This week's episode sees me get introduced to the interesting music subculture of tribute bands, watch an indie rock guitarist become a momentary master, and be mystified by an enchanting indie pop priestess.
- Footage of The Edge and Adam Clayton of U2 performing with U2 tribute band Unforgettable Fire can be found on Youtube here.
- Albert Hammond, Jr.'s 2015 album Momentary Masters can be downloaded from iTunes here.
- Bat For Lashes' 2006 album Fur And Gold can be downloaded from iTunes here.
Our theme music is provided by PodcastThemes.com - thanks!
Jump to your desired section at these points:
2:30 to 8:53
Albert Hammond, Jr.
8:54 to 14:09
Bat For Lashes
14:10 to 18:40
Hello and welcome everyone to what is the fifth episode of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host, The Eagle, and whether you’re tuning in for the first time or have been following since the beginning, I hope you enjoy what interesting things we have to uncover the episode.
Starting things off, we have a re-emergence of the segment ‘Word Of The Week’, and this week, the word we have is ‘coda’. Now the official definition of that is “an ending to a piece of music, standing outside the formal structure of the piece”. This is not something that I encountered in my limited musical education, and my point of reference is actually the name of the final Led Zeppelin album Coda.
This odds-‘n-ends compilation from 1982 has been recently re-released as part of a remastering project by the band's guitarist Jimmy Page. The remastered catalogue has been released in batches since June 2014, and in July 2015, we saw the band's final three lesser-known bodies of work get a sonic spit ‘n polish. 1976’s Presence and 1979’s In Through The Out Door were already showing a band that was either in turmoil, transition, or running out of ideas. The tragic death of drummer John Bonham in 1980 effectively ended the studio version of the band.
But seeing the rising popularity of unofficial bootleg recordings in the early Eighties, the remaining members decided to release what they said at the time was all what was left of their studio output. This remastering project has proven those statements to be false; each album has included a bonus disc of unused studio material, and although a lot of it is rough or early mixes of songs that we came to know and love, there are a few completed tracks that have been recently unearthed for us diehard fans.
I just find it ironic that an album that was meant to be seen as the final chapter, or coda, in the band's career has now been released with two additional bonus discs. A coda on a coda.
In our main segment this week, we have a pretty cool bit of news about tribute bands. Yes, those groups of men and women that try admirably to be the next best thing compared to the main act. Now very rarely do these people get to perform, let alone interact with the heroes that they’re emulating. But this dream came true for an apparently well-known U2 tribute band Unforgettable Fire.
The event was a twentieth anniversary party of a U2 fan site called @U2, held in New York City. The moment was a classic double-bluff; you see, the band already knew that The Edge’s long-time guitar technician Dallas Schoo was going to be showing up to play a few songs with them. According to footage on YouTube, Dallas appeared on stage right on cue, receiving a mild round of applause from the crowd of observant U2 fans.
But here’s where it gets really interesting, folks. The guy starts tuning the guitar that’s in his hands, and abruptly leaves the stage. But then two instantly-recognisable figures emerge from the wings, and the packed tiny nightclub goes wild - because standing before them was U2’s guitarist The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton. Once the initial shock was over and much handshakes were shared, Unforgettable Fire’s singer and drummer joined The Edge and Adam Clayton on two inspired versions of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and ‘Out Of Control’. I thought my eyes were deceiving me at some points, because the singer did a pretty spot-on Bono impersonation with all the mannerisms and movements. And as for the drummer, he knew his time had come, and gave an exceptionally expressive performance behind the kit.
But for those who have been following U2’s recent ‘Innocence & Experience’ tour, the only thing surprising about this is that it didn't take place in an actual U2 concert. Bono and the boys had a very interactive approach to this tour, emphasising the ‘experience’ aspect, frequently bringing fans and tribute acts up unto the stage to perform with them - with Bono sometimes taking a backseat role to film the moment on a camera or smartphone. All of this has prompted me to think a little bit deeper about the business of tribute acts and the realities of being in one. I for one have often viewed them as a cheesy stage show, with varying degrees of ability, desperately trying to capture the essence of whatever artist they’re trying to emulate.
But that point of view doesn't really take into account the many different types of tribute acts. If you had to put them on a sort of spectrum, I'd say on the one end you would have a cover band. Now you see these sorts of bands everywhere, and it’s almost standard practice to supplement your set with cover versions of songs until you’ve got enough of your own material. Or if you're a nine-to-fiver who’s doing music as a hobby, then cover versions are your bread and butter. The main aspect to note about bands like these is that they’re not trying to copy or mimic the identity of the original artist, and are just playing the songs in their own style to make a living.
This is the fundamental difference with what I'd call a true ‘tribute’ band, who try to mimic the artist entirely. These acts are often named after a famous song or lyric or some pun to do with the original artist. Examples of these could be ‘Sgt Pepper's’ - a Beatles tribute act - or ‘The E Street Shuffle’ - which is a Bruce Springsteen tribute act, or ‘Novana’ – which, you guessed, it is Nirvana tribute act. In this category, I think what many of us have as a point of reference is an Elvis impersonator. Now this is a pretty serious industry, and looking a little bit deeper into it, you can see that there are sound-alikes, look-alikes, a combination of the above, and people that treat it as a full-time career to impersonate the King of Rock ‘n Roll himself, Elvis Presley.
