Wednesday, 20 June 2012

CD Review - "Americana" by Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Americana - the new Neil Young & Crazy Horse album
Neil Young doing an album of traditional American folk songs? Not too surprising, eh? Some nice, laid-back arrangements, presumably, dominated by acoustic guitars – similar to the easy-going vibe of Comes a Time (1978)?
Well, that’s not what this is at all. This is Neil Young and Crazy Horse. This is garage-band, rough-at-the-edges, crunchy rock, reminiscent of Ragged Glory (1990) - what Rolling Stone magazine refers to as “one of those fraternal freak-guitar slopfests”. I don’t know, is that meant as a compliment?

Traditions - yes,  Americana is an album of traditional folk, but it's done in the traditional Neil Young & Crazy Horse style: rough and loose, nearly all recorded live off the floor without overdubs – the way they like it. And the way I like it too.

There’s 57 minutes of music, here – 11 tracks with fairly tight arrangements - for these guys, anyway. They only really stretch out on “Tom Dula” (their version of “Tom Dooley”), which clocks in at 8:13. The sequencing of the tracks is artful. The less-interesting-because-overly-familiar songs (Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah”, for example, or “Clementine”) come early. But then the album presents some more intriguing choices and moves through several changes of pace towards a barn-storming finish.

Americana has been getting very mixed reviews, since its release just over two weeks ago. I reckon some critics have judged it too quickly – jaded by some of its content and alienated, perhaps, by its apparently slap-dash approach and incongruous (for some listeners) arrangements. Some seem to detect an arch and cynical attitude to some of the material, but I don’t hear that at all.

Neil Young - guitar hero
I don’t know about you, but I find I usually stick with my initial impression of a new album. But I will listen to it at least half-a-dozen times before attempting to write about it - even more times, if I find my response is particularly ambivalent. Americana begins with a very ragged intro: Neil picking out a few notes on guitar, then shifting around with some tentative chords – before Ralph Molina starts banging on the drums, and they slide into their groove after half a minute. Immediately it sounds like a jam session – and that ambience is emphasised at the end of the track when the band erupts into laughter off-mic and you hear Neil exclaim to the band: “It’s funky … it’s good … it gets into a good groove.” Indeed. My initial impression? Oh, yeah. Nice!

It may be ragged and hard, but it sounds good. Neil Young has always been concerned about the audio quality of his albums; and he has been a long-term critic of digital sound because of its limited frequency response – especially in the early days of CDs. No surprise, then, to see that this album is an A-A-D production: it was recorded on an Audio Tube console to 2” 8-track analogue tape; then mixed to ½” 2-track analogue tape; before finally being transferred to digital. Yes, it may be ragged, but it sounds good – especially the tone on Neil’s electric guitar!

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - back in the early days.

Americana was produced by Neil Young and John Hanlon. Crazy Horse features Ralph Molina on drums and vocals, Billy Talbot on bass and vocals, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar, organ and vocals. Neil, of course, plays lead guitar and sings – with the rest of the band providing a kind of “Greek chorus” style of backing vocals. One of the secrets to the appeal of this long-standing relationship between Neil and Crazy Horse (which goes all the way back to 1968, and was first featured – memorably - on disc with Neil’s second album Everybody Knows This Nowhere in 1969) is the distinctive mixture of hard and smooth in their sound. And that shows here: they thrash away as a hard-rock band, but the vocal backing is sweet and harmonious - if a little ragged. But it's honest and real, instead of slick and air-brushed with auto-tuner.

What we have here, primarily, is a set of campfire songs done in the style of heavy, garage-band rock. There’s Foster’s “Oh Susannah”, the traditional folk pieces “Clementine”, “Tom Dula”,  “Gallow’s Pole”, “Travel On”, “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” (called “Jesus’ Chariot” here), and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. And, despite the grunge-styled approach, the campfire mood is retained, and I find myself bursting out into song throughout.

Neil Young’s detailed liner notes for each song reveal an interesting aesthetic throughout. Although nearly all the material is traditional folk, they deliberately choose arrangements that pay tribute to pop and folk-rock versions of the songs from the fifties and sixties. “Gallows Pole”, for example, is based on the Odetta version from the ‘60s. And the group’s rendition of “Travel On” is based on a Paul Clayton arrangement - which is itself based on a 1958 version done by Billy Grammer. Reading the notes, then, heightens the sense of the historical continuity the band brings to these old songs. 

Neil - still rockin' out!

