The Complicatist : Bobby Bland R.I.P., Laura Marling

Eagles may be high and free, but they’re also birds of prey
by Gordon Campbell

Bobby Bland, who died in June at the age of 83, used to be called “the Sinatra of the Blues,” in tribute to the skills, range and sheer intelligence he brought to the work at hand. (Not to mention the impact he had on the generation of soul singers who came after him.) Bland never reached the mass audience he deserved, partly because his peak years were spent under contract to a crook called Don Robey at Duke Records. Easy to imagine that say, at Stax, he might have reached a bigger audience than the one he slowly accumulated via an endless stream of gigs at supper clubs and bars, during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Even so, everyone by now probably knows classic Bobby Bland tracks like“ Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do” “Turn on Your Lovelight” etc. In this little commemoration, it seemed impossible to avoid his signature tune “ I Pity The Fool” , which still sounds amazing. The 1957 cut “ Little Boy Blue” though, is not so well known. It is not merely a showcase for his guitarist Clarence Holloman but stands as a bizarre piece of psychopathology in its own right. It packs in an unsettling range of emotions during its 2:38 running time : regret, guilt, sexual pride, and the urge to console, humiliate and dominate the object of the singer’s raw need. To paraphrase the dreaded Jim Mora, there’s not another soul song quite like it. Little wonder it appealed to Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy) who has done a couple of versions, both of which have homed in on the song’s creepy vibe. Like this one for instance.

In passing, “ Little Boy Blue” is also a stellar example of the immediacy that’s been lost in the transition from soul music to the sleek auto-tuned world of today’s r&b. The other tracks I’ve chosen are self explanatory. “ Wake Up Screaming” is another great piece of psychodrama. Those lyrics !

I put my hand on your pillow
To see if ev’thing was still okay
But I should have known baby
You were gone-on-on-on-on
I woke up screamin’
And I’m still in misery
And I’ll keep right on screamin’
‘Till you’ve come back home to me

Even when saddled with mediocre material, Bland found dimensions that eluded everyone who came before. That’s what he did. Old chestnuts like “Stormy Monday Blues” and “St James Infirmary” and neo-gospel barn burners (“Turn on the Your Lovelight” “ Don’t Cry No More”) and prescient disco hits (such as his 1973 hit “ Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” recently sampled by Kanye West) and the middle-aged Tyrone Davis soundalikes (eg “ Love To See You Smile” from 1978) would be transformed in his hands. More than anything, Bland was a bridge between the raw country blues and the sophisticated clothes those emotions tried on for size in the 1950s, just before the emergence of soul. By all accounts, he was also a thoroughly decent human being.

 
 

( Thanks to Grace C. Russell for research help with this Bobby Bland obituary. )

At the age of 23, the ferociously talented English singer /songwriter Laura Marling has just released her fourth album ( Once I Was An Eagle) and it makes the perennial comparisons with Joni Mitchell not only inevitable, but beside the point. Yes, she’s that good, but also her own person now. At this rate of divergence – at 23, Mitchell was still two years away from Blue – we can probably shut up now about Joni and Joanie and focus on what’s in Marling’s music, and on her mind.

As you might also expect at 23, there are a few things to be set straight with the world. And with herself, but not entirely so. Marling’s ability to hold a grudge seems to be almost on a par with Taylor Swift, yet she sounds offhandedly calm while delivering the most pissed off kiss-offs imaginable, via the lyric sheet. On “Master Hunter” just when her repetition of the “ I am a master hunter’ line begins to sound pompous, she retrieves the entire song with this calmly delivered rejection of a former lover’s infatuation with darkness :
Is this what you think I do in life when I’m not being used? / you’re not sad, you live for the blues / you’re not sad, you live for the blues / I have some news / I have some news / wrestling the rope from darkness is no fucking life that I would choose…

For anyone wanting to keep track of the body count on this album, the Mr Negativity being referred to here is almost certainly Charlie Fink, the guy from the band Noah and the Whale who produced her first album. Fink is not the only ex in her gunsights. In the same song, the couplet that goes “I don’t stare at water any more/Water doesn’t do what it did before” is presumably a reference to earlier work (and attitudes and relationship) with the British singer Johnny Flynn but having said that, the gossip trail is not particularly relevant. These songs are so good that every listener has the room to imprint their own back story onto the lyric sheet. It’s the old story of personal biography inspiring work of universal application, right? ( See. J. Mitchell, album, Blue.)

Marling’s career trajectory has been all the more impressive because she hasn’t taken the soft options. Much of the new album is gorgeous, but its skeletal instrumentation no longer resembles the freeze dried Coldplay – with – banjos freeze folk pop of Mumford and Sons, her old chums and former backing band. She could have done variations on that sort of thing in her sleep, and parlayed her career to similar multi-platinum success. But she’s too good for that. There’s a mind under that hat.

