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REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’ albums, 2002 (“a game of reverse-chicken… impressive and utter liquefaction”)

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

The second part in Darkroom’s ‘Fallout’ trilogy ( a set of interwoven concert travelogues) sees the unorthodox dark-ambient trio shrink to fit circumstances: recorded over the course of four gigs in Cambridge between spring 2000 and spring 2001, ‘Fallout 2’ records their first period of work as a duo. With singer Tim Bowness temporarily absent from the group, the five lengthy live tracks see Darkroom’s sound now built up entirely from Andrew Ostler’s infinitely malleable, polluted volume of electronic sounds and Michael Bearpark’s massed, heaven-and-hell loop guitars.

Subtracting the singer should have meant removing the human face from Darkroom’s activities. It should have forced their music – which was already suffused with hanging menace, dense atmospherics and chaotic leanings – further down the road to alienation. In fact, the opposite is true. Minus those fragmentary Bowness sighs, whispers and melodic wails, Darkroom do relinquish part of their edge of romance and distress. But they also dispense with the intimations of human disintegration, morbidity and panic which Tim’s beautifully tortured vocal tones brought to the project.

In his absence, Darkroom is able to relax and experiment with a two-way balance instead of the three-way teeter they’d thrived on previously. Os and Michael sit back and play off each other – not in unison, but in a dialogue of occasional crossings and of deceptive, mock-disengaged responses. As with ‘Fallout One‘, the two-man Darkroom continue to embrace instinctive wandering noise-stews rather than art-rock discipline.

For this album, at least, these are gentler brews: one even begins with a serene duet of heaven-scented loop guitar and a windblown squiggle of pink noise, rather than the warning tones of before. Released from some of his duties as textural foil to Tim, it’s Michael who now gives the music its anchors: cyclic calling phrases, humming confections of layered Frippertronic-like loops, space-echoed licks, sometimes a sound like someone wrenching their way out of a giant metal tank. Os – as usual – takes responsible for most of the layers of sonic detail and for the most drastic directional shifts within Darkroom’s ever-restless improvisations.

Os’ increasing plunderphonic tendencies (linking and threading pieces with snippets of international radio conversation, Cambridge choristers or muezzin calls) prove that behind his responsibilities for the main body of Darkroom’s sound, he’s also the joker in the pack, dialling up effects and textures from a vast trick-bag of electronic sounds which he then sloshes across the speakers and leaves to evolve. His rhythms, too, betray a sense of cool, amused mischief. He’ll stitch in trails of techno beats, or hijack a piece five-and-a-half minutes in with jazzy cymbals and toms drenched in flapping dub treatments. He’ll even drop in the occasional comedy drum-wallop to accompany some blooping synth sounds he appears to have stolen off a kiddy-ride in a shopping center. Inscrutable humour aside, Os also assembles a remarkable variety of more solid elements to flesh out Darkroom’s randomness: imposing psychedelic cadences, static veils and suggestive electrophonic shapes.

Though Michael Bearpark’s playing still owes a debt to Robert Fripp (via his “Bearatronics” loops and his occasional digressions into trumpet-guitar), he’s far less formally-minded. While you could also draw parallels to the mangled roots sounds used by David Torn, Michael is a far more reticent, distant and watchful guitarist: less flamboyant, but similarly eclectic. Across the album, he comes up with the kind of junkyard guitar that Marc Ribot would be proud of; or treats us to yanks and scrabbles of twanging guitar in the vein of Henry Kaiser or Fred Frith. He unwinds collapsing, Spanish-guitar-style electric rolls; or feeds in the Bill Frisell-influenced ghost-country minimalism that he’s increasingly stamped onto Darkroom music. Os responds with gusty, gauzy swirls of noise, or busies himself chopping up the sound even as Michael enriches it.

It’s co-operation of a kind, I suppose. Sometimes the Bearpark/Os interplay is gloriously subtle. More often, they’re engaged in a game of reverse-chicken in which they seem to be seeing just how far they can wander from each other’s playing before Darkroom collapses, adding a kind of free-jazz risk to the elements of illbience, Krautrock and musique concrete that already flourish in the group’s sound. Darkroom’s apparent abstract shapelessness (more accurately their indifference to, and boredom with, the monotonous formality of much electronic music) seems to put a lot of people off. However, their loosely-knit and liberated music still has few rivals or peers in electronica.

