TOP TEN: September 2013

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1• Damien Wilkins on The X Factor

No, Wilkins didn’t appear on The X Factor, but the novelist, director of the International Institute Of Modern Letters and leader of occasional band The Close Readers, was a committed viewer all the way to Jackie Thomas’s final-night victory, and has made some astute observations in a piece written for Werewolf which you can read here.

Elitist music snobs like myself usually just pretend that the television music competitions don’t exist, and yet, as Wilkins reminds us, for a vast number of our fellow New Zealanders – especially Maori - events like X Factor and Idol represent a real and significant engagement with music and its makers.

Wilkins’ elegantly persuasive piece makes me recognise that in New Zealand The X Factor is part of a long tradition, one that goes back to Johnny Cooper’s travelling talent quests of the 50s, and beyond. Stan Walker – the Maori winner of the 2009 Australian Idol and a judge on New Zealand’s first season of The X Factor - is just the latest in a long line of popular Maori entertainers, which includes Cooper, Howard Morrison, and Prince Tui Teka. And in identifying the X factor itself - that elusive moment of connection in which a singer is as likely to surprise themselves as the audience - I realised that this is exactly the same intangible thing I am always listening for, even when I am playing my elitist music snob records with the television firmly switched off.  

2• Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils

The erstwhile singer of neo-bluegrass outfit Crooked Still (her Irish name is pronounced EE-fa) stretches the form in several directions on her solo debut. Her original songs include several readymade standards (something Allison Krauss recognised when she recorded O’Donovan’s ‘Lay My Burden Down’) while her disregard for boundaries leads to some inspiring hybrids (I’m sure I had never heard a country song in 7/4 time before ‘Beekeeper’). And producer-du-jour Tucker Martine ensures it all sounds splendid.

3• Washington Phillips – ‘Take Your Burden To The Lord and Leave It There’

Washington Phillips was a lay preacher from Texas, probably born in the late 19th century, who wrote and adapted religious songs which he sang, accompanying himself on a zither-like instrument called a dolceola. Ry Cooder defined it as the sound of “a celestial ice cream truck.” If, like me, you like something a little metaphysical on a Sunday morning, you might find the handful of recordings Phillips made in the late 1920s to be just the ticket. Listen here

4• Valerie June

With her stylish dreads and vogueish videos, it would be tempting to dismiss this young Mississippi-born singer as the designer blues. But her voice is the thing that hasn’t been art-directed; sharp, trebly and insistent, it sounds like it has fought its way out of the worn grooves of an old 78 recording and into the 21st century. On her album Pushin' Against A Stone, producer Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) places that voice in a variety of settings, from Ethiopian jazz to Motown soul. But it is just as effective when accompanied by her solitary banjo-lele in a You Tube reading of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’. Watch it here

5• Colin and the Wolf

The Canadian guitarist Colin Linden produced (among other things) Lindi Ortega’s great modern honky-tonk album Cigarettes and Truckstops, and played guitar on Dylan’s latest tour. Howlin’ Wolf was (to quote the immortal Lowell George) “the guy that invented rock’n’roll”). In a guest blog on writer Peter Guralnick’s site, Linden writes movingly of his meeting at a formative age, with the mighty Wolf. Read it here

6• Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by Ben Sandmel (The Historic New Orleans Collection)

According to Ernie K Doe there were just two songs that people would be singing “until the end of the world”: ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and his own hit ‘Mother-In-Law’. The New Orleans singer – whose career peaked when his Allen Toussaint-penned signature song hit number one in 1961 – had an ego so big and world-view so insular (“I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans”) that everything he did was guaranteed to stand out, and equally guaranteed to piss somebody off. There has never been a more entertaining or merited biography of a one-hit-wonder than southern folklorist Ben Sandmel’s 270-page chronicle of K-Doe’s larger-than-life life. Wonderful photos and ephemera help make this the best kind of music book.

7• Anyone Who Had A Heart: The Autobiography, Burt Bacharach with Robert Greenfield (Atlantic)

Unlike the protagonist in the song from which his autobiography takes its title, Burt Bacharach doesn’t try and make us love him. He may (in collaboration with Hal David) have been one of the greatest romantic songwriters of the 20th century, but these are the confessions of an obsessive-compulsive control freak, with narcissistic tendencies. The old paradox applies, though; if Bacharach hadn’t been the driven, self-obsessed character he is, he would never have written the songs he did. And they still sound great, even after reading the book. Listen here

8• Spoilers Of Utopia

In the secret history of New Zealand music, the municipal brass band has an unexpected place. It’s where vibraphonist, tenor horn player and composer John Bell got his start, as did Don McGlashan and several other iconic popular artists. McGlashan joined Bell, along with half a dozen or so other brass band graduates, in the short-lived but resonant Spoilers Of Utopia. Bell is currently living in South Korea, which precludes any Spoilers gigs in the near future (though I’ll be curious to hear whatever music emerges from his present sojourn.) In the meantime, the Spoilers are memorialised in a self-titled CD (on the iiii label), presenting a set of original tunes that swing between free jazz and anthemic rock, the warm brassy tones enhanced at different times by log drums and Moog synthesiser. Watch it here

9• Rotorua show

Ans Westra’s immigrant eye has always been attentive to a New Zealand others either take for granted or fail to notice. Not everyone has wanted to see what she has had to show; her 1964 study of a rural Maori family Washday At The Pa was withdrawn after a protest by the Maori Women’s Welfare League. Yet few photographers’ work so consistently radiates the warmth and humour one hopes is still alive somewhere in the heart of this country. A selection of her photos taken in Rotorua, from fgairgrounds in the early 60s to Fat Freddy's Drop in 2005, are showing this month in Wellington. See it here

10 • Advice of the late James Luther Dickinson

(producer of Big Star, Ry Cooder, The Replacements and dozens of others): “Play every note like it’s your last, because one of them will be”.

Tags: ry coodernew orleansmaorijim dickinsonbooksstan walkerthe close readerswashington phillipslindi ortegahowlin' wolfcolin lindenlowell georgeernie k-doeallen toussaintburt bacharachbig starthe replacements

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