Archive for November, 2009

Fierce storm

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

There’s a big storm in the British Isles today. I just measured a wind gust of 81mph! It is rocking the Nutmeg to her foundations…. er, bilges. Small domestic animals flying past the windows. No ships to be seen on the North Sea, which is unsurprising seeing as the waves look to be about 12ft.

I just finished a remix for Interscope/Geffen. It took me five full days, which is what I budgeted to get it done. I thought it would be a welcome break from work on my own album, provided it went smoothly. The biggest ‘gotcha’ was if the label wanted changes. Fortunately I heard back from them that it’s a super-hot remix and they love it. It’s a pop tune, kind of peripheral to the Lady Gaga family (not her.)

I don’t often get approached to do remixes. It’s the first paid work I’ve done for a record label in about twenty years. I feel if I ever go back to producing, I might need a reel including a few songs from the 21st century. But I did enjoy it, and it gave me a chance to explore some recent sample library acquisitions, including the rather intriguing RA which is a collection of exotic instruments from around the world, published by EastWest. My remix featured Dubuk, Tambur, Thai gongs, and Panaang.

Getting this done and dusted in five days reminded me that I have to not be too precious with my own stuff. I should be willing to take chances, have fun, get it down—there’s always the <undo> button. Unlike in life.

Am now making a little video of the lifeboat to send to our friend Abdellah in Marakesh. Our gardener is going there for a holiday tomorrow, and Abdellah offered to show her around. So we’re making a little DVD for  her to bring him. Walking round the lifeboat trying to do a commentary in French, and struggling to translate words such as Wheelhouse, Rotten Wood, Pot-bellied Stove, Wind Turbine. Thank heavens for online dictionaries.

Then later off to see ‘Amelia’ starring Hilary Swank. If only because she was the subject of one of my all-time favourite Joni Mitchell songs. I’m sure she won’t mind if I reprint the lyrics:

Amelia

I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture post-card charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm

I wish that he was here tonight
It’s so hard to obey
His sad request of me to kindly stay away
So this is how I hide the hurt
As the road leads cursed and charmed
I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.

(c) Joni Mitchell

Prefab Sprout’s new album

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

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A belated note about the latest Prefab Sprout album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, which was released a few weeks ago. It has a curious history. Paddy McAloon wrote the songs at the beginning of the 90s, intending to make a follow-up album to 1990′s ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. As he liked to do, Paddy made demos of all the songs in his home studio, and sent them both to me and to the band’s record company, Sony. I immediately fell in love with the songs, especially ‘Ride Home To Jesus’ and ‘I Love Music.’ I was keen to produce them and we’d started to make plans. However Sony’s head of A+R, Muff Winwood, who had always been a huge supporter of the Sprouts, was a bit negative about the album, saying that the religious overtones of many of the songs would create a perception of a ‘Christian rock’ band, which would destroy their credibility and commercial appeal. He was very aware that U2 had narrowly dodged a bullet round about the time of songs like ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ when many accused them of veering towards ‘God Rock’—even though those titles were referring to something completely different.

Ultimately it didn’t do U2 any harm though, did it. And Paddy’s songs were not actually promoting God or religion. If anything they were an analysis of faith and integrity. They seemed to aspire to a love of something above, beyond ourselves. In ‘Music Is A Princess’, for example, the author characterises himself as a lowly boy in rags, willing to die for Music but unworthy to carry her flag. In ‘Ride’, Paddy praises people who work thanklessly for the greater good. I thought the songs were excellent, with great chords and melodies, and it was  very refreshing to hear some subject matter that wasn’t just about sex, relationships,  money or starvation. But the band felt unable to deal with the friction caused by the record company’s push-back, and Paddy decided to move right on and start from scratch. I believe Muff Winwood has since claimed that he only wanted a few changes to the words and titles and perhaps the addition a couple of extra songs that were not so controversial.

It’s easy in retrospect to say that the original decision not to release ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ did irreperable damage to the band’s career. Certainly it threw a spanner in the works, because the next twelve years saw only two more Sprouts albums, neither of which approached the critical or commercial success of their previous four. There were several other song projects that never got off the ground, including a musical about Zorro and an album of Michael Jackson-themed songs. Paddy or his managers at Kitchenware would send me the tapes and I always enjoyed them and was impressed by how good his home studio recordings were becoming.

During those years, which also ushered in the era of Internet music and self-publishing by artists, I repeatedly told Paddy I thought he should ditch his major label contract altogether and just release his stuff himself via the Net. His output was so prolific that he could easily have released two or three albums per year, maintained a great mailing list (his brother Martin having become something of a Web expert), and made a perfectly good living without any interference from A+R men and radio promotion people. But he is quite conservative in his view of the music business, and always felt that success had to include the conventional trimmings of commercial acceptance, like seeing your poster in the window of WHSmiths, getting played on BBC Radio 1, and so on. He’s perfectly entitled to cling to that view. In this day and age though, what’s survived of the Industry star machinery is reserved for celebrity-hungry 20-something hotties that can sing, dance and disrobe like world champs. Paddy’s health is not good and he’s in no mood to be out there under the spotlights, so perhaps now he will reconsider my suggestion and make some new music to release softly on the Internet for the legions of devoted Sprouts fans to enjoy.

A couple of years ago Keith Armstrong, the Sprouts’ manager, talked Paddy into the idea of reviving ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ and releasing it independently. With the help of engineer Callum Michael, Paddy cleaned up the recordings and replaced a few parts, though he stuck with the original vocals. It’s a pretty sweet-sounding record. Of course, I feel it would have been even better if the mainly programmed backing could have been replaced Martin, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti, and the whole package produced by me. After all it’s been billed as a Prefab Sprout album, not a solo project like Paddy’s beautiful ‘I Trawl The Megahertz.’ But this release needed to be swift and the costs kept low. One of the challenges of the new music business landscape is how to pull off a project that requires several musicians and expensive recording studios, without going heavily into debt with a label who will then demand their pound of flesh in return. There’s not really a new system in place for compensating musicians and producers without incurring the huge ridiculous costs of accounting and royalty calculations.

Still, what we’re left with is a gorgeous piece of work. I’m really glad it saw the light of day, and hope that its warm reception from fans and critics alike will encourage Paddy to do some new work, despite the problems he’s having with his hearing and eyesight. If you want to feel inspired, just read his sleeve notes, about Brian Wilson and ‘The yawning caves of blue.’ He’s a brilliant writer and would make a fine novellist. There’s a very candid interview with him transcribed here which explains the album much better than I can. Do seek it out if you can. I notice it’s not on iTunes for some reason but it is on Amazon.