‘If I Could Only Be Sure’/’Keep On Keepin’ On’ Nolan Porter (Nolan, ABC Records, 1972) plus P. Weller & Joy Division

This is such a distinctive sound, few other songs resemble it, even earlier Soul/R&B releases that are defined by their innocent musicianship a lot of the time and a kind of straight from the heart directness lack its essential grace.

Most notable is the guitar-line; this is what first attracted Paul Weller who covered the song on his 2004 album Studio 154 (and helped in the revival of Porter’s career in the UK/Europe from the ‘90s on).  Here are Nolan Porter’s comments on how Weller first fell for the song from a 2014 interview with Michael Grieg Thomas published at The ‘45s Club, focussing in on this:  

MT: Do you remember what kind of guitar it was recorded on?

Nolan Porter: I don’t remember the type of guitar, but I remember the guitar flair. You might know. That was Johnny “Guitar” Watson. That’s probably what got Paul Weller about the song more, was that guitar lick. And that’s Johnny singing with me on the background in some parts. He was really, Johnny Guitar Watson was something else, he spent the last few years of his life in England. He’s got one of his last few CDs he writes about is very cool. I remember he was one of the best R&B guitar players. I used to see him at the blues club a couple times in LA before I even met him and he was just so multi-talented. Him and Frank Zappa became really tight friends at the end, in the last few years of Frank’s life. And he recorded Johnny on a few tunes and it’s just wild. He was with Lizard Records for awhile and he liked Gabriel Mekler a lot.

If you compare Porter’s original first released as a single and then as part of his Nolan record, and Weller’s cover decades on you can see why the former is so unexpected, so lyrical. Weller takes a classic rock approach, a full-band sound with all the instruments at once, his voice too is more urgent, demanding, potentially angry, definitely frustrated. In contrast, Porter’s arrangement is subtle, allowing his voice to dominate over the guitar, drums/bass. The simplicity and cool of it makes it so powerful; it operates as a gentle entreaty. Porter’s delivery also works because of its understatement; there’s no shrieking, or plaintive wails just a few very cool ad-libs every now and again. The music, the voice and the arrangement operate as one, as a model of restraint.

Lyrically, too, it’s interesting for its plain language and repetition, and then the curious inversion intended to represent the depth of his dedication: ‘I'd turn my world upside down/I'd turn my smile all into frowns/I'd do anything at all/ If you'd only let me love you baby/Let me, let me love you baby …’

Porter is also known for the song ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ …

The song went on to inspire Joy Division’s ‘Interzone’ from Unknown Pleasures, with the 1979 song borrowing the original Porter riff (apparently the latter song came about after the band was trying to learn the Nolan song).    

To give the final words to Porter, from the same 2014 interview quoted above:

MT: So we have some questions from the fanpage: What keeps on keepin’ you on?

Nolan Porter: It’s primarily the love of music, I would say that. Also, I don’t think in terms of age so much, when you have some something that you love and that you desire that you should try to develop a passion for, you’ll keep working, you’ll keep going if you have a passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re not going to keep moving on. I love these old songs. They’re kinda like my children. They were never dead to me in my heart, in my creative heart. But I didn’t know that halfway across the world that they were alive, that people were digging on them. I know it sounds a little strange but I have a personal feeling for each one of those songs. So that; and the love of old music, the love of interaction with people, like yourself, the opportunity to do music with different people, that all keeps me going. 

‘Our love’ The Edge of Daybreak (Eyes of Love, Bohannan’s Records, 1979 reissue Numero Group, 2015)

Recorded in one session by inmates incarcerated for a range of offences (one was jailed after his car was stolen and used in a robbery), this is one remarkable song from a wonderful release that came to light in 2015, after being overlooked and forgotten for years. 

Marcus J Moore's article in Pitchfork on the 2015 reissue is fascinating and comprehensive, read it here - I was tempted to republish the entire piece, it's that good; this Noisey interview by J Bennett with lead vocalist, Jamal Jahal Nubi is similarly full of insight. 

