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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.

Genesis – Nursery Cryme – Classic Music Review

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Genesis is a band worthy of study because their work combines the best and worst tendencies of progressive rock. In the four albums featuring the “core” band (Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), you will hear both stunning masterpieces and some of the most pretentious nonsense imaginable. Peter Gabriel in particular will drive you mad, as he careens from brilliance to preposterousness on a single album, a pattern he would reliably reproduce throughout his solo career. The musicians who weren’t front-and-center (Steve Hackett, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) were quite gifted, their talents apparent even when the music seemed unfocused. And believe it or not, Phil Collins, who later made a career out of worming his way into the hearts of millions of underfucked housewives, was an outstanding drummer, combining sensitivity, excellent timing and awesome power.

When listening to the core Genesis band, I always had the feeling that there was Peter Gabriel on one side of the stage and everyone else on the other. Even though I’m too young to have ever seen them live, Gabriel’s theatricality comes through clearly on their records, and while Gabriel could sometimes stay within role and deliver credible acting performances, he was frequently guilty of hamming it up at the expense of the narrative. Videos of Genesis performances certainly confirm this, and also make it obvious that Gabriel loved being in the limelight. It therefore came as no surprise when I learned that the creation of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was hardly a model of collaboration, as Gabriel, absent due to his wife’s difficult pregnancy, missed the composition and rehearsal sessions but still insisted on maintaining control over the lyrics. That disconnection led to a very curious outcome. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is often musically brilliant, but even I could have come up with a more coherent story line even after downing a hit of acid with a quart of Jack Daniels. The tensions from the experience combined with Gabriel’s urge to go solo led to a divorce. As it turned out, Genesis didn’t need Peter Gabriel as much as he thought they did: A Trick of the Tail may be less ambitious, but it’s a lovely little album. Meanwhile, Peter Gabriel released the first of his four untitled solo albums and also seemed better off for the change. “Solsbury Hill,” “Humdrum” and even the theater piece “Moribund the Burgermeister” are superb works on a pretty solid album. As for his and Phil’s later solo works . . . well, they made a lot of money.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Nursery Cryme served to solidify Genesis’ identity as an often gifted and frequently eccentric progressive rock band unlike any other. Their sound is certainly distinctive and the subject matter of their songs often out of left field. They loved flights of fancy, no more so than in the deceptive description of the story behind the opening track, “The Musical Box.” As depicted on the cover, the story is allegedly about a girl named Cynthia who whacks off the head of her friend Henry with a croquet mallet. According to Peter Gabriel’s macabre fairy tale, what happens in the song is Cynthia discovers Henry’s musical box, opens it and voilà, Henry returns as a spirit and begins to age rapidly—just like three-fourths of the away team on the original Star Trek episode, “The Deadly Years.” Henry turns into a seriously oversexed old fart who then tries to slip it to Cynthia, but a nurse enters and kills Henry by heaving the musical box at his noggin.

Nice try, but that’s not the story told in the song. The story is much deeper, richer and more compelling than the fairy tale would have you believe. On the other hand, I will concede that the symbolism is quite accurate. Allow me to give you an alternative interpretation of “The Musical Box.”

Cynthia, with her “fixed expression,” is the manifestation of the castrating bitch of literature: she’s Hemingway’s Brett Ashley; she’s Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched. When you look at it that way, the old man Henry becomes the archetype of male impotence. At the beginning of the song, he’s addled, infantile, addicted to his musical box and sensing that he is irreversibly slipping away from the living world:

Play me Old King Cole
That I may join with you,
All your hearts now seem so far from me
It hardly seems to matter now.
And the nurse will tell you lies
Of a kingdom beyond the skies.
But I am lost within this half-world,
It hardly seems to matter now.

The music in this passage is gentle, quiet and melancholy, with lovely cascading arpeggiated chords supporting Peter Gabriel’s restrained vocal, delivered partially in a whimpering falsetto with a tone of resignation and bitter hopelessness. The touch of harmony on “half-world” is chillingly beautiful. Henry begs to hear his song again and the music fades (reflecting the fade of Henry’s consciousness as he enters that “half-world”) into a slightly darker passage contrasting flute and an acoustic guitar duet dominated by the lower strings. The grim reality of death is approaching:

Just a little bit,
Just a little bit more time,
Time left to live out my life.