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

Tim Bowness returns for ‘Fallout 3’ which at first listen sounds as if it could be pegged as the kinder, gentler Darkroom. This seems an unlikely label. Nonetheless, the album initially seems something of a let-up from Darkroom’s unsettling dark-ambient explorations.

As the group’s main studio-flexer, Os exerts most of the active control over the emerging music. On this occasion, he does this by taking more of those Darkroom live recordings and drastically remixing them. Drawn from two of the mid-2000 Cambridge gigs which initiated ‘Fallout 2’ (plus four other gigs between 1999 and 2000 in Cambridge and London), ‘Fallout 3’ is tagged as “a celebration of the art of post-production” and compresses their rich, chaotic improvised sprawl into a thickening wall of noise. This is Darkroom as jelly, rather than their usual coils of prismatic vapour. In the process, it displays a side of the group which might appeal better to ambient-music aficionados and art/noise acolytes (those who’ve so far proved immune to, or unconscious of, Darkroom’s brooding wide-open power).

The art-rock richness of Tim’s keening, beautiful-agony vocal was previously something of a scene-stealer – especially when it reached heights of drama which recalled Peter Hammill at full tilt. This time it drifts faintly through the mix like a displaced ghost. Half-obscured, half-dreamy, its physical presence fades to a livid imprint. As for the industrial-melodic textures of Michael’s guitars (and his layered MiniDisc manipulations), these have sunk even deeper than before into the fabric of Darkroom sounds, as have most of the drum loops. The most audible Darkroom instrumentation to be heard on ‘Fallout 3’ is the humble studio fader and the reverb unit, teasing their way through the music and rebuilding detail.

Turned right down, ‘Fallout 3’ sounds like the smooth-peanut-butter option compared to the crunchier varieties of ‘Fallout One’ and ‘Fallout 2′. Turned up, though, the music piles upwards inexorably; like a thick fluid shot through with veins of displaced voices. Sometimes these voices belong to Tim, processed almost beyond recognition to become muttering crowds or alien choirboys. Sometimes they’re radio voices stroked out of the ether by Os’ continuing casual interest in plunderphonics. Those little instrumental dialogues and monologues that used to weave through Darkroom pieces have been melted down too. Everything played becomes food to feed this new amorphous monster.

The result is that, more than ever, Darkroom’s music has the amnesiac, dissolving qualities of oceans. Powerful and ever-massing, and strangely indifferent to the repercussions of its nature. The sound itself, for what it’s worth, is closer to dry land if perhaps not stable ground. That continuously-rumbling, near-geological depth of soundfield and the thick “angry-earth” quality to the sound brings this reinvented Darkroom closer to the relentless, tectonic grind of Robert Hampson’s dark-ambient process music in Main. Like Main’s, the pieces on ‘Fallout 3’ are much of a muchness. All are slightly differing curves on a line mostly heading in one direction, arcing beyond post-rock to the land of out-rock. There’s far less of the more identifiable tendencies of the past – nowhere near as much of that Fripp-&-Eno-swimming-in-Lee-Perry’s-galactic-fishtank feel. The always diffuse identities of the Darkroom players are now barely there at all. The music has turned them inside out.

Consequently this is seventy-five minutes of impressive and utter liquefaction that’s still– identifiably – Darkroom, and which also enables them to thumb an invisible nose at past accusations of formlessness. Even when their musical substance is reduced to something as intangible as this, Darkroom’s baleful and beautiful intent remains intact: a long way beyond the easy trance to which most electronic acts are finally reduced. Darkroom’s vision is still inexplicable and alien. It’s also still undeniable.

Neither kinder nor gentler, then. Just even more seductively suffocating and inscrutable.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’
Burning Shed (no catalogue numbers or barcodes)
CD-R/download albums
Released: 01 January 2002 (‘Fallout 2’) & 1st February 2002 (‘Fallout 3’)

Get them from:
Burning Shed (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘) or Bandcamp (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘)

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

28 Feb

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness. Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by SIB’s James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

CONCERT REVIEW – The Bochmann Quartet (performing Keith Burstein’s ‘String Quartet No. 1 – ‘Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love’) @ Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution, Highgate, London, UK, sometime in 2002 (“rich, dissenting harmonies… the discolorations of love”)

28 Aug

Outside it’s a dark and rainy night in Highgate. Random and forceful, the wind lashes a miserable drizzle against the Highgate Lit and Sci’s bright white rational walls and skylighted roof. Sometimes, nature just cues you in.