Another article/review rather churlishly at the time of the reissue said the album wouldn't unseat any of the soul greats, I'm not sure. This song is quite beautiful, primarily for the vocal performance, it has a very distinctive quality. Yearning, longing are staples in soul music - one of the key default lyrical positions - and yet Jamal Jahal Nubi's vocals take it one step further. He expresses his desire, while his voice has a swing to it that's unusual. 

There's no stop/start here, it's constant and a perfect reflection of what's happening musically, as carried by the bassline; this is swooning music in excelsis that also makes space for  unexpected elements, check out what happens for about ten seconds from 2'30".  This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is one of the most interesting to me aspects of the genre - see, for example, Aretha Franklin's 'Day Dreaming' from her 1972 record, Young, Gifted & Black - with Donny Hathaway on electric piano, as Wik explains:  'The single version omits the jazzy daydreaming like music, heard in the beginning and the ending of the song, where even the vocals sounded too psychedelic for most radio airplay.'         

The song was used in the soundtrack for Barry Jenkins' film, Moonlight; here's my appreciation of the film published one year ago.  

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    


Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.   

'Cursed Sleep,' Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (The Letting Go, Drag City, 2006)

I slept sweetly unpretending
That the night was always ending
She breathed lightly right next to me
And I dreamed of her inside of me

And in my dream she sang so sweetly
A melody I hope to sing
So enslaved by her sweet wonder
It cut my legs and fingered hunger

She sang my name and so engulfed

I cried and felt my legs fail
In her arms I trembled electric
Oh and she let me and she held me

Then waking she was older still
And holds my love against its will
In spell cast with her palms extended
Cursed love is never ending

Cursed eyes are never closing
Cursed arm are never closing
Cursed children never rising
And cursed me never despising

Oh I am loving always holding
While she sleeps her song enfolding
Epic song it tells of how
She and I are living now

Dawn: cursed love
Dawn: cursed love

‘Everybody’s got to learn sometime,’ cover Jean-Philippe Verdin/Readymade FC (Lol film soundtrack, EMI/Capitol, 2009)

Reasons to appreciate this cover: the voice, I’m touched by the way he sings these familiar words, this such a familiar song, the French-accented inflections on the word ‘heart’ with that emphasised final consonant (and off phrasing at times, the stretched vowel on ‘it’ as in ‘it will astound you …’ which makes it seem more genuine) and then how the music changes just over half-way to include surprising sound effects, a kind of controlled improvisation that sounds almost animal-like.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how so often the arrangements in soul music from the 60s/70s are eccentric, including sounds and/or riffs on sounds that serve no apparent purpose, other than to provide decoration and embellishment, as a kind of caprice. Such additions add to the overall effect, but are not essential. They either add to the sweeping orchestral impressiveness, or are touching and unexpected: amateur in the best possible way, in the true sense of the word. There is great joy to be found in this, in the revelling in freedom and abundance, via the addition of beautiful, unexpected and surprising details and turns in the music. Much the same could be said for the electronic musings that emerge in the latter half of this song that are quite different to the music that preceded it.

Verdin’s cover appeared on the soundtrack to the French film, Lol. Here is a link to the French musician/composer's site, categories: Albums & Singles, Scores & Soundtracks, Productions, arrangements, Akzidenz Grotesk, Remixes & Versions. Beck also did a cover of the song for the 2004 film soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is lovely if a little bland and lacking any particular point of difference to the original. 

The original by The Korgis came out in 1980: according to my favourite free online factopedia ‘the unique sounding instrument played after each chorus is the 18 string Chinese zither known as a guzheng’.  

Versions: ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ cover, Lowell Fulson/m (1969? single/Jewel Records, In a Heavy Bag reissue Sundazed Music, 2006)

Guitarist Lowell Fulson/m, who for ‘contractual reasons’ also recorded under the names Lowell Fullsom and Lowell Fulsom, is described as the ‘most important figure in West Coast blues in the 1940s and 1950s’ after T-Bone Walker.

