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REVIEW – Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’ singles, 2012 & 2013 (“sample-punk turned foley-bard”)

30 Oct

Ian Crause: 'The Song Of Phaethon'

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’

“Well, I know, I know the story – / the fall of the sun and the vengeance of glory revoked. / So well, I know how the seas turned to dust, / and how the known earth choked. / So well, I know, I know the ending: / the carriage from its zenith bending, / a comet slung through ashen skies / and burst against the banks.”

Cinematic. Epic. These are words which have been whored out far too often, especially when it comes to describing and defining music. Froth and PR corrode their meanings, reducing them to fancy synonyms for nothing more than crude scale, and we forget that other qualities are wrapped into them. These words shouldn’t just be cheap and glittery tags for charlatans – the kind who steep their tunes in giant vats of reverb, or who substitute eye-watering grandiosity for sincerity. There are more crucial meanings. There’s storytelling, and the churn of history. There’s the play of images, the triggering of senses. Eventually, there should be some kind of understanding.

Ian Crause knows all of this. Back in the 1990s – when he was barely out of his teens, and the driving force behind the startling expressionist pop band Disco Inferno – he was struggling with it himself. Even then, though, he wasn’t stumbling to understand: he was striving to perfect. Disco Inferno had come from limited beginnings but grown fast. Originally a dour post-punk power trio, they’d seized the opportunities presented by technology and imagination and transformed themselves into a whole-world window. Hot-wiring their way into the disruptions and illuminations of found-sound and musique concrète, they plugged guitar, bass and drums into digital samplers and grew themselves an ever-expanding sheath of noises: a startling collage of jarring sound effects, layered into composition and twisted into context.

Disco Inferno’s swarm of noise was never there simply to overwhelm. Instead, it refracted and illuminated the poignant dissatisfied pop songwriting which stood, steadfast, at the band’s core. They were doggedly political, but owed nothing to dogma. Caught within ominous social currents and inside treacherous personal eddies, their songs bore witness to cruelties, both intended and impersonal. Those tearing rivulets of sound-montage were flashes of further illumination, put there to side-swipe and snag the attention, and to up-end complacency. The fragments of birdsong and clattering glassware; the careful punctuation of trains and screams and distant firework-pops; the sound of feet jogging grimly away through a numbing snowfall – all of it bore witness to the swerving cacophony of the world, smearing past our ears and battering our psyche, carrying its deeper meanings and significances into us via a pummeling swirl.

At the heart of this unsettling barrage were Ian’s lyrics, which were wise, stark and bleak beyond his years. He sang about the crumbling of vulnerable individuals; about the fraying of the social contract and distortion of social forces. He sang about the stifling, stunting pressures callously imposed from above. He sang about all of this in a still, small, stubborn voice which sounded like the next-to-last exhalation; as if he was a few crucial steps and dogged heel-digs away from giving up and bleeding out. He sounded brave, bitter and doomed – snarling his scorn at the boot-tread even as it rolled over him. For a while, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bands who refuse to comfort us (or refuse to stroke our sundry petty vanities) rarely get rewarded, and Disco Inferno were no exception – the strains of dealing with commercial indifference and inner despair finally tore them to bits in 1997. A couple of barely-noticed Ian Crause solo EPs hiccupped out in the band’s wake over the next few years, and then he too seemed to drop out of the story.

In fact, he’d only dropped out of the cheaper kind of mythology. That’s the one in which ducking out of music becomes death or disappearance by another name. His own story – the real story – moved on regardless. There were years of growing up and grim jobs to come, and years of being chewed over by the same callous forces he once sang about. In amongst the drudgery, there were other factors. There was fatherhood, and family. Surprisingly (for a lyricist already so accomplished and intelligent) Ian made his first adult engagement with literacy. Curiosity, plus a determination to pursue the roots of song and storytelling, led him to the themes and voices of classical literature. His developing interest in the telling parallels with contemporary society kept him immersed in it. Crucially, Ian discovered the works of Ovid – Roman epic poet and exile – via dedicated translations by Ted Hughes and David R. Slavitt.

Like Ovid, Ian would eventually become an exile himself (a self-determined one, abandoning Britain for Bolivia) and enter into a new swell of creativity. Via his ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid eventually inspired The Song Of Phaethon – Ian Crause’s formal return to music, transformed and developed. It might not be the first new note he’s delivered after eleven years of radio silence. That would be More Earthly Concerns, which welled out via Mixcloud and blogclick in March 2012, and which I’ll talk about elsewhere. But (as Ian begins to dole out his work, in handfuls, onto Bandcamp) The Song Of Phaethon is the first of Ian’s songs to be let out into the marketplace. It’s also probably more crucial in understanding his evolution since his Disco Inferno days.

The protagonist, Phaethon, is and was one of those half-divine children who pepper Greek mythology – he’s the bastard of the sun god Apollo Helios, a malcontent boy strutting up to his sun-father’s palace to claim his ancestry and birthright before he has the wisdom to use it. Greeted, given the acknowledgment he craves, and granted the gift of driving the sun’s chariot for a day, Phaethon is warned of the terrible risks involved. Swallowed up by his grand moment, and too conceited to listen, he takes all of his opportunities to their ruinous conclusions. Losing control of the chariot, he transforms a triumphal fly-past into a joyride and then into a catastrophe. Before the high god Zeus restores order by striking him down, Phaethon scorches a gigantic swathe across the world and casts the seasons into chaos.

Like most figures woven into the complex psychological map of Greek myth, Phaethon still has his role to play. He’s a metaphor for arrogance and a sense of entitlement; he also stands for the destructive potential which both of these follies possess. It’s deep literary currency, and maybe not the first thing which you’d think of as a match for the Crause songcrafting method – so direct and personal in Disco Inferno days. Yet Ian’s battering splay of noises and disaffection opens itself up readily to the mythology, which sinks in grain-for-grain. Explosive futurism meets stern and ancient legend, and both are renewed.

Some of Disco Inferno’s post-punk grit remains at the spine of the music (listen to those dogged dot-trails of frowning bass, or to the occasional flares of wire-wool guitar), but the song falls far away from rock into something older. Myths lend themselves to being channeled into new courses by any means available – Phaethon, for instance, worked his way into a Patricia Barber jazz epic six years previously. Ian rises to his own challenge superbly. In any worthwhile sense, what he comes up for The Song Of Phaethon is a new take on a bardic chant. Its melody is minimal and hypnotic; its rhythms walking, changing pulses constantly driven by the restless words. With vivid artistic appetite, Ian also mines the story’s depths for any resonances which he can transmogrify and feed into his own samples-as-narrative approach.

In this he’s served well – the mythic structure and detail inspire and transform his lyrics, which in turn take on the layered build of classical imagery. Various whispers of fateful moira and foreshadowing rise up to nourish the sounds. From early on, Phaethon’s life is marked by the celestial – right down to the transformation of his familiar landscapes by the passage of the sun and moon each day, continual reminders of his thwarted birthright. Ian reflects this in the woven detail of the narrative: “Every day their shadows ran / down Asia like a lyre, strumming / past his village, swinging down at perihelion / to touch upon his mother’s house / then over dark and quiet woods – / their distant hawks and watching deer / oblivious in bending shade – / descending into seacloud mist, / and down towards the gull-cloud cliffs / to pour their jewels and precious metals / out along the sea.”

Just as he did with Disco Inferno, Ian juxtaposes sound effects with the lyrics to create telling sonic scenery. Though he generally wields these with the skills of a master ironist, he slam them into place with forthright punk brutality whenever he needs to. Throughout, the Greek horns and lyres are a pointed racket: ritual blares, ancient continuo lines. Signatures of antiquity and origin stand solid against the thrumming synths and Ian’s tidal electrophonic swirl of throbbing samples. In prophetic flashes, the clip-clop of horse’s hooves and the slam of violent collisions clatter and blur in and out of the mix, while Phaethon’s more innocent youth is illustrated by the clank of herd bells and goats. In time, his dogged journey through Asia and towards Apollo is dappled and smeared by a souksworth of Asian instruments and chatter, careering past the listener in a flickering travelogue: “Levantine cities raised themselves, then hazed away in dreams of sand, where sand subsumes / the earth itself and still ahead his path led on. But falling always out of reach, the rising sun. / Into the dawn, alone he walked.”).

The effect is of a kind of illuminated text – a cinematic compression of time and location into a vivid illustrative story. That story remains paramount: even while we, as listeners, are being drawn inside those blood-in-the-head thunders and are surrounded by a glorious noise, as if we’ve been trapped under the encircling lip of a vast bronze bell. Beyond the story, though, other dimensions to the tale are coming into play. The song is also a loose parable of another gatecrashing of grand power. “He knew, he knew – / his place was beyond.”

Superimposed – a ghostly transparency – over Phaethon’s story is the tale of Tony Blair’s entry into the Second Gulf War. As this emerges through the song, it’s clear that Ian sees this as another disastrous snatch at high significance and public destiny. Something which flew high and upwards towards glory, only to destroy any achievement of its own, wreaking havoc on the ground and people below. Cunningly, occasional Blairisms are woven both into the narrative and into Phaethon’s thoughts and speech. At one point, he even blathers, Blair-like, “look, you know,” before sliding into advocate pomp and hubristic heroics. For a moment, the pleading voices of the two men overlap within Ian’s narration, making a contradictory cats-cradle out of public morality, power-grabs and a preening Promethean sense of mission. “It was not just God but also man / who clearly needs some representing – / A case I’ll take for free… / Evidentially it takes / a half-divinity to raise / the flag of man aloft for man…”

It follows – with a harsh and unforgiving logic – that the noises of modern warfare should persistently break through the song’s tapestry of ancient sounds. As Ian goes beyond everyday sound effects and begins to violently splice present-day horrors into the textures of the mythical plot and signifiers, the song is slashed up into a jittery palimpsest. Almost from the start, those bleating goats on the ancient Greek hillsides are blindsided by gunshots and by the crash of heavy munitions. With booms, crunches and clatters the shattered, warped shards of twenty-first century concrete and metal scrape and shoulder their own way into the past.

Even specific events from the myth draw across, from recent times, their own crooked parallels. The bursting, clattering crowd-sound of Phaethon’s entry into Apollo’s hall is lifted and twisted from the peak of Blair’s 2003 address to the US Congress. It becomes a Dionysiac smear of fanatical applause and whistles: something turned into a nightmare puppet show, or a rainstorm ripped horribly out of kilter. At the coda, Phaethon is poised unwitting on the brink of disaster. The ascension of the Sun’s chariot merges, indistinguishably, into the noise of a jet fighter launch. Backed by the white-hot screech of the afterburners, the lyrics weave both tales, both times and a set of terrible implications – “the steeds were armed: a blinding shock; / a ferrous scream; a rubber stamp; / and up,” – into final, irrevocable process.