And there are some surprises. They do a very sloppy version of the doo-wop classic “Get a Job” – using the original arrangement by The Silhouettes. Neil claims this is a folk song – because of its proletarian subject matter. Hmm …  And one of the highlights of the disc, for me, is a bluesy rendition of “High Flyin’ Bird”, a song written by Billy Edd Wheeler for The Company. Neil and band copy the arrangement recorded by The Squires in 1964, which had Neil’s colleague Stephen Stills on lead vocals. This is a moving song:
“There’s a high flyin’ bird way up in the sky;
And I wonder if she looks down as she flies on by,
Just floating so free and easy in the sky;
But look at me here, I’m just rooted like a tree here,
I got them sit down, can’t fly, oh Lord, I’m gonna die blues.”

Oh, and if you are looking for a folky acoustic guitar piece - there is one that Neil does: it’s a lovely version of “Wayfarin’ Stranger”, based on Burl Ives’ 1944 recording.

But the two epics here are the Woody Guthrie piece and a clever version of “God Save the Queen” – no, not The Sex Pistols classic, but the British national anthem. For Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, Neil adds a choir and brings in Stephen Stills and wife Pegi to help with the vocals. A real campfire feel here. Good to see, too, that Young goes back to the original Guthrie lyrics. Most people are probably only familiar with the adapted lyrics of Peter, Paul and Mary – where the song became a kind of paen to the beauty of the America landscape. Guthrie’s song is political protest – it’s actually about the tyranny of private property – how it separates the people from land that is rightfully theirs to enjoy.

“As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’,
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing -
That side was made for you and me.”

Neil Young

The album closes with an intriguing version of “God Save The Queen” – not designed, as some might think, or hope, as a tribute to Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee! No, it’s a folklorist’s approach – arranged as  a clever medley. The track starts with the first two verses of the British national anthem; and then morphs seamlessly into the American song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, which shares the same tune. The transition, Neil writes, is “in recognition of the War of Independence and America’s transition to freedom.” An interesting way to finish the album – for a former Commonwealth citizen, and now long-term resident of the United States.

So, this is probably the most interesting album that Neil Young and Crazy Horse have put together since 1996’s  Broken Arrow. And it’s not just grunge-rock renditions of old folk songs. There’s a lot more going on than that. And a few real gems. If you dig the Neil Young with Crazy Horse brand, you’re likely to enjoy their latest album. I did – but as a long-term folky and Neil Young fan, that’s really no surprise, is it?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 6 - "Barnaby Rudge"

Dickens in 1841 - lithograph from a lost portrait
Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens’s fifth novel, could very well have been his first. He conceived of it early in his writing career. Twice he contracted himself to writing it, but then twice he delayed. The novel had the longest and most convoluted gestation of all his books.

In early May 1836, the 24-year-old author signed an agreement with publisher John Macrone to write an historical novel to be called Gabriel Varden, The Locksmith of London. Macrone had published Dickens’s first book, Sketches by Boz, only a couple of months earlier. The up-and-coming writer was now planning a novel. In return for his commitment, Macrone gave Dickens an advance payment of £200. 

But Dickens had already begun writing a serialized novel for Chapman & Hall, and the first installment of The Pickwick Papers was printed at the end of March, 1836. Work began to pile up for the ambitious author. Before long he had too much on his plate, and he asked to be released from his agreement with Macrone later that year.
About a year later, in the autumn of 1837, as The Pickwick Papers neared the completion of its monthly serialisation, Dickens began to think again of Gabriel Varden. But his plans for the novel were diverted again – this time by the writing of Nicholas Nickleby for Chapman & Hall. Dickens had also taken on the job of editing a monthly magazine back in late 1836 for a third publisher, Richard Bentley. He promised Bentley that he would eventually deliver a new novel, the long-delayed Gabriel Varden, in October of 1838. But these plans were also postponed. 

In 1839, after the Dickens household had moved from Doughty Street to Devonshire Terrace, Dickens began writing the novel in earnest. He had two chapters completed, but then suddenly broke off, annoyed and offended by certain business disagreements with Bentley. He weaseled his way out of his contract with Bentley – exerting the power he had developed now over publishers, because of his enormous commercial success.

Finally, Dickens got serious about the novel, after he had finished publication of The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey’s Clock – a weekly periodical he was editing for publishers Chapman & Hall. He knew from experience that his magazine would only flourish if he included the serialisation of one of his own novels. A new one was required after the incredible success of the story of Little Nell. So, the long-delayed historical novel finally emerged. He began writing on January 29, 1840 – only eight days after completing The Old Curiosity Shop. He quickly had a third chapter finished – to add to those he’d completed the previous year.

Cover wrapper of Barnaby Rudge
Barnaby Rudge was written and published in 88 weekly parts between February 1840 and November 1841. It was illustrated by George Cattermole and Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’). Once he got into it, Dickens wrote rapidly. At the beginning of June, for example, he wrote four chapters in only six days, averaging about 2,300 words a day!  And in July he knocked off six chapters in twelve days. But this was a different kind of book than that with which his audience was familiar. At the height of the frenzy for The Old Curiosity Shop it was selling 100,000 copies. Barnaby Rudge managed about 30,000.

