andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: March 2018

At Long Last: Final Days

One needed the vocals up a bit. One needed an extra scrub of acoustic guitar; another needed more dynamic drums. And one, ‘Rollercoaster,’ needed dropped altogether.

Finally, though, my new album, Final Days, is done. I never knew I could be quite so painstaking. It’s taken over a year and a half, in between other projects, to get it over the line. And the final 9 new songs (I’m so used to playing the bonus track as part of Isaac Brutal, I almost think of it as a cover version) have come from a winnowing down of about double that, probably.

Here’s the last track as a taster: a little bit of uplift to counter the album’s title track. It was the one that needed that extra acoustic guitar: I had no idea, and still have no idea, why it took multiple takes to get down a simple D to A strummed chord change, but it did!

For the story behind the songs, mosey over to the Final Days page using the tab at the top of my site. You can download the tracks for free from Soundcloud, or contact me on venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll send you the CD, post and everything else free. You can even join my inner circle of email followers and get bonus tracks and more free stuff!

All I ask in return is you donate to charity: there’s a couple of suggestions on the permanent page.

I’ve also had a bit of fun with the artwork. There’s always a picture of the bozo making the music somewhere on any album, and I guess my original idea was something like the cover of ‘Street Legal,’ with Dylan at a street corner looking elegantly boho. I couldn’t resist this picture of me in Madrid the Redoubtable Mrs F took, though, somewhere between Calle Atocha and Plaza de Santa Ana. Someone had decided to put a saying of Confucius up there: translated, it reads: ‘I heard, and I forgot; I saw, and I understood; I did, and I learned.’

That pretty much sums up the making of the album!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down here are adverts for random stuff. But if you’ve got the album, why would you need them?

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The Endlessly Photogenic East Neuk

The sun was out today, so we went along to the East Neuk, that incredibly well-kept Fife secret. For those not in the know, let me induct you into the Illuminati: Fife, a region known for its mining communities (now ex-mining communities) and St Andrews, home of golf, has on its south-eastern coast a string of fishing villages that are, well, just endlessly photogenic!

 

 

 

Best known of these villages is Anstruther. I was saying today, not for the first time, that quite a few places in Fife should take a leaf out of Anstruther’s book: whatever it’s done over the last few years, it’s done right. Despite the decline of the fishing industry, it’s thriving, and growing, partly at least because of the decision to invest in harbour pontoons which now attract pleasure boats as well as fishermen. Its fish and chip shop is rightly renowned, although you can also get other eating options.

 

 

St Monans has a great plant nursery we also visited today; Pittenweem is equally picturesque down at the harbour; but in terms of scenery, Crail (pictured here and at the top of the page) is probably my favourite.

The gable ends of the houses, by the way, are described as ‘crow stepped,’ and I remember at primary school being told it was because the traders with the so-called ‘Low Countries,’ (modern day Holland and Belgium) in centuries past liked the architecture there so much they replicated it when they got home. The truth is slightly more complex: the area was deliberately settled with Flemish traders, who then brought their architecture with them.

 

…and that’s it, really. A hidden string of pearls, just a few miles from home. And the real kicker is, the micro climate there means that it’s drier than the rest of the county, so even if it’s raining at home, along the coast there’s a decent chance of sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see down here. Nothing as good as the East Neuk, anyway

Going all Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Exterior view of the Hill House from the garden on a sunny day

Here’s the thing. In May, we’re going to Hill House, the Charles and Margaret Rennie Mackintosh designed house in Helensburgh. To stay.

The Hill House Drawing Room

 

 

 

 

 

I know – who knew you could actually stay there? The pictures (courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland) give you an idea of just how stunning a place it is: we’ve visited the bit you visit twice, but never had a scooby that there was an apartment upstairs you could actually have as a holiday let.