By anyone’s standard, The Song Of Phaethon is a major achievement – a jump-up into fiercely intelligent, confident high art, it stakes new claims and transfigures old ground. It even manages to both stay true to and transcend the moral and political commitments Ian held with Disco Inferno. And yet… it raises a tremulous question of what might have happened to the other side of Ian Crause. Between the immersion in classical tradition (and the dense time-folding focus of the samplers) what’s left of the fervent young New Order fan who always saw himself as fronting a pop band? What, in other words, became of Crause the unlikely pop singer?

Ian Crause: 'Suns May Rise'

Ian Crause: ‘Suns May Rise’

For the answer, look to Suns May Rise, released three months after The Song Of Phaethon. Ian’s mining of Greek mythology is still in place (as are his detailed tapestries of sound-effect) but they’re now wrapped around an out-and-out pop song and a lustrous, dancing melody that Bernard Sumner would give his eye-teeth for. Those Greek lyres and zithers are back, as are the layers of sound effects (sea-spray and thunderous surf crash billow through Suns May Rise from start to finish); but they’re bolstered by massed stadium synth and guttering pop guitar; by angelic powder-puffs of fake-choir; and by warbling rococo flourishes of electronics. Even Ian’s voice – usually so dry, and pointed – is flushed with the balmy blue of a Mediterranean summer. Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins, each at their flounciest, could find common ground with this song’s feverish, chattering opulence. So, come to that, could latterday Marillion.

I suspect that all of this ’80 ornamentation is deliberate. After all, it skips hand-in-hand with other ’80s excesses, and that’s not too far from where Ian’s caustic, righteous attention is focused. Beneath this gleeful and gorgeous bluster, he’s unraveling a story from the Odyssey: a warning bell for avaricious times. As the story has it, Odysseus (while returning from the Trojan Wars) visited the generous Keeper of the Winds, who gave him a bag of sea-gales to ensure that the sails of his ships would be filled and his voyage home would be swift. En route, Odysseus slept; and his friends sneaked up to rifle the bag, in search of treasure which they were sure he’d hidden from them. All they succeeded in doing was to unleash the winds, which blew the ships hither and yon and – eventually – blew them back to where they had started. Reckless avarice, bringing down calamity, provides the keystone of the song. “There will always be some fool / to pull the strings apart. /And suns may set and moons may wax, / and moons may wane and suns may rise – / the gold within his eyes will weigh / Man down a stumbling fool.”

When Ian starts singing about this, though, it’s from the point of view of that corrupted, consensual chorus of friends – the “brothers bound in bronze.” Their coy, self-congratulatory rapaciousness soak his tones like a stain on the teeth. Flushed and greedy with loot already, all they can see is the chance to grab some more. From his own place at the reins of the narrative, Ian reveals their mythic echo in today’s freebooting boy-club of bankers and stockbrokers. Men of unfettered appetite goad each other on. People who simply don’t know when to stop – and who wouldn’t want to even after being handed a sobering, sickening lesson – would still pick perilous holes in opportunity. “You had enjoyed a peace of sorts / The winds had been re-tamed and so / of course the bag was bursting fat: / It fell to men to see to that. / Again so sure the bag would hold / either wine or gold, / Necessity appeared, demanding ‘Open this’.”

It’s here (with a careering inflative screech on “bursting fat”) that Ian himself deliberately unleashes the hidden forces within Suns May Rise, to overwhelm it. From here on in, sounds rise and cyclone – seaspray, radio chatter and winnowing churns of air; a lash of strained rope which morphs from background effect to edgy kick-drum. Amongst all of this the thread of pop song holds fast, stretched taut over an ever-burgeoning epic. In a parading weave of rapid soundbites, assorted newscasters and pundits and politicians roll past in a potted history of the last generation of monetarism. At its tail-end, George W. Bush (waving through a banker’s rescue programme of the kind he’d never have brooked for any other group of people) chokes, gargles and drowns amongst the becalmed wreckage of Odysseus’ ships. Throughout, that teasing pop melody ensures that we’ll remember what happened this time around.

So… the forces eventually sink the meddlers, but there always seem to be more of the latter. Ian conjures up further mythic winds, more specters bringing in ruin from the other far-flung breeding grounds of a destructive capitalist carnival. “Through solids, countries, paper bonds; / The world again reveals itself / in entrails; in open wounds. / The priests and seers shed tears of glee / and privately amuse on how / it still can be that after so long… / there will always be some chance / to pull the threads apart.” Again, the bones of legend rear up inside the flesh of current affairs. Again, this unlikely sample-punk turned foley-bard turns up to show us where those bones are poking through – his words a layered and subtle scourge; even an education. For Ian Crause, it’s been a long and often stony road from transformative teenage angst to his current role of reveal-and-illuminate, but it’s also been a journey of integrity and hard-won vision. The results are even a story in themselves.

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’
Ian Crause (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only singles
Released: 20th November 2012 (‘The Song of Phaethon’), 18th February 2013 (‘Suns May Rise’)

Buy it from:
‘The Song Of Phaethon’ – Bandcamp (the original version reviewed here has now been replaced by this mini-album)
‘Suns May Rise’ – Bandcamp (the single version reviewed here has now been replaced by this version from ‘The Vertical Axis’ album)

Ian Crause online:
Facebook Bandcamp LastFm

October 2013 – live reviews – autumn light, part 2: Daylight Music presents Annie Dressner/Buriers/We Are Children (We Make Sound) @ Union Chapel, Islington, London, 12th October 2013 (“the Daylight mixture of low-key quirk and put-you-at-yer-ease continues to work its magic”)

17 Oct
The Uke of Doom.

The Uke of Doom.

A fortnight on from our last visit to Daylight Music, my family and I are back again. Blame the warmth of the welcome, blame the homemade cake; blame my little son Oscar’s hopes of grabbing a set of hand-bells again. Blame a rare opportunity for us all to like the same kind of thing, but I think we’re hooked. If not hooked, we’re already used to that Daylight Music atmosphere: the occasional sound of a baby’s coo echoing through the cavernous vault of the Union Chapel, the slightly sleepy post-lunchtime ambience, the arts’n’crafts feel to proceedings; that gentle, polite undercurrent of London community ambience that’s getting more and more difficult to find in this time of mounting rents and bugger-my-neighbour.

Daylight family matters - Caitlin and Ben.

Daylight family matters – Caitlin and Ben.

A full-family, free-or-whatever event at a major London junction, Daylight remains something to treasure. Things do change here, of course. The autumn wears on and there’s less and less sun to slip in and kiss the Gothic brickwork, less physical warmth to rouge the stone. The lowering October light dims the room rather than illuminates it, so that everyone onstage seems to be performing inside an unrestored oil painting, beneath a filmy pall of soot and years – but the Daylight mixture of low-key quirk and put-you-at-yer-ease continues to work its magic. Compering the event with his usual pin-point fuzziness, Ben Eshmade seems more and more like a gentle young cousin slowly evolving into a beloved uncle. Caitlin Hogan (Daylight’s beaming, leggy factotum-and-mascot) not only plays the church organ but frisks cheerfully around at the interval with an usherette’s tray. We’re warmed – and when we aren’t, we just pull our clothes around ourselves a little tighter and wait to see who’s come to the show this time.

A short time ago, New York singer-songwriter Annie Dressner crossed the Atlantic to England, swapping the brashness of her hometown for the more reticent self-assurance of Cambridge. As part of the deal, gridlocks were traded for grass commons, skyscrapers for Gothic spires, the swarming of yellow cabs for the purr of passing bicycles. New York isn’t entirely left behind, though: Annie’s very first song today is called Brooklyn. Her soft strum sketches out an altogether quieter place than the ever-rising hipster centre we’d expect: more sideslip Bohemian ’50s than rattling, overcrowded Noughties. The art-life, though, remains at the core of the story in the passing images of painter’s hats and “whiskey in a broken glass”, in the sketch of flawed new lives, the talk of friends, the passing spectre of discouragement.

Annie Dresser - softness is deceptive.

Annie Dresser – softness is deceptive.

Annie herself seems winsome, demure, even folk-soprano cute at the start (Oscar, who’s something of a two-year-old ladykiller, is certainly intrigued). Her dialogue, as she chats to us in between songs, is a halting soft-voiced take on that scatting New York curl of rapid ideas and the slipping between subjects. She claims not to be used to holding a crowd on her own (“Usually my husband plays with me. He tells jokes about cheese,”) but she gives it her best shot: giving us North London travel advice, or revealing which of her songs is her grandmother’s favourite. I’m not sure that she’s quite as much the shy ingénue as she implies. For all her easy-going, soft-cheeked charm, and for all the hushed and humble tones to her singing, she’s got a subtle self-assurance as she stands up there: for all the world like a Modigliani model who got the joke.

I’m not sure how much difference Annie’s Cambridge relocation is likely to make to her songwriting. Her songs don’t need backdrops of big cities or the hungers of creativity in order to work or to find focus: they can work anywhere. In fact, her quiet songs seem better suited to quieter rooms in quieter towns, or just to moments in which people’s reactions are contained in reflection – delicately muted regrets, a steady and accepting love.

Annie seems to write songs like other people read books – pulling in her attention, quietening; becoming stiller, gently illuminated. She’s mastered small, telling, understated images and the knack of placing them, lightly, in the best passing places. Something innocuous like a picture of a turtle becomes tinted with significance, as if caught by a stray beam of light at just the right moment.

Dressner in detail.

Dressner in detail.

Rather than being dramas, Annie’s songs are filled, unobtrusively, with little details of life’s motions. When the blows fall, as they must, they fall softly but decisively, like the moment in Lost In A Car where she sings “the wind was high / and your candle blew out.” When she sings about death, she sings about it in a series of aftershocks or in that slow repetitive rub of mingled grief, guilt and simple wishes that silently burnishes the pain: “if I had come / out in the cold dark night… / I can’t forget, even if I tried: / I can’t forget the night you died… / If I had come a minute sooner…”

Heartbreaker (which, like Lost In A Car, is from this year’s spring EP, ‘East Twenties’) picks over the memory of love lost by running over domestic details, slowly working around and creating the sketch of a man (“your father was a painter and your mother was a teacher – I remember all the things in your house”) but never obsessing over the man himself. Instead the song becomes a gentle, telling rebuke: the testament of someone who cared enough to notice all of the small building blocks of a loved one’s life; the account of someone who cared enough to remember. Annie doesn’t wreak obvious and horrible revenges in song. She’ll just tack you to the scene of your crime – once, with one expertly- and regretfully-placed pin – and what’s worse, she’ll stay sympathetic.