If Barnaby Rudge had been Charles Dickens’s first novel, and a success to boot, his career might have turned out dramatically different. The Pickwick Papers –  after a slow start – became a huge hit. And it established the young author as a comic novelist recognised more for his brilliance in the creation of characters, than his ability to create well-structured plots. Even when he turned his hand to more melodramatic novels like Oliver Twist, Dickens used characterisation – exaggerated and often grotesque – to advance his story. His novels worked best when based on satire, rather than plot. Barnaby Rudge, however, ran counter to that mold. It was an historical novel, written in the style of Walter Scott.

Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (to give it its full title) has a more carefully-structured plot than is usual for Charles Dickens. And that may be the result of his having delayed it so long, but thought about it, therefore, for nearly five years. It tells the story of the Gordon Riots of 1780 – a series of anti-Catholic protests. In 1778, the English government had enacted the Papists Act. This act eliminated some of the harshest penalties that had been imposed on Roman Catholics in England by the Popery Act of 1698 – such as the need to swear an oath of loyalty when entering the armed forces. Lord George Gordon became President of the Protestant Association in 1779 and he fomented vigorous opposition to the legislation. He and his followers achieved some success in Scotland, but things turned out differently in England. On June 2, 1780, a huge crowd of about 50,000 people marched on the Houses of Parliament in London, in support of Gordon’s political initiative at Westminster. But Parliament voted against Gordon’s motion 192-6. An initial peaceful protest turned into widespread rioting, looting, and destruction. The army was finally called out on June 7th. 285 people were shot dead; about 200 were wounded. Lord Gordon was arrested and charged with high treason, but later acquitted.

The Gordon Riots - a painting by Charles Green

Barnaby Rudge provides a gripping account of the riots in London, which begin about half-way through the book. Beforehand, though, he establishes a set of characters in the village of Chigwell, north-east of London: there are working people centred around the Maypole Inn and aristocrats living in a mansion nearby called The Warren. These characters intersect with some Londoners: the family of Gabriel Varden, a locksmith, and Barnaby and Mary Rudge, whose history is tied to the residents of The Warren. In a series of typically Dickensian coincidences, all of these characters are drawn into the events of the Gordon Riots, a few taking on prominent roles in the protests and riots.

Barnaby Rudge is one of the least-known and least-admired of Dickens’s novels. It has only been adapted for TV and film twice – a silent film made in 1915 and a BBC production back in 1960. It is easy to understand why. It is one of only two historical novels that he wrote (the other being A Tale of Two Cities). Dickens was at his best writing social satire full of broad and humorous characterisation. And that is not what this book is about. But he does employ some familiar techniques.

Simon Tappertit, the locksmith's apprentice (left), Gabriel Varden and Dolly Varden - by 'Phiz'

There are some comic characters – the usual puffed-up and pompous types typical in Dickens: there’s Simon Tappertit, an apprentice of the locksmith Gabriel Varden, and captain of the ‘Prentice Knights; and the shrewish Miss Miggs, the domestic servant of Mrs. Varden. There are some villains: the loathsome aristocrat Sir John Chester; and the devious Mr. Gashford, secretary to Lord Gordon. And there are some innocent and ineffectual young women, of the usual Dickensian-type, providing love-interest: Dolly Vardon and Emma Haredale.

The Maypole's sinister ostler Hugh - engraving by 'Phiz'

But there are some more interesting and ambivalent characters, too. There’s John Grueby, a servant to Lord Gordon, who turns against the immorality of Gashford and the mob. There’s Geoffrey Haredale, a country gentleman, who can be harsh and abrupt, but is also honest and unselfish. And then there’s Hugh, the wild and rugged ostler at the Maypole Inn, who becomes a leader of the rioters. In the early part of the book he is nothing more than a bestial thug. During the riots, however, he becomes an unlikely leader – almost heroic in his manic energy, a Joan-of-Arc figure who mounts the barricades. And, later, unlike most of the other rioters, he shows a lack of cant, and real sympathy for Barnaby, the innocent young man condemned to die for his role in the riots.

Barnaby Rudge and Grip, the raven - by Fred Barnard

The character of Barnaby Rudge is another intriguing innovation from Charles Dickens. In Oliver Twist, he made a young child the centre of his novel – something, apparently, never done before. And in Barnaby Rudge, he has a title-character who is mentally-handicapped. He is referred to occasionally as the “idiot boy”. William Wordsworth had a poem called “The Idiot Boy” in his Lyrical Ballads (1798). It tells the story of his mother, Betty Foy, struggling to protect her child. The idea of the simpleton representing a kind of na├»ve and uncorrupted innocence in contrast to the evils found in the world is a theme of the Romantics in the early-half of the nineteenth century. Just as Oliver Twist serves, in his innocence, as a contrast to the depravity of London low-life, so Barnaby Rudge contrasts with the machinations and deceits of the world around him. And his long-suffering mother, Mary Rudge, is the Betty Foy of the book.

