull and I don’t agree. I do agree that things were never the same and the band didn’t produce such good music again (with a few exceptios) but, still, they made some good stuff. A, while overlooked by many, has a big bunch of more than decent songs, although perhaps not “Tull good”, with the exception of the unusually catchy Black Sunday.

Other good songs are the slightly jazzy Crossfire, the 1984-themed Working John, Working Joe and the beautiful And Further On. On the other hand, Batteries Not Included is absolutely awful and Uniform is totally forgettable. The rest of the album is good, with Jobson doing a great job at the piano/synths and at the violin as well, as can be seen in The Pine Martin’s Jig.

The tour that came with the album saw the band wear weird parachutey tracksuits which can be seen in a DVD with a few videoclips for older songs (Anderson really enjoyed himself doing the Sweet Dream clip) and some very nice versions as well, such as the one for Skating Away, which I love for several reasons. First of all, it’s an original rendition of a beautiful song but, mostly, it’s proof that Jethro Tull members could all switch instruments without making the song worse. In this case, there are three guitars (ok, a guitar, a mandolin and a mandola) but the guitarist, Barre, doesn’t play. How cool is that? Ian Anderson plays the guitar, Pegg (bassist) plays the mandola, Jobson (pianist and violinist) plays the violin and Craney (drummer) plays the bass. Let me repeat: how cool is that? Let me answer: very.

I guess A can be seen as a transition album, as the next album, The Broadsword and The Beast, proved to be somewhat more solid. But hey, it’s not too shabby for a transition album. It’s a pity Craney left though, because his replacement, Gerry Conway, did a mediocre job. I know, it’s easy for me to say those things from my chair, but I just don’t like his drumming with Tull.

Anyway, this is it for this time. I’ll try not to wait for another two and a half months until I write the next post. By the way, this is the facebook page for the blog (I promise to post more stuff there as well).

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Everybody hates John Barleycorn

Dear people who have enough time to read my pointless rants: I am troubled.

I am troubled by all the hate I see towards John Barleycorn. Why does everyone want to kill him? So far I’ve heard bands such as Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Traffic sing it, and according to the internet, this has been going on for centuries and many other bands. Poor guy.

If my calculations are correct, this introduction may be in my top 5 lame attempts to sound funny, and that’s saying a lot, so let’s stick to music.

John Barleycorn is a very old song. Very, very very. In fact, even if the versions I’ll show you in this post aren’t that grandfather sounding (only a bit). According to a couple of websites, there is a version of the song included in the Bannatyne Manuscript in 1568 (really old), but I’ve also read that the earliest copy is the one in the Pepoysian collection from 1465 (really, really effing old).

By the way, Johnny is not a man, so don’t worry, he hasn’t been melodically beaten to death throughout the centuries. Johnny is actually a personification of barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky.

If you have a look at the lyrics (you’ll find the lyrics for the Traffic version at the end of the post) you’ll see that all the terrible, terrible things people do to Little Johhny correspond to the different stages of barley cultivation (reaping, malting, etc).

The funny part is the last verse, though. Because, after all, who can live without “a little Barleycorn”? (Note: I am not an alcoholic, I promise… I don’t even like whisky!)

I first heard the Jethro Tull version included in the live album A Little Light Music (yes, I took this blog’s name from there). Three or four years later I heard the song by Fairport Convention, and last year I listened to the version by Traffic included in the album John Barleycorn Must Die, which by the way is very good.

The three versions are good and I can’t really choose. The one by Fairport Convention is suprisingly different from the others, to be honest it sounds like a different song. The version by Traffic is the most relaxing one and the one that has the most delicate arrangement. Anyway, it’s up to you to judge. Here are the three versions, as well as the lyrics.

The nonsense I have to write to do something more than just posting music videos, right ?

There were three men came out of the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die

They've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in
Threw clouds upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead

They've let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all

They've let him stand till midsummer's day
Till he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man

They've hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee
They've rolled him and tied him by the way
Serving him most barbarously

They've hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he's bound him to the cart

They've wheeled him around and around the field
Till they came unto a barn
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They've hired men with the crab-tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that
For he's ground him between two stones

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last

The huntsman, he can't hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can't mend kettle nor pot
Without a little Barleycorn