This is the first of three blogs in which the aim is to provide alternative sources of music to that which we are normally exposed to via the radio, TV, press and internet. In this edition: Michael Holt, Arlan Feiles, Happy Joe and The Kimballs.
I have recently become aware of some people I think are great songwriters, people from whom any number of hugely acclaimed stars could learn from.
My assessment of the artists is naturally just an opinion. But every review, every award, every appearance of an artist in the mainstream media is largely the result of opinions too…
Michael is originally from New York but is now based in Toronto. On the evidence of his CD Windows (2007), Michael writes musically rich songs whose lyrics express straightforward feelings. There’s no snarling immaturity, no attempt to establish ‘street cred’ and unlike many Michael never goes for the commercial jugular. Instead, he tries to reach some deep places with his considerable compositional gifts.
The standard acoustic pop sound, which sums up Michael’s ‘live’ approach, is enriched on this record by lush instrumentation such as strings, brass and woodwind. Unlike a few British pop acts I’ve heard, the music warrants this. It’s not just a costly gimmick, the influence of classical music is a big element in Michael’s work.
The conventional songs on the album are buffeted by solo piano preludes by the Russian composer Scriabin and there are other eclectic instrumental passages which are brilliantly played and recorded.
A nice counterpoint to this is a down to earth quality in the lyrics and the singing which bring an honest humanity to the work.
Michael breaks every rule of commercialism. He doesn’t start with something catchy (unless Scriabin is your idea of a ringtone). He doesn’t describe the female form, the mating ritual or other well-worn subjects. Nor does he stick to one style or feel, yet it all makes for a magnificent whole.
There’s a great intensity to the songs Way Up Past and Gold. A lighter, childlike touch defines Focus On You and the delightful All the Michaels in the World while I Am a Cloud has both these elements and some wild changes of style. It’s an experimental song featuring some incredibly high singing.
There is an irresistible comparison here with early ’70s Beach Boys in the attempt to create beautiful, risky music whose lyrics visit spiritual areas, pay tribute to nature and ignore the lowest common denominator.
There’s a touch of genius in Focus on You when Michael gets band member Don Kerr to sing the lines
I have planted a seed
And I’m going to watch it grow
(from Focus on You (c) Michael Holt)
rather than sing them himself, just like when the Beach Boys’ manager Jack Rieley sang lead on their song A Day In the Life Of A Tree in 1971.
Arlan’s label is called Not Pop. He’s probably turned off by the flimsiness of the material in the charts, which are apparently full of ‘the best acts in the world’. Unlike some chart acts, he sounds to me not like a robot or a puppet but a human, hopefully one that other humans can identify with. The persona in his songs is perhaps more of a superhuman, with big ideas and noble intentions.
On the CD Come Sunday Morning (2007), Arlan takes an approach which is contrary to the dumbed down, easy to swallow and over-produced quality found in much popular music, echoing the sound (and look) of the young Tom Waits.
Ironically, a lot of folk and roots albums I’ve heard, while originating in a desire to convey reality and rawness, end up sounding slick, stylised and soulless.
Arlan gets around this with devotion, poetry and humanity on great songs which make you shiver such as Viola, The Cannon’s Blare and the title track.
He blows most songwriters out of the water, not with vocal gymnastics, guitar wizardry or sexual posturing but with the direct statements he makes in his lyrics and the charming, inevitable and hymn-like qualities in his chord progressions and tunes.
One problem I often have with the kinds of music that tops the charts, wins prizes and excites the media is what strikes me as falsity of emotion. There’s no way of knowing if Arlan’s passion is manufactured or not, but I think there’s more reality in his sound than there is with most artists.
The musical roots of Arlan’s music go deep into America’s cultural history, borrowing from the more proletarian styles of folk, country and gospel while bypassing more sophisticated and elite areas such as jazz, classical music and the artsier side of pop.
Arlan Feiles to me fulfills a potential that his fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen rarely manages to, though he sounds a lot like him. Whereas sometimes Springsteen is all style and no content (a personal view obviously not shared by many), Arlan can deliver simple lines like
This war is not over
And I just want to hold her
(from The Cannon’s Blare (c) Arlan Feiles)
in a way which doesn’t make this listener feel hollow.
