Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Beautiful Day – U2

beautiful-dayU2 seem to be something of a marmite band, to say the least. As I’ve said before, I can understand that. But one or two songs seem to rise above that and have become bona fide classics. Beautiful Day is, I would say, in that category.

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Beautiful Day was the first track from the band’s 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. In many ways the song was a throw-back to the sound of their early days, coming as it did after the band’s adventures during the 1990s which saw them embracing a more contemporary, radical sound influenced in part by the electronic and dance-culture of the day. It was a move that the band were wary of and debated for a long time before finally convincing themselves it was a good thing. In reality, whilst clearly echoing that early sound, the song wouldn’t have been what it was without the band having been through those 1990s – the electronics, textures, drumbeat, whilst more subtle, are clearly an extension of that experimentation.

Lyrically the song is a little ambiguous, a not uncommon trait amongst the bands songs, living at that intersection of spirituality, romance and self-help, and has been described by Bono as being about “a man who has lost everything, but finds joy in what he still has”.  Whatever the specifics of the lyrics, though, this is clearly a song designed (some might say cynically so) to uplift, and for me it does that in spades.

Over the years Beautiful Day has established itself as a classic, reaching number 1 in many countries, garnering three Grammy awards in 2001 (including both song and record of the year), and becoming something of a mainstay for TV sport highlights. The song has been played at every U2 concert since.

So here’s the song sheet. In many ways its quite straightforward. But the sheet may be a little misleading in that respect. They key is getting the rhythm of the main riff right. The timing indicated in the sheet is a rough approximation, and the best thing today is to listen to the original and get the feel from that. However, to help with that I’ve recorded an excerpt of the song that you can listen to below – essentially this covers the main riff (x4) and the F#m “Touch me…” bridge section.  Hope it helps. Timing is something like:

[A] 1 2 [Bm7] 3 [D] 4 5 [G] 1 2 3 [D] 1 2 3 [A] 1 2 3 4 5;  and

[F#m] 1 2 3 [G] 1 2 3 4 5 [D] 1 2 3 [A] 1 2 3 4 5

Note that if you struggle with all of the main riff, you can get away without the [Bm7][D] chords.

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My best of 2014

What follows is a selection of some of the best music I’ve come across this year. Not all of it is new for 2014, but it was new to me, and that’s what matters. You can listen to it all via. the playlist below. I’ll say upfront that this (largely, with one notable exception) is non-ukulele related, but normal blog service will be resumed at a later date.

[Life of Sin – Sturgill Simpson]  Sturgill’s second album, “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music”, is one of those quiet growers that finds itself near the top end of many a year end best-of list. And deservedly so. Whilst it may superficially come across as a retro outlaw country sound, a little digging finds it filled with existential metaphysics, “reptile aliens made of light” who “cut you open and pull out your pain”, and a fair degree of druggy indulgence. Not that it eschews country conventions totally – there’s plenty of drink, sin and redemption in here as well, some real, well-written songs, and musically it’s bedded in the world of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and the like, albeit with a sometimes harder and more rocking sound, and the occasional psychedelic wig-out. (00:00)

[I Wonder – Rodriguez]  This clearly isn’t from 2014. But this year I did finally get to see the wonderful documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”, which tells the almost unbelievable story of Sixto Rodriguez. Rodriguez recorded a couple of albums in the early 1970s, but his career never really took off, and so he turned his back on the music business and took mostly low-paid work in Detroit. Unbeknown to him, however, copies of his album made their way to South Africa (then very isolated from the rest of the world due to Apartheid), where they became bona fide hits. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he finally found out about how successful his music had become. A scenario you just can’t imagine happening in today’s hyper-connected world, you wonder how different his life would have been if he had been aware of the success he had.  I Wonder, with it’s distinctive rolling bass-line, is from his 1970 debut album “Cold Fact”. (02:25)