A band of Buriers.

A band of Buriers.

For the most part, this kind of subtlety is the sort of things Buriers just trip over – or more likely, stride over – while their eyes stay fixed on a savage, lowering horizon full of stormclouds and junk. A thunder-tommed, string-heavy vehicle for the splintered, semi-apocalyptic ramblings of poet-songwriter James P. Honey, superficially they seem to be snapping at the heels of Godspeed! You Black Emperor; intent on seizing the title of house-band for the Grand Collapse. Despite eschewing electric instruments (this time out, at least), they’ve certainly got most of the necessary ingredients. Cello and viola, droning menacingly or carving the air with dark, bitten post-romantic melodies; a smoggy aura of passive-aggressive ferocity with a hint of tragic, tender despair leaching through; war-drum rumbles and a close relationship with the dystopian spoken word.

Their first piece sets the scene and nails it – an unsettled English almost-rap layering slashes of scene over lowering, growling string drones. Hollow wood, full of heavy weather. Looking beyond those easy Godspeed comparisons, though, Buriers have a voice of their own – one with a distinct purple tint. Post–rock parsimonies be damned: chivvied on by James’ welter of words, Buriers continually thump up against their disciplined constraints in search of something which sprawls or potentially brawls. They smudge and crumple the lines between booze-spattered vignettes of romance (emerging wearily from behind nicotine stains and inertia) and violent Ginsbergdelaireian flowerings of collaged, surreal imagery.

Laura Mallows of Buriers strings us along.

Laura Mallows of Buriers strings us along.


On Slides By, for instance, James and the band spin out loose-jointed low-rent vignettes. Passion that accumulates itself from tawdry scraps and spontaneous moments of visual poetry, hungrily seized upon. “Glass of bourbon, a poorly rolled smoke, / then it’s time to go home. / Spend my whole night chasing your eyes – two flakes of burning coal… / And so I say to you, I swear / nowhere could ever seem so dreary. / Within your palm a lock of hair is smouldering and rising up, oh so lightly. / Snaking upwards, coiling along the ceiling. / Rebuild our cynicism there, / abreast to all my mighty, misty, misplaced feelings.”

On Stuffing A Chest (led by Jamie Romain’s ominous cello figure) James blurts out a kaleidoscope chant of cut-up impressions and intimations – “A skin like flung paint on a window… / Head on to the edge of the night / residing in a western crockery plantation… / Material plenitude, / seraphim skin, / sexually potent media and humour hanged and left silhouetted through a dazzling stained-glass window to wither.” As his portents pile up, the song seems no more than a few loose images away from disemboweling itself. The anchoring string growl of Jamie (and of violinist Laura Mallon) holds it together, like coarse sail-thread.

It’s a shame to deny the atmospheric power of the Buriers ensemble as a whole, but the attention is constantly caught and held by the febrile James. No slouch as a guitarist (he contributes a beautiful, rippled nylon-string finger-picking part to Dim Half Light, and intermittently wrings delicate sprawls out of a ukelele) it’s as voice and emoter that he shines; or, rather, smoulders with a dark discomfort. His vocal is crisp and doomy, brooding and fastidious. He doesn’t mince his words: he snaps them off, shifting agitatedly between politics and abstractions (a snarled “well-heeled” is rapidly rhymed with a distracted “old film reel”), but snipping each phrase clean.

By nature James sounds fey, even effete, but voice and song are transformed by the ferocity of his words and convictions as they slide over each other. In attitude, if not in tone, his performance carries with it a labyrinth of echoes – Cohen, Reed and Patti Smith among them – but there’s a stubborn Englishness in there as well. Not just in the way that his verbal flashes of fang, whisker and dissent recall modern English songs’ own crepuscular, compelling rank of anti-heroes (Curtis, Hammill, Mark E. Smith). There’s also that porcelain gnash of thwarted, inward-turned privilege that hangs around him. Sometimes he could be a harried, half-deranged young schoolmaster, trapped in a staid public school while dreaming of freedom in the slums; one binge of words and absinthe away from fomenting revolt.

James P. Honey in flow and frenzy...

James P. Honey in flow and frenzy…

Then there’s his physical presence. Trapped in position by his microphone, James squirms and chafes against the necessity like a bug stuck on a pin, while haranguing us with hellfire intensity. His head rocks and bobs; his eyes and teeth lock; his feet sway and twitch in tiny shuffles and anxious hops. When not constrained by guitar or uke his elbows flail, as his forearms move in frantic twists and swivels. While he declaims his words, his hands accent them in frantic conduction, clasp in desperate spasms, or pluck savagely at his T-shirt as if trying to scrape their way through to his vitals.

Set against his rolling, literary imagery and precise, mannered diction, James’ tortured physicality almost looks comical – less Cave or Iggy than a Rowan Atkinson vicar possessed by the spirit of a rabid weasel. What sells it to us is his naked fervour. Maybe it’s a willing possession: James’ surrender to his bursts of words suggest that poetic discipline will always be less important to him than channeling (or reviving) an epileptic torrent of meaning.

Not everyone is sold on this (including the scattering of toddlers in the Daylight audience – Oscar toddles determinedly off to the colouring-in table during Buriers’ set, and stays there) but there’s no denying the commitment onstage and the band’s sustained grind of shimmering intensity. By the time Lynch Mob Hero rolls around, facing off against a time “when the city kills off the poets”), James is increasingly wracked; stumbling to the front of the drum-kit to hammer at the cymbals with a pair of beaters. Wriggling in a fury of words, he lets them shake him out as they will. On Buriers’ final song, he pleads for a kind of mercy – “God be kind – my ship is small.”

* * *

A change of act and a change of mood. I retrieve Oscar from the crayons and felt tips. There’s another short break. Let’s go back a bit…

In November 1973 (when I was barely three years old, and missing most of the significance at the time), Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today. While there was a growing buzz about its fusion of rock technology, ’60s conservatoire minimalism and folk textures, its all-conquering grip on record players, planetaria, whistling hippy milkmen and (by degrees) pop culture in general was still some way off. Nonetheless, at that point it had enough momentum for a reluctant Oldfield to be cajoled into playing a version on television. To reproduce what had previously been a mass of overdubs, Oldfield was joined by an diverse dream-team.

For those who are interested, here’s that original telly performance (courtesy of YouTube). A sizeable chunk of Oldfield’s broadcast band came from Henry Cow, touchstone avant-rockers inspired by Mao, blues, free-jazz, performance poetry and fearsome contemporary composition, who’d been organising their own cross-genre Explorers’ Club events. (The Cow’s work is worth a whole article in itself: their questioning collective spirit led them to challenges which still lurk in the musical undergrowth to this day, still challenging any halfway-political art musician prepared to kick at the wheels of the applecart). With remaining spaces to fill, Oldfield pulled in musicians drawn from a wide but sympathetic spectrum – from Gong; from Soft Machine; from The Rolling Stones; from folk and classical woodwind-playing.

To put it mildly, it was a crowded podium that evening, pregnant with cross-genre possibilities and implicit predictions. Karl Jenkins blew oboe – a Soft Machine member at the time, it was twenty-two long years before he himself would grow grand on his own wave of chart-storming cross-genre malarkey, via ‘Adiemus’. A few years before that one of the Gongsters – Steve Hillage – would stage his own later-life transformation, returning with System 7’s ambient techno to woo and wow a 1990s generation of dance freaks. Even the most obscure contributor, Ted Speight, was a musical journeyman: his own career would map from Lol Coxhill’s avant-garde fusion jazz to the artful punkified pub-rock of Kilburn & The High Road (at the side of Ian Dury) and, by the millennium, back again to London jazz.

That one-off broadcast wasn’t the end of the story, either. By the following year David Bedford (Oldfield’s friend, and a burgeoning crossover composer) had written up an orchestral version of Tubular Bells to perform and record with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In doing so he joined further significant British culture dots to the puzzle. The Royal Albert Hall – where the concert was recorded, and where high art meets broad public a stone’s throw from London’s royal palaces. Thomas Beecham, the RPO’s belligerent founder, conductor and impresario – eight years dead by the time his orchestra was playing Oldfield, but with his own legacy of revitalising English concert music still very much intact. Lastly, Worcester Cathedral, where Oldfield eventually re-recorded some of his Tubular Bells guitar parts under the soar and shadow of five hundred years worth of evolving English architecture.

The reason that I’m bringing all of these things up is that the Tubular Bells events were, in their way, high-water marks in post-war British music. In terms of that era’s art-music fusion they might have been at the easy-listening end, but their tunefulness and canny textural appeal allowed them to poke their heads right up into the mainstream. For a brief moment, they trespassed over those stubborn cultural divides which separated music into sullen and defensive camps muttering stale arguments about high versus low, fossilized versus spontaneous, conservative versus radical. It wasn’t a moment which lasted. With a few honourable exceptions (most obviously in jazz, such as Mike Gibbs and Keith Tippett) few musicians maintained those crossing points.

Many British musicians (Henry Cow among them) ultimately had to look to Europe or America if they wanted to cross-fertilise, at that level or a higher one. Back at home, most of the genres subsided back into their cramped little stockades to percolate and evolve separately. It was as if, as a musical nation, the British had given up on inclusiveness in favour of more miserly joys. They swapped the possibilities of crosstalk for more limited experiences of belonging – being in on an exclusive clique, the petty rivalries of defining your own group against another; the footie-fan logic and competing crunch of pop tribes. A proud Mod might argue that this was a good thing; another reviewer might argue that the friction between scenes and identities provided sparks of its own, and they’d have a point. For me, though, disappointments came with the choice. It’s not that all the opportunities vanished, but for a long time it was as if many of us had gone into our houses and shut the doors.

We Are Children (We Make Sound).

We Are Children (We Make Sound).

This is turning into a rant. Let’s get back to 2013, to the considered, warm inclusivity of Daylight Music, and to where a ten-to-fifteen strong We Are Children (We Make Sound) are onstage, picking their way through a note-perfect version of Tubular Bells, revelling gently in their own tender, communal sound; and gently blowing away not just the years, but the resistances. I can’t call them revolutionary, especially in the light of what I’ve just written about memories of early-’70s icebreaking. I can’t even claim that they’re the only barrier-crossing ensemble around. But it’s great to be able to peg them as an indicator of how Western music culture – and, narrowing the scope, British music culture – has softened its adolescent stiffness, relaxed its intolerant bark.