Gonna write you a song
I’ve got nothing to say
So it won’t take long
(from Run Away (c) Joe Canzano)
Joe Canzano’s material caters for a different part of the mind than that which a lot of songwriters try to enrich. The style is basically punk, wherein all superfluous or pretentious elements are discarded. As a lyricist, Joe has the pop gift of keeping the language simple and the lines short.
During the original punk era, I preferred listening to lyricists like Ian Dury, or Vi Subversa of Poisongirls, people who had been around the block, so could draw on experience and wisdom – not to mention humour – in their social commentaries.
Likewise with Joe Canzano, who sings like a punk (singing being a loosely applied term) but makes intelligible statements about alienation, materialism and the shallowness of his fellow humans (and also himself!).
On the eponymous CD made by Joe and his erstwhile band Kiss the Planet Blue (2002), songs with titles such as Alone in a Zone, Loserville and Uncooperative lay out the basic discontent of an individual surrounded by mindless conformity. The song Cracks describes how the singer is ‘falling through the cracks of this whole world’.
Joe uses his voice in amusing ways on the latter song, building from singing to whining and finally full-on shouting as he protests that he ‘could be something shiny and true’.
The chords and melodies are basic, and this serves to emphasize the message in the words. The guitar playing, bass, drums and production are all excellent, which helps of course, but it is the lyrics which stand out, as in this verse describing a new boss:
When I took this job
I knew it was bad
When I saw him standing there
In polyester and plaid
Like a king shit toad
On his lily pad
For the crown that he never had
(from Permission from Harold (c) Joe Canzano)
However, listening to the CD doesn’t leave the listener feeling negative, due to the upbeat music and the optimism of songs like In the End. What’s more, the album’s title and cover suggest a compassion and affection for the world which evens out the anger.
TOM BURNS (of THE KIMBALLS)
The Kimballs ‘Number One’ CD (2006) is neither a concept album nor an overblown, overlong epic, just a perfectly sequenced chain of concise catchy songs in an electric pop/rock vein. Multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter/producer Tom teams up with drummer/percussionist Michael Mark to create what, for such a short album, is packed with interest and stands up to many listens.
Guitar riffs, keyboard figures (played using classic sounds like Hammond organ and Wurlitzer electric piano), strong drums and confident, clever production provide the interest, while many of the songs are growers; snippets of them stay in your head.
Titles like Rononkoma (a town in Long Island), Cherubia (the plural form of ‘cherubim’) and Galaxina (I’ll get back to you on that one!) are original, and the songs that bear their names are not just repetitions of these unusual words. Cherubia sounds similar to Beck, with a trance-like feel, rocking guitar alternating with a mellow mood and bucket-loads of attitude, guile and theatricality, and all in just over 3 minutes.
Tom’s songs have the enthusiasm and vitality of adolescence, never ponderous or tired. His vocals are always strong and especially effective on the trio of classics which make up tracks 3-5. Heavy Load has a killer chorus which instantly has your head nodding to the beat. High Fashion is an example of how to make a great song out of a title, a guitar riff and liberal use of the f-word. Miss Fancypants starts with a beautiful guitar melody and has a section in the middle, perhaps best referred to as a ‘pre-chorus’, which is a perfect union of voice, words and music:
Where were all your pretty people
When that sickness struck you down
Me and all your ugly old friends
Became your servants and your clowns
(from Miss Fancypants (c) The Kimballs 2006)
It conjures up an image of an ex-boyfriend getting his own back at the high school prom, and winning over the rest of the girls in the process.
The four songwriters discussed here all have different strengths. Michael Holt is a bit of a classicist, spreading his wings and flying high, Arlan Feiles draws on traditional music and traditional values and infuses them with his own considerable spirit, Joe Canzano and Tom Burns both favour the electric guitar and the short snappy statement, the former a cheeky wit and the latter a canny master of hooks.
I wish they were all in the charts.