Tagged: Gillian Welch

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

Most of us have a song that we’d like played at our funeral. Some of us aim for the transcendent: spiritual songs that, we hope, might say something to those we leave behind about our approach to life. Others who take the exercise (and themselves) less seriously prefer a more mordant strain of philosophy: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, is a popular choice.

It was while driving to a friend’s funeral with Charlie Owen, one of Australia’s most expressive guitarists, that Paul Kelly had the idea to record an album of such songs. Death’s Dateless Night features 12 bare-bones, intimately recorded tunes, with a cathedral-like ambience that echoes the sparseness of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

This could have been compelling, if only Kelly had a fresh set of songs to fit. He is now 61 and, while he’s not quite staring mortality in the face, he’s had enough brushes with it over the years and certainly farewelled more than his share of friends before their time. If anyone could take a hard look at a topic no one much likes talking about and have something worthwhile to say, you’d hope Kelly might.

Instead, there are re-recordings of a couple of originals (Nukkanya, from 1994’s Wanted Man, and Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air, from 2005’s Foggy Highway) and a few traditional numbers (Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, which Welch has also recorded; The Parting Glass), with the remainder of the album padded out by covers. Some are standards; others are songs by contemporaries and peers.

This is a low bar for a singer and songwriter of Kelly’s stature to get over. The strengths of Death’s Dateless Night are his warm, empathetic singing and Owen’s always tasteful playing. Its weakness is its lack of ambition: this is an easy listening album about a difficult subject, with neither Kelly nor Owen extending themselves. It’s pleasant, but far from essential.

Should an album of songs about death be merely pleasant? Of course, Death’s Dateless Night could have been depressing and that would have been no more effective, or even interesting. But, instead of offering redemption, Kelly’s versions of Don’t Fence Me In, Bird On A Wire and Let It Be feel redundant, even trite. He’s not adding anything new to these songs. Then again, who could?

The songs that really sting are the less familiar ones, written by artists with whom Kelly shared a more personal connection. One is Good Things, by the late Maurice Frawley, who played in Kelly’s first band, the Dots. Owen’s moaning steel guitar perfectly complements Kelly’s plaintive, haunted vocal and two-chord acoustic shuffle. Singing one of the finest songs of his lost friend, here Kelly is hanging on for dear life.

The other triumph is Pretty Bird Tree, by the Indigenous singer/songwriter LJ (Lawrence) Hill. It’s as powerful as anything by Archie Roach or Kev Carmody and it’s to be hoped Kelly’s version draws more attention to Hill’s exquisite talent. The original finger-picked melody and arrangement is preserved, and Kelly’s voice is at its most yearning as he retells Hill’s heart-stopping narrative.

It might say something about the strength of these two songs that they easily outshine the better-known material that dominates the rest of the album. Alternatively, perhaps the other songs simply suffer for their overfamiliarity. Either way, it’s hard not to wish for more from someone who, at his best, has written so fearlessly about life, death and everything in between.

First published in The Guardian, 6 October 2016

Carrie & the Cut Snakes

Back in 1990, when Uncle Tupelo released No Depression, the idea of alt-country probably seemed necessary. Garth Brooks’ self-titled album had been released the year before, and country music as a genre seemed to be losing touch with its roots: as the stars of the Grand Ole Opry drifted towards the excesses of arena rock, the signifiers (10-gallon hats, tassels and so on) were getting in the way of the substance.

By giving the genre the same kick in the pants punk gave to rock, the movement has been remarkably successful. It may not have spared us from Shania Twain or Faith Hill, but throughout the 1990s, artists as varied as Lucinda Williams, (early) Wilco, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle have reminded us of country music’s fundamental, deeply earnest mission: small stories of small lives, writ large.

So I’m not sure we especially need alt-country any more, any more than we really need alternative music. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the self-titled debut album by Carrie and the Cut Snakes, which I wouldn’t describe as alt-country any more than Carrie Henschell’s heroine, Dolly Parton.

This is, in case you’re wondering, a good thing. Henschell is a 20-something songwriter from Brisbane, whose parents live on a farm on the Darling Downs. The Cut Snakes aren’t yet a stable combination – Henschell’s progress has been delayed by shifting personnel – but that hasn’t stopped her and bass player/engineer Bradley Wright from assembling this nearly perfect debut album.

Henschell’s strengths are apparent from the brisk opener, Can’t Call You. First, she’s a excellent singer – distinctive and clear, albeit with occasional Australian vowels so flattened they might make Missy Higgins blush. Second, she’s smart. Her songs are insightful, witty and above all plain-spoken. There’s no bullshit here.

Third, she’s a terrific arranger – here are 10 songs, only two of them nudging over the four-minute mark, performed with verve and economy. After listening to this album for the umpteenth time since first hearing a burned version months ago (which Henschell nearly jettisoned), at least half the tunes are still swimming in my head.

The effect of a song as sharp as If Love’s Not Growing It’s Dying is like having the intelligence of Lisa Miller and the pop suss of Kasey Chambers wrapped in one package – or perhaps the Pretenders on a Dolly trip. “I’m not everything you want / And I’m not everything you need / I’ll probably never be / But I’m gonna make you notice me,” she yearns. It’s, well, special, if you get my drift.