I love the drums on this song, the way they splash while remaining controlled and the guitar sound, especially so rich and resonant and the determined OCD-nature of the vocals. There’s a kind of whiplash effect to the way he articulates certain words. 

Fulson’s 1966 song 'Tramp’ has been sampled by Redman (‘Time 4 Sum Aksion’), Cypress Hill ('How I Could Just Kill A Man’) and is said to be the inspiration for the Salt-n-Pepa song of the same name.  

‘Why don’t we …’ is, of course a cover by a certain English group released on their 1968 The Beatles, ‘the White album’ – to quote Wik: 

.. (the song) is short and simple; 1:42 of twelve-bar blues that begins with three different percussion elements (a hand banging on the back of an acoustic guitar, handclaps, and drums) and features McCartney’s increasingly raucous vocal repeating a simple lyric with only two lines   

The original eludes me online, but it is surely imprinted on our universal consciousness so no great loss, we’ll have to make do with this cover by a guy with an accent that is part Scottish-part Macedonian, or as it turns out Japanese, replete with trilling shriek effects, the bassline is nice though. 

This version, meanwhile, is described as a ‘funky version cover’ (no date, though my guess would be the 90s) by the Banana Ships, despite the Black (American) men in the video it seems to be another example of Japanese-fandom-weirdness (something residents of that nation definitely excel in) see the personnel listing: bass-Forii (Bible) Shinichiro/ Drums-Saito (AlrightDaiju) Vocal&Guitar-Ishiyama (Heifetz).

If you’re feeling brave, check out this Goth-excess from Lydia Lunch/Clint Ruin; the patron saints of the 90s underground scene and archetypal kohl-eyed star-crossed lovers, howling and writhing …

There is something about this song that attracts the ‘unconventional’ let’s say (even Meat Loaf covered the song on his two-disc album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear in 2010), I could go on adding increasingly stranger versions, many of them high on the histrionics, but will spare you. Having said that I like the Lowell Fulson cover, no games. 

Ballads for Two, Chet Baker & Wolfgang Lackerschmid (In-akustik/Inak,1986) plus live performance & interview  

1979 was an important year for Chet Baker, a period of great activity and development. Central to this were his recordings with German jazz musician/bandleader/composer Wolfgang Lackerschmid, best known for his work as a vibraphonist, but he also played other percussion instruments.

Ballads for Two, while continuing a longstanding jazz tradition of pairing two notable artists is a curious release, surprising even for Baker whose late work showed an impressive range and interest in experimentation. Such creativity also marked his earliest recordings, certainly. But the sheer virtuosity, the lyricism of Baker’s playing (and undoubtedly his pin-up good looks) has often come to obscure this side of his work.

Baker/Lackerschmid recorded two albums together in 1979: Ballads for Two and Baker/Lackerschmid with a band, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Buster Williams and Tony Williams on drums. Here's a review on Ballads for Two by Bob Rusch:  

'This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation. This was also an avant-garde Chet Baker, without gimmicks, just meeting an interest to expand and further develop: to invent, expand, create. This was also very beautiful creativity; art for art's sake. Wolfgang Lackerschmid played vibes in a manner owing itself more to Red Norvo and Gary Burton than Milt Jackson, and proved himself to be a creator and artist in his ebb and flow with the trumpeter. Bravos for both artists.'

This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation.

‘Dessert’ is a marvel in its expression of tender, difficult to express emotion and the way the music upsets our expectations

as is the cover of the standard, ‘You don’t know what love is’ with its deep vulnerability and imperfection. To get a sense of this, compare it to the classic rendition by Baker from the 1950s. Here’s a live performance that one listener claims was recorded in Norway, with this line-up: Chet Baker (tp) - Wolfgang Lackerschmid (vib) - Michel Graillier (p) - Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (b). 

