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Sunday, 22 June 2008

Written in granite: The Future’s Not What It Used To Be

You know where you are with Mickey Newbury. If his lyric happens to mention that it's raining (a not uncommon occurrence) then, just in case you might think this were some kind of metaphor or symbol, helpfully there's usually a sound effect of rain to reassure you that no, he really does mean that the heavens have opened. The story goes that this was to cover up tape hiss on his first album and then it became a signature. However he takes it further: if one of Mickey's characters is about to leave on a train to Saint Louis or some other location in the United States then clarification is generally provided via the tooting of a whistle, unmistakably that of a locomotive. However things are not always as they seem: I'm not sure that anyone would be fooled into thinking that the sounds employed to create the "interludes" on Frisco Mabel Joy, the album we're looking at here, are made by an actual orchestra, I always assumed they were created using some cousin of the Mellotron or another such odd early seventies ancestor of the modern sampler, but actually it turns out they were crafted painstakingly out of pedal steel and other guitars with distortion pedals and the like. It's another signature sound.

The other thing about Frisco Mabel Joy is that it is the only one of Newbury's first few Elektra albums NOT to feature the song whence it takes its title, San Francisco Mabel Joy. Like Domenico Modugno, who we looked at a few weeks ago, Mickey enthusiastically covered his own early songs – and with songs like those you can hardly blame either of them. And then he had the truly wonderful idea of creating one of his most famous songs without having to go to the trouble of actually writing it. FMJ opens with An American Trilogy. You'll know the Elvis Presley version – as far as I'm aware even Colonel Parker didn't have the gall to insist on Elvis getting a writing credit on this one, presumably he simply sat back and admired Mickey's never at stringing together three traditional American songs known to everyone but usefully out of copyright, calling them An American Trilogy, registering them as a new composition and then sitting back and watching the cheques roll in... And I, for one, don't begrudge him a penny. Because, apart from anything else, Mickey does manage to create something new out of it and Elvis is very definitely covering Mickey's composition rather than recording the three traditional songs.

The album then continues with Mickey revisiting an earlier song, How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song). This is the definitive reading and it sets the tone for the rest of the album which sounds deceptively sparse until you actually listen to how tightly packed the instrumentation is to create this illusion. That's followed by the first Interlude in the middle of the original side one of the vinyl LP, reprising melodic ideas from elsewhere, before sliding into The Future's Not What It Used To Be, an archetypal Newbury song, a narrative although, as so often with Mickey's stories, I sometimes feel as though he's cut out several key verses so I've no idea what's going on. The acme of this phenomenon is the song San Francisco Mabel Joy, about which I'd love to be able to put a few questions about the precise sequence of events. Next up is Mobile Blue, closing the original side one. Side two opens with one of the high points, Frisco Depot, a song of such delicate beauty it simply starts and stops. Like the whole album it's beautifully recorded, doesn't need drums, and the sound effects are wonderful. Side two does manage to better even side one, great though that is, You're Not My Sweet Baby is one of Mickey's wonderful songs about a relationship that has perhaps seen better days (he has a few of these...) and is then followed by side two's Interlude. These interludes work very well in giving the album a unified identity which is key to its effect. Then come a pair of truly great songs, Remember The Good, one of Mickey's finest ballads and even better, Swiss Cottage Place, I believe this draws on Mickey's memories of being stationed with the US Air Force in the UK, then the album finishes on a wonderfully off-kilter note with the old-timey How I Love Them Old Songs (grammar, Mickey!)

However the key thing is the cumulative effect of the album as a whole. It's probably fitting that An American Trilogy is at the beginning as it probably has tended to overshadow the rest of it, in actual fact I find that the meat of the album takes place between the end of Trilogy and the beginning of How I Love... and it's superb. Stories are told, webs are woven and musically it's a beautifully coherent record; the constant, holding it all together, is Mickey's own unique picking style and his gorgeously emotive voice, but then working around it there is musicianship of the very highest and subtlest standard. There are all sorts of sounds worked into the tapestry and yet they all fit together beautifully. I believe the album was recorded cheaply, hence they couldn't afford string or brass players, or even to hire in a Mellotron, but they do seem to have had time, so they improvised and created those strange pre-synthetic, approximations using the pedal steel guitar's ability both to control attack and decay and to create portamento...

It's also probably Mickey's strongest collection of songs, although he did write more great songs both before and after this album than you could shake a stick at. I've also always loved the original vinyl sleeve, which had a cut out in the middle so that, when you put the inner sleeve in the right way around, Mickey's photo showed through, like a frame. I'm not sure whether the album is still available on CD. Personally I have it as one of the disks in The Mickey Newbury Collection, a deluxe boxed set of his Elektra albums (10 albums on 8 CDs, if I remember rightly), all with replica vinyl sleeves – although they don't quite manage to replicate their full glory, you don't get that inner sleeve effect I just mentioned, for instance, together with a very informative booklet including all the lyrics and articles about the great man. Personally I think those first few albums are utterly superb and the latter ones pretty much all feature at least the odd gem. We might look at some of them at a later date. For instance side one of I Came To Hear The Music is stunning, featuring as it does both the wonderful title track (recently recorded by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy on his Ask Forgiveness EP) and If You See Her, one of Mickey's very, very finest songs which a group of my acquaintance called The Palace Of Light used to cover back in the late eighties. Mickey Newbury was one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century, above all he was a writer from the heart, you'd have to look a very long way to find a more honest body of work. Or one that's more emotionally affecting and full of humanity. The Mickey Newbury Collection is available from the CD store section of the official Mickey Newbury website and is an incredible bargain at just US$100 – especially to people outside of the US. For instance that's under £50 to discerning UK customers. It was rather more than that when I bought my copy, some years ago, but worth every last penny. Mickey Newbury died in 2002 and is sorely missed.

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