Born from after-hours jams between students and staff from the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, over in Kilburn, We Are Children come from a fresh generation of musicians (most, but by no means all of them, are still in their twenties). Within the lineup, I spot some half-familiar faces from various London gigs and cellar-jams. Here’s the sensual feline pout and mussed-blond curls of Chinese Missy rocker Richard Bond, today dividing his time between guitar and clarinet. Here’s dreadlocked guitarist Niels Bax from groove-players What?!. Here are singer Gyongyi Salla and flautist Abi Murray, both of whom hover around the capital as songwriters (Ziaflow and ABI, respectively). As individuals, as part of smaller groups, as gigging and communicating musicians, these and other We Are Children members continually work and learn across a wide range of music throughout London, and they don’t thinking twice about doing so. That genre permeability which was ground-breaking in 1973 (and which was subsequently scorned as a betrayal of the tribe) is reestabished within a broader perspective; a healthy, heterogeneous fabric taken for granted, and casually encouraged.

Assorted Children...

Assorted Children…

Having said all that, We Are Children are playing a little bit safe today, perhaps in friendly deference to Daylight’s sleepy early-afternoon babies. Happy to work with both driving rock pulses and dance-and-dubstep mixology experiments, they bring neither to this afternoon’s live party. While they’re nominally a composing and arranging collective, this afternoon’s showcase is a little more conservative, focussing on a couple of familiar classics of melodious minimalism plus a solid pair of pieces from the leadership. For now, though, this gentler, more doctrinal taste is fine. The ensemble sets up a cool October glow, breathing a loving life back into the familiar and working up some new tunes of their own. As they carefully, unfussily work their way around what were once crusted old encampments, We Are Children have a tender communal feel to them. Nominal leaders Dan Gaylard and Alastair Beveridge both look as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Meanwhile, Audrey Riley – the veteran strings sessioneer and the band’s tutor-cum-guiding-light – oversees proceedings and provides some silent backbone. She glares protectively from behind her cello, a determined mother-hen with a steely glint.

Audrey might provide the anchor, but it’s Alistair who’s responsible for today’s Tubular Bells treatment, leading from the grand piano and providing a remarkably faithful arrangement for We Have Children’s smaller forces (centred predominantly round a quintet of clean electric guitars, bass and a string duo of Audrey and violinist Richard Jones). Imperceptibly, and with great skill, he shaves down Oldfield’s ringing repetitions and multiple layers to fit a ten-minute piece and a thirteen-person ensemble (the core bolstered by glockenspiel, by Abi’s flute and by the voices of both Gyongyi and fellow London songwriter Jo Kelsey. The piano anchors with that familiar dancing, pulse, and somehow all of the missing textures are masked. If anything, the original piece emerges refreshed, especially after two decades of intermittent and questionable reworking by Oldfield himself. Earlier on, a somewhat reshuffled We Are Children (flute, glock and voices out; drumkit and a second bass guitar in) have already taken us on an immaculate trip through Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint – less trippy-disciplined than the original, with the opened-up instrumentation and acoustic-electric sound bringing out intimations of both folk-round and disco pulse. The music is replete with examples of the mutual sympathy and interaction which We Are Children have built up over three years of jamming and unlikely pub gigs – violin and flute blend for a second, then cycle smoothly apart: guitars ravel into a delicate thirty-string mechanism.

Cell-out...

Cell-out…

The ensemble’s original material fits in seamlessly with the regroomed, revitalised Reich and Oldfield warhorses. Circles (written by Alistair) slims down We Are Children to the string duo, a quartet of guitars and a single bass. It manages to be many things – a neo-minimalist declaration, smooth and detailed. Riding on a Satie-esque continuo, the melody line passes in a ripple through the players: an oscillated hocketed sway with a tingling, conversational counterpoint. A fourth piece (for which I don’t catch the name) has a murkier quality. They’ve shuffled the lineup again – the electric guitar quartet against the string duo; a return of bass, piano, drums and female voices; a returning flute this time joined by clarinet. What emerges from this configuration journeys through a set of moods, interlocked like a meshwork of paper rings. A Scottish/English border folk air filters through string duo and piano, dissolving into string noise. Drums and piano pick up and point a beat in three-time. A dawdling sensual theme passes from violin to clarinet; as flute is worked in, the drums become jazzier, stretching and moulding the rhythm around the weaving melody instruments.

Viewed as a whole, We Are Children’s pieces (whether adopted or originated) build up a utopian sound-picture, part rural and part urban – they’re both verdant woodlands and immaculate ductwork; warm sunsets on glass; the patter and pulse of working cities overlaid with their parks, borders and spaces to dream. Sitting on my lap, Oscar listens quietly and thoughtfully, his attention held. I was ten before I first heard ‘Tubular Bells’; sixteen before I heard Reich. In this band’s inclusive space- itself enveloped by Daylight Music’s easy welcome – my son’s getting an earlier and much more natural introduction than I did, untroubled by tribal antipathies. When Ben Eshmade first brought We Are Children into Daylight Music – much earlier in their concert series – he described them as “what I imagined a Daylight band might sound like.” He’s righter than he knows, and it’s a credit to both ensemble and event.

Arrow of welcome...

Arrow of welcome…

Annie Dressner online:

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REVIEW – Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’ single & Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ single, both 2013 (“dancing at the end-of-the-world party”)

2 Oct

Knifeworld: 'Don't Land On Me'

Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’

So what’s it to be, then? Stubborn elbows or secret soft centre? For Knifeworld, as ever, it’s both and neither. Kavus Torabi runs on this kind of contradiction. It’s what enables (or maybe forces) him to roll out singles like this – the kind which always seem to promise him the attention he deserves but never quite get him enough. Generally his songs teeter like dazed cats trying to scramble over the fence dividing open fields of sunny pop from that intricately entangled tesseract-space of what Kavus calls “funny music” (and which the rest of us drain our adjective-and-hyphen stores over, vainly trying to pin down a workable term).

‘Don’t Land On Me’ finally kicks down the fence. In its swirl and pounces, in its tiny bluffs and blind corners, in each acoustic guitar rope-trick and each Halloween feint of Emmett Elvin’s keyboards, it brings in the usual juicy psychedelic Knifeworld kinks. I suspect that Kavus can’t look at a nice fresh acid blotter without seeing a potential origami crocodile in there, waiting to be made. Yet this time, for every formidable bit of bassoon-pretzeling that Kavus offers up to the memory of his beloved Henry Cow there are two shots of pop. For every bit of elastic Shudder To Think limbo-dancing, there’s a flash of Marc Bolan coltishly tossing his curls and foot-stomping with Led Zeppelin.

Having unexpectedly ballooned into an octet (with a three-line battery of reeds and saxophones), Knifeworld are starting to sound bizarrely like a 1970s soul revue, albeit one that’s lurching out of line. ‘Don’t Land On Me’ has gilded harmony stabs and sugar-wraps of acoustic guitar; it has gratuitous campy explosions; it has stirring gospel-mama “yeahhh!”s from Chantal Brown (bringing a Loa or two from Vōdūn). Most surprisingly, it seems to have gobbled up that swashbuckling vamp from Live And Let Die, hiccupped it out again and gotten away with it – regularly, the band throw their hip intricacies to the wind and just romp up and down a ladder of soft-rock pizazz. Threaded through all of this sturdy bravado, though, is sadness and fear – a hollowing of the heart.

Half of the lyrics are Kavus’ usual ribbons of third-eye babble: tales of dying suns and mysterious cities of the mind, as much bragging as illumination. Yet all of a sudden he’ll turn out a belter: “In that treacherous slippery no-man’s land / between bolt-upright and dead-to-the-world in sleep, / I was dreaming that you were in my arms. / Dreams will only give promises they cannot keep.” Later on he’s hiding behind his own tune, chanting “falling down, unravelling”, and it’s up to his vocal foil Mel Woods to step up and deliver the drop – “Broken, unfound, there is only one thing I find – / we ran aground, and I wouldn’t make up my mind. / Hide it behind your hands, my eyes no longer see / Heavens above, stars explode, but don’t land on me.”

Kramies: 'The Wooden Heart'

Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’

As the band charge off into the vamp again, they sound as if they’re dancing at the end-of-the-world party in mirror-strewn top hats: I’m guessing that Kavus will be trying not to meet the gaze of any of his own reflections. Kramies Windt, meanwhile, will be standing several good paces away, waving goodbye to everything with full acceptance.

While Knifeworld fret about doom and ward it off with their showbiz, Kramies gets by on faith. Not for him Knifeworld’s tussle of John Barry and John Adams, nor their trick-cycling. With Todd Tobias keeping a gentle producer’s eye on things, ‘The Wooden Heart’ rolls along on that familiar drowsy acoustic-guitar trudge that’s served forty years of green-tinted psychedelia from Camel to Mercury Rev to Porcupine Tree. A spectral moonlit fungus of vaporous keyboards grow on and around everything: a high-altitude electric wash of sparks, smoothness and textural drag spreads out at telescope height, snowploughing the Milky Way. As for the song, it’s less involved and intricate than much of the material which Kramies has sung up for us since his 2008 emergence. A dream-pop caroller with a lucid organic twist to his songs, he once came across as a mellower Paddy McAloon with a hint of pixie. Now he’s closer to visionary Neil Young territory, the point where American folk-song blurs without a jolt into slumbering subconscious. He’s singing softly and with understanding beyond his sleepy burr, like a wise newborn already dusted from the road.

This is a love song, of a different kind. Kramies is pulling up memories: treasuring them, but also acknowledging how memory and memorabilia gently cheat and distort the truths which they’re set up to hold onto – “Forged from the photograph when the tides they rode you down; / smudged from the perfect lens, so I brought you back to ground.” Despite the dreamy, distant atmospheres Kramies isn’t dwelling on someone gone. He’s celebrating someone never lost, someone coming into clearer focus as present merges with memory: “We fell in love with wind, sun and movies, / no need to stay. / Countdowns and journeys, conversations, fell through our day.”

In the middle, the song holds its breath for half a moment, then rises into a blissful dream-pop threshing; a massed quilt of hammering Slowdive-ian guitars joyfully plunging down onto each beat. “Spill out the haven, throw my maths chart away, ‘cos you’re the one,” Kramies sings, in an exultant sigh. “Throw my maps, a castaway.” It’s rare to find dream-pop that resolves with such assured optimism, in which you can sense experience shifting into its proper place. While Kavus and Knifeworld constantly quest for resolution – and spin some dazzling pirouettes along the way – Kramies seems to have mastered the talent of simply breathing it into shape.

Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’
Believer’s Roast (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 9th September 2013

Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ single
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 5th September 2013

Get them from:
Knifeworld: ‘Don’t Land On Me’ – Bandcamp
Kramies: ‘The Wooden Heart’ – Hidden Shoals online store

Knifeworld online:
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Kramies online:
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September 2013 – live reviews – autumn light, part 1: Daylight Music presents Directorsound/Candythief/Jack Hayter @ Union Chapel, Islington, London, 28th September 2013 (“decency, enthusiasm, a place to gather and music’s qualities of balm and binding”)

30 Sep

This way in...

This way in…

In some respects, when you’re chasing music, being broke is easy. Almost everyone sympathises with it (not least the musicians themselves). A bigger challenge is to keep up with both music and a young family: neglect either, and you feel sick at heart. Chances fly past and it sometimes seems as if, whatever you do, someone’s going to get disappointed.

My own, fairly recent family is typical in this. Getting us all together behind one piece of music, at one time, can be tricky. Regular readers will already know that I like music in all its forms – from scream to coo; from four-square pop craftsmanship to impulsive tangle-ups; from stroke to slap, from massed strings to static. In the face of this indiscriminate barrage, my wife prefers her music to be more ordered and comfortable. (We did enjoy a freak one-off bonding over some Belgian avant-jazz six years ago – marriage always has its surprises). As for Oscar, at two-and-a-half years old he hasn’t settled on absolute likes yet; but as he hones his toddler free-improv skills and makes up scrambled songs about the Gruffalo, making musical noises with any convenient object (or watching other people do it) fascinates him.

Well, if you’re broke, you track down free gigs – as for the other challenge, go looking for something family-friendly. Hiding in plain sight in the middle of north London, Daylight Music offers both, hosting fortnightly pay-what-you-like triple bills beneath the piling, bounding Victorian-Gothic rooftops of Union Chapel. Persuading Clare and Oscar to go is easy. It’s a single bus ride away; it’s in the early afternoon; it’s mostly acoustic. Apparently, there’s cake. I think that’s the clincher. We go.

Inside, we find something like a church fête. The merchandise stall nuzzles up against Christian Aid posters; and yes, there’s cake – people volunteer to bake and bring it in. Beneath the Chapel’s bold and cavernous octagon of elevated brickwork, a gentle, meandering throng of people criss-cross the aisles like drowsy autumn bees, settling gradually into the wooden pews. Children’s faces are dotted around the audience – happy or distracted toddlers, anxious infants who’ll be smiling at the thumps and arpeggios later. During breaks in performance, a strikingly tall and kind-looking lady called Caitlin cat-steps over to the grand pipe organ and plays us a weave of half-melted pop hits and memory-songs. Despite the Chapel’s imposing scale, this is all remarkably cosy.

In recent years, unfriendly rumbles have rattled round the woodwork of the more family-friendly, acousti-folky end of music. Certain commentators have been drawing ominous conclusions about a resurgent conservatism, the rejection of multiculturalism and the stealthy rehabilitation of a rigid and stratified Britain strapped into place by ersatz traditions. It’s an uneasy picture, not least because the distaste drives so many things before it – farmer’s markets, bespoke festivals, the parodification and commodification of working-class folk culture, even the innocuous folk-rock of Mumford & Sons are all rolled up into a looming kipple-spectre of incipient English fascism. You could imagine the same questionable bile being aimed at Daylight Music – at the grand church setting, the tea-and-cakes, the shortage of outright punk and smoke, the Mothercare cups, even the efforts to make people comfortable.

Look a little more closely, and the cheap shots are belied. There’s a faint fray of urbanism to Daylight Music and to the Chapel – a slight scuffing and engriming in the Victorian iron and woodwork; a dash of non-conformism (both with and without the capitals) to the gathering and its setting. There are glimpses of more lived-in faces punctuating the young professionals, yummy mummies and cultured grandparents (hard-bitten elderly hippies, tattooed ex-bruisers; that nervy look which struggling musicians get, two decades into lean times). There’s that mingling of quiet anxiety with generosity which hangs around the trestle-table food counter, raising money for the homeless. Indeed, there’s even something of the trade union fund-raiser to Daylight Music.You sling your voluntary contribution into a plastic bucket at the door; you’re smiled at; you feel like part of something bigger and more inclusive, and a little more generous.

Daylight Music's Ben Eshmade - making us an offer we won't refuse.

Daylight Music’s Ben Eshmade – making us an offer we won’t refuse.

Although plenty of people are involved, Daylight Music is primarily another outcropping of enthusiasm from Ben Eshmade: broadcaster, promoter, occasional French horn blower and the man behind Arctic Circle, Chiller Cabinet and other warm-spirited musical things with cold names. Ambling onstage to introduce acts and deliver Daylight parish notices, Ben’s the gentler kind of presiding presence. Despite his amiable, bumbling manner (part distracted curate, part Sunday scholar and part walk-leader) it’s clear that there’s expertise and resolve hidden beneath those layers of fuzz and softness. I suspect that he knows everything that’s ticking over throughout the afternoon. Ever so slightly, there’s a sense that Daylight Music are holding off the darkness of ignorance in a matter-of-fact way and with the simplest of tools – decency, enthusiasm, a place to gather and music’s qualities of balm and binding. If London was flattened by meteorites or missiles tomorrow, you get the impression that Ben and the rest of the Daylighters would be dusting themselves down and going around afterwards – knocking at the fragments of doors; rigging tarpaulins and mending guitars; ensuring that everyone was given a flapjack while we put society back together.

Jack Hayter, at work.

Jack Hayter, at work.

Today’s first act seems as if he’s already been through a little war or two. Looking like a man carved out of driftwood (and dwarfed by the Chapel’s glowing rose window) a slightly battered Jack Hayter is suffering, though not on our account. He’s got toothache, and he might have managed to give himself organophosphate poisoning this week from accidentally squirting dog-flea killer in his eye. He’s taking it well, though: downbeat afflictions and mishaps seem to suit him. Later on, he’ll be singing “I’ve got teeth like tombstones, skin like clay – / well, it could be the scurvy, but anyway.. / The symptoms will fade if you come around / tomorrow – well, I was thinking, I’ll impress you somehow…”

Despite twelve years of on/off solo work (plus bandwork with Spongefinger and Dollboy) Jack seems perpetually fated to be known from his Jack-of-all-trades period with Hefner – when he was Darren Hayman’s handy sidekick, the have-a-go guy playing pedal steel and anything else which the others couldn’t manage. Watching him up there by himself with just his acoustic guitar (and a voice that’s not so much husky as husk), I can’t think of him as anything else but his own man. Both he and his songs are of a part: stubbed and illuminated by poverty and handiwork, scraped down to the bumpy grain and crafted to the true.

His Devon-gone-Estuary accent rattling against his throat, he sings movingly – even elegaically – about the come-and-go of Margate seafront, capturing in fingernail sketches hints of dereliction, the sweep of world currents, and the ongoing business of life: “Seahorse eggs, bladder wrack, / starfish in the sand, / and the Balkan girls on the West Beach with their prams.” With wryness and fellow feeling, he sings about being short of money (“it just sits in my wallet / rehearsing its final goodbye…/ Every letter that hits the welcome mat / is a fancy shade of brown,”) and shifts seamlessly between the metaphysical and the bare-boned personal. (“Trust is just belief without evidence. / Faith is a river that leads to the light. / So I’ll write songs… / so we can sleep better tonight.”)

Jack Hayter - songs of tall ships, peeling paint, old aircraft and weathered people.

Jack Hayter – songs of tall ships, peeling paint, old aircraft and weathered people.

While there’s a soft centre to his songs, Jack’s a long way from that breed of walking-pullover songwriters who fluff up the average acoustic night. I mentioned driftwood earlier, but perhaps weathered garden sheds are better comparisons: those unintentional brittle monuments to ordinary men’s lives and their fumbled, uncompleted dreams. Gaps and splinters in the planking; fugs of memories of hard work and shaping, of small private failings and imaginary wickedness.

There are snags in these songs. In one rippled, helpless brooding on love and mistakes Jack casts wildering, dissonant chords in amongst the slash and finger-picking. He passionately rasps fragments of revealing (“your freckled arms wrapped around to drag me under or set me free… / She puts her trust in lucky charms… / Every time we go to pieces, every time we go to war,”) with his bleached, crumpled vocals making them sound like damaged photographs held fearfully at fingertips, their significance lingering even as their colours and clarity parch.

Where Jack truly comes into his own, though, is when he blends these roughened surfaces and threadbare textures with a broader scope: the hauntings of memory, perhaps, or a drunken fantasy. I Stole The Cutty Sark is the latter, a boozy-dream-come-lover’s-bet in which Jack’s decrepit old soak of a narrator imagines commandeering the famous old Greenwich clipper and sailing it (topgallants filled with drunkard’s breath) across south London parkland and streets to serenade his girl at Lee (“I bet she’d sleep with a man who’s got a tall ship…”). It snatches romance from the brink of the ludicrous – even restores a little dignity and life to its own shipwrecked subject.

'Misfit City' Jr. at play - Oscar enjoys the show.

‘Misfit City’ Jr. at play – Oscar enjoys the show.

Another antique vessel – this time a plane – haunts The Shackleton: a post-war sub-hunter haunting the north-eastern coast in the 1960s, droning overhead while lonely Cold War teenagers pursue the wrong people, go through pregnancy scares and flinch from dreams of the mushroom cloud. From these elements, and from two tales of shredded correspondence in sorry little boxes, Jack spins out an aching kitchen-sink ballad of how people repeat their mistakes, neglect their cues, fail to be protected; in the end, how they come to miss what they feared and learn (too late) to love what they once only took for granted. He calls all of this time-travel. Oscar, too young to understand any of it, is still fascinated by the plaintive bony man onstage with his exhausted face and his air of dessicated kindness; the songs lolling from his guitar.

A few things about Candythief take me back to that wrangle which I mentioned earlier – the one about the politics of folk music. Superficially, they seem worlds (and perhaps a property band or two) away from Jack Hayter. As driving force and songwriter, Diana de Cabarrus has learned to be flexible while leading a Lego-flexible band lineup which clicks and pops available members into place as and when possible. This afternoon they’re a duo – Diana fronting on lipstick-red guitar, with Jason Dickinson’s vigorous fiddle playing and vocal harmonies adding some friendly sinew to her songs.

Part of a Daylight Music experience - baby cups, toys, Victorian woodwork, and Candythief in the background.

Part of a Daylight Music experience – baby cups, toys, Victorian woodwork, and Candythief in the background.

