Music

Smoke Fairies: Through Low Light and Trees

Photo: Maria Mochnacz

The Fairies understand that even enchantment can have dangers and that the mystery of the world does not alter the concrete details of living in the material world.


Smoke Fairies

Through Low Light and Trees

Label: Year Seven
US Release Date: 2011-06-14
UK Release Date: 2010-11-09
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Critics often compare new and exciting musical performers to old ones as a type of shorthand that conveys the sound of the new act without resorting to pure verbal description, which often comes off as clunky and imprecise. So far, pundits have likened the Smoke Fairies to Fairport Convention, because of the similarities in the distaff folk rock musings of Sandy Denny on cuts such as "Storm Song" and "Summer Fades". Writers also have equated the Fairies with Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane when the Fairies veer into blues rock waters on such tracks as "Strange Moon Rising" and "Devil in My Mind". And then there are the inevitable associations between the Fairies and Stevie Nicks' Fleetwood Mac on the mythopoetic tales like "Dragon". Like the proverbial story about the blind men and the elephant, there is some truth in each of these comparisons. However, what makes the Fairies' new disc so amazing and wonderful is that the band contains all of this and more, performed with a throbbing urgency and a heightened consciousness.

The Fairies are Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire, two lasses from Chichester, UK who sing and play acoustic guitars. The duo's voices and instruments harmonize in haunting ways that evoke the ethereal spirits from which they take their band's name. But these sprites are far from being frail creatures. They are comprised of flesh and blood. The Fairies understand that even enchantment can have dangers and that the mystery of the world does not alter the concrete details of living in the material world.

For example, consider their lament to the days when railroads ruled the land, "Erie Lackawanna". The duo know wrecking balls are destroying the old houses and changing the landscape, just like the old inhabitants are dying and making way for new, wealthier ones. In an angry voice they moan in unison, "Used to run through the fields to put pennies on the track / Now it's just big houses with pools out back / They'll bulldoze this house when I am gone / And no one will be here to sing that old train song." The narrator knows that times are getting worse as the scale of human interference in the natural world gets bigger and more alienating, but that change is inevitable. No doubt, the generation that saw trains come to the country would have bemoaned the end of the horse-drawn wagon era.

Except life is not so simple. It's not just that change happens. There comes a point where one has to draw the line. The Fairies use established musical styles as a type of implicit criticism of the present world (e.g., things were better then) and modify them as a form of praise (e.g., things are different now as the world has grown). This is especially true of personal relationships. There are no simple love songs here, even though the disc is drenched in romantic feelings.

Consider the gloomy "Hotel Room", complete with details about the accommodation's poor lighting and a bad paint job. The duo sing about "something deep inside" that may be love or it may be something else. The insistence of the musical accompaniment conveys the strength of human desire, but it's not couched in lofty sentiment. Natural feelings can be a bitch. Time cannot change that.

Just like the way in which the Fairies use musical forms from the past to ground their songs, they also use musical repetition to make the point that the only thing that doesn't change is that change is always happening. On the glorious "Summer Fades", the duo knows that the more something slips away, the more we want to cling to it. We can't hold on to what is, but the duo knows that the future is bound to the past. That knowledge can give us the power to keep on keeping on.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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