Now this is actually a great idea if the artists themselves have died, all band members have died, or the group themselves have stopped touring for whatever reason. It all comes down to filling a niche or taking an opportunity, and the tribute act just needs to prove that they can satisfy the expectations of the fans, and then they’re in. Now you might scoff at that as a seasoned music fan, who has seen many famous artists live in concert over the years, but this might not be a reality for the average person. Take Australia for example, which is often seen as the backwaters of international touring circui. They have developed a thriving tribute band circuit due to this isolation, and one of their bands, Australian Pink Floyd Show, which plays the music of Pink Floyd, has achieved a massive fan base worldwide and was hired by none other than Pink Floyd guitarist himself, Dave Gilmour, to perform at his fiftieth birthday party.
But it's not all like-for-like copying. There are also some really interesting tribute acts that play the same songs of the original artists, but in a completely different style for comedic or creative effect. Two good examples of this are Dread Zeppelin – a band that performs the songs of Led Zeppelin in a reggae style, with a large Elvis impersonator as its lead singer - and GABBA, who perform the disco-pop hits of ABBA but in the style of punk pioneers Ramones. Finally, on the other end of the spectrum, we have the parody act, who take the style of the original artist and completely rip it off for their own purposes. Weird Al Yankovic is a good mainstream example, but The Rutles - which were a Beatles parody act - started poking fun as early as the 1970’s.
What I've been surprised to find that this is a thriving, successful sub-culture, with lots of networking and collaboration. But they also face issues that many struggling bands who play their own material have to deal with as well. It's oftentimes an unglamorous life, and especially if you can't do it as a full-time venture, then the stresses of doing it part-time just compound the problem. There’s also the identity crisis as a musician of not only playing another person's music, but adopting another person's persona entirely. This comes with its own legal considerations as well, and depending on what region you're in, performing rights or copyright fees need to be paid in compensation to the artist. Granted, it is an indirect system, where the venues get charged yearly fees allowing them to play whatever music by a particular artist - live or otherwise. But it's just another thing to consider when this is not the greatest song in the world – no, this is just a tribute.
Albert Hammond, Jr.
Next up this week, we have a new album from Albert Hammond, Jr. Yes, that’s Junior - because Dad was a soft-rock superstar in the 1970’s. You're more likely to know him as the bespoke-suited rhythm guitarist of indie-rock icons, The Strokes. The album's name is Momentary Masters, which is his third solo release and shows off his tightly-honed song-writing and guitar-playing ability.
His solo work has often neatly interspersed quiet moments for The Strokes, starting with 2006’s Yours To Keep after the main band’s First Impressions Of Earth album from earlier that year. That debut album has been a constant source of comfort for me in these past years, and I've enjoyed the surprisingly-inspired, revitalised take on their sound - mainly due to Albert’s sonic influences. You see, The Strokes took much of their influence from The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed’s subsequent work, as well as the short, snappy lo-fi indie rock of Guided By Voices. Albert, however, came from a completely different direction, taking inspiration from The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, as well as John Lennon. Interestingly enough, he did a cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Well Alright’ on Yours To Keep, and one of John Lennon's two sons, Sean Lennon, actually played on that same album as well - which was typically Beatle-esque.
As The Strokes languished and their fans waited with baited breath for another album, Albert took action and released his second solo album, Como Te Llama?, which in Spanish means ‘How does it call you?’ - an important question when he was at the peak of drug addiction. And although there were a few highlights from the album, you could hear that it was an unfocused mess. Since then, much has changed in AHJ land: he has got clean, he's found love, and he’s also found a band that is a little bit bored with what they’re doing and possibly unsure if they want to stay together any longer.
But not to worry Strokes fans who've been a little put-off by Julian’s avant-garde solo wanderings, or are a little bit confused at what he’s doing with his band The Voidz. Albert’s sunny nonchalance is probably the closest approximation of The Strokes that we can expect in 2015. The man has come out swinging, and you feel that he’s got a lot to prove - even if it's just for a moment in time. That's actually where he got his album title from, thanks to a book about the insignificance of mankind by acclaimed astronomer Carl Sagan. The section it's taken from in ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is:
“Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
Now Albert isn't spilling any blood here - unless it’s emotional - but he has been inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton, who was known for her confessional style and themes of depression throughout her life. It's that melancholy and sense of self-reflection that infuses this collection of upbeat guitar-pop songs.
This is most evident on the first two singles from the album: ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘Losing Touch’. The former is a synth-scented musing on the passage of time, and its needling, interlocking riffs should not be confused with the Nineties techno song by Underworld of the same name. The second, ‘Losing Touch’, is one of my favourite songs on the album, and one that I’ve had on repeat since I first heard it. Inspired by the new wave niceties of The Cars, it has catchy, earnest melodies and powerful vocals from Albert. A recent performance on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night Show confirms that this passion and energy has been transferred to the live performance as well, as three guitarists duel it out for the song’s peppy guitar parts.
