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Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler – Neck and Neck – Classic Music Review

This is a complete rewrite of a review I published during my first year of blogging when I tried very hard to obey the common wisdom that short posts are the way to go because no one has time to read anymore.

Looking back on those reviews today, I would describe my writing as “utterly vacuous crapola” . . . which also happens to reflect my feelings about most contemporary music criticism. If the purpose of music criticism is to present a point of view that might enlighten, educate or inspire a reader to form a different opinion, then arbitrarily limiting the word count is the dumbest approach imaginable.

Although it took some time to sing “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” my approach now is to ignore word count, make the necessary apologies for my long-windedness and write as many words as demanded by the subject matter. Hence, an empty piece of garbage like the Spice Girls’ debut album earns as few words as possible, while richer pieces of work like Setting Sons or Dig Me Out deserve a more complete analysis.

This probably isn’t the only review I’m going to revisit, but I decided to start with this one because: a.) with all the political tension in the world today I thought it would be nice to listen to something completely apolitical;  b.) Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler formed a highly simpatico duo, and; c.) with people all over the globe are feeling pretty grumpy these days with this bitch of a pandemic, I figured we all need something to make us smile—and Neck and Neck is an absolute hoot!

The concept of “feel” in music is usually associated with the style of music in play: this song has a Latin feel; that song has sort of a jazzy feel. In that sense, the most obvious “feel” on Neck and Neck is American Country (with the exception of their cover of the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grapelli number “Tears”). But there’s another aspect of feel that has nothing to do with style but is much more important—the feel that involves the relationship between the musician and the music (if soloing) or the relationship encompassing the music and multiple musicians. It has nothing to do with “playing the right notes,” but playing the notes in ways that resonate with emotions and spirit.

Since jazz and rock aren’t terribly concerned with the right notes, the contrast is best demonstrated in classical music, where sounding the right notes is more important. When I listen to Herbert von Karajan’s take on Schubert’s No. 9 Symphony (also known as the Great or Great C Major), the musicians play all the right notes but the music sounds cold and dead to me. On the other hand, the same work conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is a bona fide aesthetic experience that thrills me to the depths of my soul. Somehow Sawallish managed to inspire a rather large group of professional musicians to not only nail the notes but imbue the music with the same passion he felt for the work.

Though the guitar work on Neck and Neck is best-of-class, it’s the feel of the album that is most impressive. Both Atkins and Knopfler had already achieved recognition as guitar masters, so neither had anything to prove to the other. Knopfler grew up listening to Atkins, but Chet wasn’t the type to put on airs and welcomed the opportunity to play with someone as committed to guitar excellence as he was. Though each displayed a signature style, both men were finger-pickers, in itself a distinctive approach to the electric guitar that allows for more precise string muting and the opportunity to pluck strings with a distinctive snap. All of these varying influences—combined with superb song selection and a fabulous supportive cast of music pros who left their egos at the door—merged together to make Neck and Neck an album that . . . well, it just feels damned good to listen to it, from beginning to end.

The festivities kick off with “Poor Boy Blues,” an upbeat country tune based on an old blues number, modified by a British emigré named Paul Kennerly whose primary claim to fame involved producing and marrying Emmylou Harris. The vocal is a duet featuring Chet and country star Vince Gill, both men adopting a tone of shy melancholy reflecting the modesty of a poor country boy asking for the hand of his best girl, knowing his bank account balance is equally modest. The first distinctive guitar sound you hear comes from neither Chet nor Mark but steel guitarist par excellence Paul Franklin, who had done some work with Dire Straits. Our first Chet-Mark duet doesn’t begin until 1:22 when Knopfler starts picking on his Pensa Suhr in the center-left position; Chet responds at about 1:43 in the center-right position (one billion thank yous to Ingo Raven and Jean-François Convert, who sorted out all of the album’s guitar work on Ingo’s Mark Knopfler Guitar Site). As Ingo points out, those positions remain constant throughout the album, so you can easily identify who is playing a particular solo and study the stylistic differences between the two guitarists. The back-and-forth continues throughout the song, delighting the listener with remarkable displays of clean finger-picking (Knopfler also deserves credit for the overdubbed rhythm guitar and strumming). Regular readers know I am prone to bitch about the excessive use and misapplication of reverb in popular music, but I’ve got nothing to bitch about here—the reverb on all three guitars is as clean and clear as a mountain stream, a clarity obviously facilitated by the talent of the guitarists. “Poor Boy Blues” is not only a great opening number but a sort of overture anticipating the good times still to come.