Barnaby Rudge was originally titled Gabriel Varden, the Locksmith of London. And one can see why. Varden is introduced as a benevolent, hen-pecked, Pickwickian-type. But he becomes heroic in the climactic section of the book with his open defiance of the mob. They come to his house and ransack the place. They drag him off, with a bag of his own locksmith tools, and try to force him to open Newgate Prison, so they can free all the prisoners and destroy it. He refuses to help them. They drag him off and you fear the worst.

And then there is Grip, the talking Raven – a fascinating character. Grip was a Dickens family pet. It wasn’t their first pet raven, either. Just after Dickens had begun working on Barnaby Rudge, Grip died (from eating too much lead paint, apparently). He had always been fascinated by the bird, and he wrote some facetious letters to friends announcing Grip’s untimely demise. To his artist-friend Daniel Maclise, for example, he wrote:

“You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more. … On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed “Halloa old girl!” (his favorite expression) and died.”

Grip, the raven

Despite the fact that the raven liked to bite everyone’s ankles, the children loved the bird and begged their father to make the animal a character in his new book. And he did. Grip is portrayed as the faithful and much-loved pet of Barnaby, who carries him around in a wicker basket. After Grip's death, Dickens had him taxidermied. When Dickens himself died, the stuffed raven was sold at auction. It eventually came into the hands of American collector Colonel Richard Gimbel, who donated it to the Free Library in Philadelphia in 1971.

But the story doesn’t end there. The American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allen Poe reviewed Barnaby Rudge in 1841 for Graham’s Magazine. He thought that the raven could have been given a more symbolic and prophetic role. He focused on the incident in Chapter Five when a character hears a noise, and asks: “What was that? Him tapping at the door?” referring to Grip. “ ’Tis some one knocking softly at the shutter,” says Mary Rudge, “Who can it be!” Poe met Dickens a year later, during his 1842 speaking tour of the United States. They got on well, and commiserated with each other about the lack of copyright protection for authors of their day. In early 1845 Poe published “The Raven”, his poem about a talking raven, and its ominous refrain of “Nevermore”.

Most of Dickens's novels, we've learned by now, have an essential mystery at the heart of the story - there is invariably a mysterious stranger hovering on the edges of the scene, usually having something to do with the identity of someone's child, or someone's parent. Barnaby Rudge is no exception: there is a mysterious figure who enters the plot early as a kind of ominous highwayman. He regularly reappears - harassing Barnaby's mother, Mary Rudge, who holds some dark secret about his past history. It's all tied up with the fate of Geoffrey Haredale and his niece Emma.

Sir John Chester and son Edward - wood engraving by 'Phiz'
Just before Dickens began to write Barnaby Rudge he had another set-to with his father, John Dickens. Dickens Senior had been running up debts again, and charging things to his son Charles's accounts. This had been happening almost constantly since Charles had become not just financially independent, but actually, at times, quite wealthy - although he had many people, institutions and artistic enterprises that he continued to support. Suffice it to say that he earned a lot of money, but his lifestyle involved very high expenses. The situation with his father got to the point where Charles felt obliged to publish an announcement in several of London's daily newspapers disavowing himself of any charges made against his name through his father. He went so far as to encourage his parents to move abroad. Eventually, he bought a house for them in the south-west of England, where they lived for several unhappy years, before coming back to the capital. Conflict between father and son emerges early as a theme in the new book. The young gentleman Edward Chester is thwarted at every turn by his malevolent father Sir John Chester. And young Joe Willet is thwarted and condescended to by his tyrannical father, the innkeeper John Willet. Not surprising that the older Willet and the older Chester share the same name as Dickens's own father - John. Presumably, Charles's father made note of the fact.

Eighteen years were to pass before Charles Dickens wrote another historical novel (his second) in 1859 - A Tale of Two Cities. It also had as its theme rebellion and revolution. As a progressive, Dickens had sympathies for the vast urban underclass of his era. He disliked unearned wealth and inherited privilege. He admired men of energy and ambition, like himself, but he did not support unfettered capitalism. He was a social reformer – he understood the dangers of revolution. His graphic and gripping depictions of the mayhem wrought by ‘His Majesty King Mob’ during the Gordon Riots of 1780 are reminders of what an unruly crowd can do. The account makes the novel worthwhile to those with an interest in the London of that period. But if it’s the comic characterisations and social satire you appreciate in Dickens’s work, this is one of his novels you might want to skip.

Simon Tappertit, the captain of the 'Prentice Knights - engraving by 'Phiz'

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the sixth of a series.]

Next: Martin Chuzzlewit

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Barnaby Rudge by Peter Ackroyd  (2005); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]