Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Twelve Tasks Of ToffeeBoy - #12 Dean Friedman

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friends I'll say it clear
I've stated my case of which I was occasionally certain
I've lived a year that's full (foolish?)
I've travelled each and every (pop-related) highway
And more, much more than this, I think you'll all agree, I did it my way

Exactly eleven months ago today (on 20 January 2009 to be precise) I embarked on a task (or rather a series of tasks) the stated aim of which was to "to convince those of you who need convincing ... that pop music needn’t be clichéd, sickly sweet, overly simplistic, or anodyne". Whether I've done so or not is difficult to say. The first few tasks certainly inspired some fascinating debate on the subject of what exactly pop music is. I don't think we ever reached consensus on this matter but the lively discussions helped me to focus on the task(s) in hand by giving me a better understanding of what people think they mean when they talk about pop music.

An unlooked for benefit in posting these monthly instalments has been to allow me to rationalise what it is that I personally find attractive in music. It may not necessarily be a good thing to analyse these matters too much but I think I can now say categorically that, for me, good music should have as many as possible of the following attributes/qualities:

1. A pleasing melody
2. A tune that sounds simple but isn't
3. Intelligent lyrics
4. An element of light and shade
5. A sense of sincerity

There may be more and some of them may be at best difficult to define and at worst, highly subjective, but for me those are the important ones and I can look at each of the acts that I've included in this herculean effort and without fear of contradiction state that each one of them ticks all of those boxes.

I have deliberately chosen acts which had generally speaking failed to trouble the Marconium so the list is hardly representative of my broader taste in music. I didn't consider bands such as 10,000 Maniacs, The Go-Betweens, Belle & Sebastian, Cocteau Twins, etc. etc. - all of which would appear on the list of my all time favourite bands - of all time - because they're all well represented on the A-List. Something I was trying to get to the bottom of was, why were the acts I had in mind being ignored. Was there a perceived lack of coolness? Did they not fit the typical Guardian reader's image of grown up music? Or were they simply not as well known? I really didn't know, and to be honest, I'm none the wiser now. It's a mystery to me, why certain groups or artists with an extensive body of work - groups who consistently produce songs with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics about real people, living real lives - should have failed to achieve even one A-Lister while Metallica (for example) have three RR hits. Go figure ...

Let's have a reminder of the acts I've chosen for your consideration - the figures in brackets represent the number of A-Lists achieved pre-task:

1 - Microdisney (0)
2 - Everything But The Girl (2)
3 - Coldplay (1)
4 - Steely Dan (2)
5 - Aztec Camera (0)
6 - Ben Folds (1)
7 - Crowded House (0)
8 - The Blue Nile (1)
9 - Prefab Sprout (1)
10 - Shack/The Pale Fountains (0)
11 - James Taylor (0)

Everything But The Girl and Steely Dan have each added one to their totals since I posted their particular task (and I would say that I'm not claiming any responsibility for these additions but of course the EBTG A-List was from my own nomination a couple of weeks ago so I have had an impact but not as a result of the tasks). However you look at it, a collective total of 10 A-Lists from those acts is simply not good enough.

All of this brings us very neatly on to the latest task in hand [Eventually! Ed.]. I'm not sure when I first considered Dean Friedman as the subject of the final Task of ToffeeBoy (almost certainly on one of the frequent occasions when I'd posted a Dean Friedman nomination on RR only to see it greeted by the inevitable dondless silence) but I think it would be fair to say that I've left the toughest task till last. At least that's what I thought until two weeks ago, when our current guru Mr MacInnes pulled the rug from under my feet by including my (very lighthearted and ever so slightly tangenital) nomination of The Deli Song (Corned Beef On Wry!) in his B-List for the Meat topic. Which rather undermined the point I was planning to make: namely, that Dean Friedman was almost certainly a lost cause as far as RR was concerned - maybe there is hope after all.

Despite this slight hiccup, I stand by my assertion that Dean Friedman is a tough task. Six albums in 33 years is almost Blue Nilean in its paucity so for a start there's not a huge amount to choose from. Most of you will know one or more of his hits (Ariel, Woman Of Mine, Lucky Stars and Lydia) and although I think there's much to admire in these four songs, they're by no means representative of Dean at the top of his game. Each of the albums (with the notable exception of the 'adult comedy' album Squirrels In The Attic which to be honest is best avoided) also contains a number of songs of rare beauty and depth, suggesting to me at least that there's an immensely talented songwriter struggling to get out. But what makes my task so hard is that there's another side to Dean Friedman - the man who was capable of writing the painfully (almost disturbingly) moving Song For My Mother and Shopping Bag Ladies has also perpetrated some intensely annoying novelty songs on his adoring public (the track Special Effects on his third album is frankly unlistenable). There's an unfortunate lack of quality control going on here.