Following a sensitive and reflective musical passage and another request to hear his musical box, something wells up inside Henry—the life force, the urge to survive, the libido. With two distorted guitar chords forging the path, the song takes a stirring turn with Tony Banks’ entering with sharp chords on the organ and Phil Collins coming in with a perfectly executed drum skip and bash. The tension builds and the music absolutely soars with dark energy and a rising tempo to give Steve Hackett the space for a dramatic lead solo recorded with the panning constantly shifting channels so it sounds like his guitar licks are going through your head. I can’t say enough about Phil Collins’ drumming in this passage—his work on the toms, the bass drum, the cymbals come together to form one of the best coordinated drum segments I’ve ever heard.

The band ratchets down the sound to allow Henry to muddle through a passage from “Old King Cole.” Gabriel’s voice here paints a picture of a frail old man with tears running down his cheeks as he sings his favorite song for what could be the last time. The sudden awareness of the clock shakes him back to fear, to the urge to survive . . . the urge to be a man again:

But the clock, tick-tock,
On the mantlepiece—
And I want, and I feel, and I know, and I touch,
Her warmth . . .

The music explodes again, almost in rage this time, with Phil Collins bashing the drums with an intense, steady beat and Banks and Hackett beautifully weaving the musical motifs into a satisfying pattern. The burst of distorted dissonance towards the middle of the passage hints at the simmering anguish and repressed desire welling up in Henry’s soul. The music rises to a crescendo that leads to an intense passage of pounding drums, rising guitar licks and fuzz piano. The scene then returns to relative stillness, where Henry considers his situation:

She’s a lady, she’s got time,
Brush back your hair, and let me get to know your face.
She’s a lady, she is mine.
Brush back your hair, and let me get to know your flesh.

Peter Gabriel’s enunciation of the word “flesh” is both thoroughly creepy and sadly pathetic. In the background, the organ reappears in less than full voice, and combined with Phil Collins marvelous cymbal work and occasional snare hits, we feel the tension begin to rise as Henry arrives at the end of his rope:

I’ve been waiting here for so long
And all this time has passed me by
It doesn’t seem to matter now.

Then, with a glorious drum roll, Phil Collins introduces the dénouement, and as the organ increases in volume and fills our ears, Peter Gabriel acts out the final scene:

You stand there with your fixed expression
Casting doubt on all I have to say.
Why don’t you touch me, touch me,
Why don’t you touch me, touch me,
Touch me now, now, now, now, now . . .

You stand there with your fixed expression. That’s the castrating bitch, that’s the Playboy centerfold who stares back at the lonely man as he coos at her and masturbates in a dingy room that hasn’t been cleaned in months. That’s the woman with the croquet mallet ready to chop off your head. I won’t go so far as to say the head in question is the head of the penis, for it could easily be interpreted as the killing of a man’s center of reason, leaving him the victim of his animal desires. Either way, emasculation is the result.

I realize I’ve spent quite a bit of space on “The Musical Box,” but there are so many more wonderful moments in this perfectly-constructed piece that I could have done a twenty-page essay. The dramatic precision of the arrangement is astounding, and Peter Gabriel’s acting performance is both nuanced and disturbingly empathetic: after all, Henry’s the classic dirty old man—why should we feel any connection to such a loser? Because he’s human, and when an actor can make you feel for the bad guy, that’s great acting in any field. It reminds me of what Javier Camara accomplished in Almodovar’s Hable con Ella: he made you feel sympathy for a hospital aide who was having sex with his comatose patients. All in all, I consider “The Musical Box” to be one of the great works in the history of rock music, progressive or otherwise. It never fails to move me.

Next in sequence is “For Absent Friends,” a pretty and touching vignette depicting the journey of a pair of widowers from park closing time to early-evening church services. The unrhymed poetry allows the authors (all the band members were nearly always listed as authors) some freedom to describe the evocative detail instead of having to squeeze the story into a strict metrical pattern:

Passing by the padlocked swings
The roundabout still turning
Ahead they see a small girl
On her way home with a pram

The dual acoustic guitars are perfectly matched, and Phil Collins does a fine job on the lead vocal, describing the widowers with a slight touch of gentle affection in his voice, especially on the core line: “Heads bent in prayer for friends not there.” The song is well-placed between the grand majesty of “The Musical Box” and the harder, edgier arrangement of “Return of the Giant Hogweed.”