The legendary Don Gibson-Patsy Cline “Sweet Dreams” follows, the opening notes reserved for Floyd Cramer’s lovely piano, which will provide counterpoints and fills throughout the piece. With Paul Franklin supplying the dreamscape through his lovely slides, Mark’s solos emphasize the bluesier aspects of the song while Chet explores the melodic side. The result is a perfectly sweet and respectful cover of a country classic, much sweeter and gentler than Roy Buchanan’s more aggressive but equally superb take on the song.

The album’s good vibes are most apparent in the remake of the frequently-covered jazz classic “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” with Knopfler playing the role of Doubting Thomas to Chet’s desire to transform himself into an ’80s teen idol:

There’ll be a change in the weather and a change in the scene,
I’m gonna start wearin’ leather and change my routine,
I’ll wear dark glasses, maybe a toupee,
I’ll get down and boogie and become risqué.
I’ll start wearin’ makeup, like Jackson and Prince,
You’ll see me riding in my Mercedes-Benz.
Nobody wants you when you just play guitar,
There’ll be some changes made tomorrow; there’ll be some changes made.

Oh, man, I do NOT want to even imagine Chet Atkins in drag. Thankfully, Knopfler responds: “You know, Chet, you’re never going to get to play that rock ‘n’ roll.” “Well, why is that?” Chet queries. “You’re kinda country . . . just a little bit old?” “That hurts!”

Chet then continues with a reference to a famous Dire Straits song: “Want your money for nothing and your chicks for free.” In response Mark suggests that “them groupie girls ain’t what they’re cracked up to be,” but Chet is determined: “Well, I’d really like to find out . . . for myself, don’t you know? I’ve had a kind of quiet life down here on Music Row.” At this point, Mark backs off and allows Chet to keep his fantasy, opening the way for some competitive fun between the two great finger-pickers, seasoned by laughter and playful banter (“I learned this in summer bible school” . . . (Chet to Mark): “Pretty good but you’re no Mark Knopfler” and “Don’t make me look bad now . . . respect for your elders!”) The comedy is superb and the guitar duet even better—“There’ll Be Some Changes Made” is an absolute gas.

The boys tone it down a bit for another Don Gibson classic, “Just One Time.” It’s the perfect song for Mark Knopfler’s very limited vocal range, and with a bit of help from Chet on the harmonies, he gives us a sincere and subtle performance. “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” written by longtime country songsmith Randy Goodrum won the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Poor Boy Blues” took the complementary vocal award). The arrangement has classical overtones, with fiddler Mark O’Connor tilting his performance towards that more formal approach, and the sweet tones coming from Atkins and Knopfler combine with that mournful fiddle to create a show-stopping moment of melancholy serenity. Absolutely beautiful.

My only complaint regarding Neck and Neck has to do with the placement of “Yakety Axe,” a remodeling of Chet’s 1965 hit featuring a new arrangement and lyrics courtesy of Merle Travis. After “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” there I am feeling all snuggly, cuddly, safe and warm and WHAM! Chet’s sharp-toned picking ejects me from dreamland long before I was ready. I have no problem with the song (the picking is pretty damned hot), but jeez, give me a moment to get out of my comfy little corner of the world, for fuck’s sake!

We return to dreamland courtesy of the sound of acoustic guitar and violin in a cover of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s “Tears.” I’m delighted that they chose this version of the song as opposed to the Django-only rendition, which features some of his most aggressive guitar work; the Grappelli version replicated here is grounded in a slower tempo, allowing the listener to better appreciate the melody and counterpoint coming from both guitar and violin. It’s also nice to hear both men apply their exquisite finger-picking skills to the acoustic guitar, still creating beautiful tones without internal wiring.

“Tahitian Skies” combines acoustic, electric and steel guitar, with Knopfler doubling up on acoustic guitar and electric guitar solos. Mark O’Connor adds a touch of mandolin to yet another dreamy and delightful track. Speaking of dreams, next up is “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a remake of the 1924 hit that spent seven weeks on top of the charts. The highlight here is Knopfler’s amazing arpeggios in his first solo—I’m absolutely convinced the man used all eight fingers and both thumbs to pull it off.

