Wednesday, March 3, 2010

429. Grievous Angel- A little bit country and a little bit more country

Album: Grievous Angel
Artist: Gram Parsons
Year: 1974
Genre: Country.


  1. Return of the Grievous Angel
  2. Hearts on Fire
  3. I Can't Dance
  4. Brass Buttons
  5. $1000 Wedding
  6. Medley Live from Northern Quebec
  7. Love Hurts
  8. Ooh Las Vegas
  9. In My Hour of Darkness

Forgive me for what might appear to be a massive tangent but I have to begin this review by discussing a man named Robert Randolph who doesn't play on this album or indeed on any release in the top 500. He might not be a household name but Randolph is a rare musical talent who has done something that for years I didn't believe was possible: he made the pedal steel guitar interesting. Check out any live release by the Robert Randolph Family band and you will hear the humble pedal steel being taken to places you never dreamed it could go. He rocks that thing harder than anyone has ever made it move before. He stands alone with Bela Fleck as one of two people who have managed to reinvent an instrument close to the way Hendrix and Miles David did before. When he plays a furious version of Papa was Rollin stone I can't help but air guitar along- which is a bit tragic since there are few things more foolish than watching someone air pedal steel guitar. During slow songs it resembles a kind of low-key, minimalist ironing and during fast songs it looks like someone trying to frantically erase their own groin. Anyway the point is that in the hands of an innovator like Robert Randolph the Pedal steel guitar is a magnificent instrument and well worth checking out. But in the hands of anyone else it's just woeful.

Regular readers of this blog will know about the contempt that I hold for the synthesizer. It's my least favourite instrument but the undisputed holder of second place is the Pedal steel guitar, if nothing else for it's sheer predictability. There's no other instrument that is so bound in rules and conventions. If you're going to play the Pedal Steel guitar you have to provide a very staid and standard backing for the rest of the band. A mournful tone that is supposed to invoke loneliness- something players of the PSG surely experience every time they fire the instrument up. It's an instrument usually adopted by people who want to play music but can't be bothered to stand for long periods of time. Apparently it's fiendishly hard to play which I have to say I believe since it would explain why nobody seems to improvise or deviate from the standard norm when they're playing it. It's just predictable.

And predictable is what I'd have to say about the rest of this release. While some people claim it helped invent a genre called country-rock to me it's just country music. I can't find anything in it that doesn't sound like fairly standard country- as predictable and unsurprising as the pedal steel that backs it. There are some slow songs which sound like slow country songs and some faster tracks which sound a lot like faster country songs, despite an attempt to give one song a live feel by overdubbing a bunch of people pretending to be a large audience. I'm sure fans of country music (and Keith Richards apparently) love it but it just does nothing at all for me.

That's not to say there isn't anything to like. Gram Parsons has a great voice and if I'm going to listen to tedious country he'd be the guy I'd choose to sing it. It's not a twangy and annoying "Well yee-haw let's celebrate the fact that I'm a darn tootin good old boy" kind of voice it's got a lot more character and tone. It also helps that backing him on nearly every track is the ubiquitous Emmylou Harris. If you don't have a recording of Ms Harris' voice in your CD collection then you're just not trying. She's done more backing vocals than almost anyone else around. If someone needs a beautiful voice to augment their track then Emmy Lou is often the gal they go to. I don't own a single one of her albums but I've got recordings of her on tracks by The Band, Bruce Cockburn, Leo Kottke, Little Feat, Dave Matthews, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and most surprisingly Midnight Oil (seriously, I have a friend who doesn't believe me when I say this but she's clearly audible on a track called One Too many times from the Breathe album. Check it out if you don't believe me). If you ever play six degrees of separation with musical artists then Emmylou Harris a very useful person to know about.

I couldn't possibly discuss this album (and to be honest I haven't much) without discussing the strange death of Gram Parsons. Or more accurately the strange post-death of Parsons which is one of the most legendary stories in Rock and Roll. Parsons died tragically young in a hotel room at the age of 26 from a mixture of alcohol and what is usually described as a "cocktail" of drugs. He had earlier passed out and been revived by (I'm not making this up) an ice-cube enema, which I have to say would revive me from pretty much anything. If you're not going to be woken up by the insertion of a frozen lump of water up the rectum then you're just not coming back. The friends who had practiced this novel technique assumed that his awakened state was going to last the night since he was "walking and lucid" although I would have thought "walking and livid" would have been a better description. Sadly it wasn't the case and once his temper cooled off (and presumably the cube melted) he collapsed again and sadly his friends were too far gone themselves to help. He was pronounced dead and his body readied for transportation. And this is where it gets really weird.

Parsons had inherited a lot of money from his mother through (and again I promise I'm not making this up) something called The Snively Inheritance. Apparently all the Snively riches belonged to Gram who was therefore wealthy in his own right. Parsons' mother had died when he was younger and his step father's only way of claiming any share of the Snively inheritance was to claim Gram's body and take over his funeral arrangements in the hope of convincing Louisiana state authorities that he was the legitimate next of kin. The problem was that Parson had a pact with Phil Kaufman, his road manager, in which in the event of either man's death: "the survivor would take the other guy's body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks and burn it." Consequently Kaufman got his hands on a hearse, enlisted the aid of a friend and drove out to the airport. Despite an advanced state of intoxication (he'd got the order in the pact clauses wrong- take the stiff, then have a few stiff drinks, not the other way around) he managed to convince those holding the body that a change of plans had been made and he was supposed to take Gram away. A helpful police officer even assisted them in loading the coffin into the vehicle. Kaufman and friend then made their way to Joshua Tree National Park but not before getting their hands on a container of petrol. When they saw lights approaching they panicked, emptied the entire tank of gas into the coffin and flung in a match. Consequently Parson's wasn't cremated he exploded. His last remains erupted in a massive fireball which brought the authorities running. The eventually caught Kaufman and friend but amazingly there is no law in LA against stealing a body. The only thing they could be charged with was the theft of the coffin for which they were fined a small amount. What was left of the body eventually ended up in Louisiana where his father was unsuccessful in claiming any of the Snively inheritance. True story. Weird but true.

You can tell from reading this that I find the death of Gram Parson's a lot more interesting than this album. I've nothing against the guy I just wish his music was a bit more surprising. Maybe not ice cube-up-the-sphincter surprising but at least slightly startling.

Influenced by:
Country music.
Influenced: Keith Richards

Highlight: Medley live from NOrthern Quebec.
Lowlight: $1000 Wedding.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Everyone, everyone should own this album, everyone. Gram Parsons is/was a national treasure. Here is America, pure and profound. Here is life, pure and profound. Van Morrison, Miles Davis, Beethoven and Mozart...Gram is there. Just for Gram's inclusion of Emmylou Harris in these recordings is more than anyone could ever accomplish in their lives for invention. This is the Kind of Blues of country and like Kind of Blue, it is original American music. Listening to this no matter what your taste is to be alive."

-Okay, okay you like the album but really- Beethoven? Mozart? Is there a chance you're being a bit to generous with your praise?

So what do you think- is Parson's an Angel or is Gram just a lightweight? Let me know below.

1 comment:

  1. Like, what a way to go, man. bumma huh ?