Sunday, 23 June 2013

Machines of Love and Grace

When I write about music, I almost always find myself writing about middle aged men.  My songwriting pantheon includes the holy trinity of Bruce Cockburn, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits, as well as minor deities like Shane Howard, Paul Kelly...I could go on but you get the picture.

Now I'm an equal opportunity sort of guy and recently I started to worry that all my musical heroes are men.  Is this a hidden corner of chauvinism in my otherwise PC world?  Of course I could argue that music is very personal and that I found people I could relate to.  I could argue that my choices are purely emotional and nothing to do with gender or power.  But when you claim not to be prejudiced yet consistently favour one group over another, the chances are you are kidding yourself.

Of course I could initiate an affirmative action program, and start to review music by women I don't like that much.  On the other hand, I could just tell you about the marvellous Martha Tilston and her latest release, Machines of Love and Grace.


Tilston was always going to be an artist.  The only question was, what sort?  Her father Steve is a prominent English folk musician, her mother Naomi is a painter.  For good measure, her step-dad is a theatre director and her step-mum is another singer.  There was never much chance she would end up as an accountant.  The only question was, which artform?

The answer, of course, was all three.  She studied drama and took some steps on the acting path before eventually opting for music.  In between times she learned to paint.  Her work appears on her CD covers and is sold via the internet, presumably to supplement the rather uncertain income available to independent recording artists. 

Having grown up around the older generation of folk musicians, it's not surprising to find their influences in her music.  Some of the bass lines on this album and her previous, Lucy and the Wolves, sound uncannily like Danny Thompson's work with Pentangle and John Martyn.  On first listen to Machines of Love and Grace the guitar line on "Silent Women" sounded so much like Martyn himself that I found myself scrambling for the sleeve notes to see if he was guesting.  (You can relax, Martyn remains safely dead and the part is played by Nick Marshall).

However there are other more prominent influences on this album.  Tilston has already shown herself a dab hand at a tribute song on Lucy and the Wolves with "Old Tomcat", a suitably wry tribute to Leonard Cohen.  On Machines of Love and Grace she pays tribute to the redoubtable Joni Mitchell in "Butterflies".  The verses wonder whimsically about the connection between Mitchell's songs and her real life, and about what that life consists of now in semi-retirement.  However, the chorus gives the game away.

Did you ever find that river to skate away on?
Peace wasn't just a dream some of you had, you know.
Yes the bombers are still rising up in our skies
But we are your children
and we're working on turning them into butterflies.

Mitchell is, of course, a far more appropriate role model for Tilston than Cohen.  She is a strong woman in a world of men, with a voice that covers a very similar range.  Tilston shares her love for simple arrangements and melodies offset with intricate vocal phrasing.  Both also love a complex love song, but refuse to be put in the feminine singer box.  So Mitchell breaks out from her own tribute song and her voice-prints pop up all over the album.

What I admired about Tilston's earlier albums was her ability to portray the delicate nuances of relationship, the landscapes and incidents that build intimacy, and the delicate balance between longing and security that make a love song hopeful rather than simply maudlin.  There is some of that here, too.  My favourite is "Blue Eyes", a masterclass in how to match phrasing and melody to lyrical content.  It records a moment of jealousy brought on when her current blue-eyed lover hears her sing a song about a man with brown eyes.

I need to tell you how he held a corner of my heart.
For years it was the empty apple cart
I dragged around until I found you.

The phrasing becomes more frantic, the the melody climbing up the register as the argument becomes more desperate.

"But you sing about his brown eyes, his brown eyes."
It's true I do but these verses came before I knew
Blue eyes, blue blue blue blue , blue as kingfisher eggs
There is only you - I will never love brown eyes again
It's just blue for me now, blue blue blue blue and they are so blue
Sometimes I don't know what to do

Then the phrasing slows and the melody drops until it reaches a seductive murmur.

And I will never love brown eyes again
Because brown eyes never loved me like you do.

Who could resist such a sweet seduction?  Yet you are left in doubt.  Can any relationship survive once such seeds of  suspicion take hold? 

Yet placing of herself in the direct lineage of Mitchell provides inspiration for Tilston to broaden her songwriting and her thematic interests.  Many songs here are overtly political in a way Tilston hasn't attempted before.  In place of Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" we have "Shiny Gold Car" in which Tilston wrestles with the temptation to sell out for a lucrative record deal.  In the end she refuses, because she is afraid she "might start lying, writing songs I do not mean, trying to fit a scene".  Instead she finishes the song with a defiant chant.  "I don't want ten more nuclear power stations on this island, this very small island."

And defiant she is.  Perhaps it is Mitchell who also inspired "Silent Women", a song that could have come direct from 1970s feminism.  Surely its message doesn't need to be repeated now in 2013?  But then what would I know? I'm a middle aged man and isn't our media full of stories about mysogyny directed at Australia's first ever woman Prime Minister? 

Others pick up on more contemporary issues.  "Wall Street" is a tribute to the Occupy protestors.  Best of all is "Survival Guide", a song to her and everyone's children about survival in a dangerous, damaged and ever-changing world.

Survival guide to arctic narwhal
When clan meets clan in the breaching hole,
Rise up and take the air in but do not quarrel
Just join together and you'll find the shoal.
Survival footnote to all our children
Join together and share it all.

Cos the world is changing faster than light
Even light got slower just the other night
I wish I had some red shoes I could give to you
You could click your heels together three times and say
This mad world they've created, it is not true
It's time for a future with love renewed.

This is what I love the most about Tilston, that sense that somewhere there is more.  Not more stuff - Tilston deals with that in another song called "More":

It's hard these days to keep our tangled hearts clear
Got to pay the mortgage in the sofa's in arrears.
Harder still to know which happiness is true
The advertising slogan or the core of you
Cos the advertising tells you that the want is you
It says more - hey come here, you want it and we can give you more
It may leave you sore, but that's alright cos we can sell you more.

No, it's not that more.  It's the more of living in safe, secure suburbia and seeing that

The birds fly in formation here
The seasons in the changing year get stranger
It's the only real danger in our comfortable world...

We imagine there might be more out there
Please tell me there is
More out there
I've got to find out if there's more out there...

Suburbia, you understand how I've got to get out of here
Suburbia, so perfectly, perfectly, perfectly perfect...

In Lucy and the Wolves Tilston sings a song called "Who Turns" in which she asks the moon, as a being far more ancient than any of us, to explain the world.  Now, however, she is not sitting at the window asking, she is off on a search, trying to find out what that "more" is, what it is that lies beyond the shallowness of our safe existence.  Perhaps it's as simple as slipping through a hole in the fence down to the railway embankment to sit with the foxes.  Or perhaps there are staircases and rooms in your house you never knew existed.

Wherever you go in this world my old friend
Know that life is a revolving door
Turn and you will find more
Life the revolving door.
It's easy to waste so much time in a room with borrowed light
And you're stuck between fear and flight
While outside the sky is bright.

And I dreamed that there's a staircase
Hidden behind a wall
And all these rooms I'd never seen before.
Do you think that there's a staircase hidden behind the wall
Or is everything we see, everything?
Or is there more?

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