Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Boys Next Door

Here is a quote from last.fm's description for Herman's Hermits:

Part of the British Invasion, their trademark simple, non-threatening, clean-cut “boys next door” image made them easier to listen to and more accessible than other British Invasion bands.

Herman's Hermits are most definitely my cup of tea and I didn't even realize it properly until now – or actually a week ago on Monday when I watched a TV documentary about the band. It was part two in a four-part series called British Invasion.

Herman's Hermits were a band with one goal: to score hit singles. That goal they did achieve (I'm into Something Good; Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter; I'm Henry the Eight, I Am; Can't You Hear My Heartbeat and so on), and very much in the US as well. Based on the documentary I saw, some of the hit song choices actually came as a surprise to the band. While watching Peter Noone and other guys share their memories of being chased by a hundreds girls and having a few thousand more stalking outside their hotel I started thinking: how come they gained so much success by performing early/mid-60s style music in 1967?

Maybe the success of Herman's Hermits indicated the beginning of the upcoming bubblegum explosion. Peter Noone and the band definitely had most of the important characteristics of a bubblegum band. They were a band that scored many hits but didn't write them, the hit songs were simplistic and catchy, and their lead vocalist was a sweet-voiced teenager boy. However, unlike your usual bubblegum group, Herman's Hermits were not a fictional band that only came alive through session musicians in the studio. Herman's Hermits recorded their music personally and the same people also performed live.

This isn't the first time I have listened to Herman's Hermits but it definitely helps now to be able to see the band in the context of the specific time period and generally in the context of different musical phenomena of the 60s. The beauty of music often lies in the fact that you can listen to anything and come band to it when you have gained a more thorough perspective.

Another thing that I found interesting based on the documentary was that in the 60s the band seemed to feel restricted by the name 'Herman's Hermits'. After all, the band name didn't stop the Beach Boys from recording everything from psychedelic pop to country music. Still, Herman's Hermits went on to record stuff like My Sentimental Friend, which is a gorgeous performance, and actually starting to sound a lot like the usual British 70s bubblegum music – with strings and all!

Herman's Hermits were(/are?) in fact a very charming band. I think I also may have to give the title for “the sweetest British male vocalist” to Peter Noone. What can I say? No one could ever dislike stuff like Silhouettes, I'm Into Something Good, No Milk Today, or... Listen People. Oh My!

Here is a live video for Listen People. I agree with the girls in the audience. For some reason the guys behave a bit more chilled-down.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Scottmania, Part Four

We have arrived at Scott Walker's fourth solo album and the almost final solo album for a long time to feature original material by Scott himself (There was also a "Scott 5" but I will discuss it sometime later). Many people consider Scott 4 his absolute masterpiece which is of course open to debate. I like to think about Scott 1–4 as equals. Even though there weren't that many Scott Walker compositions on Scott 1 and 2, the cover songs reflect Scott's personality in some way and when they don't, they are at least extremely well-rendered by Scott. Scott 4 is 100 % Scott Walker-written material (credited to Engel, as it is his real name).

Whereas Scott 3 was quite slow and often in 3/4, Scott 4 has perhaps a better balance of slow and mid-tempo songs. Still, Scott 4 is not really a super high-energy album of rock&roll but compared to Scott 3 it has a faster average tempo. Scott 4 is also the most pop-oriented solo album Scott has ever created. There is no sign of the crooner music style and the arrangements have elements of folk, and of course baroque pop.

The World's Strongest Man is, for a change, a song the lyrics of which are quite easy to understand. Even though you probably thought Scott's vocals couldn't get any more tender and emotional, they actually do just that on this album. One of Scott's biggest accomplisments regarding this album is, in fact, his vocals that seem to have improved from perfection...

To me, Boy Child is definitely one of the most memorable songs here. First of all, there is a strong connection to You Still Believe in Me. There are a couple of things that connect these songs, one of them being the comforting mood. Scott's performance has a hypnotizing effect. Angels of Ashes has a pretty similar effect, although I still feel the need to complain a bit about the melody sounding too much like Goin' Back.

Scott even gives us an anti-war protest song, Hero of the War, which is an extremely well-written song, The lyrical content comes across quite heavy but Scott makes it all very light to listen with his rendition. Could this be one of the reasons why he later decided to "become" a tenor (instead of baritone that he really is) – his serious songs have a soothing effect even when he intends to cause restlessness?

The Seventh Seal, a song about Ingmar Begman's film of the same title may be the structurally simplest of all these ten songs. Despite having only one part, the song evolves a great deal on the way. The Seventh Seal and The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime) both have some quite impressive choir vocals. These vocals give both the songs a touch of unease even though Scott again channels some really easy-going and careless vibes. What a curious contradiction, you could say!

Rhymes of Goodbye is the final song and I think it is my #1 favorite from Scott. I actually like the song so much that I could call it some kind of a guilty pleasure... Except that I don't really feel guilty about it. But there are times when I listen to it over and over and over... Rhymes of Goodbye has quite a strong folk rock vibe. In fact, Duchess is a quite similar song but I am not quite as much fond of it. Still, don't ignore Duchess, it is lovely.

And there we have it: Scott 1, 2, 3 and 4. Fortunately, this is most definitely not the end of Scott Walker's fantastic pop music. Scottmania will continue.

