Lonely Drifter Karen: Grass Is Singing

An ex-pat Austrian, an Italian, and a Mallorcan make the most convincing argument yet for Barcelona as Europe’s city of multiculturalism.

Lonely Drifter Karen

Grass Is Singing

Label: Crammed
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-05-26

"Grass is singing on an old whistling graveyard"; so confides the first line of this album’s last song, richly evocative of those Aragonese ghost towns seemingly abandoned on a whim. Maybe Tanja Frinta has tramped through a few in her time. "I walked from cava to napoli, I could need a friend today": Lonely Drifter Karen’s resident gypsy wears her itinerant spirit, if not on sleeves which offer an embrace of "árboles y pájaros" (birds and trees), then at least on the brim of her floppy brown beany. After a spell limbering up her talents in a Swedish indie band, the ex-punk-turned-freewheeling-bohemian ended up in Barcelona, where she found more than a friend in Mallorcan pianist Marc Melià Sobrevias. Together with Italian drummer Giorgio Menossi, they make the kind of music that only continental Europeans can make, a sound that makes your brain flutter and your heart go oompah.

It’s a meeting of North and South condensed in that last song, "La Hierba Canta", where the frozen North’s hopelessly romanticist fantasy of the South meets at least a little of the reality and comes out playing like a higher-brow Abba, where the sleeve-art fantasy of a (definitively un-Led-ed) Zeppelin airship and the Sagrada Família sharing the same skyline is almost within touching distance. It sounds fantastic, with at least something of the power of a modern day parable. The rest of the album is just as striking, digesting so many different influences, in so many surrealist scenarios, through so many sweetly pining melodies, that it literally compels repeated listening just to know where to get a foothold.

Sequencing "This World Is Crazy" as opener might have risked Frinta being filed safely under Björk-ian whimsy inside the first minute (especially given her naming of the band after a Lars Von Trier character), but even Björk hasn’t written a neo-yodelling tribute to a ukulele. While George Formby is eating his heart out somewhere beyond the grave, Frinta wanders nonchalantly on over a pan-European horizon aglow with the washed-out flicker of myriad stage and screen scores, from Frintas’ Sound-of-Musicals childhood and the pied-piping of Yann Tiersen, to Quiller Memorandum/Ipcress File-era John Barry and the Sicilian trill of Ennio Morricone. Shostakovich’s martial glower lurks in "Passengers of the Night", while Kurt Weill -- metaphorically speaking -- embarks on a clandestine liaison with Kate Bush amid the operatic Sturm und Drang of "Salvation".

Central to it all is the threatrical attraction between Frinta’s vocals and Sobrevias’ piano, underscored by the latter’s Parisian thrift shop arrangements. While she prances and soars to the smell of imaginary greasepaint, flaunting all the phrasal verve of an Austrian Cerys Matthews and getting away with all but the most affected vowels, he plays it straight in a classically sheened style, with the pleasantry of Richard Carpenter, the footlit élan of Stephen Sondheim and the soul of old Spain. The pair shadow each other with the grace of afternoon lovers, through the queasy switchbacks and carousel twinkle of every other bar.

On "Casablanca", a ballad of Broadway proportions, Sobrevias’ empathy of touch and tone is simply exquisite. On occasion he traces Frinta’s vocal: while his wordless bass notes land like the evil eye on Lhasa-meets-Vespers standout, "Carousel Horses", and his brief cries of passion and emsemble contributions on "La Hierba Canta" are more than welcome, spoken word additions to "The Angels Sigh" come out slightly stilted, a sole instance of creative misjudgement. There’s also childish humour and wit aplenty, not only in the lyrics: shivering timbers, Clangers-style samples and a cartoon miaow are brilliantly spliced into "True Desire", conjuring Sparks re-cutting the soundtrack to Black Cat, White Cat. Even when they play it as conventional folk-pop the effect is dazzling, Sobrevias taking off his pork pie hat, pulling out his guitar, and sinking into the pellucid rusticisms of "Giselle", Frinta losing the Judy Garland and appropriating a little of the Mazzy Star.

In fact, there’s not a weak track on the whole record, an entirely unexpected example of a supposedly outdated format drawing its divergent sources into a creative plan of no little grandness. It also suggests the chemistry of cross-border romance is heap powerful medicine. Let’s hope, then, there’s more in the cabinet, that Frinta and co. don’t simply go softly into that "salty Swedish night". Sublime.


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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