There’s nothing wrong with Candythief’s craft – it’s their cleanliness that jolts a little, after Jack’s scuff and scrape. Diana’s taste for adding a little crunch to her guitar is offset by her occasional dashes of loopage – choir-lady codas, little ziggurats of arpeggios – while Jason’s all-around virtuosity is further buffered by his beaming, ready-to-please showmanship. Their cheerful confidence extends to each other and to the audience; they deliver updates and clear intros at every opportunity, they’re nicely turned-out… They could hardly be more iconic of the modern, middle-class, tech’ed-up professional folkie if they tried.

Still, it’s churlish to snap at them for their impeccable diction, or for the fresh-faced, well-brushed aspect which they bring to their music and manner – after all, no-one snaps at Kate Rusby for making the effort. A songwriter’s voice finds itself while working through all manner of factors – family, shoes, regions, songs caught up from records or by ear, the day-jobs cadged on and survived, the places traveled and the things seen in passing. Diana’s own background (taking in a desert childhood and links with King Creosote and lo-fi Fence Records folk) suggests that there’s more to her than the assured, well-groomed perpetual-debutante which she presents as. Listening past the image doesn’t necessarily reveal all of this, but it does reveal a songwriter of thoughtfulness and impact behind the cool tones and bright sounds.

Candythief-in-chief - Diana de Cabarrus

Candythief-in-chief – Diana de Cabarrus

Not just that, but Diana proves to have a taste for mournful reflection which parallels those scrappier, plangent Hayter regrets. Her songs are windows onto other lives, onto which her own feelings overlap to etch away the politeness with a soft, stubborn acid. Many of the subjects are other women; such as the young girl at the centre of one particular time-blurred song, in which you can’t be sure whether Diana is looking at a daughter or niece, at a stranger, or at herself. Whoever it is, Diana appears to be both looking towards future journeys and looking back on them from that future, her responses a mixture of concern, solidarity and trepidation. (“Your face was so smooth – / you had no idea.”)

In the sleeve-plucking Time In The Tin Diana protests at how everyday lives are pecked away and blurred by the waste and distraction of marketing: “Please don’t spend the hours staring at the distant shrines in shopping malls, / the speechless saints in magazines and city walls… /With our minds thus occupied / we didn’t see our hands get tied… / Who dares tell you good enough / means buying into all this stuff / while the thoughts inside your head / are dismissed, remain unsaid?” As with the best political songs, the polemic is tempered by the personal, reflecting “summer was discovery – now the slightest wind chills me, / and I’ve set nothing aside. / I’ve only scattered thoughts to hide / from quicker clock face hands, from rain that turns it all to sand. / A bit more life is in the can: with hands outstretched we try to cram / every last taste and scent and breath / that rings of life, but every pledge / holds its promise and the line / towards home is hard to find.”

Jason Dickinson (Candythief's fiddler).

Jason Dickinson (Candythief’s fiddler).

Also buried beneath that clean surface and Diana’s own still, bright-eyed presence (like a guitar-toting reedbird) is Candythief’s taste for the cunning disarrangements of psychedelia and of folk – the flicks in the beat, the wrong-footing rhythms which inspire thought and dance together. Several Candythief songs skip between multiple paces, stirring up the barbs and challenges in the narratives. “We thought we were walking, making our own path… /You can’t close your grip ‘cos your hands are cold… / You ate up the insults, described them as fate. / Rattling the cage, / rewriting the same page – / footprints on your skin / where the robbers all crept in.”

They end – joyfully – on a new single, The Starting Gun, which takes this practically to prog levels. Leaping from a scrum of guitar and violin up to a stepped and spiky arrangement, it’s a stirring wake-up shout. “Your heart’s a roaring furnace underneath the evening news, / a mighty engine longing for the chance to be the fuse… / Draw the curtain back, join what was once apart, / scrape the grease from your beating heart. / We are bullets of pure light unraveling in time / through damage, loss, theft; the darkest of each other’s crimes.” Jason and Diana end on a confident crash, grinning at each other – clean sparks.

The soft armoury - Directorsound in action.

The soft armoury – Directorsound in action.

It takes a while for Directorsound‘s pool of mostly acoustic instruments to be assembled onstage. A nylon-strung guitar and a bouzouki, an autoharp and an accordion, a Tibetan singing bowl; dangling hammers, sticks and strikeables; sundry pedals; a miniature gong the breadth of a hand. Most vividly, there’s a compact and jutting array of hand-bells painted in bright toy-like colours, pointing outwards like clown-car klaxons. Apparently, this last item is a belldalabra.

If you’re still determined to think about things politically, there are a few options. Should we be expecting an admirable, inclusive world-music approach, or just the spoilt, self-indulgent tourism of an inveterate instrument collector? Is all of this wood, brass and hollow space about a love of open sound, or is it simple acoustic puritanism? I have to admit that I’m musing on something completely different – Daylight Music’s family atmosphere and the band name mingle lazily into a daydream of Thomas the Tank Engine, the Fat Controller hiding himself away from squabbling trains in order to piece together steampunk tunes in his bedroom. (Of course, it turns out that someone’s already beaten me to this…)

Idle speculation is rendered moot by the ambling arrival of Directorsound himself, Nick Palmer. Far from being any kind of poser – or any kind of prover – he’s a sweet skinny haystack of a man for whom any hints of ego or preciousness dissolve into the air with his music. He communicates with us via friendly mutters and the occasional warm, shy peer-out from between tousled fringe and beard. From the off, he engrosses himself in the business of stroking sound out of bells and strings and drum-skins, beginning with a ruminative solo on Spanish guitar but soon progressing to a smooth shuttling between instruments (an assured, hands-on craftsman, moving between tools).

Accompanying Nick on his explorations are two ghostly, gentle-faced women: one on harmonium, one on flute. Standing on either side of him, like handmaidens or like muses, they mingle an air of the slightly worn with one of peaceful contentment. Neither of them speak: instead, both softly watch Nick as they play, possibly picking up cues, most of which are invisible if they exist at all. While it’s Nick who initiates most of the patterns and melodies (and who rides swap-shot on the reliable single-instrument drones and figures his companions provide), no-one onstage appears to be in absolute charge. Instead, music happens as a mutual pass-around, shifting its focus equably between woodwind, soundbox, reed-buzz, string and chime. Three pieces along, Nick is picking up his piano accordion, playing his own take on a café reel and punctuating it with horn-honks and stomps of foot-tambourine, until the trio are summoning up strolling, bobbing images of fairground and French sidewalk.

Directorsound spread out...

Directorsound spread out…

The belldalabra (which has been sitting tantalisingly in plain sight throughout the set) finally comes to the fore on the fourth piece. “It even sounds good when you move it,” Nick chuckles in passing, bringing it in closer even as he’s strapping on a pair of leg-bells. What follows is a stirring, flurrying one-man duet. Nick’s autoharp lies flat on a chair, his beaters ringing softly off its strings when they’re not rapping and fluttering across the belldalabra in exquisite slithers and chimes, a full flow of musical counterpoint from harmonium and flute turning the ringing into glints on the tide. In time, Nick sets the beaters aside in favour of the bouzouki; but his strumming hand still makes regular, hawk-talon lunges back at the autoharp as the piece blossoms into a Celto-Grecian tapestry of stamps and zings. When it’s going at full tilt, Nick is racking belldalabra, tambourine, leg-bells, gong and even a set of box-hinges in a continuous weaving sweep.

If this prolonged and frequently ecstatic dream-folk reminds me of anything in particular, it’s The Incredible String Band, though that’s a tenuous connection at best. Nick’s sunlit tunefulness and his enthusiasm for quilting diverse and divergent instruments into the mix certainly recalls the ISB’s “grab-anything” psychedelic enthusiasm. Yet he has no pretensions towards following their wildly cluttered and creative songcraft, nor any interest in emulating their engaging cracked-crow vocals. Directorsound’s music stays all-instrumental, and comparatively edgeless. Rather than being the product of quirky scattershot individualism, it’s both evasive and welcoming. Nick and his fellow players seem content to summon up broad, bright, impressionistic blurs of scene and culture (a ripple across a wheatfield, a Mistral gust, or holiday memories of a drift of indigenous evening music winding down a warm street) rather than dig into their roots or to challenge them.

Oscar explores the belldalabra.

Oscar explores the belldalabra.

In spite of this, Directorsound remain honest – and, frankly, loveable. Simultaneously introverted and inclusive, the music absorbs musical ideas and feelings like a sponge, but breathes them all back out without a hint of selfishness or self-consciousness. The other Incredible String Band component that’s missing is the alpha-male jockeying for position which both fired up and benighted the latter group. With Nick as the lone (and unchallenged) Directorsound member in the studio, the project was never going to be anyone’s wrestling ground, but even with this in mind, the courtesy, the mutual kindness and the shy, unassuming generosity of the band is palpable from the moment they set foot onstage to the moment that they finally wander off, instruments in hand, into the Chapel’s shadows.

Before that, while Directorsound are still packing up. I bring Oscar up for a closer look at the instruments. Those previously silent women are now happily animated, smiling broadly, chatting to people from the stage. With an open smile, Nick shoves the belldalabra and a beater over towards us. Encouraged, Oscar taps out some ringing notes of his own, briefly making himself part of the band and part of the afternoon. It’s very much a Daylight Music moment.

(To be continued. We went back again two weeks later..)

Someday all 'Misfit City' reviews will be written like this.

Someday all ‘Misfit City’ reviews will be written like this.

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July 2013 – EP reviews – Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’ (“a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl”)

7 Jul
Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: 'Colours'

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’

With a name like that, you expect an MC with a slew of stories. A brilliant, squat little microphone hassler compensating for his own lack of sleek, straightforward charm with a quacking, manic inventiveness and left-field imagination. You expect one story, at least.

Instead, Jimmy The Hideous Penguin is a turntablist; using that ludicrous name as a billboard to cover the heads-down, ’phones-on business of scratching, filtering and triggering. A member of DJ quartet Vince Mack Mahon (and one of the masterminds behind the Community Skratch turntable initiative) he’s from Galway. Appropriately, ‘Colours’ sounds like a sketch of Galway on a moderately bad day – soggy and drizzled-misted, but still bright and creative – but you can only stretch his hometown associations so far.

Ducking any of Galway’s high-culture Eire-isms (and, to be fair, many of Vince Mack Mahon’s hip-hop inspirations) Jimmy’s music instead listens eastwards towards Rhine-Ruhr electronica, while picking up occasional bits of English scruff on the needle. It also listens downwards (into well-travelled vinyl grooves) and inwards (through a radio dial set to a perpetually-displaced rural 1970s). Its electrophonic wanderings owe a fair bit to Kraftwerk, a little bit to BBC Radiophonics and quite a large bit to those early Jimmy Cauty-era Orb recordings. Adding a raw backbone of analogue synth-steps and thick, flittering drones to his eddies of turntable work, beat loops and found noises, Jimmy works up some interesting slop behind that cartoon billboard. Instead of those MC stories, you get scenery to make stories – an occasionally playful plunderphonic montage; a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl; a frown of uneasy concentration.