Mackintosh’s designs are found throughout the Hill House, including the hallThe NTS website gives you a good idea of what the place is all about, but for those of you who’ve never heard of the Mackintoshes, he was an architect and she was an artist and designer who, as a husband and wife team, created not just the most outstanding pieces of modern architecture in this country – the Glasgow School of Art is the best known example – but also designed the interiors, down to the last door knob. I’m no architecture student, but there are clearly resonances with Gaudi, as well, I suspect, as Lloyd Wright.

So, in May, just before the whole place gets enclosed in plastic to ward off the effects of the weather and preserve it for future generations, we’re staying up a spiral staircase, away from the madding crowds going round the rest of the house, in what was the schoolroom.

Margaret Macdonald’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ design above the Hill House drawing room fireplaceAnd here’s another intriguing thing: the website, for some reason, says ‘Like all rooms once the domain of children, it has the feeling of a place where much spirit and energy have been expended.’ Do they mean it’s haunted?

I shall of course report back. I plan to take a guitar, and some recording equipment, so if the Blackie children join in the song, there’ll be evidence!

P.S. You can read about why they’re ‘boxing’ the Hill House, and how you can contribute to the fund raising appeal, here. There’s even a video featuring beefcake TV history presenter, Neil Oliver, who’s also NTS President.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nothing you’d want, probably.

In Another Life – the Effortless Album

Some of the greatest, most effortless-sounding albums were a weary long trauchle (to use a Scots word) to make. To take one example, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours took over a year, and yet sounds to this day as if the whole thing happened spontaneously over a sunny LA weekend. Apparently they took three days just to agree over the tuning of a piano; only Christine McVie’s classic song ‘Songbird’ was done and dusted in the course of a night, and that took a truckload of champagne to get it over the line, so the story goes.

Of course, the French Prosecco was kind of the least The Mac were doing in the course of the Rumours sessions; and then there was the small matter of them all breaking up with each other at the same time. In comparison, and with all due respect to their rock n’ rollness, I can’t really imagine Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent using much more than a strong brew of Tetley’s during the making of In Another Life.

According to the man himself, the original intention was simple – create an album using a small multi-track recorder in a living room, with the whole band playing live, and minimal overdubs. That, however, was in late 2015, and over two and a half years later, at least three different recording spaces, a producer, a cover designer, and a pro master wizard later, the album is finally, officially out. And yet it sounds effortless!

Norman has described the overall style as ‘pop,’ and I guess, in some ways, it may serve as the gateway drug to some of his darker material, such as ‘Fingerpuppet,’ or ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ on the album before this, All The Time in Heaven. Nevertheless, bright and breezy folk-rock like In Another Life’s opener, ‘End of Tears,’ is hard to make sound as effortless as this. Similarly, the way Norman leans into ‘Well, I’m the type of guy…’ on the next track, ‘Green Lights All The Way,’ sounds as easy as the narrator’s lucky life, but, as I can personally testify, it takes talent – and time – to sound that easy.

Throughout, Norman’s intention to get things as good they can be shines through. ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’ is probably the song Norman’s known best for: but here it gets a radical treatment that keeps the core shaggy dog story front and centre whilst mixing up pace and instrumentation all around it. A modern classic!

Whilst the overall sound is what I’d describe as folk rock, or maybe acoustic rock, there are a couple of departures: the jaunty spirit of ‘In Another Life,’ is such an earworm that I can forgive him for reggae, one of my least favourite genres; and ‘Damn Grey’ and ‘Goodbye Song’ both exhibit jazz influences.

The other highlight, unsurprisingly to long-term Norman-watchers, is his facility with words. The music may sound easier than it is, but the lyrics are at all times smartly turned out, and on occasion have a hidden bite. ‘You Made Me Do It,’ with its refrain of ‘You made me this way,’ leaves the listener in no doubt who the narrator holds responsible. In another context, ‘Damn Grey’ deals with the weighty topic of depressive illness.

Favourites? Surprisingly perhaps for a fellow devotee of the Cohen/Cave dark axis, I’m really drawn to the upbeat stuff! Those sly vocals in ‘Green Lights All the Way,’ with its earworm of a tune, for example. ‘End of Tears,’ is another stand out.