Music from Scott 4 (YouTube):

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Scottmania, Part Three

By the time Scott Walker released his third solo album, Scott 3 (1969), he had evolved into a great songwriter. On Scott 3 there are ten original compositions and three Jacques Brel songs. Depending on how you see it, you could say this is Scott's best from this period.

This is definitely Scott's most waltz-oriented album. The album is overall very peaceful and slow and many songs are in 3/4 which could be the reasons why the album didn't do as well as the first two albums. Scott 3 doesn't, in fact, make the best possible album for workout or other situations when you wish to draw energy from what you hear. A very different kind of energy emanates from Scott 3: a melancholic, yet hopeful, peaceful and tremendously beautiful feeling.

It's Raining Today represents Scott's appreciation towards both harmony and dissonance. Big Louise is another song that may sound a bit frightening in the beginning but both of these songs are actually perfectly listenable and lovely. Peaceful songs with big arrangements follow one after another and this pattern doesn't really change much until the end of the album where you find the Brel songs.

Actually, there are a couple of times when the album momentarily turns into something else than a peaceful cradle of hopeful melancholy. We Came Through sounds to me like a medieval battle song – glorious! By this song you will also have noticed that Scott's songwriting leans quite a bit on very traditional pop melodies – the kind of material that is still recycled in pop music today.

30 Century Man, a song that carries the same title as the Scott Walker documentary film (which I highly recommend to watch) is different in the sense that it doesn't have anything else for accompaniment than an acoustic guitar. The song is also a bit more... bluesy than the rest of songs. Many of Scott's songs on this album are sweet and short, and 30 Century Man is the shortest: only 1:29.

Scott's every song is filled with extremely fine imagery. His lyrics might even be too cryptic for some people's taste... I don't understand even half of it. Scott's vocals are obviously beyond perfection all through the album, and the arrangements are just as excellent as always. There are wonderful strings, sometimes also beautiful harp, piano and amazing percussions.

In the end of the album there are three Jacques Brel songs. Sons of is a pretty peaceful waltz, yet it is clearly more restless than any other waltz on this album. Funeral Tango is a great song with macabre lyrics – once again about death but from a very fun perspective. Scott even laughs, kind of. I didn't expect to hear that... Finally, there is If You Go Away. All I can say is... I would definitely consider going away if it meant that Scott would sing this song to me...

Listen while watching the rain!

Music from Scott 3 (YouTube):

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Scottmania, Part Two

Scott 2 is the Scott Walker album that I usually end up listening the most. Scott 2 followed soon after the debut solo effort and was equally successful on the charts. The album has a similar structure as the first album. There are contemporary covers (Hal David and Burt Bacharach's Windows of the World, for instance), film music (Mancini's Wait Until Dark), Jacques Brel songs, and original material.

Now that I think about it, it could be that my affection towards Scott 2 has something to do with the fact that the album contains slightly more dangerous themes than the first album. Jackie is a good example of Scott moving towards more violent topics. In a nutshell the song is a tribute to a decadent and destructive yet exciting lifestyle. Jacques Brel's original version was called Jacky and the song indicates Brel's fascination towards the theme of decadence. The theme also intrigued Scott and he seems to enjoy a great deal putting himself in the main character's shoes. In the end, I don't understand what is wrong with singing about controversial topics. It is just a song... Even though it certainly reveals something about the dark depths of the human soul.

Jackie was released as a single and banned by the BBC. I wonder what BBC would have thought about Next, an even more violent Jacque Brel song from the same album (Scott 2). The lyrical content is in fact so horrifying that the whole thing turns upside down and becomes a pretty entertaining song – at least to me. On the surface it is a classy and dramatic tango, rendered flawlessly by Scott, but the lyrics tell a story that will make your blood turn cold if you think about it to much... Still, highly recommended!

Jackie and Next are just a couple of examples of the wonders this album has to offer. Scott's own compositions are, again, really the coolest material on the album. The Amorous Humphrey Plugg is absolutely fantastic. With the fancy arrangement it sounds like some sort of crooner song but it can also be seen as a perfect baroque pop song. To me, the magic is in the emotional nuances. Scott is a fantastic interpreter of emotions, and definitely not just the negative ones! When it comes to the lyrics, The Girls on the Streets follows the decadence theme but to me just sounds magnificent – the chorus is really quite ecstatic. It is another very slow song, but slower is usually better, I think. The arrangement is fabulous, especially the accordion!

Plastic Palace People is another piece of very intriguing lyrics. The arrangement feels like you are floating in some kind of dream world. It is a simple idea: strings and other instruments moving up and down the scale, but still the is overall feel is completely out of this world. When the strange vocal echo effect comes around, the song claims its place among Scott's most psychedelic songs. The Bridge is the fourth and final Scott Walker composition on the album and a beautifully melancholic tune. You can practically see the autumn leaves falling from trees while listening to the song.

Scott also turns the Tim Hardin song Black Sheep Boy into pure gold with his tender rendition. This was in fact, in my opinion, the first time Scott showed his more natural singing voice on a record (although, to be precise, he already gave a similar performance of Hardin's The Lady Came from Baltimore on the first solo album). Whereas he mostly sticks to the very dramatic vocal style he is known for, in this song his singing sounds more down-to-earth and relaxed. On Scott 4 he used this kind of singing style more than anywhere else during his career.

Something about this album really fascinates me. Again, it must be the balance between very easily listenable pop songs and considerably more grim material. Everything is coated with absolutely perfect, rich arrangements and Scott Walker's voice – the classiest one in the world.

Songs for you (YouTube):