While there are some visitations from the drum-burrs and rhythmic grapples of drum and bass, dubstep and techno, Jimmy’s music prefers to wander off on its own. Moving along messier roads, it kicks up a little historic debris as it goes. Red, in particular, sounds like flotsam; washing up out of swells and reversals of wadded-up torch songs, old shellac albums part-drowned in the tide. Jimmy moves the music drunkenly around a European receiver, shuffling aural zones. First he’s playing frail electronic trumpets against twanging, nasal staccatos; then he’s manhandling a sneaking strand of funk drum, a hungry worm of double-time rattle accelerating it from within. Then he’s meandering through abandoned dockscapes at the back of a dark wind, and finally ends in a bend of misdirected psychedelic organ.

On much of the EP (in which one piece strays into another in jostling transitions), ’70s fantasy seems to be rubbing up against ’70s slump. When a stray Dalek shows up at the end of Green – grating out “they are approaching” – it sounds both menacing and surly. It even sounds impotent; like a grumpy gate-guard on the inside of a power-station picket line, slouched in its own little pocket of hate and with a tepid thermos of well-stewed tea clamped onto its sucker, watching strikers slouch into position for the start of a day of mutual glaring. The rest of the piece feels similarly boxed-in – a pained, brontosaurine lumber of panel-beating snare drum and warping sub-bass, weighed down by an oppressive dark-ambient echo and drifting off into a carbon-monoxide grind.

On the subject of ‘Doctor Who’, I could have sworn that I heard a far more obscure ’60s Whovian critter show up, too – ECCO, the incomprehensible computer from ‘The Ice Warriors‘ with the infuriating papery stutter which (even in 1967) made it sound like a remix victim. Presumably, Jimmy’s too young to remember this first-hand: if he’s not been crate-digging deeper into the Beeb’s sound library, maybe he’s been digging up and scratching someone else’s memories.

It’s equally likely that Jimmy’s stumbled across a bit of the Galway countryside that is forever 1978, or at least has a damp box of that year’s proggier vinyl dumped there. Quite early on during Blue’s multi-part sprawl, some of the more oceanic swirls from Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Equinoxe’ waft through the mix. Later on, Jimmy will varispeed a eerie floating snatch of psychedelic folk (reed-boned flutes and acoustic guitar, like a conjunction of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’, Popol Vuh and ‘The Wicker Man’) before trickling a clip of muffled Rakim-esque rap-and-chatter over twinkles of fairytale guitar lifted straight from Yes’ ‘Circus Of Heaven’.

At the start, however, Blue is lo-fi, dodgem-car techno with a bassline like someone clubbing moles with a car door It’ll make a shift into chugging steamtrain funk, some rare old-school DJ scratching (“wicky-wicky” and all) and the sort of downbeat synth stagger that groans “hangover” at you. Wobbling out from the layering, voices sing with so much gauziness that you can’t tell whether they’re Irish or Lebanese. Others mutter wanly and stagger around the kitchen, failing to fry some eggs. From the latter, one glum mumble of “bugger…” turns into a single-word mantra. It travels mournfully round and round the turntable like a dropped glob of peanut butter: part of the soused, engaging sloppiness that gives the EP its own distinctive flavour.

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’
CS² Recordings, CS²-009
CD/download EP
Released: 2nd July 2013

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June 2013 – live reviews – Liam Singer/Foxout!/Sealionwoman (with Laura Moody) @ The Dentist (33 Chatsworth Road), Homerton, London, 26th June 2013 (“a gig in a bottle”)

30 Jun

As I get off the bus in Clapton, the midsummer evening sun is giving the neighbourhood a lingering kiss. It brushes across the Clapton Portico (a bewildered, disinherited classical remnant, grafted onto a school at the end of an abbreviated road), takes away its sadness and helps it in its lonely loom. It limns the shopfronts of convenience stores and barbers and closed-down shops, and perks them up. It lends soft glows and sends little licks of shadow chasing around the stonework of the Round Chapel, and it brings out the last sleepy cheeps of the day from the local sparrows as I head down Glenarm Road towards Homerton.

Waiting for someone to sing..

Waiting for someone to sing..

Thirteen years ago – when I was living a lengthy stone’s-throw to the west, over in Stoke Newington – this part of east London was a soured inner suburb with a brooding, bullet-ridden reputation. The length of Clapton Road was tagged as Murder Mile – an edgy and angry place beset by resentments, drive-by shootings and unprovoked beatings. Flickers of anger sometimes still plague it. Almost two years ago, the second night of the 2011 London riots kicked off just a few minutes walk from here: a churn of flames, looting and outright war between police and estate kids. Barely a block away in Clarence Road, Pauline Pearce delivered the impassioned harangue which would establish her as a Hackney heroine. Now though, all is peaceful: and it gives me the chance to reflect that, as with people, the hair-raising reputations of many places come only from their occasional spasms.

The biggest fuck-you I get tonight comes from a house painted in a shocking purple and gesturing out from an otherwise cream-and-beige Victorian terrace, like some kind of bolshy architectural remix. As I’ve come to know in recent years, this part of London is a place where a very diverse set of people get on with living: it’s also the kind of area where people get out of doors not to go hunting but to break that pesky London reserve and meet their neighbours. Pubs become sitting rooms; sitting rooms and armchairs spill onto streets – another embedded global village. While people are a little thin on the ground tonight, this late-June evening (just beginning to show the mottlings of dusk) is suffused with an easy warmth. Later in the evening, Liam Singer will chuckle from behind his keyboard and gift the neighbourhood with a more welcome tag than it’s had in years. “It’s like Brooklyn, but if everyone was really friendly.”

Lampshading.

Lampshading.

Sitting on the border of Clapton and Homerton, The Dentist is nothing if not hopeful. A former drop-in surgery a little north of the hospital, it’s a genial wreck of a building. Crumbled, scarified and grime-smeared, it stands like a worn, chewed tooth in a shopping parade halfway between old London main drag and international souk. An enterprising guy called Phil calls the upstairs home, while using the downstairs for pop-up gigs, shoestring theatre, and scratch-and-strike art gallery exhibits. The back garden is full of splintered wood and earth hummocks, plus a makeshift tabletop bar. The wine is rolled up from the cellar via a scary ravine. The whole place thrums with friendliness.

Inside, crowded into the front room and sharing its atmosphere of ravage and reclaim, we’re part of a show. In a place this small, within breathing or patting range of the musicians, it’s hard not to feel that way. Behind the players, the curving plate-glass façade of the old shopfront runs across and around: over their shoulders, we look out at the street life. It looks right back at us, sometimes with suspicious flicks of the eyes (a man in a shalwar kameez, hurrying past to the makeshift mosque next door), sometimes with a bemused acceptance (a local geezer ambling along to the chippy) and sometimes with outright delight (younger locals on a stroll, pointing and celebrating on their way to and from the Hackney bars further into town).

Sealionwoman - Tye and Kitty as the daylight fades.

Sealionwoman – Tye and Kitty as the daylight fades.

To them, this must look like a gig in a bottle – the audience in full view, the musicians upfront but backs turned, the music bleeding out in faint enticing vapours. Speaking of which… cue musicians.

Tye McGivern slumps over a double bass, plucking, bowing and sometimes wrenching his notes: a man with strong, thoughtful butchers hands and the face of a weary rabbi. To his right, Kitty Whitelaw sways barefoot – grubby toes, blue nails, a jazz pulse, a little black dress and a feel for the taut sinews of a song. There’s no-one else. About five years ago Tye and Kitty were two-thirds of Kitty & The Drowning Bag, were a lot noisier, and had a drummer. For the couple of years that they’ve been Sealionwoman they’ve been drummer-less and bring their own extra noise in their pockets.

Sealionwoman deal in blurred versions of jazz and torch, and they’re perfectly suited to the smear of dusk that’s coming on as they begin to play. As influences, they’ll cite the crepuscular – Nick Cave and Morphine – but also cite the vivid, iconoclastic enactments and reinterpretations of jazz songs as carried off by Mina Agossi. There’s something in that. While they deal with plenty of old jazz standards – passed from hand to hand, worn smooth like wooden heirlooms – Sealionwoman share a trace of that Agossi rebellion against jazz performance manners and form, preferring to draw out song essence and perhaps a thread of history along with it.

Sealionwoman - Kitty Whitelaw possesses another standard.

Sealionwoman – Kitty Whitelaw possesses another standard.

However, what I’m hearing is something which shades Peggy Lee with Patti Smith. It’s partially that everything they do sounds a little bit like Fever – songs carried entirely and by necessity on the honk, creak and slide of Tye’s bass and the teasing dance-around of Kitty’s voice. It’s partly the lazily assured flutter of Kitty’s demeanour, and the way that it can quickly shift and escalate to an incantatory yell.

What they do has little to do with straightforward theatrics, and still less to do with diva drama. In his hands and on her lips, the songs turn as wayward as blown smoke: dip in and out of ritual; become stretched-out, yammering versions of themselves; go from breezy cool to swimming, waking dream. Sometimes Tye leans over to prod at a laptop or a fuzz pedal, furring up those woody bass notes to turn them into air-horns, or a sweep across concrete. Sometimes he drums with a pair of brushes on boxes and chairs. At other times his hands drum vigorously on the wood of the bass, booming out ritual and conversation, a vigorous and physical lover teetering on the border of tenderness and violence. Kitty sways, stands on tiptoe; brushes against the songs as if stretching for a passing kiss. Her voice folds around the melody line and uses it as a jumping off point, springing into the air, hanging, returning. Every so often a familiar tune and lyric slides through the circling murk. I spot Night And Day.

Mostly, though, it’s all about mood. Strangely blissful, narcoleptic – although by the end of the set and the dip of the late sunset they’ve risen in a slow heat, culminating in a Dionysiac frenzy of bass-drumming and banshee wails. It’s probably enough to put the wind up the Muslim congregation next door, praying their way through Asr. If they’re as Hackneyfied as everyone else around here, though, they’ll just shrug it off.

Foxout! 's Daniel Merrill, bowing against the dusk.

Foxout! ‘s Daniel Merrill, bowing against the dusk.

The gloaming has well and truly arrived as Foxout! settle down and begin. Perched opposite each other on a couple of stools, Daniel Merrill and Jeremy Young hunch over a network of effects pedals and rummage through what looks like a box of yellowed prehistoric teeth: these they mouth and mumble, blowing into a microphone to build up a warm, rambling noisescape of notes, feedback and harmonic buzz before they even pick up an instrument.

