Josh Hetherington is a DJ (Josh On Decks), photographer, Super 8 filmmaker and musician. His current band, Show Me Where It Hurts will release their new EP this weekend, Friday, July 29 with a launch at The Thirsty Dog in Auckland, Saturday, July 30, 8pm featuring special guests Cold Harvest Trust. Previously, he was the frontman of Thorazine Shuffle and sang with the late, great Bobby Womack in his dressing room at the Civic when they shared a bill. As well as DJing at a variety of Auckland establishments (Golden Dawn, Bedford Soda and Liquor, Hallertau) he also books artists to play Hallertau Brewery). And he is behind the voiceover of the infamous 95bFM Broadcasting Standards community announcement: “Fucknucles cock and piss. Balls”. Here are five albums he is loving right now…
1 – Elvis Costello, Blood and Chocolate: Sometimes you forget how consistently good Elvis Costello was – and how prolific. From ’77 through to ’86 he released 11 studio albums, pretty much crackers all. Though it pains me to have to pick, Blood and Chocolate (from 1986) is probably my favourite. I’ve been listening to it almost religiously recently, and revelling in the greatness of the sound and the songs, and in the writing itself. It’s probably his most self-consciously sixties-derived offering (and his most Lennon-esque, which is saying something) – with multiple melodic references to not only the Beatles but the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan circa that most fecund of eras for pop (check the Anna vocal reference in Blue Chair, the Blonde on Blonde vibe in Home is Anywhere you Hang Your Head, the 19th Nervous Breakdown melodic crib in Tokyo Storm Warning). Costello and the Attractions even left a storming Leave My Kitten Alone (a then legendary, yet little heard, Beatles outtake helmed by Lennon in his voice-shredding, Twist and Shout-, Rock ’n’ Roll Music-, Bad Boy-, Dizzy Miss Lizzy-mode), on the cutting room floor for these sessions.
It makes sense then that his next project was to play fellow Scouser and song-writing partner to Paul McCartney on songs that ended up on his follow up album, Spike (feat. Veronica) and McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt (feat. My Brave Face).
The whole album is a delight, with songs like Crimes of Paris (‘You’re as good as your word and that’s no good to her. You’d better leave that kitten alone’) and Poor Napolean (both feat. Cait O’Riordan on backing vocals), Battered Old Bird (featuring the inimitable line, ‘With a bottle of sweet sherry that everything redeems’), and I Want You, the song of jealously to put all other odes to the green-eyed monster bar Shakespeare’s to bed for good.
‘It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing,
It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.’
2 – Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul: Any Nina album is great, but I came across this mid-sixties pressing recently and was quickly drawn into the uniqueness of its world, as so often happens with Nina. I guess there was quite a lot of commercial pressure and a search for hits around this period (beyond her original jazz-based success), and with High Priestess of Soul as the title suggests it’s clear what the record company were thinking. But as always it’s the more political/personal/spiritual material that tends to transcend any arbitrary attempts by a label to categorise, produce or market to order, for Nina.
Take Me to the Water is a beautifully stripped-back gospel arrangement of a traditional, featuring Nina accompanied by herself on piano and a gospel choir, until the band kicks in with I’m Going Back Home and you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a soul-clapping, foot-stomping stormer, as chugging, true and funky as one can imagine. The arrangement and performance is exalting and can’t fail to lift one’s mood.
There are some big-band pop arrangements, too (the 5/4 signatured I’m Gonna Leave You, the Duke composition The Gal from Joes). These are as classy and swinging as the best fare of the quintessential Bacharach era, and within these, Nina’s voice also soars. But I can give or take the pop fare of Brown Eyed Handsome Man (as much as I dig Chuck Berry!), the overwrought schmaltz of I Hold No Grudge, or the syrupy intro to the beautiful torch piece He Ain’t Comin’ Home No More, which features some of her blues-iest and most soulful singing.
It’s the stripped-back, percussively driven, yet essentially acapella Simone composition, Come Ye, which really floors. It’s reminiscent of that other pared-back killer groove, Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter from 1974’s It Is Finished (an album which also features the traditional Com’ by H’yere).
And where the big-band swing arrangements really work is on jazz standard Work Song, the Oscar Brown/Nat Adderley classic which Nina absolutely makes her own here, presiding over what must be considered the quintessential treatment, with an arrangement which truly endures (just ask Hopetoun Brown, who’s own rousing version faithfully nods to Nina’s owning of the number on this record, as she turns a lament on chain-gang incarceration for armed robbery into a cause for the funky, swinging celebration of the endurance of the human spirit in the face of the bitterest of circumstances.)