The good times had to end sooner or later, and here they end with the only original contribution on the album, Mark Knopfler’s “The Next Time I’m in Town,” a song about a guy saying good-bye to his long-distance lover as he gets ready to climb into the cab of his big rig or grab a cab to catch the last flight out. Featuring a larger cast than any of the other numbers on the album, it forms a perfect farewell number that gives O’Connor and Franklin a chance to take their bows along with the two leads and Vince Gill to participate in the three-part harmony on the stop-time rendition of the chorus—which also serves as a nice farewell to the listening audience:

Now it’s been something seeing you again
In this time we’ve had to spend
You’ve been so good to be around
I thank you for that special thrill
Keep me going on until
The next time I’m in town

Let me close with a little tip for you: Instead of fretting about Election Day in America, this fucking relentless and oppressive virus and the fact that all life on the planet may be wiped out in oh, fifty years or so . . .  put aside a measly 39 minutes of your crummy day to listen to Neck and Neck. Even when things are going to hell and a handbasket, we all have the right to smile every now and then . . . and I can’t think of a better reminder that there is a lot of good in this world of ours than Neck and Neck.

Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself – Classic Music Review

My review of Frou Frou, Imogen Heap’s collaboration with Guy Sigsworth, had less to do with the music and more to do with how certain music can take on meaning based on what the listener is experiencing at a certain point in life. The truth is that I have an unusually strong attachment to that particular album because it helped me make sense of things during a rather volatile period. Reading the review six years later, I don’t think it’s a particularly good review and probably should have been categorized under Chick Riffs, where I give myself the freedom to occasionally get things off my ample and aesthetically pleasing chest. As I don’t go back and correct reviews unless I discover a factual error, the “review” will remain as-is to remind me that I can always do better next time, no matter how many next times come my way.

Let’s see how that advice-to-self works out with the album that made Imogen Heap famous.

The most important thing to know about Imogen Heap is that she is classically-trained. I too am classically-trained, and I consider that adjective the ultimate double-edged sword. When you are classically-trained you learn a lot about music theory as defined by the Western musical paradigm and how to apply that knowledge on the instrument or instruments of your choice. As Ted Gioia recently pointed out in a video talk, that paradigm dates back to Pythagoras, the mathematician who designed the scales that have defined Western music for centuries and set down the rules that limited music to the notes in those scales. While classical lessons are valuable in terms of appreciating musical structure and range, they carry with them a whole lot of unnecessary baggage that falls under the heading of mathematical perfectionism. When you go to the symphony, you will never hear the first violinist or the second trombonist vary from the script as written down in those funny little symbols on, below or above those inadequately structured lines; if you did, your next encounter with that wayward musician would take place at the unemployment office.

That is why my mother insisted I train in both classical and jazz styles. Before you learn jazz, though, you have to get solid training in blues scales, those wonders of African origin that ignored Pythagoras by bending notes and using chord combinations that the superstitious traced to the devil. Most jazz musicians understand music theory and many are in fact classically-trained, but rather than following the timeworn rules, they use the looser sensibility of the blues as a springboard for play. When I practiced Mozart on my flute, I never felt like I was playing. I felt like I was working after studying very hard, and I only felt good when I got it right. Jazz musicians play, in the simplest and most precious definition of the word, exploring outside the lines for new sound combinations. There is no right in jazz, and trying too hard to get it right destroys the feel.

Though her music may not sound “classical” due to the dominance of electronic instruments and software-produced sound, there is indeed strong classical influence running through Imogen Heap’s music, largely manifested in the pursuit of her concept of perfectionism. Her songs at this juncture of her career rarely strayed from standard pop structures, and her melodies lacked the slightest hints of blue notes. Even the “natural instruments” used on her records are often passed through various gates and processors in the pursuit of the ideal. Here’s what she said to CW Entertainment while plugging Speak for Yourself:

Actually, many of the sounds that I work with start off as organic instruments — guitar, piano, clarinet, etc. But I do love the rigidity of electronic drums. For this record, I would record live drums, and then I would spend a day editing them to take the life out of them. I like to breathe my own life into these sounds, and I do try to keep the ‘air’ in the music. Some people think electronic music is cold, but I think that has more to do with the people listening than the actual music itself.

Peter Gabriel had a similar hang-up with cymbals, those messy accessories that are so difficult to manage in the recording process. Since I have never once noticed the drums on an Imogen Heap album, I’d say she certainly succeeded in taking the life out of them, and might want to ease up on the editing or get a larger air supply. Her defense of electronic music sounds a bit snarky, as in “if people don’t like my music there’s something wrong with their ears,” but somewhat understandable because a lot of people won’t listen to electronic music simply because it’s electronic.

I’m in the middle on the topic of technology and music. If the creators know what they’re doing, I’m cool with it. If they’re just screwing around with software, they bore me. I think the trend of sampling other people’s music to enhance your own is as lazy as lazy gets, but that’s pretty much my feeling about all rap, hip-hop and modern pop music, where sampling is most frequently employed.