[Forget – Ben Watt]  Ben was the non-Tracey Thorn half of Everything But The Girl, who had a string of successes during the 80s and 90s. But this was only his second solo album, a 30-year delayed follow-up to his pre-EBTG debut North Marine Drive. Since EBTG retired in the late 90s, Ben had largely focussed on DJ-ing. But following a number of traumatic personal incidents, including the death of his parents and a sister-in-law, he took up the songwriting muse, and Hendra was the result. A collection of grown-up songs reflecting on lived experiences, they are brought alive in part by the contribution of ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who paints his distinctively fluid electric guitar across the album. Forget is – to be honest – one of the more upbeat songs on the album. But listening to it is not a depressing experience, just one of recognition and understanding – hallmarks of the best music. (04:54)

[James Alley Blues – Willie Watson]  Willie Watson was a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show. I only know of them. But his solo debut album, Folk Singer Vol. 1 came to my attention because it was put out and promoted by Gillian Welch’s label, Acony. Like Welch and her cohort Dave Rawlings, Watson’s album is a stark country / folk / blues hybrid that sounds like it could be 100 years old. Picked guitars, banjos, blow harmonicas and plaintive vocals bring these songs, old and obscure, to life. And yet for all it’s harking back to the past, there’s something distinctively touching and refreshing about the sound and these songs that draws you in. As an example, James Alley Blues is a song from the 1920s, written and performed by one “Rabbit” Brown. (10:01)

[Houston – Robert Ellis]  Robert Ellis was a new name to me this year. The Lights From The Chemical Works is the third album from the Nashville-based singer songwriter. Fleshing out his country and folk sound with a confessional/observational singer/songwriter ethos, and mixing the music up with elements of free jazz, bossa nova and other delights, the album is a rich mine of sounds and lyrics. Houston is a case in point – a love letter to a city he is leaving, needing to move on but aware of all the city has given to him, the song starts as a plaintive ballad, loping along with an unusual groove before crashing out with free-form bass topped with screeching electric guitars. (14:04)

[Do You Ever Think Of Me – Laura Cantrell]  Laura Cantrell has been on my radar for a long time, but it was only this last 12 month that I took the plunge. Cantrell’s sound is more of a straight-down-the-line country one, inspired by a clutch of original country artists, including Kitty Wells, recording a whole album of her songs in 2011. This song, though, is taken from her 2000 debut album, Not The Tremblin’ Kind, a firm favourite of the late John Peel who described it as “my favorite record of the last ten years, possibly my life”. Driven along by a constantly pulsing organ, but still with that familiar country twang, Cantrell’s vocals – as ever – are maybe an acquired taste; ever so slightly off key, but with songs this good you can forgive her. (21:13)

[Played Out – Peter Bruntnell featuring Rumer]  Peter Bruntnell is a master song-writer, but totally hopeless at self-promotion. As a result he has acquired a hugely admiring but numerically very small fan base. He’s never going to cross-over in any huge way, but all the while he keeps turning out quality songs such like this, a small selection of the music-loving population will be kept very happy. Originally starting off with an almost Britpop sound in the late 90s, he moved on to a country-tinged Americana sound before adopting a more pastoral english pop/folk sound of late. This track is a re-recording of an earlier song for a recent Retrospective collection, a version enhanced by the velvety vocals of the lovely Rumer. There’s lots more quality where this comes from. (23:52)

[Hard Act To Follow – Sylvie Simmons]  The best ukulele-based album of the year! In fact its the only one that I’ve heard, but that doesn’t distract from the quality of these songs. Sylvie is a music writer who has been there and done it all during the LA music scene of the late 70s and early 80s, of late becoming renowned for a biography of Leonard Cohen. Originally including ukulele-accompanied versions of Cohen songs during book readings, she has recently recorded an album of her own songs, from which this is taken. Her ukulele skills aren’t going to worry the likes of Jake Shimabukuro, nor are her vocals going to trouble Aretha Franklin, but it is the songs  that are the jewels here. In fact the sparse settings are perfect for these observational songs borne of a life lived. (27:31)