‘Gonna see my sweet honey baby. Gonna break this chain off the run.
Gonna lay down somewhere shady. Lord, I sure am hot in the sun.
Hold it right there while I hit it. Well, I reckon that oughta get it.
Been workin’, been slavin’, but I still got so terribly far to go.’
3 – Whitney, Light upon the Lake: ‘I left drinking on the city train, to spend some time on the road. Then one morning I woke up in LA, caught my breath on the coast. I’ve been going through a change, I might never be sure. I’m just walkin’ in a haze, I’m not ready to turn. No Woman.’
I heard the lead track (No Woman) off this record on 95bFM a week or two ago and thought I’d woken up in Laurel Canyon circa 1971 with, I don’t know, Seals and Crofts or something playing on the neighbour’s stereo somewhere off in the distance. Despite the lack of a back announce I tracked it down to discover three things. It was released only a few weeks ago, the whole album kills and the singer/drummer used to play for UMO before he left to pursue the ultimate realisation of his own material. Big call, but with songs like these you can hear where he was coming from.
God, I think it’s the combination of the boxy-sounding acoustic and electric guitars and pianos and drums, nursery rhyme Wurlitzer licks, sixties-echoing White Album- or Glen Campbell-style horn and string arrangements, not to mention of course the beautiful songs, one after another and the close, reedy, frequently doubled, tenor vocals of that singer/drummer in question, Julien Ehrlich, which have had me going back and back to the start of this beguiling ten-song, barely half-hour-long album, since hearing that very first line.
But above all else it’s the atmosphere, a kind of resigned, yet ultimately optimistic whimsy which The Band often called their own, a heavy-heartedness chased with a sort of wonder at the world as weary as it might feel when your love leaves, and nothing makes sense for a while other than the sort of miraculous melodies you find dripping from you – tunes (and a certain timbre) of the kind which Neil Young seemed to have a monopoly on back when he called Laurel Canyon home.
It’s a similar vibe and vein to that which Kurt Vile so naturally seems to inhabit and mine as well, and I think its appeal lies in the quicksilver element, the sort of effortlessness it seems the music was made with and the sort of timeless and resonant spirit it resides in – a kind of subconscious sleight-of-hand that hides how rare something this breezy and groovy and funky and natural feeling and fun, really is.
4 – Brian Eno, Discreet Music: It’s a well-known idea to Eno fans, and one recounted on the back cover of this album released as an early (and still arguably unsurpassed) example of Eno’s burgeoning fascination with a music designed and composed specifically for a background role in everyday environments: ‘Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part.’ Here endeth the lesson according to Brian Eno. Or rather here it begin and endeth – because for many, no other missive on the man’s behalf as clearly and succinctly expresses the essence of his influence on popular music as this notion.
The idea that he would rather simply set a system running in order for it to effectively do his job for him as composer is a cheekily brilliant notion, and one which compels and resonates with him and his audience to this day.
In combination with this premise, and an operational diagram for ‘Discreet Music’ which illustrates his system of recording the album on the back cover, Eno has also been drawn into the recounting of another story, shared in his liners for the album. As it turns out, Eno’s eureka moment came whilst having no choice but to listen at a very low level to a record (of 18th century harp music) which had been given to him by a friend while he was recovering from an accident in hospital (and unable to move to turn the music up). His realisation that the music became merely another part of the natural environment of colours, light and incidental sounds drove him to create music that would exist and satisfy even at (and even preferably at) a very low volume (‘even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility’).
It’s music that is entrancing, hypnotic and meditative but it’s also energising, engaging and somehow, in its endless permutations and inevitable evolution through slow repetition and variation, always new.
On a whim I played Discreet Music at the culmination of a DJ set recently, late on a Thursday night at Golden Dawn in Auckland. Its contrast to the previous beats, grooves, songs, meter and energy was astounding – as was the effect on the audience. There was a palpable sense of euphoria and wonder at the contrast, mood and sense of power, peace and pace of the music. Everyone stopped to listen. No one asked what they were listening, too, or why – though many recognised that it was Eno immediately – but all seemed absolutely captivated by what they were hearing (and that they were hearing it!).
In that context, as a significant focus environmentally (rather than as the background element of Eno’s preference), and at the significant volume it was being played, Discreet Music sounded anything but. And it sounded perfect.
