Off the record

Clive Munro

By the time you read this we may well have endured another of those cold, dismal Junes which give Shetland summers a bad name. But I’m writing this at the start of the month while that glorious spell of weather towards the end of May is still fresh in my mind. And, as always in these circumstances and despite the fact I should know better, I’m currently deluding myself that we’re in for a cracking summer.

Let’s hope I’m right because, let’s face it, even a halfway decent summer makes a world of difference to us all. For a start we smile more, which is good exercise, and we actually stop to speak to each other instead of scurrying by, heads down and hoods up, with barely a grunt. We wear lighter, brighter clothes, and eat lighter, brighter food. Well, at the very least we grill our burgers on the barbecue instead of frying them. Actually I can hardly ever be bothered to waste time, on a fine day, firing up the barbecue and in any case I suspect that they generally lead to us eating far more meat, and  thus less healthily, than normal. Unless, of course, I can get my hands on some fresh herring or mackerel which not only barbecue superbly but are healthy to boot. Grilling them outdoors also has the advantage of not stinking up the house for days on end. But generally, as far as dining al fresco goes, I’m in agreement with cookery writer Nigel Slater who prefers to cook inside and eat outside.

Enough about food though. Getting back to the lighter, brighter theme I was actually going to say, since this is ostensibly a music column, that glorious sunshine inevitably makes me want to listen to lighter, brighter music. I don’t, as a rule, stretch out in my deckchair and listen to, say, Joy Division. Or even Neil Young. I reckon the last time we had such a nice spell of weather was in June of 2009 and the reason I can date it so precisely is that Dianne forced me to spend most of it sitting out on the decking, unless I was inside cooking, listening to Paolo Nutini’s then recently released second album, “Sunny Side Up”. Well I say forced, but really it was no great hardship as I quite liked it too. It’s a breezy, vibrant and eclectic collection of songs which just seemed perfect for that particular spell of fine weather. Paolo’s a very talented, charismatic singer with a fantastically expressive voice, and hopefully there are many more great albums to come from him yet.

Anyway, the summer of 2009 and “Sunny Side Up” are inextricably linked in my mind but I didn’t end up listening to anything nearly as obsessively during this recent fine spell. Possibly because it didn’t last as long but more probably because Dianne’s the one who gets obsessive about artists, and she isn’t really into anyone special at the moment. Other than Leonard Cohen, that is, and I certainly wasn’t going to spend precious sunny afternoons and evenings listening to that miserable old git. But, while I maybe didn’t spend that much time listening to a specific album during that brief burst of summer, I did, nevertheless, spend a good deal of time trying to decide what would be the perfect music to listen to in those conditions. Just so I’d know what to listen to next time around!

Of course, as usual with this kind of thing, there are various criteria which need to be met. Obviously, as I mentioned earlier, you’re looking for something reasonably cheerful. You don’t want to listen to something so gloomy that it breaks the sun’s magical spell. Also, fine weather music needs to be relaxing, but not soporific. Otherwise you may end up nodding off and wake up bright red and covered in blisters. You’re looking for consistency of mood and tempo too, as sudden changes of pace can easily startle you and spoil a pleasant daydream, or reverie. And you don’t want that to happen. It’s also important, I think, to choose well known old favourites which you know well enough to enjoy without too much concentration.

So those, broadly, are my musical guidelines for a successful, lazy, summer’s afternoon on the decking. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I actually looked through my collection, I don’t have that many albums which tick all the relevant boxes. But I do, thankfully, have a few and eventually I decided that my perfect playlist, in the unlikely event that we get three or four consecutive hours of sun again this year (and the wind’s in the right direction), would be as follows. Bob Dylan “Nashville Skyline”, Dire Straits “Communique” (very underrated in my humble opinion), J.J. Cale “Naturally”, Paul Simon “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” and The Grateful Dead “American Beauty”. Followed, weather permitting, by an al fresco Salad Nicoise and a bottle of really good, chilled Muscadet. De Sevre Et Maine Sur Lie, of course.

On the other hand, and contrary to my earlier claim that Dianne was the obsessive one in the family, every now and then I get so into, and focussed on, a particular artist that considerations such as the weather, or anything else, become completely irrelevant. A perfect example of this is my current fascination with Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve. Due to a chronic lifelong aversion to heeding good advice I’d managed, until recently, to more or less completely ignore all the good reviews, and personal recommendations, I’d seen or heard regarding this young man. More fool me. However, during the Easter holidays, as I mentioned last month, I did finally succumb and buy his latest album, the catchily titled “Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now”.

Suffice it to say I was instantly smitten and duly sent off for three of his earlier albums, “The Good Life”, “Midnight At The Movies” and “Harlem River Blues”. They are all superb. As a result I’ve subsequently given myself a good talking to in order to ensure that my pigheaded obstinacy never again makes me miss out on such a great artist. On the other hand, if any of you know someone you think I’d really like, the best thing you can do is, well, still not mention them to me. After all, that lifetime of ignoring good advice from others is a deeply ingrained habit and hardly inspires confidence that I’m likely to take any from myself.

But, getting back to young Mr. Earle (he’s 30, which I consider young), I really have been amazed by how good he is. I’m 56 now but I can confidently say that I would have loved his music if I’d first heard it when I was 16, 26, 36 or 46. I may even have to consider “Harlem River Blues” for inclusion in my all-time Top Ten albums. But then who would I leave out? No, let’s not go there right now. The sun’s just come back out and, frankly, I’ve got more trivial things to do.

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