Initially it seems perverse for the Bochmann Quartet to sandwich Keith Burstein’s new composition between two gems of classical string assurance (Mozart’s Quartet In G, K387 and Beethoven’s Quartet In F Opus 18 No. 1). As a latterday composer, surely Burstein’s work belongs with the moderns… whoever they are in these days of “post”s and “quasi”s.

But maybe not. Burstein’s “post-atonal” compositions are far from the deconstructed chance/hazard/subjective strategy of the varied Cage and Stockhausen traditions, from the shocking trills and tangles of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (one British compositional generation up) or even from the complex, angry clash of his near-contemporary Mark-Anthony Turnage. Also, his passionate defense of a renewed respect for traditional tonality suggests he’s spinning back towards the arms of classical music, where the breadth of human emotion can be represented in harmonious, resolvable tone colours; and where every piece contains all the pointers to a final flourish, a final satisfying closure of emotion before the dignified applause.

Well… not quite. The actual separation is made explicit by the Bochmanns’ assured navigation of Mozart’s enlightened equations beforehand, and by their stately walkthrough of Beethoven’s forest moods afterwards: each of them eminently satisfying. It’s not just the qualities of musicianship from all four players – committed and graceful throughout. It’s the way that those familiar pieces, rich in harmony and involvement, leave a pure satisfaction in their wake. In the face of jagged modernist upheaval and playful post-modernist scatter, our educated, structured culture still prizes its rationality: the patterns of classical music run through this, reassuring us that whatever emotions we go through, all will pass to resolution. Of all compositions, string quartets (as Bochmann cellist Peter Adams reminds us) were once considered the pinnacle of composed music – that which implies an ideal for living, for feeling.

Burstein’s String Quartet No. 1 (which sports, with an antique and near-mediaeval directness, the subtitle of “Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love”) reflects this particular ideal and its associated duty far more than does the dissonance and overt chaos of modernity and post-modernity. Yet as a composer Burstein remains too honest to simply copy the balance of classical music’s ideals. Marked by different times (when ideals are less easy to envisage, let alone achieve) this string quartet is rooted in an earlier Burstein composition – ‘This Year’s Midnight”, a choral meditation on the Holocaust. It draws on the bitter nourishment of bereavement; and of the splintered confusion when the rudder of faith snaps and incomprehensible chaos seems to have moved in for good. Contained in a shell of formal behaviour and formal tonality, it illustrates disturbance with diffident, insinuating elegance.

Movement 1 (Farewell) builds out of gently interleaving, swelling tonal planes – each instrument alternating through slow arcs of intensity, circulating restlessly. An elegy, for certain, but one in which decorum and dissension mix like the conflicting undercurrents of grief at a death. Complex emotions are hauled up skittering into the open; a disagreeing family protesting mutely and piecemeal at the funeral speeches, their disagreement only in betrayed by the shifting of tense shoulders and the blur of lips. Similar in its morbid beauty to the disturbed vigil-music of Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, Farewell is tolled to silence by Adams’ tense cello before Burstein conjures an aspirant, wounded passage with a translucent John Taverner frugality. Launched achingly upwards, it’s kept airborne by the Bochmann Quartet’s gritted bowing: both composition and performance feeling like the heroic efforts of straining birds’ wings.

As a counterweight – a celebration of ongoing lives and commitments in the face of loss – Movement 2 (Paradiso) is a wedding dedication. Filled with serenity, lofted on a bluesy cello arpeggio, its aspirational qualities are still shaded by rich, dissenting harmonies. Here, Burstein seems to have captured the discolorations of love. He illustrates its small perversities, the need for steering, the impossibility of a pure love in a troubled world, but the sheer necessity of striving towards it.

Keith Burstein: ‘String Quartet No. 1 (Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love’) – 2nd movement: ‘Paradiso’ (performed by The Bochmann Quartet)

The third movement, Animato Nervosa, seems to show the alternative – or what happens if loss and fear are allowed to overshadow life. Distracted and lonely, it suggests a neurotic correctness forever threatened by worry. The vivid spectre of collapse tugs constantly at its order and structure, the disturbance led by Adams’ increasingly aggressive cello lines. More brittle than the preceding movements, it’s also more obvious in its violence. The title is as much medical as musical – the dissension hovering in Farewell is ingrained here. It’s more personal, more destructive in the fierce shying of the melodies; and it’s here that the Bochmann Quartet show a darker mettle in the broken, conflicting string lines. As Adams delivers a final growling, twisted stab, there’s a tense pause; then Helen Roberts replies – and seals the movement – with a vicious snap of viola strings.

