Monday, February 4, 2002

A run of 'Thunder'; overview of latest solo album from John Paul Jones

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

As promised, here is a description of the music on John Paul Jones' new album, The Thunderthief, slated to be released Tuesday in the United States and later this month in Europe.

The full-on rock explosion of the opener, "Leafy Meadows," contains Jones' catchiest instrumental melody to date. While the artist lays down a punchy bass line resembling the "Macarena," Nick Beggs uses his Chapman stick to play the complicated main theme. Drummer Terl Bryant keeps a straightforward rhythm and medium pace. Halfway through the song, King Crimson leader Robert Fripp joins to provide the guitar solo. That opening track definitely works here, and it would have also felt right had it been on Jones' 1999 effort, Zooma.

The most obvious difference between this album and his previous is that Jones sings on a few songs here whereas Zooma was strictly instrumental. On Dec. 10, 2001, I asked Jones why sing?

"Well, as you probably know, I've always said that I didn't want a person on lead vocals," he told me. "It's like walking a dog. All of a sudden, he becomes the producer and I'd end up [not in charge anymore]."

Jones continued his rationale, saying, "And I didn't want to rewrite Zooma. I had this idea that instead of having the riffs as the melody, I thought I would have the riff and the melody on top."

After some thought, he arrived at his ultimate conclusion: "So I thought, I can do it."

Cleverly, Jones' title track begins with the sound effects of thunder and rain. The verses contain a call-and-response between his vocals and a hard rock line represented by doubled basses. The lyrics, written by Peter Blegvad, describe the legend of "The Thunderthief."

Jones tells how that came about:
"So in fact, Peter Blegvad came to me, the singer-songwriter who also did the artwork. And he also handed me lyrics that he hadn't set to music. And he gave me two [pieces], one called 'The Thunderthief' and one called 'Ice Fishing at Night.' And I put them to music and just tried to experiment to sing on them, and if I liked it, I'd put it on. And I thought it was OK."

In "The Thunderthief," Jones' first lead vocal since his Scream for Help soundtrack in 1985 is muffled and distorted. The song really has the feel of a playful track by the Butthole Surfers. After each repetition of the chorus is a lengthy, complicated piano line played in multiple octaves at a speed beyond humanly possible. Somehow, for me, it evokes images of the Addams Family.

Next, the instrumental "Hoediddle" begins with no less than 2:52 of multilayered yet unaccompanied soloing, in the same style as Led Zeppelin's "In the Light" from 1975 and Jones' "Nosumi Blues" from 1999. What follows the long intro is an electrified bluegrass melody. During the song's last 49 seconds, the electric instruments fade out, revealing only mandolin, koto and ukulele. They all continue playing a bluegrass jingle reminiscent of Afro Celt Sound System's "Colossus."

Jones plays "Ice Fishing at Night" exclusively on a multi-tracked piano. The second song with lyrics (also written by Blegvad), it speaks about some things in nature. The darkest part of the song is perhaps the instrumental break. Jones' piano playing here is just a step above George Winston. He limits his improvisation to within a modal scale. However, the brighter major chords in a lyrical section about "springtime" and "dawn" suggest just what the lyrics do: brightness. The song starts and fades with some gentle soaring noises.

The sound of an old vinyl record, complete with pops and cracks, ushers in "Daphne." Jones follows with a bass line played on one of his many-stringed bass guitars. Soon, it seems as if the melody is going to be provided by more piano, but the 88 keys take a back seat. The main instrument then is a Keith Emerson-inspired synthesizer part that sounds like it was modeled after a section of ELP's "Tarkus."

The piano takes over again while vocal samples come to the fore in the mix. A female says "hello," and a male says "yes." These two samples repeat as Jones plays a funky four-string bass solo. (The male voice on "Daphne" is generated by probably the same speech synthesizer employed on "Fitter, Happier," from Radiohead's OK Computer.) The vocal samples escalate into a two-line exchange. "I really wanted the sound of the voice," Jones explained to me. "I even made the sound of the voice in 'Grind' on Zooma, just sampled, because I like the sound of it."

