Friday, April 20, 2007

“Little Bird” / Alan Price


Now we come to the baffling part of Alan Price’s career. From 1977 on, it was a pattern of ever-more-minor labels and inconsistent efforts – patches of lazily rhymed and recycled material, overproduced tracks, half-hearted concessions to commercial pop trends. He tried his hand at a stage musical (Andy Capp) and more soundtrack composing (Whales of August). As a performer, he still had the chops, but increasingly he relied on covers of classic rock & roll and blues, tearing loose on the keyboard with a line-up that included guitarist Bobby Tench and fellow keyboardist Zoot Money.

As time passed, there were no more Alan Price CDs in US record store bins (even back when there still were record stores) and precious few on-line. Finally, in 2005, by bizarre coincidence I was in Cheltenham, England, and discovered Alan was playing a concert that night (he doesn’t tour outside the UK anymore). How long do you think it took me to snap up a ticket? Out in the lobby, I saw for sale his self-released 2002 album Based On A True Story; I bought it at once, just to have something for him to sign after the show. Well, the concert was amazing, and he did sign my CD, and he was charming and funny, and . . . oh, I’m rambling, I know. Indulge me.

The point is, when I listened to the album the next day, I was BLOWN AWAY. Based on a True Story is a searing set of songs about love and marriage and commitment and infidelity, much more free-form and jazz-influenced than anything else he’s done. Alan’s playing is at peak form, his voice weathered but still compelling. This should be on a major label and featured on intelligent radio stations everywhere – and yet it seems to be languishing in a cardboard carton in the back of Alan’s garage in London. Once or twice I’ve seen copies on eBay, listed for a dollar or two – pick one up if you can, it’s an absolute gem.

“Little Bird” is a pulsating minor-key song with a restless Latin beat, driven mostly by percussion – until the intervals between verses, when Alan’s fingers speed through a fluttering piano trill that sounds uncannily like a desperate bird. The melody is shifting, uncertain, a syncopated stair-step of phrases halting and sidling from chord to chord. “Your heart is beating like a little bird,” he sings, in that purring, rough-edged voice, “First you want to stay / Then you fly away.” It’s a seduction song, all right, but the wary, nervous mood makes me know it’s an illicit affair.

The thing that really stands in her way isn’t her husband, it’s her own complicated moral code (“Escaping from some self-made house of cards / Trying to have it all / But your obstacle / Is your sense of truth”). Wow, imagine that – complex human beings. We could be in a Harold Pinter play. And in verse three, things get even messier, once desire is brought up – “Your appetite for love cannot be satisfied . . . The books and films and poems that state the case / Leave one thing aside / That joy is justified / If it comes from you.” His voice quivers just so on "joy," underlining it knowingly.

Now, ladies, let’s be honest – is there anything more thrilling (and scary) than staring deep into the eyes of a man who knows what you’re thinking? Especially when he’s got a husky voice and quick, deft hands? By the time Alan goes off into his extended jazz piano solo, underlaid with that relentless conga and maracas, I am pondering possibilities that make me blush.

Forty-two years after I first heard “House of the Rising Sun” -- and Alan Price’s music still unsettles me. Not bad for a man in his sixties, eh?

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