The fourth and final movement (Totentanz/Liebestraum) sees Burstein draw more sharply on the Jewish music in his background and on the collective bereavement which informed The Year’s Midnight. The nervous jazzy energy and cartoonish structures of Kletzmer folk music simultaneously energize the piece and seem to set it up for wreckage. In the rush of the dance, Michael Bochmann and Mark Messenger deliver bold violin strokes which grow gradually more and more frantic, almost leaping backwards onto each other’s toes. All is suddenly cut off, leaving all four musicians rocking precariously on the brink of a void. From here, the Quartet seem to be picking up pieces of music and attempting fearfully to rethread them on a sobre spine of cello. At last, love’s dream melody arrives – but as comforting as it is, it’s also shot through with trauma (not least by the return of the tolling cello from the first movement).

Burstein’s work is more tuneful and more polite than much of what we’re accustomed to from today’s abrasive, bullishly challenging concert-hall premieres. But in its mannered English way, it’s just as confrontational about the fears that beset us.

The Bochmann Quartet (Michael Bochmann) online:
Homepage

Keith Burstein online:
Homepage

Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter

EP reviews – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

Album reviews – Blue Apple Boy (with Tiny Wood): ‘Salient’ (“a fistful of hallucinated tabloid pages”)

6 Nov
Blue Apple Boy: 'Salient'

Blue Apple Boy: ‘Salient’

Change your name: it doesn’t always change your problems. Take Sleepy People, for example, who hauled their lively kaleidoscopic music around an unrewarding British indie circuit (and through a dozen fragile lineups) for a decade. In 2000 they relaunched as Blue Apple Boy, yet retained their perennial instability. Within a year, bandleader Paul Hope was stalled back home in Newcastle minus a singer and half of his musicians.

Sometimes, though, you can take advantage of the problems. At the same time, Britpop anti-hero Tiny Wood (the former frontman for indie-glam stars Ultrasound) was also back in Newcastle, his former band smeared across London as a smouldering Icarus-heap of terminal wreckage and recriminations. Before all that, back in the mid-’90s, Tiny had been the original Sleepy People singer: now he and Paul had common wounds to lick, common sympathies, some comforting nostalgia. Perhaps they even shared, and enjoyed, some affinity-building stubbornness. A mutually beneficial team-up must have seemed so logical…

All of which leads us to the Blue Apple Boy debut album, ‘Salient’ – effectively, a Sleepy People reunion, with the additional expectations of an Ultrasound sequel looming over it. Even before a note is heard, this album struggles with the conflicting yanks of cult-pop demands. Blue Apple Boy make as much hay as possible from Tiny’s cult-hero status, but risk a spurning from aggressively heartbroken Ultrasound fans (who might just crucify a hero who won’t do what they want of him). In practice, ‘Salient’ makes the most of these pressures and contradictions. It’s not quite what’s expected, yet it’s firmly familiar and keeps its own defiant identity to the end.

As with Sleepy People, the songwriting remains predominantly under Paul Hope’s control, and it’s his particular psychedelic quirks that dominate the record. All Systems Fail and Who’s That Calling are typical of this: cute and melodic, in-your-face playful; and leaping off in odd, sometimes vexing, directions as they caper and strive for your attention. Peculiar stories are flourished at you like a fistful of hallucinated tabloid pages. Riffling through assorted newspapers, Paul tracked down real-life accounts of sleepwalkers, bridge-fallers and other unfortunates: re-filtered through the Hope song prism, these tales suggest a tilted world in which people constantly stray off into the margins, crumpled and bizarre.

Whatever other changes the band have gone through, their free-romping jolliness remains intact. They retain their twitchy rhythms, their chugging power-pop guitar lines and their fairy-dust spangles of keyboard, (this time, provided by Vietgrove’s Norman Fay). Paul’s wife Rachel Theresa is still on hand to add her twirling cascades of flute and bubbling analogue synthesizer. In the space of a single song, Blue Apple Boy are likely to traverse space-rock, ska, post-punk and light entertainment. They’ll mix up, with equal affection, the memories of Magazine and The Monochrome Set with those of dusty archive clips of ‘Children’s Hour’; or fuse the nervous thresh of Cardiacs with the sitcom jingles of Ronnie Hazlehurst.