Jones said he felt that using only vocal samples "was cheating myself," which helped him decide that he should sing too. He does sing on the next track, "Angry Angry." If "Wearing and Tearing" was Led Zeppelin's brush with punk, then "Angry Angry" is much the same to John Paul Jones. But the song lasts seconds short of the six-minute mark, and so it lacks the brevity of
most punk music.

Already, Jones had recorded his vocals for the two other songs whose lyrics had been written by Blegvad. Jones liked them but thought he should have a few more songs with words. "I thought, I've tried singing, now I'll try lyric writing!" Jones told me.
"So I tried it, and it was great fun! Got the word processor going, and -- 'Ah, this isn't so bad!' You look up, and you've written three verses. 'Oh, OK, that's all right!'

"'Angry Angry' started off as a guitar solo. There's a friend of mine whom I met in New York, called Adam Bomb. He calls up one day and says, 'I'm at the Borderline, tonight!' 'Oh, OK.' So I went down, saw him, and I was blown away, it was sort of 'glam punk.' He was brilliant. It was amazing, I really liked it.

"The next day I called him up, I said, 'Come up, come to my house, bring a guitar.' He said, 'What, the acoustic, Jones?' 'No, bring your electric guitar.' I wanted to play him a track. He said, 'OK,' so he came over.

"But I hadn't actually got a track. So I mopped up like 24 bars on the drum machine with a bass riff and just put that down and just said, 'OK, this is all there is. Play over it.'"

Adam Bomb recorded a "screaming solo," as Jones called it. It continues through the fade of the song, at times adding harmonics not unlike ZZ Top's "La Grange" and quick firepower fretwork not unlike the electric guitar solo in Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker."

At that point in the recording process, Adam Bomb had left the country, and Jones was left with an instrumental track that needed more. "So I thought: Lyrics! Turn it into a song."

The lyrics, an example of Jones' own writing, are told from the point of view of someone who is simply angry all the time. Progressively through each verse, his vocal line sounds more and more angry. (He actually starts out quite monotonous and understated in the first verse.) Following the furious guitar solo, Jones is able to pull off the proper emotion through a groaning,
straining yell.

Jones took me through the process of picking a topic for the lyrics of this song. "Maybe I'll write a protest song of some sort," he said he'd originally thought. "And then the more I thought about it, I said, 'Ah, that's kind of corny.' And I thought I'll write a protest song about people who are always protesting!"

Laughing, he continued:
"You know those people who are always angry. You know, what happens? Nothing's right for them. I thought, I'll write a song about that. And that's what it's about. And that was loads of fun being completely removed from it. It's sort of autobiographical in that I know people like this. But everybody knows people like this. When you're in your car, there's always some arse going, 'Grrrr!' The day must be miserable for you."

I asked whether any bit of "Angry Angry" was written as a response to his former Led Zeppelin bandmates for having not included him in their reunion. He immediately said no. "I'm not that sort of person at all," he said. "But as soon as I finished that, I thought, people are going to read stuff into this. But you can't."

The only track on the album not written or co-written by Jones, "Down to the River to Pray," is next. This traditional folk song was used in the Academy Award-winning 2000 cult film O Brother Where Art Thou? and on its soundtrack. Here, Jones handles for the first time an arch-top triple-neck mandolin, made by Andy Manson and mentioned here Feb. 3.

"Shibuya Bop" has the feel of most tracks on Zooma. It is also probably the most intricate piece on the album and thus Jones' career. The musical styles of King Crimson and Rush blend together for the first and third parts of the song. During the second, Jones improvises, both using the Kyma sound design workstation and a Hammond organ. After this, the first part reprises once again, courtesy of Jones' koto, which takes the song to a near-collision halt.

To finish off another nine-track collection, Jones recorded a simple track called "Freedom Song." In this little Celtic ditty, the protagonist proposes a leisurely trip to his lover. In each of the verses, he mentions such vacation plans as seeing Carnegie Hall, renting a bike, letting Mum take over to watch the kids, calling in sick to work. Jones sings his own original lyrics here, backed not by any band but just his own ukulele. Andy Manson made that instrument for Jones back in 1979.

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