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Off the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100 – Part 6

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SOME readers have remarked that my selections seem heavily biased towards America. I don’t know about that – half of today’s ten are British. We start, however, with a Yank.

50 Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell (2015)

As I wrote here in January, this is Sufjan’s salute to his late mother and beloved stepfather. My column began: ‘I think it’s fair to say that Sufjan Stevens didn’t get off to the most promising start in life. His schizophrenic, alcoholic, drug-addicted mother (Carrie) abandoned him in 1976, when he was a year old, and they saw each other infrequently while he and his siblings were brought up by their father and stepmother. Yet her death in 2012 led Stevens to reflect deeply on their troubled relationship and produce an album of the most delicate beauty, regarded as one of the finest of the 21st century.’

I went on to say: ‘On the opening track, Death With Dignity, Sufjan confesses that “I don’t know where to begin” in re-evaluating the mother-and-son relationship before adding, “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you, and I long to be near you” and regretfully concluding, “You’ll never see us again”.

‘Should Have Known Better recalls an occasion when Sufjan was three or four and was left with his siblings at a video store when Carrie went AWOL. This YouTube file of it has been viewed more than 15million times.

‘The most beautiful and heartbreaking song on the album, and perhaps of Stevens’s entire career, is Fourth of July, when he recalls the night his mother succumbed to cancer and pleads, “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?” He goes on to recount an imaginary conversation with the late Carrie in which she asks him, “Did you get enough love, my little dove. Why do you cry? And I’m sorry I left but it was for the best, though it never felt right.” She concludes with the bleak message, “We’re all gonna die”.’

An extended live performance of Carrie and Lowell is available here. 

49 June Tabor: Aqaba (1988)

I used to think that June Tabor was blessed with one of the finest voices in any genre of music. I now incline to the opinion that one of music’s finest voices is saddled with June Tabor. Her later albums tend towards the ponderous and glum, in my view, and it is hard to get through many tracks in one sitting. However, in her golden years she supplied a succession of delightful records, of which Aqaba is probably the best.

A mixture of contemporary and traditional folk songs, it begins with The Old Man’s Song  by Bill Caddick and John Tams, setting the atmosphere of simple, stark arrangements. Where Are You Tonight? is a cry from the heart written by the late Andy M Stewart of the band Silly Wizard. This is followed by the haunting title track, which is also from Caddick’s pen and was inspired by the life of T E Lawrence (of Arabia). The traditional Bogie’s Bonnie Belle has been recorded by Richard Thompson among others and might have benefited from a bit of RT magic in the background. The Reaper  is one minute 42 seconds of beauty, followed by Verdi Cries, written by Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs.

The final three tracks are all belters. Seven Summers (March stayed around till June, sound familiar?) precedes Mayn Rue Plats, (My Resting Place), a part-Yiddish lament with a lovely bass clarinet solo. And then we have Tabor’s finest hour, as I wrote here back in July 2018. The King of Rome  is the true story of Charlie Hudson, a working-class bloke from Derby who bred a humdinger of a racing pigeon. In 1913 he entered it for a 1,000-mile endurance race from Italy to England, sending it off in a basket (how long it took to get there is not recorded but I am confident that the postal service was way better then than now). The song, written by Derby-born Dave Sudbury, recounts how on the day the race began a storm blew in with ‘a thousand birds swept away and never seen again’. For those of you who haven’t heard it before I won’t divulge how the story ends, but I will add that if it doesn’t make you moist-eyed there must be something wrong with your tear ducts. After listening, you can find the full history here. 

48 10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987)

As I wrote here in November last year, this was produced by Peter Asher, formerly of the British pop duo Peter and Gordon. I covered it exhaustively then so I won’t repeat myself.

When the column appeared, I was honoured to receive an email from Asher himself saying:

Dear Alan, I very much enjoyed reading your comprehensive and interesting piece on the Maniacs. I loved working on the two albums we did together. Natalie (Merchant) is an extraordinary composer and singer and I am proud to be a fan and a friend. So happy you like In My Tribe. As you may know I have mostly produced solo artists, so working with a band was a departure – but one I much enjoyed.

47 Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark (1974)

In this case, too, I have already written extensively about the album so I’ll refer you to this column from 2019. I’ll repeat, however, that the introspective tracks People’s Parties, The Same Situation, Down to You and Trouble Child are up there with Joni’s finest work. The vocals on Trouble Child, inspired by a spell in therapy after Jackson Browne dumped her, are awesome. 

