Monday, 30 March 2015

The Band - The Band (the second album) - album review

Following on from my blog post about The Band's debut album (Music From Big Pink), I thought I'd take a look at the 1969 follow-up, their self-titled magnum opus.

The Bob Dylan influence is much less overt, and there is virtually no discernible overlap with the folk-rock and/or psychedelic movements.  Robbie Robertson's blossoming songwriting prowess is clear for all to see, and the songs sound much less derivative of particular styles. On this work The Band almost created their own sub-genre from a stew of diverse musical influences. It is a thrilling snapshot of a potent idea more or less fully crystallizing.

This record also feels more philosophically and spiritually "together", although that perception may not hold up to minute scrutiny.  Above all, the key to this album's enduring quality and allure is its sheer " musicality", and it reminds us that passion, soul and ingenuity are at least as important as conventional technical prowess or virtuosity in generating art.

The first number "Across The Great Divide" sets things up perfectly. That opening line ("standing by your window in pain...") invites the listener on an invigorating journey. Those bars encapsulate so much of what makes them a captivating act.

"Rag Mama Rag" illustrates the subtle advance which was made between the first album and this one. I have heard Robbie Robertson say how proud he was of this track, and one can see why. So many elements contribute towards its uniqueness - Rick Danko's violin, Garth Hudson's twinkling piano, the humour of the lyrics and the blending of "unusual" instruments. Intangible magic is the result.

Among the general public, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the best known song on this record, and one of the most famous in The Band's oeuvre. A powerful piece of work, with a theme which was probably "unfashionable" for its time. To be frank, I have never truly warmed to it, possibly because I was familiar with it before I discovered, and embraced, the group's wider body of work.

On an LP of this quality it is harsh to speak of "lesser" tracks, but the likes of "Rockin' Chair" and "When You Awake" constitute the glue which holds it together. The former contains some lovely and touching lyrics.  One of the things which set The Band apart from most of their contemporaries was the variety and imagination of the topics which were addressed in the compositions.  The acclaim which was (rightly) accorded to their music sometimes concealed their willingness to tackle dark or uncomfortable themes. As with the "Big Pink" album, the deliciously ragged and earthy harmonies emanating from three distinct voices permeate the piece.

"Up On Cripple Creek" is cut in a similar vein to "Rag Mama Rag", and could be categorized as "country funk", a label which was often assigned to Little Feat, a group which was seemingly heavily influenced by The Band. The groove is irresistible but idiosyncratic.  The clavinet both accentuates the "funkiness" and in a strange way complements it, as it sounds rustic and bucolic as well as rhythmic. The song also highlights the importance of varied keyboard textures in the make-up and vitality of the band's music.

A change of mood is supplied by "Whispering Pines", which also serves as a showcase for Richard Manuel's vocals, such a feature of the first two albums in particular. Fragile, shaky but a gripping listen. Inventive use of keyboards and vocal interplay to engender the requisite atmosphere.

Two of the most impressive and affecting songs appear towards the end of the album. "Jawbone" has received comparatively scant phrase, possibly a result of its musical complexity, but to me it is one of the work's cornerstones. Another vocal tour-de-force from Richard Manuel, expressing and interpreting some strong and incisive lyrics.

"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" has been rightly revered by the critics. Almost Steinbeckesque in its setting and poetic sentiments, with Manuel once again in inspired form. At first glance, the R&B backing might seem incongruous, but it actually works beautifully. A real high point of The Band's catalogue, and it can be persuasively argued that they never achieved this level again.

How do I sum up "The Band"?  Well, let me just say that if I was being banished to a desert island, and was allowed to take just one album with me, I would almost certainly plump for this one. Its innate musicality, humanity and zest for life still sustain me today, almost two decades since I first heard it. Whenever I listen to it after a period "away" it refreshes my enthusiasm for music in all its forms, and makes me glad to be alive.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

National Media Museum, Bradford

Further to my recent post about the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, I have now also visited the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Admission to the National Media Museum is free, although donations are welcomed. Being ever happy to help support museums, I gave the suggested amount of £3. The museum is divided into various "floors" or levels, each area devoted to a particular topic or category - photography, cinema, television, the internet, gaming and even animation.

The building is well-appointed and quite modern, but it has a pleasant ambience. One of my predominant impressions was how much content and information they have managed to pack into the space available. There is an impressive volume of exhibits and "artefacts", which are amply complemented by the multimedia elements. The written displays are concise, but informative and helpful.

I was most impressed with the section which deals with photography. There is real depth and detail in its depiction of this field, including the evolution and development of the science and technology associated with photography, as well as its social impact and economic aspects. There is an abundance of material to observe here, much of it possessing real period charm.

There is a compact but vibrant area dealing with the internet, its development, its effects and its future. Again, much emphasis is placed on how we arrived at where we are now, with some items which will stir much nostalgia for people of a certain age.

I also enjoyed the part of the museum which looks at the subject of animation. Comprehensive and exuding attention to detail. The television section includes much focus on production and planning, in addition to the history of the genre. Once again, lots of excellent and noteworthy items to be seen, tracing the progression of the technology. The sheer quantity is admirable, as is the inventive way in which it is presented.

