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HomeNewsOff the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100 – Part 5

Off the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100 – Part 5

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I HAVE to say I’m greatly enjoying this trawl through the columns of the last three years. Here we are almost half way through.

60 Kathleen Edwards: Back to Me (2005)

I wrote about Kathleen in November last year. For those of you who missed that column, here is what I said about the Canadian singer-songwriter’s excellent sophomore album.

‘It begins with In State, as in 20 years in state prison, and is an ode to the kind of ne’er-do-well whom Miss Edwards seems to find attractive.’

I went on: ‘The title track has Kathleen vowing she will use her womanly wiles to bring back her errant bloke. Again, the playing is great. Pink Emerson Radio  has her looking around her room before it burns down. You’ll have gathered by now that Edwards is no sugary songwriter, preferring gritty stories which more often than not end in a grisly comeuppance.

Independent Thief  is another great track with our Kath on fine vocal form backed by top-notch guitar. Old Time Sake has her pleading with her chap: Don’t you dare leave till the morning; like you always do. She is in similar mood on the lovely Summerlong while What Are You Waiting For?  includes the uncompromising couplet: You say you like me in your memory; You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me.

‘The album concludes with three corkers which reflect Edwards’s feeling of dislocation having moved from rural Canada to Toronto: Somewhere Else, the gorgeous ode to her home town Copied Keys and Good Things.

59 Can: Live in Stuttgart, 1975 (2021)

I have hugely enjoyed Can’s music ever since buying their 1971 studio album Tago Mago, known in these parts as Tango Mango for reasons made clear in this column from early 2019 about the record shop I infested in my youth. Monster Movie, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days are also great but my current favourite is the recently released Live in Stuttgart 1975. This is the first in a series of vintage concert recordings and is terrific, with all four band members at the top of their form, especially the brilliant drummer Jaki Liebezeit. The five instrumental tracks (singer Damo Suzuki had recently left) last a total of 90 minutes and are titled simply Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier and Funf. At the moment the 36-minute workout Drei is my top choice but this tends to change from week to week. Stuttgart 75 has reinvigorated my interest in Krautrock and I am also revisiting with great pleasure the works of NEU!, Faust and Guru Guru.

58 Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking (1969)

As I wrote here in July 2019, this album’s title was supplied by Sandy Denny ‘as her contribution to the word game Ghost which the band played while travelling to and from concert appearances. The cover features Sandy’s parents Neil and Edna outside the family home in Wimbledon, possibly as a thank you for the many cups of tea they supplied, while the band can be seen through the garden fence. The record features three Bob Dylan numbers, the then unreleased Percy’s Song and Million Dollar Bash, plus Si Tu Dois Partir, a version of If You Gotta Go, Go Now sung in French. The latter earned the group an appearance miming on Top of the Pops, and just missed becoming a Top Twenty single.

‘The traditional A Sailor’s Life, at over 11 minutes, is an extended workout with a strong contribution from the Birmingham fiddler Dave Swarbrick, already a big name on the folk scene through his collaborations with Martin Carthy. The [Richard] Thompson original Genesis Hall illustrates his growing songwriting talents but the undoubted highlight is Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes, about which I have already waxed lyrical here.

‘I think it was in the sleevenotes to the retrospective double album History of Fairport Convention that engineer John Wood said no band anywhere could have played it better.’

57 Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

A jaundiced look at the super-rich LA party scene, the album takes its title from the sound of sprinklers in the gardens of Bel Air mansions. In April last year, I wrote here:

‘It opens with In France They Kiss On Main Street,  a reminiscence about growing up in a small town during the rock and roll era.

‘Next comes The Jungle Line, an hommage to the painter Henri Rousseau which features vocals, guitar and synthesiser dubbed on top of a field recording of the African Drummers of Burundi. Strange and not altogether successful, in my view. The first great track of the album, Edith and the Kingpin, comes next.

‘This is a song about a woman who becomes a gangster’s moll and is an example of Joni beginning to turn away from confessional lyrics in favour of musical short stories.

Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow is about women standing up for themselves against domineering men (well it was 45 years ago) while Shades of Scarlett Conquering is about a Southern Belle basing her life on the heroine of Gone With The WindThe title track concerns a trophy wife who is treated by her husband as just another commodity; the type of bird whom Joni must have met countless times while downing margaritas and snorting coke beside the swimming pool. 

‘The Boho Dance is a swipe at those who criticise artists for enjoying their success and is beautifully sung – my favourite track on the album. Harry’s House/Centrepiece is about a failing marriage, Sweet Bird is a lament for beauty lost to ageing and we close with Shadows and Light, involving multiple vocal overdubs along the lines of 10cc’s I’m Not In Love.’ 

56 Big Star: Radio City (1974)

Despite their meagre output the late Alex Chilton’s outfit Big Star remain much loved, particularly in Ashworth Towers. I wrote about them here in 2018, reporting that several critics have described their second LP Radio City as the definitive power-pop album. Starting with track three, Way Out West, there are five great songs in a row, the others being What’s Going AhnYou Get What You DeserveMod Lang and Back of a Car. And still the best is yet to come, the superb September Gurls.  

