Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Wild Mercury Sound

The Mercury shortlist was announced last week - for the first time, I didn't own a single album on the list, which is, I suppose, a sign of getting old, but also of how my tastes are more and more towards Americana. In the past, there were a few years I only had one or two albums on the list, but I remember in those years owning lots of other albums I thought should be on the list - this year, there's not a single British album I'd really sing the praises of, apart, perhaps from Paul Buchanan's 'Mid-Air', which is rather lovely (and very middle aged).

Interestingly, though, I do own previous albums by lots of this year's contenders, albums I have found virtue in but clearly not enough to carry on buying their stuff. I tend to think the most revered British alternative music these days is all angles and new wave and sparkling and clever, and I'm still a little stuck in safe singer-songwriter territory, yet rather dissatisfied by the current singer-songwriter batch.

I'm not entirely ignorant of the contenders - I've seen and heard bits and bobs by pretty much all of them - indeed I'm listening to a selection as we speak and actually very much enjoying it. Alt-J seem to be the name on people's lips - all a bit unSpringsteenlike for me, but I could get into it.

There's a bit of a tradition of slagging off the Mercury list when it comes out every year, but I do actually think it deserves a bit of respect - it seems to be put together fairly, with a good idea of representing different types of music, and with an honest agenda to just choose the ones that are best. It will be perceived to have got it wrong every year, but i bet all the people who slag it off every year listen to some good stuff they wouldn't have otherwise.

And most other music awards are utterly beneath contempt, in my view, from the Brits to the NME Awards, where Oasis, Muse and the Killers seem to have won everything going for years (yeah, alternative) to the overly revered Ivor Novellos, which every year seem to me to laud utter shite, and yet have some kind of reputation as a "Songwriter's Award".

It's fair to say the Mercury Prize has got it wrong a fair few times, wrong in the sense that the albums they've given the top prize to have not gone on to be looked on as classic and the artists responsible for them have not gone on to consistent and strong careers. There have been "urban" winners quite a few times, and apart from Dizzee Rascal's Boy on the Corner, none of the albums or artists have gone on to be seen as greats. [I don't think this is just my guitar music bias speaking - M People, Roni Size, Talvin Singh, Miss Dynamite, Speech Debelle. A bit of a poisoned chalice.] Anything but. I suspect that has a lot to do with the judging process though, where the "indie" vote on the panel is more divided and an unlikely winner emerges.

PJ Harvey is the only person so far to win it twice, and Radiohead, Blur, the Furries, as well as Coldplay, Muse, Kasabian and other big names, have never won it. I own 13 of the winners so far, and Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of the Bewilderbeast is my favourite of those.

A playlist selected from previous winners might be this:

The Drowners - Suede
The Shining - Badly Drawn Boy
Big Exit - PJ Harvey
Dy-Na-My-Tee - Miss Dynamite
Fix Up, Look Sharp - Dizzee Rascal
Darts of Pleasure - Franz Ferdinand
Fistful of Love - Antony and the Johnsons
Golden Skans - The Klaxons
Starlings - Elbow
VCR - The XX

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

I was so much older then ...

Bob Dylan's got a new album out, by the way. It's great. It might well be my favourite of his late-years revival. It's funny, well-crafted, silly at times, it's got a lot of verve, the middle section is really exceptional I think, Pay in Blood and Long & Wasted Years are the stand-outs for me. He's 71 and he sounds 71, but no one who's 71 has made such vital music before I'd say.

This late-years revival began with Time Out of Mind, from 1997 - the first proper Bob Dylan that came out while I was a proper Bob Dylan fan (good timing for me) and, one whose reputation has grown over the years. The stand-out song of it is Not Dark Yet, which I remember people at the time saying was the first great song of the rock'n'roll generation aging (particularly in the light of the fact Dylan had almost died that year of some sort of lung infection). Well, 15 years have gone and he's still in the process of aging.

But then I think - well, he doesn't really sound any older now than then. And then I think, he doesn't really sound any older now than 50 years ago. Here's 'Moonshiner' from 50 years ago, a traditional song rather than a Dylan composition, but one of his great vocal performances. He's 21 here, or maybe 22.He sounds 71.
That was always what made Bob Dylan a great singer, and makes him, somehow or another*, a great singer still. He inhabits the role like no one else. Although I'm not sure he could inhabit the role of a 21 year old now.
*As one nice article said, criticism of Bob Dylan these days, whether live or on record, seems to be from people who have suddenly made the discovery that he has, would you believe it, a funny voice. No shit. Honestly, all those people that still liked him hadn't noticed. Thanks for pointing it out.

But then I think something else, a bit scarier. Forget how old Bob Dylan is, how old am I? I'm as old as Bob Dylan was when he released Blood on the Tracks. The great album of break-up and despair, of middle age, of faded dreams, of a bitter, beaten man, Bob Dylan had gone through all that, he's changed the world, gone away, come back, gone away, come back again, come up with this extraordinary piece of work (definitely my favourite Dylan album). That's how old I am now. When I first heard Blood on the Tracks, I could never imagine being as old as the man who sang it, and yet, that time doesn't feel so long ago, and I really don't feel that old. I should probably feel good about that, but it mainly just makes me realise how remarkable Bob Dylan is and was.
My list of songs is
13 Bob Dylan songs where he sounds older than time

My Back Pages
Every Grain of Sand
Not Dark Yet
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
I Shall Be Released
Simple Twist of Fate
With God on Our Side
Dear Landlord
I Threw It All Away
Workingman Blues
What Good Am I?
One Too Many Mornings