The band’s tinges of eerie head-spinning sound and fairytale absurdity – all very English – also nod to Syd Barrett or, more often, Gong. Despite Tiny’s top billing and Paul’s songwriting dominance, there’s occasionally a communal Gong-family feel to the album, and on three tracks, Tiny is absent altogether. It’s Rachel who provides the spun-sugar lead vocals to The Moon Is Hungry’s Gurdijieffian bossa-nova; and to the hokey-cokey, carousel-prog of Leave The Mud For The Worms. On Apples And Pears (a brief whimsical interlude of psychedelic innocence and nursery babble) Paul and Rachel’s children provide chatter and giggles.

Yet at the heart of the album is the return of Tiny – who has never seemed more at home anywhere than he does here. While Ultrasound had their moments of true connection and emotion, they were ultimately victims of their own grandiose quest for scale and significance: at their worst, they’d belly-flop into grotesque navel-gazing parodies of arena-rock. ‘Salient’ proves that Tiny’s brooding outsider tendencies and flinty tones turn out to be better in smaller environments, posting beady jabs of art-rock from halfway up the pole.

In addition, Tiny displays a knack for adding sardonic, solemn depth to even the most whimsical ideas. Carefully souring Paul Hope’s sonic candy, he highlights the dirt and scrapes lurking behind the playfulness. If Rachel has always been Paul’s most loyal musical foil, Tiny’s always been the one to add grit to his fancies.

For instance, a song about the disorientation and horror of retirement homes (Sunshine Valley Paradise Club) has almost too much musical gamesmanship going on. There are bundles of instruments falling out of the cupboard; there’s a spooky careen of a verse leading into a chorus like a ’70s sitcom theme wrestling with Iggy Pop, then tumbling down the stairs. To cap it off, there’s a dirty great plume of polluted guitar noise from Richard Green (another ex-Ultrasounder and former Sleepy Person, passing through with a psychedelic razz). Yet it’s Tiny, teetering between dignity and hysteria, who reaches through all of this romping and draws out the song’s humanity; the failing dignity of the elderly narrator, the chintz and decorum which rubs shoulders with the sinister.

At other times, Tiny shoves his way through a song like the bastard bare-knuckled offspring of Howard Devoto and the young Peter Gabriel. On Hanghar, Blue Apple Boy deliver a dogged psychedelic pelt along the reality faultline. While a bossa-nova flute-and-birdsong break sweetens the pill for a moment, Paul’s choppy blunt-razor-punk guitar and Tiny’s snarling slides across the melodies make it flit edgily between freedom and menace, vision and insanity. “Seeing the door that’s carelessly open, sliding like a shadow you move… / Light as a feather you’re sailing / while they’re nailing your face to the floor.”

Across the album, Tiny proves to have many more strings to his bow. He lends a junk-Sinatra majesty to the moonstruck marine gloom of Every Wave is Higher on the Beach, with its midnight compulsions and harbour lights: while its cryptic lyric is actually about spawning turtles led astray and into peril by human encroachments on their world, Tiny makes it sound like the return of a disorientated prodigal son. On the sinister sleepwalking fantasia of Dead Man Walking, he snarls over the spasming riffs like a resentful marionette. When he’s simply interpreting a song, though, he adds no more than implications, fine though they are. When he’s given a hand in the songwriting – adding layered lyrics to Hope’s musical inventiveness – he focuses the whole band onto something more pointed.

On the two occasions when this happens, Blue Apple Boy rise above their eccentricities to blaze out two Tiny-scaled anthems for the lost and sidelined (“Born from hope to homelessness, I think / Life is just a kitchen sink…”) As theatrical as anything Ultrasound offered, they recapture that band’s zest in spitting from the outside. These two songs also see Tiny fully focused – a surreal, self-appointed martyr; a champion of car-crash lives at the sharp end of a brutal universe. One of them, Cold War, is even explicitly billed as a follow-up to Ultrasound’s blisteringly romantic Stay Young. It sounds like the evil twin of a Christmas single – stately, but apocalyptic. Tiny struggles though a blasting, suffocating winter-of-the-soul: as people die in the snow around him, distant heartless bells tinkle.

