Just what is the point of live albums? A sort of glorified greatest hits for a band who’ve run out of ideas right?
Well not exactly…done correctly the live album can be a pretty glorious little thing. Free of the perfectionism of the studio bands often let the song writing do the talking and leave if anything a truer picture of what they were trying to achieve all along. Other examples are just bloody impressive examples of what can now be done in a live environment. Anyone who’s listened to Radiohead’s live album “I Might Be Wrong”, which largely consisted of material from the two albums worth of studio trickery that were Kid A and Amnesiac, will have been treated to a master class in the power of live electronic music, certainly it puts the many acts who cop out with dj sets to shame. Lately there seem to have been a number of splendid live records coming our way, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Live from KCRW not only reminded us of the wonder of last years splendid Push The Sky Away but also reinvented classic tracks such as the stupidly good “And No More Shall We Part” and the moving beauty that is “People Ain’t No Good”. Neil Young dug very deep into his bag of tricks to give us an immaculate recording of his 1970 shows Live At The Cellar Door, it gave the listener a wonderful window into where the great man’s music was at the time, even for those of us who weren’t born when he was wowing the people in attendance, this particular rendition of “Old Man” is a particular favourite of mine.
If pushed though I think my favourite ever live album would be the 22-20s magnificent debut release 05/03. If nothing else it showed a huge amount of guts to announce your arrival into the world with a 6 track live mini-album, on top of that it was bloody marvelous! Stomping blues-rock, full of angst, passion and stunning playing just the way the blues is meant to be. The cover of the old blues standard King Bee remains the best thing the band ever put to record. At one point singer Martin Trimble, nonchalantly declares “I can’t play with this guitar, it’s out of tune” the make shift version that follows shows just how good this band were, the skill required for such on the stop improvisation was stunning. Apparently the 22-20s have now reformed after never really breaking through into the main-stream, their time has most likely passed, but they certainly left us with an incredible reminder of the power of live music.
BAND OF HORSES – ACOUSTIC AT THE RYMAN
Band of Horses are in many ways (well one way) a bit like someone you go on a couple of dates with and then through no fault on either side you sort of drift apart. Debut album “Everything All The Time” was a pretty stunning first date, with wonderful tracks like The Great Salt Lake, Weed Party and St Augustine it hinted we could be onto something special here, while with The Funeral I was almost ready to bed, wed and have the babies of Ben Bridewell and the boys. Second date/album “Cease To Begin” was again a lovely night out but there was the odd sign we weren’t meant to be, yes Detlef Schrempf was a lovely meal out, Marry Song was just enough cocktails, but by Islands On The Coast I was happy to be going home alone. By the time the two subsequent albums Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock landed, it wasn’t them it was me, but really it was a bit of both, I’d moved on I was dating other people (Midlake mainly) and they weren’t really making the effort to woo me back, they weren’t bad, but I didn’t get the feeling they really wanted me back. So where does all this leave our relationship?
Well with this new acoustic, live album, welcome back into my life Band Of Horses, it’s so nice to know you care! Because this is a tonne of fun, they’ve taken me to Paris, bought me dinner at Chez L’Ami Jean and are currently sailing me down the Seine with a glass of champagne in my hand and a rose in my teeth (note to self this is still a torturously long metaphor, you are not in Paris and you don’t have any champagne)
Opening with Marry Song from 2007’s Cease to Begin it’s instantly a good example of what can be done with a live re-working of a song. Here the piano and tight vocal harmonies leap to the fore, and while the lyrics remain a touch cheesy, it would take a stone hearted miserable cynic to not want someone to sing “when you smile, the sun it peaks through the sky” about them.
“Slow Cruel Hand Of Times” laments the passing of time, via a pair of acoustic guitars than entwine as beautifully as the pair of vocals. Then an old fave “Detlef Schrempf” kicks in, and I go as wild as one can when they’re listening to a live album, alone in the dark on a pair of headphones! Weirdly Detlef Schrempf is a retired basketball player, something I’ve just discovered now by looking it up! Here it’s given the treatment of a tinkling piano and a bassy backing from what may, or may not, be a harmonium. Yes towards the end some of the transitions become a tad clunky, but with a chorus as utterly gorgeous as the cooed “my eyes can’t look at you any other way” who cares? Not I..
“Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” is a Fleet Foxes like number, it’s pleasant and toe tapping enough, but when “No One’s Gonna Love You” follows anything it’s going to be forgettable, and when the versions as gorgeous as it is here you’ve got no chance! What sounds like a simple love is actually quite a bitter song about a failing relationship “if things start splitting at the seam then the whole things tumbling down…hard” he notes, it’s pretty darn crushing!
Factory follows, I’ve never known why it’s called Factory and not “I’m on the road and I’m sad and miss you song” probably because that’s a rubbish title. Older was nothing special on record but live it becomes a lovely number, highly reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young), the lovely acapella outro, is well, lovely.
The pair of tracks from “Everything All The Time” that follow are predictably wonderful. The dark, bitter “Wicked Gil” is propelled along by stabbing piano chords. It’s beautifully recorded, the lyrics clearer, the playing crisp and beautiful. Lyrically we find him “praying to be blind” wanting to “shut off the world” and noting that “evil people will say things they don’t really know” ultimately he concludes “why do I even care? It’s nothing now”. Following that would be tough but when you’ve got a stone, cold classic single in your bag it’s made to look easy. The Funeral is amazing, it’s just an amazing song, here it’s left to a piano and what sounds a lot like a cello to carry the song. They do it brilliantly, recreating the grandiose powerful recorded version splendidly, even if you do wish for a feedback laden guitar or a crash of a cymbal at times, at the end he notes “that was fun” you’re telling me Ben, you’re telling me…
They finish with Neighbour, which after the brilliance of The Funeral is perhaps a mistake, it can’t create the same atmosphere. The singing is beautiful (of course) and the acapella sections work well.
Ultimately what the band have achieved here is remarkable, like any live album it wont get the same hype or press as a brand new album, and possibly rightly so. What we have here though is an incredible greatest hits records, a snapshot of a brilliant career, a perfect introduction to a newcomer, whilst giving the old heads something to get their teeth into. So all that’s left to wonder, will the next date be this good?
Band Of Horses – Acoustic At The Ryman is out on Brown Records on February 24th