#nowlistening: to songs about tea.

63907815496faaa5e6d2dfc8eae82bc0I write this as I do most things, perched atop a mug of Earl Grey and in the company of a highly-strung black cat. If tea is a vice, I am in its grip and I’m fairly certain my tiny cat thinks it’s a very large dog. Life is confusing, you know?

Anyway, in the mid-20th century, tea flowed like cultural penicillin here in Blighty as we kept calm and carried on – defined as a nation by our love of a nice cuppa. In Ambridge, this is made clear in the way that its not Fallon’s cafe or coffee shop, it’s her tea room and the episode on the 29th March made tea a central musical feature. First was Doris Day’s version of ‘Two for tea’ (1950) from her eponymous film and later was Mario ‘harp’ Lorenzi’s arrangement of  ‘Everything stops for tea’ (1936).

In this episode the lyrics of ‘Two for tea’ clearly speak on behalf of Emma Grundy who is battling with her loyalty to the Grundy brood with growing dissatisfaction of the constant need for positive thinking that everything to be ok. In his latest scheme, Ed Grudy had bought Texel sheep for breeding and Emma tells Fallon they are ‘unremarkable’ — another almost-but-not-quite moment for the Grundy clan. Emma admits frustration, loneliness and confesses a wavering in her familial requirement infinite faith.

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‘unremarkable’ (enormous?).

Vocally, Day’s silky, mezzo-soprano can be heard to represent Emma’s sense of obligation too. The song’s forever-unravelling and always-twisting melody dreamily imagines a quieter time as the supporting harmony subtly changes key but always repeats that same, simple, apparently endless little melody.

1579In this way, ‘Two for tea’ certainly fits with the idea I keep coming back to about The Ambridge Tea Room operating a space for the members of the village to express their existential angst. But a pause in the dialogue at 6mins 10secs is echoed in the songs’ arrangement (at 1min 42secs here) and points toward something slightly different here.

Until now, Day’s soft yearning had been covered by a rich blanket of vocal harmonies from the Ken Lane Singers, an ensemble that made that warm (if not sonically rather overbearing), texture such an iconic sound in Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s late-40s/early-50s recordings.f898f25de8e391a4d81b610f9d932571

Day takes a moment of rest from her singing duties and the vocal group sings staccato and in unison which breaks up the previous powerful surges of harmony. Earlier in the song there had been a swooning violin countermelody, playing second fiddle to Day’s tune, but this moment of the song is harmonically framed by a flute which rhythmically skips around the like a tap dance solo. The desired effect is that kind of ‘knowing wink’ comedy, where we know it’s a ridiculous musical trope. In the same way, you don’t have to listen to The Archers for long to understand that the humour is encoded into the way that endless Grundy plans are eternally doomed.

At 6mins 23secs in the episode there is a final flurry of notes, and as the flute ascends Emma sighs and remains firmly back in the family fold, hopeful that perhaps when the lambs grow a little they’ll be able to spot a prize-winning one. This regained positivity is mirrored both in the dialogue with Fallon, and some tinkling stride piano which replaces the flute’s arpeggio. The Ken Lane Singers return to their thick harmonies again too as Emma explains the complexities of rearing these kinds of animals. At 6mins 44 secs, a chromatic shimmy on the piano underlines Emma’s returning doubts and these are reiterated by the return of Day’s smooth voice. Where we might have sensed resolution, it is certainly back to square one again here as Emma concedes:

‘This is the way life is and you’ve just got to learn to put up with it’.

24971But, it’s been hard to ignore the waft of feminism around the village in the past few weeks. And so, at 8mins 45secs when Robert Snell and Emma discuss both the controversy around ageism and sexism in the cricket team; how he loves getting involved in the running of the B&B and how she feels lumbered with it because of the domestic setting, the scent of a longing for gender equality is strong.

Hearing about Robert’s passion for cooking and working with his darling Lyndie operates as a wake-up call to Emma who recognises an imbalance Chez Grundy. There’s certainly a blog post brewing here about the problematic ridicule of the Grundy’s working-class sexism in contrast with Robert Snell being coded as a middle-class (apparently) modern man, but that’s for another day (or, dear reader, if you’d care to write it?!).

d497a49efe0efadaad8f7ec3b9a33131However, at this moment the choice of recording is certainly fascinating, a swinging, ragtime-infused, light-music styled, harp centred interpretation of ‘Everything stops for tea’. A song originally written by three Americans and originally sung by a Scotsman, it seeks to concretise the Englishness of tea drinking. Brilliant.