Incidentally, if you go through Norman’s website to sign up for this, you get an incredibly generous package of stories behind the songs, videos, and bonus tracks. Strongly recommended, it emphasises the care, love, and sheer blood sweat and tears went into the making of the album.

It’s just that it sounds so effortless.

P.S. You can also get a deal on the launch gig, which is next Thursday, 22nd March, at the Voodoo Rooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts be below here. Not Norman.

A Tale of Two Guitars

So, when I was reviewing the two amplifiers I use recently, I mentioned I was planning to review my two main guitars, to compare and contrast, and I’m a man, at least in this regard, of my word.

I suppose before I start I should confess these are not my only guitars. The others that I own (I had a gorgeous Danelectro 12 string on loan from Mr Brutal for a while, but he’s borrowed it back at the moment) are: a Kiso-Suzuki copy of the Gibson J200, which I think I may have mentioned before, with a bridge so cracked it would cost more to repair than it’s worth; a Freshman Acoustic 12-string which these days is tuned to Open D and used exclusively for slide guitar; and a blues box guitar, picked up in a Black Friday sale at the Works bookshop, of all places, a couple of years ago.

Which leaves me with my two main guitars: A Lâg Tramontane T100 ACE; and an Epiphone EJ200CE.

Prices first of all, just to see we’re comparing like with like. I bought the Lâg a few years ago, but it currently retails at around £350 – £360 (although I found it quite tricky to track down in this country now; a lot of the sites were American). The Epiphone is currently on Gear4music.com at £360, so, in other words, they’re pretty much both firmly in the mid-price range for acoustic guitars, not being the cheapest by any means, but certainly not up there in the stratospheric levels you can shell for a bit of wood and six strings.

Looks? Well, here they are together.  Both, to my mind, beautiful in their own way: the Lâg, at least so far as I know, not trying to copy any other maker’s guitar, and with that distinctive headstock and the wee Knights Templar stylee cross at the soundhole.

The Epiphone, of course, very definitely is trying to copy another guitar, namely the Gibson J200, a fabled model that’s been used by Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. Like the Lâg, it’s available in a range of finishes, and I was very tempted by the sunburst version before plumping for the all black model: a mean looking machine, indeed. (Gibson have 20 more facts about the original J200 if your curiosity isn’t sated).

As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how, or why, guitar makers put up with others making copies of their models: in any other context, you’d think the original makers would be suing the copyists’ asses just as quickly as they could make it to the patent office. However, every other guitar you see is a copy, often of famous models by either Fender or Gibson (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Hummingbird, etc etc). Time was, back in the 70s and 80s, when most of the copies were made in Japan (for example my Kiso-Suzuki); then, Korea became the cheapest place; these days it’s more likely to be China.

In the case of the Epiphone, it was originally a company in its own right. Originating in Turkey with a Greek owner, in 1903 owners and company relocated to the US where, by the 50s, it was a main rival to Gibson for archtop guitars, at which point it was taken over by Gibson’s parent company. However, far from being bought up to be closed down, the two companies were run separately. Epiphone guitars continued to have their own name and reputation – the Beatles used them, before inevitably, trading up to the bigger cachet of the Gibson name.

And there’s the thing for me. Every guitar band you see on the telly these days are either toting Gibsons or Fenders and, contrary chap that I am, that just makes me all the more determined to play something different. Plus, of course, the Gibson equivalent of my guitar costs £5,000. Yes, that’s £5,000. Could it sound nearly 14 times better than my Epiphone? No, I really don’t think so either.

Because the Epiphone is a beauty in every sense. As you can see from the photo, it’s a big beast of a thing (the J, dear reader, stands for Jumbo) so it wouldn’t be for everyone (interestingly, Emmylou has her own smaller equivalent made by Gibson, the L200. Do hope the L doesn’t stand for ‘lady’). Played acoustically, it’s surprisingly quiet, with an even, pleasant, but unremarkable tone. Indeed, in the shop it nearly lost out to the Epiphone Hummingbird. And then I plugged it in.