We Will Be Forgotten is another winner, a heartfelt but never clichéd rumination on life’s big questions, with a swelling chorus inspired by the passing of a friend. “I don’t know how it started, and I don’t know how it will end / I don’t like puzzles with missing pieces, or guessing when there’s no answers,” Henschell sings, over some nicely understated organ playing.

Love Song risks outright sentimentality, and triumphs with immaculate self-harmonies and the sort of vocal patience that Elvis brought to songs like Love Me Tender – OK, it might not be in that league, but the song still aches with longing. Isolated is preceded by lengthy, almost a Capella intro before blossoming into a genuine boot-scootin’, honky-tonk rave-up with multiple time changes.

The clear highlight, though, is Recklessness. It opens unobtrusively, with subdued chords overlaid by a wash of steel guitar, before exploding into the chorus: “I need energy, I need fuel / I want answers, I want release / I need nourishment, I need care / I want overload, I want recklessness!” Henschell pushes her voice as far as it can go here; the sound of it cracking as she repeats the last line puts a lump in the throat.

A surprise is saved for last. Sound Of Silence isn’t a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, but a protest song by local anarchist/blogger Andy Paine. In a bit over three minutes, it contrasts the stories of a factory girl in India, a child soldier in Africa and a corporate office worker in Sydney to demonstrate how silence makes us complicit in the suffering of others. Paine needed someone to sing it for him and Henschell, a social worker by day, does it with sorrow and empathy.

This is a fine debut by a exceptionally talented new artist. The folks in Tamworth should go ga-ga over this, but there’s also no reason why, like Chambers, Henschell and her Cut Snakes shouldn’t cross over to a wider audience.

It’s OK to steal, cos it’s so nice to share

In 2001, American alt-country singer Gillian Welch released a song that, in her ever-so-quiet way, excoriated the download generation. Everything Is Free made a crucial observation: that musicians, artists and writers would keep creating content regardless of whether anyone actually wanted to pay for it or not.

“Everything is free now,” she sang plaintively. “That’s what they say / Everything I ever done / Gotta give it away / Someone hit the big score / They figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay.”

That drive – the physical compulsion to create – has always been at the centre of the artist’s core. They don’t choose to live in penury as such: poverty is simply the most common by-product of the fact that one doesn’t really choose to be an artist, either. It’s something that more often chooses you.

Welch wrote the song just before file-sharing service Napster was taken to the cleaners in the courts, but the damage was already done. Who wanted to pay for anything they could get for free anymore? Loudon Wainwright III put Welch’s viewpoint more pungently in another song, Something For Nothing: “It’s OK to steal, ’cause it’s so nice to share.”

Which brings me to a brief selection of comments on The Age’s website that followed the news [on 18 June] that it would be moving to a paid subscription model.

“There is no need to pay for news when it’s so readily available on the internet for free,” says “Problem?”. “People won’t pay for the news when an alternative source is just a mouse click away,” concurs “The Redback”. “You charge for online and you will be destroyed,” threatens “Tony”.

And then this: “If you want to sell more papers, inprove [sic] the quality of your articles and pay journalists what they are worth,” says “Homer Ridgemoore”. Pay them more? With what, exactly? You simply can’t pay for journalists, or anything approaching serious journalism, without a secure revenue base.

It’s the collapse of that base that’s resulted in the staff sackings, the outsourcing of sub-editing and rationalising of content. Most critically, the resources required for the pursuit of serious and lengthy investigations conducted in the name of the public interest are in real jeopardy.

There’s rarely the time for those investigations, either. The impatience of the 24-hour news cycle ensures that. A diminution of quality and diversity is the inevitable result. Fair enough, then, that no one wants to pay for a dodgy product.

We should surely, though, be prepared to pay for a better one.

Of course, readers never underpinned the salaries of journalists – advertising did that – so no one blames consumers for the parlous state of the industry. But if the likes of Homer and Tony don’t think their sense of entitlement isn’t even a little cog in this vicious circle, they’re kidding themselves.

It’s one thing to chip away at the already pitiful incomes of songwriters by downloading. Welch and Wainwright, with worldwide fan bases, are probably two of the luckier ones. And, as Welch promised, they’re gonna do it anyway.

But if you think you’re entitled to high-quality news content for free – and will continue to get it – then you’re not only deluded, you’re chipping away at something much bigger. Other than the ideologues concerned only with the destruction of their enemies, we’ve all got a stake in maintaining a plurality of voices in this country.

As Martin McKenzie-Murray pointed out, while it’s true the internet has provided us with a greater diversity of voices than ever before, we can’t expect citizen journalists to uncover the stories that really matter while working around their day jobs.

Nor can we expect their work to be treated with the same respect. That may sound like an odd thing to say, given that trust in commercial media is at a low ebb, but in the corridors of power at least, working for an old masthead still carries with it the force of imprimatur that a blogger will never have.

If readers genuinely want to see traditional news media survive and thrive online into the next millennium, then one thing they’re going to have to let go of is the idea that they can have it for nothing. Unfortunately, that idea’s been allowed to take root for more than a decade.

Without readers who are willing to take some ownership of the news media themselves – in the same way they used to when the morning papers they subscribed to were tossed on their front lawns, to be digested with their coffee and toast – the 1900 people about to be thrown out of work will be just the beginning.

Some of them, at least, might take solace in Gillian Welch’s words. “I could get a straight job / I’ve done it before / Never minded working hard / It’s who I’m working for.”

First published by The Age, 27 June 2012