55 Gillian Welch: Revival (1996)

As I wrote in an early column, this was Gillian’s debut album and in TV appearances to promote it she sang through gritted teeth. It is not for the faint-hearted. By The Mark represents hard-core Christianity – ‘I will know my Saviour when I come to him, by the mark where the nails have been.’  Orphan Girl is in similar vein. This song had already been recorded by Emmylou Harris on her 1995 album Wrecking Ball and has been covered by half a dozen other artists including Linda Ronstadt.

One More Dollar is the lament of a gambler who has lost everything and can never return home. Annabelle  is the story of a poverty-stricken mother on an Alabama farm whose daughter lies in the graveyard. So far, so miserable, you might think. Yet I find Revival inspiring rather than depressing, beautifully sung and played without embellishment. It ends with a song about a flower, Acony Bell, and the beautiful Only One and Only. There is also an ‘official bootleg’ double CD, Boots No 1, issued in 2016, including outtakes and alternate versions of the original album. Recommended.

54 The Be Good Tanyas: Blue Horse (2000)

In October 2018 I wrote here about the Tanyas, formed by Trish Klein, Frazey Ford and Samantha Parton after they met at a tree-planting camp in their native Canada. For this, their debut album, they were joined by Texan Jolie Holland, who went on to enjoy an idiosyncratic solo career.

As I said then, ‘It opens with The Littlest Birds,  which was released as a single and became the band’s most successful song. That with the accompanying video is something of a study in tweeness but, reader, persevere. The lolloping third track, Rain and Snow, is the real deal. I love Only in the Past while I never thought after junior school that I could enjoy any version of Oh Susanna, but this one I do.’ Dogsong (Sleep Song Lullaby) is lovely, as is the rollicking final track  Light Enough To Travel. The Tanyas have been inactive as a group since 2005 but Frazey Ford’s solo albums are well worth checking out, especially if you enjoy the soulful sounds of Al Green. 

53 Ry Cooder and the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Santa Cruz (1987)

Ever since the Seventies, Ryland Peter Cooder has been delighting audiences with his joyous live shows, combining old style rock and roll with gospel, blues, Tex-Mex and more. All punctuated by that astounding slide guitar. I have countless bootlegs of Cooder tours, including one with David Lindley in 1995 which I attended and wrote about here. However Santa Cruz is an official release and captures the great man at his best. As I wrote here it features the great Mexican accordionist Flaco Jimenez, Jim Keltner on drums, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards and the gospel singers Bobby King and Terry Evans plus a brass section. A great night was had by all and it was captured on a 90-minute movie called Let’s Have a Ball. Here is the ensemble performing How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

There’s a stonking version of the Sam Cooke song Chain Gang while on a 16-minute version of Down In Hollywood, which is underwhelming in its original form on the Bop Till You Drop LP, Ry lets the entire band have a solo each and they make the most of it. We conclude, traditionally, with Goodnight Irene

52 Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Zuma (1975)

This, Neil’s seventh studio album, was the first to be released following his acclaimed so-called Ditch trilogy of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night. On it he managed to shake off much of the misery occasioned by drug abuse and tragedy to produce one of his finest collections of songs. It combines upbeat short pieces such as Don’t Cry No Tears, Through My Sails and Lookin’ For A Love  with the longer, brooding, guitar-heavy tracks Danger Bird  and the magnificent Cortez The Killer. Here’s a bonus – a longer live version. I remember one track from Zuma being played on the radio by John Peel as a tribute to Patti Smith, of whom he was no fan. Its title? Stupid Girl. 

51 Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band: No Roses (1971)

The cast list for this record is enough to have any folk fan salivating. It includes Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention; Lal and Mike Waterson, Royston Wood, Maddy Prior, John Kirkpatrick, Barry Dransfield and the great Nic Jones. Nine traditional tracks featuring the voice of Collins, for the first time backed by electric instruments, and it’s a tour de force.

First up is Claudy Banks, with that wonderful Fairport sound provided by Thompson and Nicol on guitars and Hutchings on bass, behind Shirley’s piping vocals. Half way through comes a duo by bassoon player Alan Cave and the jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill, making his only ever folk appearance. Terrific.

Shirley’s sister Dolly provides the piano on the mournful Banks of the Bann and then we have The Murder of Maria Marten,  based on the notorious 19th century Red Barn killing in Polstead, Suffolk. This intersperses Fairport-style folk-rock with passages featuring just Collins and a hurdy-gurdy. It could be Nico, albeit with a voice about 12 octaves higher.

Van Dieman’s Land is a warning to poachers and then we have the standout track, the lovely Just As The Tide Was Flowing, later to be recorded by 10,000 Maniacs. We return to the theme of violent death with the final track, Poor Murdered Woman

Thanks in no small part to the stellar contribution of Richard Thompson, No Roses is a landmark record in English music.

So that’s the bottom 50 in my Top 100. Ten more next week. 

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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