What interests me here, and is certainly at the centre of the PhD I’m trying to write, is how rules about identity are seemingly made solid through musical performances but that certain qualities or elements can be heard to (either accidentally or deliberately) transgress musically inscribed socio-cultural norms. ‘Everything stops for tea’ is precisely this kind of text, especially in Lorenzi’s rendition of the song as we hear it in the tea room. The harp’s unusual instrumental context is proudly coded as Other by Lorenzi, much in the same way that Robert is delighted by, while Emma is shocked with, being part of domestic life in the Snell household.

And so, as Robert leaves the tea room, Emma is jolted from her Doris Day reverie – exasperated by her inability to offer her kids ‘the simplest of things’. Might Robert, with a helping hand from Lorenzi’s harp solo, have encouraged her to start hatching plans that demonstrate her emancipation by breaking the conventions of the House of Grundy?

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#nowlistening: Perry Como ‘It’s impossible’.

Two minutes into Monday 20th Feb’s instalment of The Archers, Perry Como’s ‘It’s impossible’ can just about be discerned underneath the unfolding action between Harrison and Fallon. Over on Twitter, I mused over the significance of the song in relation to the scene’s closing tension on whether or not Harrison could persuade the Ambridge cricket team AGM to include women [*gasp*]. But revisiting the song and it’s placement in the scene provides fascinating insight not just into the socio-cultural-political climate of Ambridge but also demonstrates how music serves to inform the listener about the physical spaces of the village.

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A schmalzy celebration of soft-focus monogamy, ‘It’s Impossible’ was released by Como in 1970 after being translated into English from the original Spanish, ‘Somos Novios’, by long-time Elvis collaborator Sid Wayne. Written and first performed by Mexican composer Armando Manzanero in 1968, the famous bolero has been subject to multiple interpretations in both languages, not least this ‘My Way-esque’ version from ‘The King’ during the velour years. Como’s rendition is an altogether more ponderous and low-key affair. And yet, the way the elements of plot, dialogue, musical texture and lyrical expression twist together in this scene is dynamic in establishing a tension between that which appears to be stable and those things that attempt to trouble that stability.

This warrants further prodding.

Manzanero’s composition, and Wayne’s translation, is surprisingly existential for easy listening, a genre which errs toward the straight ahead love song. ‘It’s impossible’ is expressed through earnest reflections on the natural world. Como smoothly ruminates on the perpetual ‘rushin’ ‘ of waves to the shore and the obligatory presence of the sun in the sky. Bass and drums gently chug away too, supported by subtle electric guitar, providing a muted soulful backbeat. Como’s musical world is steady, in the same way that the Ambridge tea room has quickly established itself as a key venue in village life.

However,  just as the steady groove underpins the action, a piano part which had been towing the musical line by entwining itself between vocal melody, groove and supporting swooning violins, becomes rather noticeable. Twenty seconds into the scene (listen at 2mins 20secs), nimble descending flourishes protrude into the action. Again, the stability of the tea room is made clear as Fallon and Harrison test it by talking about a range of unresolved Ambridge-related news items, all of which fall under the remit of that which is deemed to be ‘impossible’. Subjects ranging from the genuine heartache of Fallon’s attempts to comfort Kirsty following her miscarriage to the ridiculous news of Jennifer’s theme of ‘Land’ for her party. Just how should Fallon cater for such an event? And with half term looming, will she have the time? Nail-biting stuff. Those swirling piano embellishments are a musical representation of active problems for the folk of the village, reminding the listener of a variety of plot lines which are at play.

41aaeshdtkl-_sy355_In other words, ‘It’s impossible’ helps in establishing the tearoom as a place for a more thoughtful and subtle mode of existential reflection than the kind of gossip than we might expect from say, Susan Carter in the village shop. The retro-feel of the recording and Como’s ‘croony’ yearning doesn’t just paint an idea of the shabby-chic interior of the space – it opens up a philosophical quagmire of uncertainty. Which is ultimately why we tune in to Ambridge anyway…isn’t it?!