Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Going (Back) To California

The mountains and the canyons started to tremble and shake
As the children of the sun began to awake.
(Jimmy Page & Robert Plant; Superhype Publishing, Inc. All rights administered by WB Music Corp., ASCAP.)

California has long been the musician's muse. There are more songs about the Golden State than all the other locations enshrined in song put together. Its southern stretches of seaside sand inspired The Beach Boys and its desert wilderness inspired U2; the 'NoCal' coastal towns of Santa Cruz and Big Sur inspired an entire album by The Thrills; both the Chili Peppers and Tom Petty sang of the pitfalls that can bring the Californian dream to an end; San Francisco provided Tony Bennett with his signature piece, while the genius that is Randy Newman wedged tongue firmly in cheek to extoll the virtues of the state's chaotic love-it/hate-it focal point, Los Angeles.

On the City of Angels' topographic outskirts, the Laurel and Topanga Canyons respectively slice huge grooves through the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains. Within them reside, still today, remnants of the counter culture movements who set up camp in these mystic glacial cut-throughs in the mid-1960s, and smoked a lot of, uh, stuff.

As Barney Hoskyns' highly entertaining tome Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons - 1967-1976 recounts, this was a time of communal creative endeavour; Canyon homesteaders like CSN&Y, Joni Mitchell (who still has a place today in Laurel Canyon), James Taylor and Jackson Browne produced some of the era's finest folk-rock with songs, mostly about loving each other, which apparently went on a lot in LA's most swinging neighborhood.

Around the same time as all this was going on, three boys were born - albeit four years separating them - in the Midlands of England. Nigel Clark, Andy Miller and Mathew Priest would grow up to form a band with an ironic name, Dodgy, and they would be a fixture of the endless summer that seemed to expand through the mid part of the 1990s as part of the extraordinary cultural movement that was Britpop.

The trio would make their breakthrough in 1993 with a sunshine anthem, Staying Out For The Summer, but would remain - along with Cast, Kula Shaker, Catatonia, The Boo Radleys and others -  glittering sparks in the dust tails of 'Cool Britannia's biggest comets, Oasis, Blur and Pulp.

Nevertheless, Dodgy would be integral to this new era of guitar-rooted indie pop and its wholesale plundering of parental record collections. As 17 years of Tory rule came to an end, and 'New' Labour rolled in, we were enjoying ourselves. Hedonism was back: this was the height of Good-time Britain - when lads could be lads, and girls could be lads too, and Loaded magazine captured the zeitgeist in all its good, bad and ugly forms.

Dodgy's particular corner of the party would continue in 1996 with Good Enough, about as enjoyable a summer singalong as Alright by Supergrass or any one of a number of VW camper van favorites around that time. With its sun-kissed, tropical promo echoing the Caribbean video japes of another threesome, The Police, more than a decade before, Good Enough was perfect for a summer in a resurgent Britain, the kind of hit that finds its way up window cleaners' ladders as well as blasting across muddy, tent-infested farmland.

Free Peace Sweet, the album which spawned Good Enough, found the band exploring influences like The Who (none more so than on Jack The Lad), but the hits seemed to dry up and with it, the appearances on Top Of The Pops and Saturday morning kids TV subsided. In 1998 vocalist Clark went solo, leaving Priest (comedic, porkpie-hatted drummer, band spokesman and Never Mind The Buzzcocks favourite) and guitarist Miller ('The Quiet One') carried on as part of a largely unremarkable five-piece, which fizzled out itself.

Drawn together by a mutual friend's funeral,  Clark, Miller and Priest reformed in 2008, initially to play live and then to start work on new material.

And so, after four years of gigging and writing, Dodgy have returned to the fore with Stand Upright In A Cool Place. It's a grown-up, party's-over album reflective of three men in their early 40s (Priest, with his avuncular, greying beard, now looks a lot like perennially middle-aged England cricketer Mike Gatting) - considering what they have, what they had and what is still left to go after.

A delightful mix of pastoral folk-rock and wistful melodies, Stand Up is seeped in the music that came out of those stoner homesteads in southern Californian more than 40 years ago. But unlike the LA canyon folk who purposefully dialed out of convention, Dodgy are embracing it in their middle age.

The VW camper has been sold and its proceeds spent on bedding plants and a kitchen extension. But not without some regret of the loss of youthfull opportunities and past relationships, as expressed on ShadowsDid It Have To Be This Way and What Became Of You.

Only A Heartbeat is another consideration of separation, but could have been plucked from John Lennon's Double Fantasy - largely because of Clark's uncanny vocal resemblance to Lennon (take note, Liam). If this gives the impression of a tendency towards the melancholy - well, OK, it does. It's a badge of honour all of us over the age of 40 have earned the right to wear.

Stand Up is not all acoustic guitars and Fleet Foxes harmonics, either: while we could do without the woodland sound effects on Raggedstone Hill (you don't need the sound of woodpeckers pecking and twigs snapping underfoot to set the rustic scene), it progresses from gentle folk into grungy yarn about a Malvern monk finding love in a fair-skinned forest saucepot. At almost seven minutes long, it is almost in prog territory (perhaps even a companion to The Lady Lies on ...And Then There Were Three by Genesis) in its storytelling. It's also the most complicated track on the album, an enjoyable departure from the melodic simplicity elsewhere.

The last of Stand Up's eleven tracks is its most deceptive. Happy Ending suggests closure but instead mocks an unidentified character for not being able to "stand a chance...and you never did", berating this poor individual for underachievement and unfulfilment. There is no explanation whom its about, but the suspicion is that this is a mild form of self admonishment, Dodgy giving itself a hard time for not doing as well as it could have done in the past.

The paradox is that Happy Ending is closure to an album which you would be hard pressed to call happy, but which is a still a superbly joyful return from a band who, when the Britpop wave first washed them ashore, struggled to be seen as anything other than good-time party band for festivals. Perhaps Stand Upright In A Cool Place will afford Dodgy the spotlight they weren't ready for almost twenty years ago. It is, after all, a fantastic record.

1 comment:

  1. This album is just AWESOME!

    Ricardo César