46 Ry Cooder: Boomer’s Story (1972)

I wrote about this here but only in a cursory way so let’s have another look at it.

Following the brilliant Into The Purple Valley, Cooder’s second album of 1972 was another collection of inspired cover versions from America’s past. The musicianship, as one would expect, is magical throughout. The title track is listed as ‘traditional’ but is in fact the 1929 song The Railroad Boomer, written by the country music pioneer Carson Robison. Next comes the instrumental Cherry Ball Blues, followed by the wonderful Crow Black Chicken. ‘Hardest job that ever I done is ploughin’ a field of rye. Easiest job that ever I done is eatin’ chicken pie.’ The Sleepy John Estes song Ax Sweet Mama precedes two more instrumentals, Maria Elena  and Dark End of the Street. Ry’s solo on the latter when I first saw him live in 1977 remains the finest I have ever heard.   

45 Captain Beefheart: The Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot (1972)

This is cheating a bit, but since the two albums were released on one CD in 1990 I hope I can get away with it. I covered them both in detail here https://am-records.com/2020/10/26/well-done-beefheart-part-2/ last year. Just to say that Clear Spot contains one of the most beautiful of song titles, Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWh71ZL0OH  and my favourite moment in all of the Beefheart canon, after 54 secondsof Big Eyed Beans From Venus when the Cap’n commands: ‘Mister Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note. And let it float.’ Which he duly does.

44 Richard and Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver (1975)

It’s a while since I wrote about this here so with your forbearance I’ll go over it again. Here’s what I said:

‘Pour Down Like Silver was recorded in London in the summer of 1975. Many fans who were unaware of the couple’s religious conversion were stunned by the sleeve photos of them in traditional Islamic togs. But all were won over by the quality of the music.

‘Track one is Streets of Paradise, which sets John Kirkpatrick’s accordion against Richard’s guitar chords, followed by For Shame of Doing Wrong and The Poor Boy is Taken Away.

‘All powerful songs but then comes one of the peak moments of Thompson’s career, the bleak yet beautiful Night Comes In, an account of his initiation into the Sufi faith. He takes the vocals himself and there are several transcendent guitar passages over a spell of eight minutes.

‘The mood is alleviated by the jocular Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair – (I’m a fool with a size one head) and sardonic Hard Luck Stories, but it’s back to darkness and starkness for Beat The Retreat and Dimming of the Day/Dargai. “It was a stark record,” Richard admitted to his biographer Patrick Humphries. “But I think it was by accident in a sense – we were intending to have Simon [Nicol] come and play rhythm guitar but he wasn’t available so everything ended up sounding very stark and I was always going to overdub rhythm guitar and stuff, but we thought we’ll just leave it, what the hell.”

‘Linda added: “Dimming of the Day, Beat the Retreat, Night Comes In, they’re all about God, and considering they’re all about God some of them aren’t bad.” Not bad, indeed. Although they sold poorly at the time, this album and I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, along with Fairport’s Full House, are rightly seen as the high points of folk rock in the Seventies. 

43 Fairport Convention: Full House (1970)

Many Fairport fans were apprehensive about the vocals department following the departure of the great Sandy Denny to pursue a solo career. We needn’t have worried. All-male harmonies replaced her dulcet tones while the band’s ensemble playing scaled new heights. I wrote about the album here. A concert performance from that year was later released as House Full: Live at the LA Troubadour. It includes this fantastic 12-minute version of the classic Sloth.

42 Bridget St John: Thank You For (1972)

Regular visitors to our website will know that I never cease banging on about the wonderful Bridget, subject of an early column in 2018.Thank You For was her third and final album for John Peel’s Dandelion label. It is a more conventional rock record than its baroque predecessor Songs for the Gentle Man but Bridget’s husky,  passionate tones are still to the fore. The first track, Nice, starts with her acoustic guitar before she is joined by Rick Kemp on bass, Pip Pyle on drums and Gordon Huntley (remember him from Southern Comfort?) on pedal steel. A sweet cover of Dylan’s Love Minus Zero, No Limit  features Kemp along with Tim Renwick on electric guitar and the great Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks. Silver Coin  is a fine song by Terry Hiscock, of the folk-rock band Hunter Muskett. The standout track, Fly High, is based by Bridget on lines by R L Stevenson and is elevated by guitar work from John Martyn. And a cover of Buddy Holly’s Every Day is just plain sexy.    

41 Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left (1969)

I refer you to my column of September 2019.  Do visit it, if only for the film of his lovely mum Molly in her swimming cossie on Way To Blue.

Albums 40 to 31 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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