Grand musical gestures -Part 1

I've always been a bit of a sucker for Grand Musical Gestures.

By Grand Musical Gestures I mean those moments when artists, inspired by either an excess of creative juices or conceivably just a drug-fuelled belief in their own brilliance, plunge over the top to produce work of epic scale.

Whether the quality lives up to the quantity is sometimes debatable, but it's the ambition I admire, whether it's Bob Dylan filling the whole side of rock's very first double LP with a single song (‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' is side four of 1966's Blonde On Blonde back in the vinyl days), or Emerson, Lake and Palmer releasing a triple live album, two LPs being presumably too much of a constraint on their magnificence.

Those are deliberately old examples but little has changed in the interim. And for some reason I've recently been deluged with Grand Musical Gestures.

I was in the middle of getting to grips with one when two more arrived...

Sun kil moon

Lodged on the stereo was Sun Kil Moon's latest offering. I was wanting to become au fait with new material before their gig in Auckland at the end of next month. It's called Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood, which is a long title, and quite fitting since the double-CD set clocks in at something over 130 minutes.

(Tangent: It's taking me a while and I'll come back to this in future weeks because the band - named after a Korean boxer and really just one man, Mark Koselek – are really something quite special.)

So I'm buried in more than two hours of dense diatribes about the modern world when not one but two sets of multiple CD collections arrive, one three CDs, the other five.
OK. The easy one first. Bob's new album. I guess avid readers have been alarmed at my lack of mention of Mr Dylan's recent release. Let's correct that right now. Dylan continues to sing his way through the ‘Great American Songbook'. Perhaps he's aiming to become the new Rod Stewart.

This time round he's revisited 30 standards, 10 songs on each of 3 CDs, each having a ‘theme'.

So you have old favourites such as ‘Stormy Weather', ‘As Time Goes By', and ‘Sentimental Journey' spread across three discs called ‘Til The Sun Goes Down, Devil Dolls, and Comin' Home Late, and the whole thing is called Triplicate. It has an inside picture of Bob with Meg White (ex-White Stripes). Word is that they're an item.

Blame it on vinyl?

It's worth noting that the songs typically clock in at under three minutes so each CD is roughly half an hour long. I have in my mind the crazy idea that these were actually aimed at vinyl, which typically sounds best when each side is around 15 minutes long. But that would be madness and if it is the case you really have to worry about the tail wagging the dog. Vinyl sales are increasing, CD sales are decreasing, but vinyl still sells a tiny amount in comparison.

And the music? Triplicate is very good. There are lovely arrangements with the basic ‘cowboy band' (still foregrounding pedal steel) augmented on a few tracks by horns. There are heartfelt vocals from Dylan, a bit scratchy here and there but leaving the songs dripping with wistful yearning. After two similar albums I struggle to remain interested enough to listen to it.

And, in keeping with the subject of this column, there is clearly too much still to investigate to give the other Grand Musical Gesture that has inspired me this week the space it is screaming out for. So consider this an intro...

The Magnetic Fields are a band but, like Sun Kil Moon, it's really just one guy, in this case Stephin Merritt. He first came onto my radar nearly twenty years ago with a massive boxed album set called 69 Love Songs. I think you can guess its contents. He has now released an equally epic work, 50 Song Memoir.

It is astounding in many ways and I'll write about it at more length next week.


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