September 1995 – live reviews – B. J. Cole & The Transparent Music Ensemble + Billy Currie & Blaine L. Reininger @ Upstairs at the Garage, Highbury, London, 20th September (“a classical dissection of folk, like Irish airs meeting New York minimalism… a beautiful translucent sound”)

23 Sep

A definite whiff of conservatoire rock tonight. Viola player Billy Currie used to be in Ultravox,: nowadays he looks more like an Irish pub musician, but his music has taken a more interesting turn, as has his choice of collaborators. Former Tuxedomoon violinist and occasional singer Blaine L. Reininger – with his unnerving bespectacled stare, lugubrious ironic drawl, Zappa face-fuzz and impeccable suit – looks like a college professor whom you wouldn’t allow near the children, and draws most of the attention this evening.

This unlikely pair perform a set of serious brow-furrowed John Cale-y string duets with a flavour of compressed folk, using an endearingly cheap sequencer to expand the instrumentation: clave and sweep piano program on Bittersweet, digital string orchestra on Overcast. On The Reach of Memory, sparse piano clumps, drum program and synth bass kicks into Currie and Reininger’s apparent take on Appalachian mountain music. The Thin End of the Wedge sees Reininger on trashy art-rock guitar for a Velvet Underground feel.

Their music has a strange, detachedly astringent feel; a classical dissection of folk, like Irish airs meeting New York minimalism. A sense of towering expression repressed, amplified, by Reininger’s menacing suavity: the set highlight is The Green Door, in which Reininger sings words from a documentary on schizophrenia to a strong melody over sparse drum program and organ. Seems wholly appropriate. I’m impressed, but I feel a little queasy.

In contrast, pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole is a ridiculously normal-looking guy with a peculiar past. Back in the ’70s he was the leader of Cochise (probably the only prog/psychedelic band based around pedal steel) and subsequently explored psychedelic country music in 1973 on his ‘New Hovering Dog’ album. Over the years since then, he’s been the ubiquitous sideman and sessioneer to everyone who wants an open-minded pedal steel approach, from The Orb to Björk to Procul Harum to Scott Walker, and in particular John Cale. Since 1989 he’s also been leading this occasional band; the Transparent Music Ensemble, an ambient-flavoured chamber music quintet also featuring keyboards, cello, percussion and violin prodigy Bobby Valentino, best known for his London country music stardom.

Cole’s Transparent Music is a sedate, relaxing experience, pleasantly beautiful and unfussy, far too laid-back to be pretentious. Reflective melodic strings tie in with his steel lines, keyboards support gently, percussion shades rather than impels. Some people point out Brian Eno as the inventor of ambient music: others such as Cole know that it goes back to the days of Satie and Debussy, both of whole expressed ambient intentions long before the days of synths and tape loops, wishing to create music that merged with the tinkle of cutlery. Works by both are played tonight, along with a version of Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a slow cloudy cover with Cole’s ringing pedal steel dreaming out the tune.

Transparent Music is unselfconsciously universal: if something fits in with that softly lustrous sound, Cole and co. play it and let someone else draw up the distinctions if they’ve got nothing better to do. The original pieces stream neatly into place alongside the classics: Indian Willow’s choppy subterranean strings, Promenade & Arabesque’s pizzicato accents. Throughout, Cole’s steel pines and slides gracefully. That is, when he hasn’t MIDI-processed it into another sound – sad film-noir saxophone on Adagio in Blue to contrast with Valentino’s passionate classical violin, or the fluting electronic sounds on Easter Cool counterpointing the piano and bass drum.

It isn’t exactly music to stir the blood. What it is is very accomplished classy atmosphere music, a beautiful translucent sound whose function is just to exist and to please. That may sound superficial, but if so it’s a refined and civilised pleasure of superficiality. Gentle classics stroked with electricity and with a sense of ambient context, reclaiming the sector where popular instrumental and classical cross, and with no hint of elevator music. Easy listening with a brain. Satie and Debussy would have approved.

B. J. Cole online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

Billy Currie online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

Blaine L. Reininger online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

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