Tagged: the Byrds

Emma Swift: Blonde On The Tracks

Perhaps it’s easy to forget, nearly 60 years into his career, that the songs of Bob Dylan were made famous by other artists with sweeter, more radio-friendly voices than the one David Bowie later described as a mix of sand and glue. Between 1963 and 1965, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary and many others all helped turn Dylan into the voice of his generation for people who couldn’t stand his voice.

Eventually his label, CBS, started marketing him with the phrase that “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan”. Which is still true, even as that untutored yowl – through age, experience and more age – turned into a croon and, finally, a croak. Now, however, he may have a rival to his own title: nobody has ever sung Dylan quite like Nashville-based Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. And maybe nobody (other than Dylan) has ever sung him better, either.

Swift’s splendidly titled album Blonde On The Tracks is a collection of eight Dylan songs that she began recording in 2017 and completed earlier this year, when she became the first artist out of the gate to cover I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s new album Rough And Rowdy Ways. She sings with clarity and vulnerability, and just a hint of vibrato, but the key to these performances is her firm grasp of Dylan’s phrasing and timing.

That doesn’t mean that Swift doesn’t put her own spin on such well-worn songs as You’re A Big Girl Now. The way she lets her voice drag just a little longer as she sings “I can change, I swear” will drive a corkscrew through your heart. And where Dylan’s band helps him elaborate the gorgeous melody he can now only hint at in I Contain Multitudes, Swift needs no such assistance in a version that preserves the song’s wryness and subtlety.

It helps that Swift’s partner is Robyn Hitchcock, the prolific solo artist who, in the early 1980s, led the English psychedelic punk band the Soft Boys. Hitchcock is a brilliant guitarist who has long drawn on the legacies of both the Byrds and Dylan; his work on Queen Jane Approximately steers the arrangement closer to the folk-rock style of the former than Dylan’s original from Highway 61 Revisited, and eventually opens out into a ringing electric solo.

But the focus always remains on Swift’s voice. For Queen Jane Approximately, drummer Jon Radford sits back on rimshots, never overwhelming the song with his kit. On the verses of One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later), Swift is so hushed, accompanied by just the barest traces of pedal steel and piano, that it sounds like she’s singing in church – an effect only enhanced when the song’s main refrain swells into a heavenly chorale.

There are a couple of less obvious selections – Going, Going, Gone is from Planet Waves, while The Man In Me is from New Morning, two of Dylan’s relatively neglected early ’70s albums, and Swift illuminates both. The bravest is the 12-minute run through Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, the immense closing track from Blonde On Blonde; on Blonde On The Tracks, it’s dead in the album’s centre and never flags, sung with patience and grace.

Swift has had a stop-start career to date, releasing very little music since coming to notice with an acclaimed self-titled EP in 2014. According to Swift, the idea for Blonde On The Tracks was born from a protracted period of depression and writer’s block. And yet it may be the making of her. It’s a beautiful piece of work by a singer with a rare interpretive gift, comparable to Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball in its intent, execution and intimacy.

First published in the Guardian, 14 August 2020

The Bats: same as it ever was

Robert Scott has just knocked off work, “down at the local kids’ school” in Port Chalmers just outside of Dunedin, the university town near the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island that, from the late 1970s, was the birthplace of punk across the Tasman. Now, he says, he’s home to do some interviews: a reflection of the permanent double life of a musician in his home country.

Scott was, and remains, one-third of the Clean, probably the most influential of all the bands to be released on the famed Flying Nun label. He is also the leader of the Bats, who have just released their seventh album, The Deep Set, in a career spanning over 30 years. Both bands have proven extremely influential, especially in American college rock circles, and still record and tour internationally.

But unless you’re a Finn brother, making a living off music in the Shaky Isles remains a near impossibility (another New Zealand band, the 3Ds, once turned down an offer to tour with Nirvana on the grounds that it would have cost them their day jobs).

The result for Scott is an ordinary, domestic life punctuated by bursts of artistic activity. “It’s a wee bit strange, because when you tell people you’ve got a day job, they can’t quite believe it – they figure I should be relaxing and living off royalties,” Scott says. “But unless you have a really big seller, it doesn’t actually generate enough money to live off … You’d need to be touring a heck of a lot, and I’ve still got an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to still help look after as well, so I need to be around for them.”

The Bats and the Clean occupy separate niches. In reductive terms, one could say the Clean took the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground’s Foggy Notion as a starting point and turned it into an entire career. The Bats are a gentler proposition: jangling, often pastoral, closer to the folk-pop of Byrds.

But there isn’t a band on earth now that sounds remotely like the Bats, and Scott has cheerfully admitted that much of their music sounds more or less the same. “For a band that’s got, not a formula, but maybe a sound and way of approaching songs, they’ll do variations on the theme and it can still sound good,” he says.

“But then, having said that, I think that a lot of my favourite bands and a lot of their songs sound the same too, whether it’s the Velvets or Can or Kraftwerk … If we tried to do a reggae or a ska record, it would sound terrible.”

The trick, he says, is keeping the songwriting on par within the confines of the very familiar Bats house style. “Even though obviously it is us and sounds like us, I’d hate to think I’d put out a record that sounded like Bats by numbers, or that it was harping back to previous songs.”

There have been long breaks between recordings: it’s been six years since the band’s last album Free All The Monsters, and there was a full decade between 1995’s Couchmaster and 2005’s At The National Grid, during which time various band members started families.

But those breaks, imposed in part by the necessity to earn a living, perhaps help account for the remarkable longevity of both of Scott’s bands. The Clean were formed in 1978; the Bats in 1982: nearly 80 years of making music between them. “They’ll be giving us an award soon, I’m sure.”

Scott says it’s something that he’s taken for granted, at least until it’s pointed out to him. “Everything’s relative. It’s only when other people comment on the longevity that you realise it is quite a point of difference, if you think of other bands that have shone brightly for 10 years or five years and then stopped for whatever reason.”

Minds and bodies permitting, Scott sees no reason why both bands shouldn’t continue indefinitely. “If one enjoys it, if one is coming up with relevant stuff, that’s not demeaning the band’s name by putting out rubbish that doesn’t stand up to the other stuff you’ve done, then I can’t see any reason why to stop.

“I don’t really think about it that deeply, but I respect and admire I guess musicians who can keep producing good stuff, whatever their age, whether it’s 60, 70, 80, whatever.”

First published in Shortlist (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 12 January 2017