And an interview from around the same time where Baker speaks in Italian about his struggles with heroin addiction and his music (with English subtitles).  

Blackened Cities, Melanie De Biasio (Play It Again Sam/PIAS, 2016)  

Personnel: Backing Vocals [Backings] Bart Vincent, Double Bass – Sam Gerstmans, Drums – Dre Pallemaerts Piano – Pascal Mohy, Synth [Vintage Synths], Backing Vocals [Backings] – Pascal Paulus, Voice [Chant], Flute – Melanie De Biasio 

« Blackened cities, rumble, strangers stroll and lovers stumble »

Inspired by the urban, in every sense and three cities in particular – Detroit, Manchester, Charleroi (the Belgian city where De Biasio spent the first 18 year of her life) – Blackened Cities marked a striking departure from her popular 2014 release, No Deal.  

It is difficult to categorise Blackened Cities, as a jazz record or even – as I’ve seen online – rock, the latter being a particularly strange designation for this work: one single 25-minute track that weaves in and out, both De Biasio’s vocal-line and the various melodies. In tone/conception it reminded me, possibly and even I’m not sure, of the Dirty Three (even if the origin of their music is much more southern, earthier and folk-driven). Jazz, in all its imperfections, is a better fit, let’s say in the Miles Davis sense of the term. (It is beautiful, has extraordinary presence and speaks to the heart, whatever it is). 

This review by Thom Jurek from AllMusic covers it all for me: 

'When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal in 2014, it was embraced by jazz critics, DJs, and club audiences simultaneously. Gilles Peterson was so taken with its monochromatic ambient textures, stark arrangements, and clever improvisational intimations that he commissioned an album of remixes.

Blackened Cities is not a conventional follow-up, but an adventurous endeavor rife with risk. The release consists of a single 24-minute track that unfolds like a suite. The conservatory-trained Belgian vocalist and flutist and her longtime musical associates -- Pascal Mohy on piano, Pascal Paulus on analog synths and clavinet, and Dré Pallemaerts on drums (with guest double bassist/cellist Sam Gerstmans) -- deliver a full-scale sonic drama that crosses a wide musical expanse and evokes an encyclopedia of stylistic references, yet comes across as a totally original whole.

Its title comes from impressions of postindustrial cities De Biasio visited on her international tour: Detroit, Manchester, her native Charleroi; each has a storied past and a devastated façade, yet reflects its own unique beauty and tenacity.

Recorded live in the studio, Blackened Cities began as an unfinished three-minute idea brought in by the singer and left open for group interpretation. It starts with a whisper, a single organ-esque chord followed by a cello, before its lone guidepost enters: Pallemaerts' nearly constant, always inventive drumming -- shuffling, syncopating, circling -- is the pulse that signals each wave-like segment. (The spirit of Tony Williams on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way is redolent.)

The musical reference points are wildly diverse: Nina Simone (the cover of "I'm Gonna Leave You" on No Deal was a watermark), the piano vamp from the Doors' "Riders on the Storm," Julie Tippetts with Brian Auger, Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Simin Tander, Annette Peacock, Portishead, The The's "Uncertain Smile," Judy Nylon, and more come and go unhurriedly.

The work gradually builds and then builds some more, without ever ratcheting up in intensity. Even at its most improvisational, Blackened Cities retains its moody, spatial, and spectral sense of groove. De Biasio delivers her lyrics in flowing extensions and deconstructions; the instrumental themes emerge from and vanish into them. Her unique phrasing employs the same maxims of silence and space that her musicians do. Even her own flute break uses an economic palette, elastically balancing harmony with breath ...

This aural travelogue's sensual cool, brooding tension, and elegiac tenderness are inseparable from one another. It is complete, but even at this length Blackened Cities ends all too soon.'

Related article: In a silent way, Miles Davis (Columbia Records, 1969)