“Hogweed” opens with Tony Banks running his electric piano through a fuzz box, playing with a whirling sense of urgency to alert the audience that the Giant Hogweed is about to conquer Britain! The joy of the song for me lies in the verses, where Genesis showed they were a more than capable rock band in the Tull tradition of hard syncopated rhythms. I love the absolute vengeful satisfaction in Peter Gabriel’s voice when he sings “Stamp them out!” The rest of the song is rather dull by comparison and the story of a plant infestation doesn’t quite live up to its satiric possibilities (it’s the same kind of insanity that leads American homeowners to poison lawns and groundwater in mad attempts to destroy weeds). The humor inherent in the situation never quite materializes and the song becomes a rather long and meandering composition lacking the thematic discipline of “The Musical Box.” Despite its weaknesses, “Hogweed” demonstrates Genesis’ willingness to search for subject matter in odd places, and I admire them for always trying the unexpected.

“Seven Stones” also never lives up to its potential; the opening line, “I heard the old man tell his tale” leads you to expect that a bit of wisdom will follow. Instead of wisdom we find a mix of incomplete mysteries, poorly-thought out symbols and punch lines with no punch. “And the changes of no consequence/Will pick up the reins from nowhere” fails to qualify as either meaningful or memorable couplet in any context. “Harold the Barrel” has a more interesting story, if you have the stomach for a restaurant owner who cuts off his toes and serves them to his family for tea. The populace is outraged and corners Harold as he sits on a window ledge high above the maddening crowd. The problem with Harold isn’t the lyrics; it’s the choppy, clunky rhythm, meandering melody and piss-poor mix that distract from the potential drama and humor of the piece.

“Harlequin” is a very interesting vocal duet that could have been even better if a little more care had been taken with the lyrics. The chorus is syntactically quite awkward, draining power from what should have been the clincher: “All, always the same/But there appears in the shades of dawning/Though your eyes are dim/All of the pieces in the sky.” Flip the second and third lines and delete the “but” and you have a more coherent verse. It wouldn’t have taken too much effort—and might have made the song even more interesting—to rearrange the music to fit the natural flow of the English language.

The Crimson-esque opening to “The Fountain of Salmacis” gives one another jolt of hope that something special this way comes, but this piece is a long way from the disciplined precision and musical excellence of King Crimson. The music completely fails to match the mood of the mythological tale, leaving one to conclude that the only possible purpose for this track was to advertise that someone in Genesis had read Ovid. The original tale is a tale of sexual merging (the event is what turned young Hermaphoditus into a physiological switch hitter), but the fact that the nymph Salmacis date-raped a young boy to achieve that merger is glossed over and horribly under-dramatized in the music. Instead, the song celebrates the superficial symbolism of unity, putting aside the inconvenient truth the merger was hardly voluntary and had to be enforced by the gods. In Genesis’ hands, the story is more Soviet than sexual. What should have been a song boiling over with erotic and moral tension has the embarrassing disappointment of a limp dick. I’d also argue that if you’re going to try to revive a myth, it is the responsibility of the author, poet or songwriter to make the link between the ancient myth and the modern moment. No such connection is made here except to the superficial “oneness” that had died sometime shortly after Woodstock. Even the opportunity to explore women’s equality along the lines of “You’ve come a long way, baby, you can be rapist, too!” was missed.

Nursery Cryme is a typical Genesis album, full of wonders and wondering what the hell they were thinking. When they were all on the same page, they were as good as it gets; when they were off, they were on another planet. The same pattern was repeated in Foxtrot, another album with a stunning opener (“Watcher of the Skies”) and some excellent material mixed with musical and lyrical cacophony. Still, I own several Genesis albums, so it’s obvious I find something appealing about the band, and rather than looking at Genesis as another example of progressive rock excess, I appreciate their efforts to try to expand rock possibilities. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not. The experimenter never succeeds 100% of the time, but we should be thankful they had the courage to try.

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