As for Speak for Yourself, it’s something of a mixed bag. Most of the arrangements are extraordinarily busy, as if Imogen was having too much fun adding cool effects instead of stepping back and considering the cumulative impact on the composition. With one or two exceptions, her lyrical emphasis on inner dialogue and one-sided conversations that worked so well on Frou Frou doesn’t work as well here, largely because she too often resorts to clichés and catchwords, and partially because most of the stories deal with failed relationships, which gets old after a while. Again, with one or two exceptions, the music hasn’t progressed all that much from Frou Frou except for a few interesting effects; if you’re looking for something more diverse (and with less noisy arrangements), fast forward to her next album, Ellipse. Essentially, Speak for Yourself is Frou Frou redux with at least one masterpiece, backed by a stronger PR effort courtesy of American television shows like The O. C., Criminal Minds and Ghost Whisperer.

The opening song, “Headlock,” is one of the most predictable songs I’ve ever heard, and I have no idea how it became a single or even made it on to the album. I knew from the get-go that the overture, a mild combination of celeste-like beeps, cello and synth fills was a set-up for the overused soft-LOUD technique, and sure enough, we get the predictably “sudden” explosion of full stereo sound in the second chorus. The lyrics fall far short of interesting, a one-sided attack on a partner centered around a weak metaphor (the headlock) and a cliché (“You know you’re better than this”). If you’re going to start an album in a minor key, you better make the song as sexy as fuck, but “Headlock” is about as sexy as a migraine headache.

“Goodnight and Go” finds Imogen in a relationship with a married man bemoaning her fate as the partner who has to sleep alone once the guy gets his rocks off. The man’s alleged appeal is captured in the dreadful line, “Why d’ya have to be so cute,” and his cuteness is so compelling that she has to surreptitiously follow him home and peep through the window to watch him strip. The juxtaposition of “cute” and “naked man” calls up a picture of a dick dressed up as a finger puppet with a smile face on the head—not exactly an irresistibly erotic image. What saves the track from oblivion is the all-too-brief appearance of Jeff Beck, who seriously rips it on the solo, a welcome break from the electronic barrage.

“Have You Got It in You” is pretty much a copy of the opening track (minor key, bring in the rest of the electronic band on the second chorus) with layered vocals designed to reflect the inner dialogue going on in Imogen’s head. Let’s just say it’s not half as interesting as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses and move on to “Loose Ends,” an incredibly annoying pop song that barely rises above the level of Bob Crewe’s “Music to Watch Girls Go By.”

Let’s recap the game as we head into the fifth inning. Imogen has filled the scoreboard with a string of zeroes augmented with a bloop single in the second, a stray walk and a couple of errors. The pent-up energy of the fans manifests itself in the overwhelming excitement they display while rooting for their favorite color in that stupid motorboat race that appears on the giant screen. Once the hysteria dies down, they debate whether or not to go for another round of hot dogs and garlic fries or stay in their seats in the hope that Imogen’s bats will come out of their slumber.

Stay in your seats, folks, because Imogen is about to hit a grand slam.

“Hide and Seek” is the direct result of one of those happy accidents that often result in a great recording.

My favorite computer blew up on me. But I didn’t want to leave the studio without having done anything that day. I saw the [DigiTech Vocalist Workstation] on a shelf and just plugged it into my little 4-track MiniDisc with my mic and my keyboard and pressed Record. The first thing that I sang was those first few lines, ‘Where are we? What the hell is going on?’ I set the vocalist to a four-note polyphony, so even if I play 10 notes on the keyboard, it will only choose four of them. It’s quite nicely surprising when it comes back with a strange combination. When it gets really high in the second chorus, that’s a result of it choosing higher rather than low notes, so I ended up going even higher to compensate, above the chord. I recorded it in, like, four-and-a-half minutes, and it ended up on the album in exactly the structure of how it came out of me then. I love it because it doesn’t feel like my song. It just came out of nowhere, and I’m not questioning that one at all.

This dramatic monologue sung from the perspective of an adolescent girl experiencing the break-up of her parents’ marriage is thankfully delivered a cappella, with only a few stray background sounds of home life (a sizzling frying pan, for example) adding slight contrast to the vocal. The Digitech creates a powerful compressive effect that serves to intensify the bitterness of the girl’s feelings, like a volcanic stream of emotion running through a sieve. A cappella is often used as a device to draw attention to story and storyteller, and rather than distract from the dual sense of intimacy and vulnerability of that form, the electronic effects serve to magnify both. Imogen also varies her phrasing (in addition to the variance added by a delay effect) to mirror the stutter-stop cadence of emotional expression, integrating her natural and breathy voices to express the broad range of the girl’s stewing emotions. The result is a uniquely compelling and emotive listing experience.