[The Prettiest Girl In Church – The Waterboys]  Fisherman’s Box, released towards the end of last year, is a mammoth undertaking, to be honest. Comprising 121 songs from the legendary Fisherman’s Blues sessions, it marks the journey of a band moving on from the big music of This Is The Sea, delving deep into roots music of all sorts (country, blues, folk) before arriving on the west coast of Ireland and fully embracing the joys of traditional Irish music. Whilst not all of it is essential, the quality control is kept remarkably high, and amazing how much fantastic stuff has been kept locked away in vaults for 25 years. Including the 25-minute Soon As You Get Home was going to be impractical here, but this country-tinged, just-the-right-side-of-corny original song from Mike Scott demonstrates the light-and-airy sound of a band in their stride. (30:38)

[Colfax Avenue – The Delines]  Willy Vlautin is a genius. That’s a conclusion I’ve come to this year. This time last year I knew nothing of him. But off the back of the chance discovery of The Delines’ lead track, I Won’t Slip Up, I found myself being drawn into his world. Vlautin started off as songwriter and lead singer with Americana band Richmond Fontaine. But he has also established a parallel career as a novelist, writing concise, humble, affecting and compassionate tales of the disenfranchised underclass in the US. I’ve consumed all of them, and they’re all great. The Delines is another side project, a bunch of songs written by Vlautin specifically for vocalist Amy Boone, in a retro country soul style, which comprise vignettes that pick up similar themes to his novels. Colfax Avenue (title track for the album) is a case in point – the tale of a sister who goes searching for her traumatised ex-Army brother up and down Denver’s Colfax Avenue, a notorious haven for prostitutes and junkies. With compact turns of phrase, Vlautin and Boone take you there, and you ache for the circumstances that led them there. (34:05)

[The Troubles – U2]  In all the hoopla that surround the release of Songs Of Innocence to 500 million iTunes accounts, the quality of the music being released seemed to get a little overlooked. This collection definitely marks a return to song-writing form for the band. Focussed on the formative days of the group, the songs are personal in a way that hasn’t always been the case of late. The death of Bono’s mother, the first reaction to the sound of The Ramones, Dublin bombings and the like are the backdrop and heart of this record. The Troubles is *not* about The (Irish) Troubles, but is more about troubles of the heart. Enhanced by the vocals of swedish singer Lykke Li, this brooding song may not be what you expect from U2. Which is why it’s here! (37:29)

[Billy – Prefab Sprout]  Paddy McAloon, the man behind Prefab Sprout, is a songwriting genius. His songs were always something of a superior quantity in the band’s heyday of the 1980s, something which probably didn’t help in the commercial stakes but certainly enhanced his critical credentials. However for the last 10 years or more he has suffered from a succession of health problems, including a detached retina and tinnitus. As a result he’s unlikely to be able to perform again. And yet towards the end of last year, out of nowhere, came Crimson/Red, the first all-new Prefab Sprout record for over 10 years. And it was more wonderful than you could ever hope for. Recorded totally alone, this was probably one of the strongest set of songs he had put out. Lush and romantic as every (Burt Bacharach is a big influence) these were songs from and for the heart, with melodies to die for. Billy is an upbeat example of that, a dream of a song about the joys of music. (42:08)

[Super 8 – Jason Isbell]  Jason Isbell’s Southeastern topped many an end-of-year list last year. So I thought I should investigate. And my, were those polls right! Isbell spent some time with Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers as guitarist and songwriter, but in 2007 branched out on his own. Initially adopting something of a country/rock sound, Southeastern was something of a departure, being more of an acoustic, country-tinged singer/songwriter collection. Recorded off the back of a spell in rehab, the album goes to some pretty dark places and as such isn’t an easy listen. But the songwriting is superb – crisp, focussed, economical, personal and emotive. Super 8 is atypical in sound, being more of that southern rock sound, but tells its tale with a punch and with tongue firmly planted in cheek. (46:38)

[Spring – Bill Callahan]  Bill Callahan has been ploughing his own lo-fi furrow since the early 90s, without any significant commercial success, but building something of a cult following under the band name Smog. Recently he’s been releasing albums under his own name, and 2013’s Dream River (from which this track is taken) was another critical favourite. The songs often eschew the classic verse/chorus/middle 8 structure, being more freeform in nature, with Callahan’s not-always-tuneful barritone vocals semi-reciting the lyrics. Conceived as a “last record you could listen to at the end of the day” Dream River paints pictures in lyrics and sound that connect both with the details of nature and humanity. It is beautiful. (50:01)