In other places, you get the late-2000’s stomp that is normally attributed to Arctic Monkeys on the song ‘Caught By Own Shadow’, and an interesting cover of Bob Dylan's break-up folk anthem ‘Don't Think Twice, It's Alright’, which adds a swing feel to the emotionally-charged lyrics and a fuzzed-out guitar solo. We also get a glimpse of his oddball humour in the final two tracks on the album which, I kid you not, are named ‘Drunched In Crumbs’ and ‘Side Boob’ (laughter)
This is still very much the work of someone who is stepping out of their primary role into something more self-defined, and Albert has indicated this in recent interviews, saying:
“When I get something that moves me, or changes me, or make me feel excited, I want to be able to express it so that it excites other people. I want them to feel the impact the same way that I felt it. So I still don't know quite how to verbalise that yet.”
This is something that I can relate to in doing this podcast. All through the week, I get these ideas - some of them which I write down, some of them which I just keep in my head, all of which I hope will somehow be transferred or translated into the final product. Albert Hammond, Jr. is still grappling with this process, even three albums into his solo career. But thanks to healthy living and a hearty curiosity, he’s finally finding the songs to back up the stories. He's also gone on record as saying that this album feels like his debut album, with so many possibilities ahead. So whether this leads to another Strokes album or not, I'm just glad that Albert Hammond, Jr. is finally finding his feet.
Bat For Lashes
For this week's retrospective, we look back at the entrancing 2006 debut of Bat For Lashes. Her Fur And Gold album is a challenging choice for me, and I find it to be a more bewitching, less pop-focused album than her later releases, Two Suns and The Haunted Man.
This is because I encountered her music for the first time at the 2013 Coachella Music Festival, and had no prior knowledge of her recording history, which had seen her embrace more electronic flourishes since this iconic debut. So naturally I enjoyed the haunting yet ensemble songs from that performance, which were taken mostly from later albums, not knowing that her debut was actually an overall better, stripped-down experience that hits the mark more often than not. This is a little ironic given The Haunted Man's full-frontal nude cover - probably not safe for work.
I keep referring to a ‘she’. Well, ‘she’ is Natasha Khan and Bat For Lashes is her stage name. She is a British Pakistani mystical female singer-songwriter who's cut from the same cloth as the likes of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Bjork, PJ Harvey, and Annie Lennox. Her mixed cultural background has helped influence her creativity in different ways; on one hand, her father and cousin were professional squash players, and she has said that:
“The roar of the crowd was intense; it was ceremonial, ritualistic. I feel like the banner got passed to me, but I carried it on in a creative way. It's a similar thing: the need to thrive on a heightened communal experience”.
Visits to Pakistan also revealed a world to her that was both exotic and barbaric. I think this is why she's got that uncanny ability to wrap raw emotion in surprising sounds and arrangements. There’s a sense of layered strength in her music. This was confirmed by the co-producer of Fur And Gold, David Kosten, when he spoke of her clear artistic vision. The one time, she asked for a song to sound as if she was in bed, cuddled up with a friend, aged nine. They ended up finding an attic in a country house they were recording the album in, and she sang the song underneath the duvet.
There are many little nuggets of artistic genius to be found on this album, where hooks are merely suggested and wisps of melody and rhythm hold together the heady atmosphere. You can find it on the album’s opening track ‘Horse And I’ - with its renaissance fair-styled harpsichord riff and horse-hoof beats – or its follow-up ‘Trophy’ – which pushes and pulses, shimmies and shakes along to a deep bassline, coupled with sultry male-female harmonies. And that's not taking into account the lyrics; Khan is a wonderful weaver of vivid, everyday fairy tales, and and in that particular song, she visualises love as a trophy given to her other half, somehow lost along the way.
She also tackles the complexities of a fizzling romance on ‘What's A Girl To Do’, and its ghostly, Sixties girl-group beats and stirring energy makes it probably the best song on this album. She also sets a trend here that would continue into her later work of crafting strong heroines, such as on the song ‘Sarah’ and ‘Prescilla’ - but I still believe that she perfected it on her mournful piano ballad ‘Laura’, which is recommended listening from The Haunted Man. If you're gonna get mystical and magical, you can’t forget wizards, and she doesn't disappoint with her debut single ‘The Wizard’, with its ethereal, druid-inspired lyrics mixed with a loping beat and delicate piano to boot.
The biggest surprise is saved for last, and if you have a bonus or deluxe edition of the album, you will find a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song ‘I'm On Fire’ included. Gone are the bed of synths and rockabilly-inspired guitars riffs; in its place, Khan instated a mournful yet expressive piano-led arrangement. Understandably the lyrics were changed from a male to female point-of-view, but she flirts with a very naughty rhyme scheme on a couplet that didn’t necessarily need to be changed.
You see, the original line goes “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull/And cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull”. The Bat For Lashes version goes “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, edgy and blunt/And put a six-inch valley through the middle of my…….pause for effect…….soul” (laughter) I don't know about you, but I didn’t see that one coming.
Well that's about all we've got for this episode. I hope you guys have had fun and have been inspired to look at the music that you listen to a little deeper and a little bit differently. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.