Despite the received wisdom that we’re living in the age of the single track – and here are the latest statistics to prove it. the sixteen cuts on Once I Was an Eagle hang together as a carefully ordered whole, beginning with a four song suite that is essentially the same, shape-changing song. At the half way point (where you’d formerly be turning over the vinyl) there’s a cello interlude, before the final track on the second half circles back to right there we first came in. In the liner notes, there’s a generous concession that this epic wholeness is very much the product of her collaboration with producer Ethan Johns. As Marling says. “It would be criminal of me not to point out here that this album feels as much a product of Ethan’s mind as it does my own.” Nice gesture.

Mind meld or not, what you feel throughout is the presence of a restless intelligence amid the musical expertise. To take just one example among many : on “Master Hunter” again, she makes fleeting use of one of Bob Dylan’s best known “ don’t fence me in, babe” lyrics and yet – coming from a woman – the assertion of the same right to love and leave ‘em at a time of her choosing, sounds anything but clichéd.

Despite what I’ve said above, this isn’t ‘dear diary’ confessional pop. On the evidence of this album, Marling has simply taken a while to take stock of what has happened to her ( musically and emotionally) since she first shot to national prominence at the age of 17. From her current vantage point far from England – late last year, she moved to the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles – she’s open to a whole new world of influences. Should be pretty fascinating to see what she makes of them, just as long as she stays away from Laurel Canyon. Because she’s an engaging live performer, I’ve chosen to link –wherever possible – to live versions of these tracks.

1. “Dancing in the Dark” “Sophia”
While Ed Berman takes the lead in this haunted rendition of Bruce Springsteen classic hit, it is within Marling’s harmonies and during her own verse in the spotlight that the re-imagining takes place. The other track – “ Sophia” – is off her third album, and prefigured the advances on Once I Was an Eagle…especially in the conversational opening and gradual build to the full tilt, all stops out conclusion. “Sophia” was the highlight of her Laneways set last year in Auckland, and it remains a staple of her live show.

 

2. “ (Goodbye England) Covered In Snow” “Made By Maid”
Really early stuff. “Goodbye England” was written when she was about 18. It begins as a conventional neo-folk song about the charms of Auld England and her beloved, before turning into a startling confessional speaksong that shares an obvious lineage with “Sophia” and “The Beast” on the last album, and with the whole tenor of the new album. No pictures with “Made By Maid” – only the BBC audio of her singing live with her guitar, in what I still think is the best available version of one of her finest early songs. And yes, it does sound like this was another song inspired by Mr Negativity :

So I walk into the fog, found a babe atop a log and all alone
Took him under, took him on,
Taught him everything about the world I’d come to know
And he blames me for every wrong ever he made
I am blamed for every wrong ever he made
Forgive me I am only a maid
Forgive me I am only a maid

 

3. “Take The Night Off/I Was an Eagle” etc
OK, here’s a 14 minute straight shot of the hard stuff. This is an acoustic version – done live – of the entire four song suite that kicks off the new album. Fantastic.

4. “Not Done Travelling” “Jolene”
This track dates from late last year. Marling uses a newly acquired ukelele to try out a new song called “Not Done Travelling…” in which, as on “Master Hunter” it is the woman/artist/narrator who has a mind to ramble, and who may be back in town someday babe, when her rambling days are done. But don’t hold your breath.

Plus from a few years ago, there’s a heart-rending version of Dolly Parton’s breakup song “Jolene” – that sure looks like it is being directed across the stage at Marcus Mumford. Could be wrong about that. Supposedly, he broke up with Marling and only later began dating the actor Carey Mulligan, to whom he is now married. Good version of the song, whatever.

 

5. “Don’t Ask Me Why/Salinas”
Two songs from her third album A Creature I Don’t Know and these terrific live versions were recorded as a medley a couple of years ago for Australian television, in a Melbourne back street. Nice to see the passersby going on their way across the end of the alley, quite oblivious to the genius at work nearby.

5. “Rambling Man” “Bleed Me Dry”

Oh, naïve little me. “Rambling Man” belongs squarely in the Mumfords phase of her career, but is one of the better songs from that period. This version from 2011 allows her to look back with distance from the difficult emotions that it conveys :

And the weak need to be led,
And the tender, I’ll carry to their bed,
And it’s a cold and pale affair,
And I’ll be damned if I’ll be found there…
It’s funny that the first chords that you come to,
Are the minor notes that come to serenade you,
And it’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire,
As someone you don’t want to be…

Finally to bring things more or less up to date, “Bleed Me Dry” is a new song – from June 2013 – that doesn’t appear on any of the albums to date. It could possibly have been the sole song from the Eagle sessions ( there was only one) not included on the final album.

 

ENDS