All in all, the National Media Museum was a bit of a revelation to me, in its level of erudition and the breadth and scale of the material on view. I would recommend to potential visitors that they set aside a decent amount of time, to enable them to get the full benefit of what the venue has to offer, and to absorb the information. If this is done, then much enlightenment and enjoyment is to be had. Educational, stimulating and also great fun!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Enzo Ferrari, A Life - Richard Williams - book review

With the dawn of the new Formula 1 season, I have been prompted to revisit some of the racing books gathering dust on my shelves. One of those was Richard Williams' biography of Enzo Ferrari, first published in 2001.

This is a biography of Ferrari the man, so those searching for exhaustive lists of chassis numbers, or intricate technical analysis, should perhaps look elsewhere. There is some good scene-setting stuff, exploring Ferrari's early life and his background.  Indeed, these stimulating passages left me yearning for more information concerning those formative years. The chapters dealing with Enzo's own racing exploits are equally evocative, for example the 1919 Targa Florio.

With limited space, it is understandable that this book does not go into great detail about how Ferrari reacted to, and fitted into, the febrile social and political climate which prevailed in Italy when he was launching his career in motor sport and business. The author does not ignore the issue, though, and one is left with an impression of the realities and choices faced by many prominent Italians at that time.

It is striking how convoluted, constantly shifting, and sometimes strained, Enzo Ferrari's relationship with Alfa Romeo was, much more so than is popularly imagined. I was gratified to find that this stage of his life is covered in some depth, as are the "heroic" and "golden" ages of motor racing, between the world wars. These sections are gripping, and one is left with a vivid impression of a perilous but momentous era. From the emergence of the likes of Nuvolari, Varzi and Moll, and Ferrari's relationship with these figures, to the sea-change brought about by the advent of the Auto Union and Mercedes teams. The legendary races such as the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio are also afforded due attention.

At various junctures in this biography we are informed how some of the mythology and legend which surrounds (or surrounded?) Ferrari accumulated. It is worth stressing, however, that Williams does not go overboard on this dimension of the tale. Indeed, some myths and/or tall stories are dispelled or debunked. It is tempting to view every episode surrounding Ferrari in "conspiratorial" terms. Thankfully, a more measured and dispassionate approach is adopted here.

The parts of the book which address the tumultuous 1950s are also quite absorbing. The tragedies, the controversies, the playing off of drivers against each other, the brief Ferrari tenure of Juan Manuel Fangio and the turbulent 1958 season all feature heavily. Throughout there are also fascinating and often revealing anecdotes about Ferrari's dealings with drivers, celebrities, notables and the families of drivers. I feel that the portrayal of the man is balanced, showing his flaws but also highlighting his human qualities, which are often overlooked or obscured by the aforementioned mythology.

The outbursts of political trouble in the racing team are naturally detailed, including the problems with Italian drivers, the strains which led to the departure of John Surtees, and the Niki Lauda epoch. A recurring theme in the later chapters is the incidence of infighting, and the extent to which this was compounded by Ferrari's remoteness and consequent tendency to delegate. The complex nature of his relations with several drivers, including Surtees and Lauda, is examined realistically and sensibly. Matters were not always black and white, despite what some would like us to believe.  The accounts of the negotiations with Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart leave me with a sensation of "what might have been".

Of course, Ferrari's personal and family life are documented here, as is the growth of the road car side of the company. We also learn about the abortive negotiations with Ford in the 1960s, and the subsequent agreement with Fiat.

Overall, this is a lively and well written book.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Jorvik Viking Centre, York

Following on from my heightened interest in the Viking Age, on a recent visit to York I finally got around to paying a visit to the city's Jorvik Viking Centre.

The one thing which struck me at first was how small the premises appear to be, but there is plenty going on inside! I found the staff to be both cheerful and helpful.

Some of the emphasis is naturally on the role of York in the Viking Age, and on the numerous archaeological discoveries made in the city, but these elements are also placed in the context of the wider Viking Age and the world as it stood in those times.

Perhaps the highlight of the visit was the "ride" around a reconstruction of parts of the Viking-age city, complete with an informative and entertaining commentary. This excellently complemented the other exhibits in the centre.

I was pleased to see that the displays went into some detail about economic, social and cultural life in York, and elsewhere, during the Viking Age. The artefacts are well presented and explained. Effective use is made of multimedia and interactive features, and these go into some detail about topics such as lifestyles, health, domestic life and so forth.

I think that the Jorvik Viking Centre achieves a happy balance between the accessible and the academic. There is I would suggest something here for beginners, the casual visitor and also the more devoted student.

A benefit of the compact space is that the centre feels cohesive, with the result that the visitor comes away with a feeling that they have acquired some concentrated knowledge, and not just a cursory grasp of a range of subjects. I can imagine that the way in which things are presented here will encourage many people to engage in additional reading and study of the Vikings.

One thing which came through as I made my way through the exhibits was a sense that the people who put it together must have, in addition to extensive knowledge, a great passion about their subject and about the city of York and its rich and fascinating history.

The Jorvik Viking Centre is well worth a visit for anyone interested in history, and also for anyone passing through York.