5 – Ryley Walker, Primrose Green: Ryley Walker’s another artist I’ve discovered reasonably recently who seems to come perfectly formed, with that sense of timelessness to the sound of his songs and voice which is compelling and confounding all at the same time.
Primrose Green, his latest album, was released early last year, and has haunted me ever since. In part it’s the endless attempt to place the familiar, I think, and the difficulty in doing so. There are plenty of touchstones for sure (the Mick Garson, Aladdin Sane-style piano flourishes in the title track; Walker’s age-old, near-implacable voice and its timbre – one wants to say Nick Drake or David Crosby or Terry Reid or Tim Buckley) but each is a simplification which takes you further from his essence, like trying too hard to see through the optical illusion.
In any case there’s no trick here, and touchstones never sound like mere musical references, rather as if they’ve always existed in Walker’s world and in the songs he writes and sings. And this tends to place Ryley Walker not only outside the contemporary, but firmly within a true and natural and much more profound lineage, in the same way that Stanley Booth once compared the Rolling Stones at their ’69 live peak to (incongruously, on the face of it) Louis Armstrong’s most important period – that of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and their cuts from the late 1920s and early ’30s – in the way that, at their best (Booth felt), they swung as hard as Pops himself.
Sonically or at least stylistically the Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Fotheringay/Fairport Convention, John Martyn, Sandy Denny, and Richard and Linda Thompson references are no accident, Walker having immersed himself (after solo years in basement Chicago clubs and a bike accident in 2012) in the traditions of his guitar playing and in that movement’s and era’s oeuvre (that of the new, English-driven folk and folk-rock tradition and evolution of the sixties and early seventies).
Griffiths Bucks Blues sounds like a Bron-yr-Aur outtake (or something else left off Led Zeppelin III), and it’s the combination across the album of the pastoral with the Americana elements (jazz, folk, country) – which makes it so heady and bewitching a brew.
The Chick-Corea-style-space-Rhodes augmented Love Can Be Cruel fucks again with the fabric of time in that there’s a sense this couldn’t possibly have been recorded on this side of the millennial divide. Hell it couldn’t have been conceived of beyond 1974, could it? And yet here it is.
And then there’s that voice again. Maybe it has something to do with Walker’s astral travels (whatever they may have entailed) whilst himself on the eponymous Primrose Green (‘Two parts Old Grandad whiskey, one part water distilled with Morning Glory seeds. Wait ten minutes, light a cigarette’ he’s quoted on the back cover of the album).
‘Headful of Primrose Green kept me up all night. Headful of Primrose Green made me high, high, high.’
Whatever it is, it’s hard not to hanker for a little of ‘what he’s having’, until you read how bad the comedown from that particular cocktail can be, and how often he’s reportedly had to rescue his Guild D-35 from the pawnshop.
‘I lost my mind with a headful of Primrose Green.’
The High Road is his most Nick Drake-like number. But a pastiche it is not, rather an osmosis of sorts, as Walker raises not only the spectre of Drake but the spirit and truth of him again, brings him into the room like a recording perhaps discarded by Drake himself (perfectionist that he was), oblique with the sort of finger picking only a true student of Drake’s could possibly muster, and a string arrangement that could be Robert Kirby’s himself (arranger for Five Leaves Left), and the extra beat in the bar at the end of each verse line. And the obliqueness and the bleakness of the imagery itself:
‘And do the wild dogs run free from the high road?
Going fast and going strong from the high road?
Paid for tricks from the man who can understand why I feel so low,
Set your eyes upon me now sweet one.’
But for all that, it’s Walker’s own voice, both artistic and physical (always to the fore, yet always drifting a little, too, like smoke), which offers the most satisfaction. His guitar picking is a delight, sometimes subdued, sometimes elegiac and glorious, and his band – made up of Chicago jazz and experimental luminaries, and driven by Frank Rosaly on drums, Aton Hatwich on bass (often upright), Ben Boye on keys, and Brian Sulpizio (electric guitar) – are adept, nay inspired, at shepherding a song from the gentle to the out-and-out-rock and space-funk stratospheric (see Sweet Satisfaction).
There’s a vibraphone which shimmers across the sweeping, Fairport Convention-reminiscent 6/8 groove of Summer Dress; there’s that glorious Garson-style piano infused coda to the title track; there’s a sweet, down-home ode to the immersion baptisms Walker witnessed in the dirty and polluted waters of the Kiswaukee River in On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee. There’s so much here in these ten tracks – wherever they came from – and that’s probably the simple answer to why I keep coming back to them.