[Under The Pressue – The War On Drugs]  I’ve only become aware of this in the last week or so, but have fallen in love with Lost In The Dream, the third album from US band The War On Drugs. Topping many a year-end poll over the last few weeks, I’d given this a try a few times this year and it didn’t click. Goodness knows why, because when I tried it again last week it was a revelation. Blending the classic rock of the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and echoes of early Waterboys with the relentless, propulsive motorik krautrock rhythm, drenched in a rich and evocative soundscape that conjures the expansive sounds of the open road and the wide plains, this is visionary mood music of the highest order. Something to be immersed in, to be lost in, to dream in. (55:02)

[Higgs Bosun Blues – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds]  Cave has ploughed his own distinctive furrow since coming over from Australia in the early 80s with the rage and noise that was The Birthday Party. Something of a renaissance man, he has written novels and film screenplays, and acted, alongside developing a rich (and mostly dark) musical legacy. Higgs Bosun Blues (blues in spirit rather than in technical musical terms) is from last years Push The Sky Away, an album of songs that are far more subtle than some of Cave’s work, and an album that often works better as a cohesive whole than a collection of individual songs. Tunes are a little thin on the ground, this isn’t really sing-along territory, and meandering and meditative are probably words that sum it up well. But it is an album to lose yourself in, and one whose riches slowly reveal themselves if you patiently persist with it. (1:01:11)

[Even If That Were True – Suzy Bogguss]  Suzy Bogguss is steeped in the traditions of country. Her latest album, Lucky, is a collection of Merle Haggard songs, and her career has been fairly close to the country mainstream. That said she has recently branched out with a collection of jazz/swing covers, and another of American folk standards. I only became aware of her this year, and this beautiful ballad comes from her 2007 album Sweet Danger. Beautiful, plaintive vocals with wonderful phrasing overlayed on a sparse and open acoustic accompaniment make this a heartbreaking gem of a song. Well, it’s country isn’t it. (1:08:57)

[Molly-O – Simone Felice]  Simone (pronounced Simon!) is another songwriter who has branched out into writing fiction. Like Willy Vlautin, Felice’s writing focusses on the marginalized and forgotten, and does it with compassion and humanity. Molly-O is taken from his most recent album, Strangers, and is a rousing, crying-out-to-sing-out-loud song of hope in spite of the evidence. (1:12:32)

 

In addition to these, notable commendations should go to Iris Dement (There’s a Whole Lot Of Heaven), Neil Cowley Trio (Kneel Down), Zsófia Boros (Canción Triste) and Tord Gustavsen Quartet (The Embrace).


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The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) – U2

themiracle<songsheet>

I’ve waxed lyrical about U2 in the past, and for years, despite their hugeness as a band (or maybe because of it) that’s felt a desperately uncool position to take. Not that being cool is something that I’m overly concerned about, but they’ve certainly attracted their fair share of detractors. I can understand that to an extent – reaching as big an audience as possible has always been in the DNA of the band, and the idea of being a culy favourite is almost anathema to them. So the things they’ve done and the stunts they’ve pulled to maintain that position have sometime rankled. And that’s before you get to Bono’s “do-gooding” and the tax situation. Those are easy things to pick fights on, but personally (and as a fan I declare a relative lack of objectivity here) I think the almost instinctive U2-hating knee-jerk reaction has become a lazy conformance to stereotype.

The recent launch of their new album “Songs of Innocence” into 500 million iTunes accounts, unbidden, was greeted with the to-be-expected cries for these vociferous haters. But it’s been interesting over the last month or so, after the initial noise died down, to see how many people are discovering (or rediscovering) the band as a result of the stunt. Which to a certain extent justifies the action. Certainly Bono has commented that the band were afraid that this collection of songs (some of their most personal in recent times) wouldn’t be heard, and that they wanted to get them out there and give people a chance to hear them. People certainly had that chance, even if they chose not to take them up on the offer.

