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Album reviews – John Greaves, David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’ reissue (“a muted treasure”)

10 Sep

John Greaves, David Cunningham: 'Greaves, Cunningham'

John Greaves, David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’

Too much information.

I’ll own up to being the occasional sad muso, the sort of person who wants to know which guest musician banged the tambourine on the second (unused) take of The Beatles’ Revolution on June 24, 1968, and what colour trousers they were wearing. (Look, it’s a hypothetical. Don’t send your replies).

It’s refreshing, then, to be recommended an album and know little or nothing about the artist. David Cunningham I am familiar with as the person behind The Flying Lizards, purveyors of bizarre‑sounding kitchen‑sink electronics who had a surprise hit in the ’70s with a version of early Motown hit Money, and has since produced much of Michael Nyman’s work. John Greaves? Search me. My excellent editor will no doubt insert a knowledgeable mini‑biog here. I think John Greaves may have been in some way involved in prog. God help us… (Near enough. He used to be in Henry Cow ‑ an enthralling but demanding gang of ferociously complex Maoist art‑rockers in the ’70s ‑ playing bass on revolutionary stuff that was far too twisty to sing over. Perhaps as a reaction, he’s been a song‑albums man ever since. Prog by default, I guess: the difference isn’t as wide as some would like to imply ‑ ED.).

So I didn’t know what to expect. What I found is a delicate and intensely beautiful curio. Totally motionless. Ice cold. Pure electronics, free of the distortion and sampling that we so associate with the form now, and only occasionally breathed upon by natural sounds. And a voice that sings of emotion but remains, almost intriguingly, detached.

The Mirage is a less than promising opening, though. It almost justifies the accusation that much avant‑garde music is simply nice melodies and good singers ruined by someone working randomly through all the programs on their synth in the background. But one is immediately struck by the voice of John Greaves: somewhere between Dominic Appleton of Breathless (and, more famously, This Mortal Coil) and John Cale ‑ appropriately, Greaves is also a Welsh tenor. The sort of voice, frankly, that is only ever heard in art‑rock. It’s heard to great effect on one of the stand‑out tracks, The Magical Building. A beautiful melody and a peculiarly touching analogy ‑ “Oh darling, it’s all so mysterious / The magical building that is us” ‑ despite its unusually clinical feel. Cunningham’s stark, clean electronic backing evokes further This Mortal Coil comparisons.


 
One Summer allows about the most human emotion on this album. Regret. The harmonies are all‑too‑real in beautifully surrounding Greaves’ voice as he regrets: “Swimming all around and never getting closer / To the one damn thing you knew we needed most…/ In a way, we never happened / In a way, we were never there / In a way, we were phantoms / In a way, we were fish in air…/ In a way, we didn’t care / And there’s nobody left to tell the tale.” If that doesn’t get you weeping over summer love affairs long gone, you are truly heartless.


 
In between the longer vocal tracks, there are a number of short ambient pieces. Whilst all retain the icy atmosphere of the album, the vocals elsewhere are so stunning one longs for their return. Nevertheless, the instrumentals are arresting in their own way, several of them sharing similarities with the recent work of Jansen and Barbieri; particularly the final track, The Map Of The Mountains, where marimbas play a softly rhythmic motif over an evolving ambient sequence. The Red Sand is a rhythmic instrumental of pulsating piano, percussion, strange dislocated vocal snatches, parping saxes and clarinet. The Other World ‑ due to its instrumentation in particular ‑ proves to be a more substantial interruption to the flow of the songs. The acoustic guitars and saxophone bring a more laid‑back feel when the steel‑cold otherworldly electronics have just got you entranced. One big flaw, though ‑ the sax player is given far too many solos whilst suffering from avant‑garditis. He doesn’t so much play the tune so much as parp strange caterwauling noises. Cheers, mate ‑ do ruin the atmosphere. Anyway…



 
The Voice returns. The Inside, penned by Greaves alone, is (apart from a recurring, majestic‑bubblegum hook of “oh, baby, oh”) sung entirely in French. So, no, I have no idea what it’s about: suffice to say that it appears an unwritten rule of art‑rock albums that they must feature a track sung in French. Whatever the content, this is an achingly simple torch song, so standard in its verse‑chorus‑verse‑bridge structure that it emerges as a feat of understatement when the temptation to load on the sounds would have been all too easy. The Same Way, also a Greaves‑penned track, is another song about lost love, finding love, insecurity about love ‑ “You could say I’m way off course / You could say I love you.” Indeed, it ends in the same way it began.

This is an album, a muted treasure, to discover as autumn ends. Music for a midwinter morning ‑ intensely cold, but intensely beautiful.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

John Greaves, David Cunningham: ‘Greaves, Cunningham’
Piano, PIANO 506 (604388401024)
CD-only album reissue
Released: 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

John Greaves online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM

David Cunningham online:
Homepage Last FM

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