On the surface, Dean Friedman doesn't have a lot going for him. He's not going to win any beauty contests and, I'm sorry mate, but your voice is at times a little too whiny (even to a fan like me). But when he gets it right, I really do believe that he's up there with the very best in the business. Real songs about real people living real lives with sincerity oozing out of every pore. Most of the songs sound like they're based on real incidents in his life (The Letter must surely be - I sincerely hope that Song For My Mother isn't) and you get the impression that he genuinely enjoys the process of making music and sharing it with his fans. Anyway, that's enough from me - listen to the music and judge for yourselves. Oh, and if you buy only one Dean Friedman album, let it be the eponymous debut.

The music
The Letter
Song For My Mother
Rocking Chair
Shopping Bag Ladies
The Deli Song (Corned Beef On Wry!)
Are You Ready Yet?
The Lakelands
No One Knows
Don't Mourn, Don't Cry
The Wind Blows
One Autumn Afternoon
Fuck Buddies

The links
Official website
Wikipedia - checkout the Half Man Half Biscuit story!


nilpferd said...

Still not really sure why you hang such a lot on a band's making the A-Z, TB. I'm not bothered that Herbie Hancock isn't in there, or Wayne Shorter, or The Clean, or Electronic, or about 95% of the other artists I gain my listening pleasure from.
From my point of view, I can't really get very excited about Dean Friedman or any of the other eleven you've posted in this series, and I have given the ones I didn't know a listen, but with my musical focus that's hardly surprising.
de gustibus non disputandum.

ToffeeBoy said...

Fair enough, nilpf, but we all like to see our nominations make it to the A List. And with your tastes being (generally speaking) more 'out there' than mine, your seven A Listers in 2009 to my two is actually indicative of what I'm trying to examine. Is it that my tastes are actually too mainstream for RR?

ToffeeBoy said...

Sorry, didn't mean to hit 'post' then!

And if the music I like is too mainstream, what is it about that music that a) makes it mainstream and b) makes it unattractive to the RR audience?

Nil satis nisi optimum

nilpferd said...

TB, I can understand you're trying to figure out why your own tastes aren't shared by some of us, but I don't think you'll gain much insight by searching for an overarching theory. Personally I'm just not really reached by the music in question, but not because of image or "mainstreamness".
I'm not anti-mainstream myself, necessarily- I did nom U2's With Or Without You on RR, after all.
Basically I just don't see the sense in investing A-list status with so much importance, nor do I really discern a conscious decision to exlude any particular genres. For me, your series of posts are very interesting as a snapshot of what you think constitutes pop music; but not really so much as an attempt to explain why the bands in question aren't on the A-Z. By the way, we owe the 'Spill a Robert Forster tribute post at some stage.

tincanman said...

My guess is the extra lists are your doing Toffee. Most of your 'Tasks' bands aren't ones I connect with, but I've listened dutifully and with an open mind and have a better appreciation of some of them than before. (Biggest leap up my ladder was Anything But the Girl).
I'm sure others have had similar experiences, so your work here is done - and very well done, I might add.
Thanks much for your effort and courage!

Makinavaja said...

TB - you turned me and a lot of regulars at the Noveccento onto Martin Stephenson for which we are grateful.
Regarding A-lists and stuff. I haven't had a single nom get even a sniff of the B list since I started taking part (a year or so, now).This, given my - at times - linguistically obscure tastes and occasional breaks, is maybe not too surprising and it doesn't bother me. I am not knocking the lists. I am genuinely pleased, for example, that Lambretinha who started at more or less the same time as me (and shares at least a geographical affinity), has been doing particularly well recently. The peer feedback I get, mainly here, but also on RR itself are my reward. I'd love to get Carlos Gardel (for example) onto the A list but I know it's an enormous (t)ask. If it happens, I'll be chuffed. If it doesn't so be it.
I have enjoyed this series. Thank you.

sourpus said...

My first girlfriend (mentioned in Steenbeck's Crush blog) had his first album and played it to me many many times. I quite liked some of it and still do.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ nilpf - agreed. Let's sort out a RF tribute post in the new year.

@ tincanman - no, thank you! I'd be even more impressed if you'd said Everything But The Girl. Pay attention, that man ...

@ Maki - I'm very proud that there's a little part of Spain where Martin Stephenson gets the admiration he deserves.

@ sourpus - she clearly had good taste - in many ways.

ejay said...

Hey TB, I forgot to mention, but in last week's Music Weekly podcast, there's a nice feature on The Modern Lovers by Michael Hann, in case you hadn't heard it.