The album is one that looks back, as the title suggests, to the early days of the band and its members as they were growing up. In that sense it is a concept album, although not with the overblown pretentions that might be associated with such a label. For what it’s worth, I think it’s their strongest collection of songs for quite a while. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” harks back to the early days of punk, and crytalises the bands (and particularly Bono’s) reaction to the adrenalin rush of that music, and in particular the sounds of The Ramones  – “the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”. Whilst some may accuse them of bandwagon jumping, the Ramones were a significant influence on U2 right from the beginning, even if that’s not immediately obvious in the band’s sound in general, and in this song in particular. And the tribute is certainly appreciated by those who knew Joey Ramone.

So here’s the songsheet. I’ve actually based this around the “(Busker Version)” included as part of the Acoustic sessions on the deluxe version of the album. I can’t find a copy of that on YouTube (here’s a Spotify link), but listen to this version from a recent BBC session with Jo Whiley, or this version from an Italian TV performance. The songsheet probably makes more sense when listening to these versions, and being familiar with the song will certainly help in getting a feel for how to play it. A few notes though. The [Asus4] bits at the end of each line in the chorus are a couple of grace notes that – to my mind – add something at that point (and are prevelant on the busker version). The [A5] is a power chord, and the song probably works well with power chords throughout, but some of them are hard to play on the uke(!), so I’ve only kept it in for the unaccompanied riff bit. Also I’m not totally convinced about the chords in the “We can hear you…” bit, but they sound OK. Enjoy!

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One – U2 / Johnny Cash

u2one johnnycashone <song sheet>

U2 have been a part of my life for twice as long as they haven’t. In 1981 I was attending the Greenbelt festival, and sandwiched between the likes of Garth Hewitt and Cliff Richard (I forget the exact artists) a relatively unknown Dublin foursome blagged their way at short notice onto the running order.  As an impressionable 16 year old that brief, explosive set was my introduction to a band that have – for better or worse – become an integral part of my world.

Their journey has been an interesting one. From their beginnings as post-punk music paper favourties, rally-rousing christian rock, and then tub-thumbing, white-flag waving earnest young men, they took a detour via. Brian Eno to a more ambient textured sound which peaked with the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree, turning them into true rock megastars. Moving on again after the critical mauling of Rattle and Hum, the band reinvented themselves for the 90s , become more playful and alive to the value of irony, broadening their musical pallette, loosing some of the early fans but gaining a new audience. By 2000 there was something of a retun to basics with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and if the last couple of albums have maybe shown a lack of adventure and/or songs, the sleek lines of their recent comeback song “Invisible” suggest good things for the future.

One is a pivitol song from their 90s reinvention masterpiece Achtung Baby. The band, desperately trying to find a way out of the cul-de-sac that was Rattle and Hum, were struggling to find a way forward. Whilst Bono and guitarist The Edge were pushing in more experimental directions, Larry and Adam (drums and bass respectively) were unsure, and the tension was threatening to pull the band apart. Then one day, during improvisations in the studio, this song suddenly emerged, almost fully formed. The band reaslied they could still do it.

What has always surprised me about this song is how misrepresented it often is. This is a song that people use for weddings, for goodness sake, yet The Edge described it on one level as a “bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who’ve been through some nasty, heavy stuff”. It’s not as bleak as all that – there is hope in the song, a recognition of differences and the need to get on – but it is not a lovey-docey declaration of one-ness that some seem to use it as.

The song itself has become probably U2’s most covered song. There are a host of great versions out there, including this one by Mica Paris, but my favourite has to be the Johnny Cash version from his American Recordings series of albums. In fact this song was my first introduction to Johnny Cash, and I have fond memories of playing this on a jukebox in a San Diego bar whilst on a work trip, and really surprisring my colleagues that this somewhat unhip hasbeen (as he was perceived at the time) could make such great music.

And so to the song sheet. I know there are probably loads of versions of this out there, but I couldn’t quite find one that summoned up the sound of the Johnny Cash version. So this is my attempt to do that. After all, it seems to make more sense to try and emulate the stripped back sound of Johnny Cash with a ukulele than it does that of a rock band like U2. Nothing too tricky here, a few slighltly unusual chords but they’re quite straightforward and sound good (to these ears). Enjoy!

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