Where the EJC200 really wins out is in the quality of its electronics. With an under-saddle and under-bridge pick up, and nanoflex technology (no, I don’t really know what it means either) it sounds just fantastic when amplified. The Lâg, in contrast, sounds great played acoustically, but its electronics are, well, a bit french. So much so, that when I’m recording with it these days, I mike it up rather than using pickups. That’s not so easy live, and the best I can get from it is using the Vox amp, as described in the review of the amps.

Bottom line? I’m really pleased to have both of these. For finger picking and the generally quieter stuff I do with Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the Lâg is a superb instrument. For playing in the house, again it’s a pleasure. Its tone is gorgeous.

Which is not to say the Epiphone doesn’t get played in the house too. Although the Lâg isn’t hard to play, the bigger guitar is particularly easy: someone said it plays like an electric, and it actually is as easy as that to knock out chords on. Plug it in, though, even with a loud electric band, and it comes into its own.

Here’s a wee instrumental I’ve put up on Freesound, the excellent sound sample site. It’s basically a song that didn’t make the cut for my next album lyrics-wse, but I’ve put a bit of both the Epiphone in strum mode, and the Lâg in finger-pick mode. I’ve not done anything clever effects-wise in the production process, deliberately: just a bit of light reverb to take some of the dryness out. On other tracks, though, I’ve used the Epiphone much more extensively because, with its dual inputs and better electronics, it produces a very handy, malleable signal for tweaking.

If I had to have only one of these guitars, I’d have the Epiphone. But I don’t, and for my purposes at least, they’re a near-perfect complement to each other.

Finally, should you wish to hear more from these guitars, a Youtube review of each:

The Epiphone review’s long, but I love Topdazzle’s no nonsense approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignore the adverts below here. Actually, I have a plan for adverts on this page…

Robert Burns and the Black Keys: or, The Clerk’s Revenge

Scottish Icons: Robert BurnsWarning: if you’re a big fan of Robert Burns, look away now

I’ve never really quite got Burns the way I think I should, as a Scotsman. It’s a bit like me and whisky (the two, of course, often go hand in hand): I understand the attraction in theory, and I’m really happy about the contribution to the Scottish export industry they make, but still. I don’t know.

I have tried to like Robert Burns  – and whisky for that matter. When I was in fourth year at secondary school I won a Latin speaking competition (I know! Rock and Roll!) and used my prize, a book token, to buy my own copy of  his Poems and Songs. I still have it: it’s a nice edition, in a kind of faux-leather binding.

Anyhoo, for the non-Scots and/or non-Burns fans amongst you, Rabbie (as he’s often called by his adherents) lived from 1759 – 1796, and packed a lot of stuff into those 36 and a bit years. He was, variously, labourer, farmer, father of several illegitimate children, exciseman (a kind of tax collector) Freemason, proto-socialist, proto-nationalist, and darling of Edinburgh society. He also found time to scribble down a few poems and songs. Ok, ok, a lot of them, some of which are classics. His birthday on 25th January is celebrated worldwide by Scots, Scots expats, and others (the Russians, in particular, are fans) by eating lots of haggis, drinking lots of whisky, and doing lots of speechifying about him.

No, I do like Burns. Honestly. Some of his stuff, anyway, like the long narrative poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter,’ which, when recited by the right performer, is simply stunning. I’ve always wanted to do a punk version of ‘Parcel of Rogues.’ Some of the rest of his work, frankly, I find over-sentimental, personally. I suppose the date I got Poems and Songs – 1978 – is significant: if you had to choose a year when the best of Old Rock was still around, locked in hand to hand combat with Punk and New Wave, it might well be that one. Burns’s poetry and music, by comparison, seemed to be the stuff of old men crying into their pint in the pub I wasn’t – technically at least – old enough to get into then.

