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Monday, April 18, 2016

Alan Price: Between Today And Yesterday

ALAN PRICE: BETWEEN TODAY AND YESTERDAY (1974)

1) Left Over People; 2) Away, Away; 3) Between Today And Yesterday; 4) In Times Like These; 5) Under The Sun; 6) Jarrow Song; 7) City Lights; 8) Look At My Face; 9) Angel Eyes; 10) You're Telling Me; 11) Dream Of Delight; 12) Between Today And Yesterday.

The success of O Lucky Man! must have popped the cork off Alan's little bottle of hitherto hidden ambitions, because he very quickly followed it up with the most «serious» album in his career so far, and maybe ever — Between Today And Yesterday is a full-fledged conceptual piece about everyday life (today and yesterday) in Northern England, a sort of epic «Ode to Geor­die» that will clearly strike the biggest chord of all with Tyneside people, but might just as well appeal to everyone concerned with the struggle and strife of ordinary people living in small, de­pressed towns all over the world — the "left over people" of the album's introductory song.

It is not some sort of breathtaking masterpiece, no; Price is neither the master of the heart-tugging musical hook, nor is he some fabulous unique singer who'd be capable of making his shopping notes come alive under vocal pressure. But he's got style, taste, basic songwriting capacities, and, above all else, he knows what he's doing and what he's singing about — this is a tactful, honest record, and with repeated listens, it gets under your skin through sheer humility and understate­ment alone, never mind the melodicity and the pleasant arrangements. If there's any reason why it could hardly hope to become a major international hit like some Kinks album, it's because it is even more «British» musically than any given Kinks album — with but a small handful of bluesy ex­ceptions, it's all vaudeville and music hall (although the Randy Newman influence is also very keenly felt throughout).

In the UK, he did (rather unsurprisingly) achieve his biggest commercial success with the record, which rose to #9 on the charts; and the single ʻJarrow Songʼ reached #6, which would be the last time ever he'd crack the top 10 on the single charts — an excellent song, too, commemorating the Jarrow March of 1936 with a slightly-merrily-drunk anthemic chorus and a cool structure, where the old-school music hall verse-chorus segments are written from the point of view of the origi­nal participants of the March and the more modern, rockier bridge section is written from the author's point of view ("I can see them, I can feel them, I can hear them / As if they were here today"), until the author finally merges the past with the present ("My name is little Alan Price..."). It's cool, creative, sensitive, complex — precisely the way one should be writing songs of social protest if one does not want them to be here today and forgotten tomorrow — and arguably one of the finest glorifications of the "Geordie boys" ever written, though probably too convoluted and too personal to be adopted as a high school anthem anywhere in Tyneside.

The album as a whole is conceptually divided into the "Yesterday" and "Today" parts, corres­ponding to its two sides — and the "Yesterday" part, I'd say, is somewhat superior, since that is where he most fully unleashes his arrangement skills, with colorful use of brass, keyboards, and orchestration. ʻLeft Over Peopleʼ and ʻIn Times Like Theseʼ continue the good old tradition of sarcastic social criticism under the sauce of cheerful, catchy vaudeville; and ʻAway, Awayʼ is a touching, but not overtly sentimental account of wives seeing their husbands off to work in the morning. Probably the most underrated of all these is ʻUnder The Sunʼ, a lush orchestrated ballad where, for once, the weakness of Alan's voice works strongly in his favor — the strain, the shaky intonations, the occasional slip-ups make it all far more human than if Engelbert Humperdinck ever wanted to have a go at the stuff.

The "today" side, which was probably intended to sound more «modern», is slightly patchier for that reason — this is where we meet the somewhat corny synthesizers of ʻAngel Eyesʼ and the substandard «modern R&B» number ʻCity Lightsʼ; however, I am quite partial to the slow, bitter-burning blues of ʻYou're Telling Meʼ, with some good old Animals-style organ soloing and quiet­ly understated guitar runs, and I cannot quite decide if ʻDream Of Delightʼ sounds more like Crosby, Stills & Nash or like James Taylor, but on the whole, it's a decent acoustic ballad, al­though it remains in sore need of a decent hook to rise above pure «atmosphere».

The link that ties both sides together is the title track, first presented in a stripped down piano arrangement and then expanded to a full wall-of-sound arrangement, with tempestuous strings, a loud rhythm section, and a gradual vocal crescendo. The basic melody is a bit generic (remember Badfinger's ʻMidnight Callerʼ?), but this does not prevent the song from reaching an epic climax. The point of the song, so it seems, is to tell us that nothing ever changes, and "draw the shades" and "let me drink black wine" — sort of a resigned conclusion, not particularly alleviated by the fact that most of these songs have either a tender or a humorous nature to them, because once again, like Roger wrote, "quiet desperation is the English way", and it's as if Price made this entire record to prove him right.

Anyway, do not expect any grand melodic breakthroughs here; the record is to be enjoyed some­where at the crossroads of an intelligent concept, a charismatic personality, and deep musical ex­perience rather than because of outstanding songwriting genius or illuminating social philosophy. Its purpose is to entertain your tired ears while at the same time making you feel some compas­sion for the underdog — the kind of thing that we normally expect from people like Billy Bragg, yet, as it turns out, Price had the whole punk movement beat here for about two or three years, and he didn't even have to resort to chainsaw buzz or «electro-busking» here. Patchy in places, yes, but unquestionably a high point of his career, well worth another thumbs up.

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