The sad and stark landscape of a family falling apart is highlighted through images involving the removal of artifacts that meant home: standing lamps leaving “crop circles,” pictures of the family in happier times exchanged for unsightly marks:

The dust has only just begun to form
Crop circles in the carpet, sinking feeling . . .

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before the takeover
The sweeping insensitivity of this still life

Imogen’s pause between “this” and “still life” on that last line communicates the magnitude of the change; the girl first describes her experience as indescribable (“THIS”) before finding the words “still life,” a powerful image of motionlessness, of life frozen in time.

Equally striking passages are found when Imogen shifts to rhythmic phrasing as the girl confronts one or both parents. The anger at her abandonment is expressed through lines dripping with sarcasm in response to the empty reassurance dished out by the grown-ups:

Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, that you only meant well
Well of course you did
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, that it’s all for the best
Of course it is
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, that it’s just what we need
And you decided this
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, what did she say?

As they continue to blather on with their guilt-ridden attempt at consolation, the girl shifts to inner dialogue, as if she’s having an out-of-body experience that enables her to see through the pathetic façade:

Ransom notes keep falling out your mouth
Amid sweet talk, newspaper word cutouts
Speak no feeling, no, unbelieving
You don’t care a bit, you don’t care a bit

Imogen sings this pattern in a higher pitch and stiffer cadence, layering a second vocal that combines echoes of the main lyric with wordless vocalizations that say “Oh, no, this can’t be happening” far more effectively than words. The song fades on the repetition of “You don’t care a bit,” expressing adolescent feelings completely free of empathy for what the adults are going through—unfair, perhaps, but true to the character. “Hide and Seek” is a one-of-a-kind experience, a uniquely powerful and rich creation that expresses and evokes emotion with exceptional delivery and impact. An absolute masterpiece.

Well, she had to follow it up with something, but did she really have to follow such a grand masterwork with a song that begins with the phrase, “Knock, knock?” Sorry, I can’t resist:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Imogen.

Imogen who.

Imogen there’s no heaven . . .

It’s the perfect lead-in for a really dumb song that uses the security guard phrase “clear the area” to communicate who knows what. The song seems to involve a relationship between narrator and a guy with a drinking problem, but if she was trying to craft a piece to highlight the problems of co-dependence, well, she needed to try harder.

Imogen finally gets hot and nasty with distorted guitar and the near-metal intensity with “Daylight Robbery.” Her unrestrained vocal is a welcome change from the norm, a Dionysian display of joy in the thrills of city lights and excess (which she defines as “the new moderation”). One or two more songs with this kind of erotic intensity would have been welcome to relieve the downbeat mood that dominates the album. “The Walk” comes close with the strongest pop arrangement on the record, but the narrator’s I want it/I don’t want it attitude towards sex dulls the erotic edge, and the sudden emergence of a metaphor that likens the experience of a woman on the sexual fence to a sea-going vessel under attack really kills the mood. When I’m feeling it in my nether regions, I don’t have an overwhelming urge to pop Das Boot into the DVD player.

“Just for Now” was a holiday song rejected by the producers of The O. C. for being “too dark.” Funny, I would have rejected it for being too obvious—a too obvious regurgitation of things dysfunctional families do during the season to be jolly. That weak song is followed by Imogen’s even weaker attempt at sex kitten status, “I Am in Love with You,” where once again the ready-and-willing female falls out of love at the crucial moment. “Closing In” features a never-ending stream of electronic sounds, vanilla sex lyrics and finally, for the first time, I DO notice the drums—bloody awful. Speak for Yourself ends with the rather gloomy “The Moment I Said It,” partially rescued by contrasting melodies that are quite interesting and hint at greater possibilities in the future.

Those possibilities would be more fully realized on her next album, Ellipse, where she diversifies her music and significantly enhances her production and arrangement skills. Speak for Yourself was her first attempt at self-production, a difficult task for any artist, and she still needed more time and practice narrowing down the infinite possibilities of electronic music to form coherent, disciplined compositions. Essentially Speak for Yourself is “Hide and Seek,” “Daylight Robbery” and several other pieces that needed more time on the scratch pad.

Still, if you’ve composed a masterpiece on the level of “Hide and Seek,” you can take deep satisfaction in your work and try to do better next time.

 

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