The other song, Jump Start, has already had a few trips around the block. Previously (with different lyrics and frontman) it was a jittering, paedophile-panic single called Freak. Transformed by Tiny, it becomes a cavalcading anthem of blockages, resurgences and blown chances. “The golden door, / it shuts in your face and you’re always poor.” As melodies veer and crash around him, Tiny delivers a sardonic twist on the ageing underground spirit – “Citizen Smith went to heaven, and everyone else drove to Brighton / Cleaner, greener, newer – and I’m frightened…” Maybe it’s a portrait of the Ultrasound collapse; maybe it’s just Tiny voicing a sudden sense of the cold wind that suddenly blows around ageing romantics and freezes the Byron out of them.

Either way, it encapsulates the way this late, reconciling album works. There are bumps in the dream. If handed a nasty twist in the tale, sing it out with your own twist.

Blue Apple Boy (with Tiny Wood): ‘Salient’
Soma Sound, SOMASOUND002
CD album
Released: 28th October 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Blue Apple Boy online:
Last FM YouTube

EP reviews – Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’ (“a sweet and sometimes raucous noise”)

27 Oct
Galitza: 'Laugh Like A Horse'

Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’

Galitza make a sweet and sometimes raucous noise. A Leeds alliance of self-styled “evil pop-bitch” Emma Bob III (formerly of Chest) with most of the mortal remains of sharp-witted popsters Landspeed Loungers, they’ve combined as a pop trifle of guitar chunks, lemony organ and various voices, laced with something heady and mischievous. Sometimes they sound like a Sarah Records band, but if so they’re one that decided to ditch emotional fragility for being naughty and happy, for adopting really stupid nicknames (Dr Strikto, anyone?), and for storming pubs and cheating at cocktail-drinking competitions. They’re also a Siamese twin act fronted by a husband and wife (Stevie and Emma) who only occasionally pull the Sonny and Cher trick; and only with a sly quirk, at that.

The two sides of Galitza share certain reflexes (the touch of rumbling funk in the basement, the attractive tangle of tangy guitars), but alternate faces. When it’s Stevie’s turn at the biggest mic, Galitza are sharp-tinged indie pop with a post-Loungers taste for sardonic wit. Empty Hands races and jangles along like a perkier Furniture, putting the boot into self-serving mediocrity (“a year or two, to and fro, nothing new – / you’re just passing through / and just OK”) and to bogus management (“now they talk, now you’re in, now you’re hot. / Tomorrow comes – they forgot.”) When a bucketing chorus arrives, yelling “you wouldn’t know what to do – you wouldn’t know if it jumped up and bit you,” you realise that you could wrap this up and post it to the next train company that makes you late, the next board member to fuck you around in the office… in fact any timeserver who blows out their duties.

Closer to home (and despite the meaty guitars), You Must Be The Devil could almost be The Beautiful South – rich and delicate male and female falsettos, and a song with a broken glass in one hand. Fingernails pry apart the more welcome, teasing tortures of love… you know, the kind remembered with a twisted pleasure once it’s all dried up. “There was a time you had me hooked, you had me hooked all helplessly. / You’d reel me in, then cast me out – lucky me.” Covering Jackie Lee’s dreamy White Horses, Galitza pull it off with a mixture of mischief and affection. Emma’s inclinations to succumb to the melody’s rich sway are continually undercut by Stevie’s blissfully distorted harmony vocals.

When Emma takes the full lead, Galitza are seduced into rich and subtle melodrama – frustrated love songs, well aware of their unhealthy obsessions yet determined to ride them through. Or, unable to escape them, to cherish them instead. “You’re right, you know you are; but it still feels wrong,” Emma sings on the plaintive Stalker (in which her voice lolls luxuriantly like a stoned jazz diva across the melody and the mosaic of guitars). “It’s a stupid streak, these fits of pique, / but it’s mine, this hopeless desire – / I confide, I feel like a liar.”

For Rattle In Me, she’s much more direct. A Massive Attack-styled lust-blues, with a seismic throb of Bristol bass and a swelling thorn-bush of rising guitar mass, it’s swarming with torch tension and growing anger. “You put this rattle in me; you pull me to you: then it’s ‘just-good-friends’,” Emma murmurs, a warning vibrating just beyond her controlled cool. Add another thoroughly compelling Leeds band to the list.

Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’
Wrath Records, WRATHCD05
CD/download-only EP
Released: October 2002

Buy it from:
CD from Wrath Records; download from iTunes.