All that said, there was one of his tunes – variously called ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ and ‘Banks o’ Doon’ that I always thought was just a great melody. Burns’s words,  a woman’s lament for a false lover set in agreeable scenery, not so much. Recently, though, the tune resurfaced in my subconscious, broke the surface of my conscious, and I wrote some alternative words to it, of which more presently. But then, doing a bit of research for this article, I came across something of a revelation. Robert Burns didn’t write the melody!

I suppose I’d always wondered whether the tune was a Burns original. Not unusually for the time, Rabbie used traditional ‘Scotch’ airs to set his words to; indeed, some of his songs’ lyrics are ‘trad, arr. Burns,’ as he took old sets of words, often cleaning them up for polite society in the same way that a lot of old blues songs had the sexual element toned down for wider publication. Nothing wrong with that. Looking at the text in my copy of Poems and Songs, I see that it says, ‘Tune: Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,‘ which probably gave me the idea that it was a traditional tune, perhaps hummed by be-kilted warriors to their tiny warrior children in the shieling as Edward I’s forces marched past to certain defeat at Bannockburn just down the road.

The truth, as so often, is a bit more complicated. The melody first came to general notice when it featured in Niel Gow’s collection of Reels. Gow, a contemporary of Burns (1727 – 1807) was  – and still is – considered one of the greatest folk music violinists, or fiddlers, of all time. But Gow didn’t write it either. In his collection, it’s attributed to ‘Mr Miller of Edinburgh.’ So who was he, then?

According to tunearch.org, he was James Miller, a ‘writer’ (in this historical context a lawyer specialising in property law) who was clerk in the Teind (obscure Scots property thing – don’t ask for more detail) Office in Edinburgh. Not a be-kilted warrior, or even a Mrs be-kilted warrior. Except maybe on the weekends.

Here’s where Burns steps in. History may be written by the victors, but musical history is, often, written by the celebs. Here’s Burns in a letter to his publisher, Thomson, as quoted on tunearch:

Do you know the history of the air—It is curious enough.—A good many yeas ago a Mr. Jas. Miller,… was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air.-Mr. Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air.-Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the rudiments of a air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question… [quoted in The Life and Works of Robert Burns, 1896, by Robert Burns].

Now, maybe it’s just my being a fellow property lawyer – and clerk, for that matter, although we did away with teinds, finally, a few years ago. But I smell snobbery here: the inverse snobbery of the rock and roll lifestyler for the humble plodder; and, worse still, musical snobbery. The sub-text seems to be: ‘here was this bozo, wanting to write a Scots tune, so my old mucker Clarkey tells him to use the black keys of the harpsichord! What a joker! Wouldn’t you know, kind of monkeys-with-typewriters thing happens, and this poor booby comes up with something half decent? Of course, the Clarkester needs to do quite a bit of tidying up, and there we go…’

Is it just me? Probably. But it’s significant that, from Miller getting sole authorship credits in Gow’s musical collection, a modern day site like tunearch credits the tune to ‘James Miller and Stephen Clarke.’

Well, I say, sod that. Miller’s my kind of bloke, and I reckon he should get the credit he deserves. Black keys, indeed! If it’s as I think it is, the black keys on the harpsichord correspond to those on the piano, and the only tune you could get out of them is the one for the Flake advert (try it out on a keyboard near you, if you don’t believe me). Jimmy Miller did it all by himself, and Burns and his organ-playing monkey can go and get raffled.

Which brings me to my lyrics, which, frankly, owe far more in inspiration to Mr L. Cohen, of Montreal, than Mr R. Burns, of Alloway. It may upset some traditionallists, so if I’m found, my innards carved up like a haggis, bearing the bruises of a blunt instrument like a faux-leather volume of poems, you know where to start looking.

But even if you don’t like the words, you can at least appreciate the violin playing of Ms J Kerr, of Kirkcaldy, my colleague, friend, and contemporary. Niel Gow, at least, would be pleased.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Bet Burnsy didn’t have to put up with that on his blog.