Galitza online:
HomepageLastFM

Album review – Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt. 1’ album, 2002 (“a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man”)

18 Sep

Steve Lawson: 'Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline - Pt 1'

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline – Part 1’

Dedicating an entire album to a cat sounds unforgivably twee, but Steve Lawson really couldn’t care less. He’s probably immune to any such embarrassment, having long fostered an image as The Cuddly Solo Bass Player (This included a stint braving potentially fatal scorn from Level 42 fans, when he played some unmanly support slots to their heroes while wearing angora coats, glitterball T-shirts and heterosexual nail varnish. If he isn’t immune to embarrassment, at least he can claim that that’s something Paul Simonon never had the balls to do.) There’s also solidity to his gesture: the cat in question is Steve’s old and ailing Abyssinian, and Steve himself is a firm believer in the lessons gained from loving our companions (pets included) and learning to accept their ageing and their eventual deaths.

Originally ‘Lessons Learned From An Ancient Feline Pt 1’ was a free companion release for the second Steve Lawson album – ‘Not Dancing For Chicken‘. As such, it’s inevitably less ordered. At the crudest summary, it’s an outtakes-plus kind of release compiling the bits of the ‘…Chicken’ sessions which didn’t fit comfortably onto the main album. Even so it gives a surprisingly effective rough’n’ready look at Lawson’s prolific and wide-ranging talent. The lover of pretty tunes who’s also a serious gear-hound and sound-mangler; the electronic texture looper who’ll groove like Gilberto. The distorted beat-science meddler with a thoroughly un-ironic taste for playing Fly Me To The Moon straight with no chaser or spoiler.

On the easy side, there are a couple of bits of Lawson the Latin lover. The opening One Hip Cat is a twangy Brazilian-style guitar study, allowing him to display some accomplished jazzy chops inside its lazy summery breeziness. There’s a hint of what’s to come via in the shape of the occasional odd drones undercutting the music; drifting in like the suspicion of sharky shadows deep below blue lagoon water. Here Endeth The Lesson is one of Steve’s loop-assisted live collaborations with himself – a duet between a slow Latin rhythm bass with a pillowy tone and a solo fretless bass carrying the tune. The latter (high and tenor-y) sings off into the dusk with an impeccable spacey melodicism, ultimately sliding away into a sleeper’s fade.

Either of these two pieces could have fitted into a summer jazz festival of samba and ice cream, and they’d also have matched those glitterball T-shirts. Two neighbouring pieces definitely couldn’t. Cute names notwithstanding, both Framulous Jam and Evil Harv’s Evil Empire are discombobulated systems music. Like everything else on the album, they’re generated solely by Steve’s bass guitar and effects rack in real time. Unlike the easy-on-the-ear pieces, they sound thoroughly electronic and abstracted.

Evil Harv’s Evil Empire arrays fast and atonal binary-on-off hums, mingling them with suspension-bridge twangs and plucks and snips. Interrupt silences and backward sounds are stewed into the brew, before all is ultimately rendered into a backdrop for some of Lawson’s roaming, unbounded glissandi. In Framulous Jam, harmonic chime-chords are worried gently by electronic interrupts, setting up interesting conflicts between hanging sustain and random blip-jitters. Both could sidle into those earnest meets in obscure juice bars, haunted by men from ‘The Wire’ intent on watching other men frown over gurgling laptops.

Ultimately, the album’s centrepiece is the saccharin-titled but sonically stretching two-parter Sleep Eat Snuggle Repeat. In the first part, angelic traces of sustained E-bow bass – thrillingly vocal – move between foggy front of cold and warm textures, exchanging almost imperceptibly. In echoing caverns beyond, pings ring like stressed piano notes, clocks tick, water drops, wah-pedals disgorge diffuse gushes of sound, and bubble-motors pulse and spurt. Part two builds on the preceding one. A float of sounds and traces are punctuated, now and again, by a giant organ-like roar as the digital stops are eased out. It’s pure abstract indulgence, but mightily effective. It sounds like the dreams of a flea on a whale.

The big joke is that behind the twee titles lurks Steve’s most bizarre album yet, and one which stakes his most effective claim to being a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man. What was the most important lesson which Steve Lawson learned from his cat? Why, to move when you least expect it…

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt 1’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013(B) (no barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 2nd September 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp, download only. The original release was a CD-R included with early orders of ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’: some copies may be in circulation second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

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