In fact, the teeth are reed tubes gutted from an old harmonium. Foxout! enjoy rejigging bits and pieces of antique musicality, and they’re extraordinarily good at it. Some more history might be useful, before we go any further. Essex-raised but with feet made for journeying, Daniel is the fiddler in Dead Rat Orchestra. Despite his youthful looks, he already has a decade of improvised folk music behind him, plus tours all over the globe (some of which were in the company of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (from whom he may have filched Foxout!’s abrupt exclamation mark). Another young veteran, Jeremy’s from Brooklyn music – he once played bleakly beautiful post-Godspeed chamber music with [the] slowest runner [in all the world] and limpid post-rock atmospherics with Sontag Shogun before moving on to solo experimental tonescapes and spoken word as szilárd. Both men wander; both men curate the work of others. Both men mingle.

Foxout! - Jeremy Young.

Foxout! – Jeremy Young.

Right now, both men are studying here in London. As their orbits have converged, Foxout! has emerged – immersed in the tributaries of Celtic folk but flowing through some crafty filters as it contributes to the journey. Certainly the prime stamp and weft of the music is Celtic – reels and pibrochs; plangent, sad melodies. Yet it’s Celtic music folded back over itself, cross-cut with experimental sounds and processing, and by strands of improvisation from elsewhere.

Daniel is one of those musicians who looks extraordinarily sad while he plays. Concentration renders his long, bearded face into a subtle mask of tragedy until you expect lock-gates to burst and for three hundred years of folk laments to come pouring out of him. His fiddle is the main melodic phrasing voice, with Jeremy’s acoustic guitar serving as a taut, bounding dodging rhythm source. Jeremy himself is constantly watchful and supportive, his eyes fixed on Daniel, holding up his partner’s passionate forays.

Speaker.

Speaker.

What emerges is remarkable, not least for the way in which it shape-shifts between different disciplines, experiments and sound-art tricks with neither seam nor strain. At times Foxout! broil with a heated minimalism or take on a grain of compulsive, systematic Futurist patterning. At others, a flexing bough or current of history catches at them and pulls them back to direct expression. One piece is a sensitive plucked-and-bowed air-ballad played (for half its length), over the sound of a draining straw, but with neither bathos nor disruption. Strips of noise sometimes bluster through the wood and strings, like another conversation passing through. Another gorgeous ballad tune sounds as if it could have be minted yesterday, simultaneously fresh and ancient. In the latter, there’s a moment of perfect meshing as Daniel and Jeremy briefly sweep into lockstep, rolling out a near-telepathic unison of notes before dancing away from each other again.

Night begins to settle in properly. Shades of indigo, of dulled London brick and of gaudy shop-front neon sift in through the window. The Dentist’s front room starts to take on something of the air of an Irish lock-in – nothing rowdy, but with the same sense of deep involvement in the music. As Daniel announces “a new ditty”, a couple of guests step up. Usually, Laura Moody’s a mischievous classical renegade or an acrobatic singer-songwriter when she’s not a fizzing cocktail of both. Right now, though, she and her cello are demure and thoughtful – the sober and quiet accompanist providing deep, cloudy strings while Liam Singer (just a few minutes away from his headlining set), sits in to sing.

Foxout! - strings against the dying light.

Foxout! – strings against the dying light.

The song all four share with us in semi-darkness- which may or may not be called As The Wind Turns Away – is a perfect closer. Sombre and gripping, there may not be too much too it (certainly Liam’s softly yearning tenor seem to be making much with fragmentary, cycling sentences) but they make a virtue of that.The song builds softly and inexorably with the dying of the light: a folky threnody for something a little out of focus, something over your shoulder, waiting to be picked up on. Listening to Foxout! gives you the dreamy and welcome impression that if you didn’t have roots before, you’re growing some now.

Liam Singer - songs against the sirens.

Liam Singer – songs against the sirens.

Sat behind a borrowed piano, and minus the sophisticated ornamentations that colour his chamber pop and detailed modern-classical minatures on record (those strings, mandolins and marimbas; those sundry twists and shifts of sound), Liam Singer runs his own set on a shoestring, and runs it well. As the delicate instrumental fantasia of On Earth A Wandering Stranger Was I Born unspools itself, it’s tenebrous but increasingly shot with hopeful illumination. While Liam performs, police cars occasionally sail up Chatworth Road in search of trouble, passing behind him in a quick welter of blue-and-red lights and siren-wail. They rock his soft resilient bubble of song, but don’t burst it.

Easygoing and enthusiastic in person, Liam ripples his own depths when he sits down to sing. Even when stripped down to piano-and-voice, his songs grow their own bosky Edenic atmosphere, filling out his excursions into classical minimalism with deeper shadings. I’ve noticed, previously, how he dips into American antiquity and draws it up up like well-water. His high, open tenor brings freshness and a glow of innocence, but older things lie in wait in the shade to snatch that away. At times, Liam’s like a young scholar running assured, fascinated fingers over the scuffed and scraped covers of ancient leather-bound books; but when the mood deepens and takes him, he sings like the man who’s been spat back out of the faery mound – fully aware and alive, but displaced, crucially out-of-joint with his times.

Still life at The Dentist - mixing desk, lollipops and scarification.

Still life at The Dentist – mixing desk, lollipops and scarification.

This is not just down to the tinge of Edwardian parlour song within Liam’s work, nor yet the occasional antiquarian “thou” or “thee” in his lyrics. There’s a mildly febrile quality to his songwriting, a flicker of Blakeian hallucination to add to the forays into classical piano and the Tennyson tint of mediaeval inflections. His song world is notable for its permeability – the mythic or the supernatural soak through into it, adding piquancy to his sharply edged portraits of involvement and solitude. On The Brief Encounter, Liam can bump into swarms of gentle slacker ghosts, massing there to comfort him as he heads up the coastal road. In the middle of Oh Endless Storm he can cite a rock-chained Andromeda, looming spectrally above him and disdaining rescue as he veers towards a break-up.

Liam immerses himself in the story-swirls, homing in on the core as he sings, “Love is a wind, rips through our hearts, that takes control / We long for a language to lose ourselves, / or for a way to let go.” Later on – as his piano notes spiral in a stately, panicking dance on One Breath Out – he’ll clutch after disappearing chances. “Never could I know as each one passed, / that the last would be the last… / Just one breath out and the world grows colder; / fight the war, but not the soldier. / And one hand moves to protect the other now – / but we’re falling anyhow.” Yet none of this is mawkish or precious – in between songs, Liam is relaxed, gently self-mocking and friendly. Two songs played with Laura Moody on cello (a snatched opportunity before she catches the train back to West London) become affectionate tickles and tussles, ranging from childlike warmth to a rousing gamelan jig.

Liam Singer

Liam Singer

Even his solo piano miniatures, potentially an excuse for indulgence, carefully balance their romantic invention with a pucker of thoughtful modesty. The Dance of Cupid and Psyche pays subtle passing visits to Chopin, Satie and Air On The G-String, flushing its economy with a dash of vigour. On Hannah’s Dance (a lone flash from his decade-old debut, ‘The Empty Heart Of The Chameleon’) Liam displays a Tori Amos drive and fluidity but rounds it off within a single minute. The sweet cascading single, Stranger I Know, slips out of its crafty Shaker-gamelan arrangement and breathes easier, now less of a revelation than a relaxed celebration: “suckers, speeches, they can keep ’em all.”

In one week’s time, Liam’s new album – ‘Arc Iris‘ – is released, yet already he’s moving on from it. Half of the set is songs so new that they’re not on any record, and at least one of them – Three Songs – is fresh out of the notebook. “I’ll fuck it up tastefully,” promises Liam, shuffling his sheet music into place.

What emerges suggests that the drift away from Liam’s earlier experimentalism into fully-fledged romance (as promised by much of ‘Arc Iris’) is accelerating. Here is a beautiful but unnerving love-song, holding strong on the edge of wreck; swimming with gas-masks and cruelty and an unsettling Saint Sebastian gasp. “Someday I’ll see you sideways, / your pretty words are opening like arrows in the middle of my chest / ’til petals fall from my mouth / and I, I gasp for air / ‘cos something inside is pressurized… / When you feel it, you will know / that I was not crazy when I had to let it go.” Running through the words are hints of fairytale transmogrifications; always restlessness. Liam’s heading east after this concert, travelling over to play more gigs in France and Belgium. In another new song, with a vocal line like a perilous descent down crags and scree, he muses “from one skin to another we slide endlessly.” Perhaps he’d like to keep wandering on, heading to the edge of the world.

Ceiling.

Ceiling.

Sitting beside the mixing desk is a jar of lollipops. By now, the contents are making the rounds among the audience and consequently Liam’s playing is being punctuated by furtive, respectful cellophane rustles, which he takes in good heart. Someone else is passing around a copy of ‘Paradise Lost’, which seems more appropriate, as the prowling monsters name-checked back in Oh Endless Storm are resurfacing in Love Me Today (“”There are dark things in the earth / soon they’ll be twisted / up for air /… as the ground gives way.”) Maybe I’m a being little suggestible, but it seems to me that there are also shadings of the twenty-first century ghosts which haunt Liam’s adopted hometown of New York. For over a decade the city’s romantic signifiers, once brash and confident, have been haunted by the shock of sudden and brutal dissolution. While Liam’s not one for hammer-blow songcraft, much of what he sings enfolds an onset of loss, from the counting to (ominously) the banking aircraft. “In the shadow of the moon, as our planes spin away / You know my eyes may tell you lies, but love me today.”

Under the cheerful coloured bulbs strung across The Dentist’s battered ceiling, he offers us a last dance. This’ll be to Unhand Me (You Horrid Thing), from ‘Arc Iris’, a brief, deliciously rueful song which sketches out the mixture of hope, awkward embarrassment and careful blundering steps that make up an ordinary, flakey relationship – prickles and all. “They’re playing our favourite song, the one that makes us both dance for a dare / ’til our feet turn to air / and our hands come apart, / as the guitar solo starts. / And that is the part / that breaks my heart.” It’s a different, generous note to end on, for a gig that’s felt like a cosy but inspiring house party. As I say my goodbyes and slip out of The Dentist, it looks as if the party will be going on for a while longer. Not only sound carries. Warmth does, too.

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REVIEW – Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’ single, 2013 (“setting things right as well as respecting the source”)

11 Jun

Fletcher/Fletcher/Reuter: 'Islands'

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’

Ironically, we often record cover versions to find out – or to show – who we are.

Markus Reuter, for instance, would prefer it if other people could stop telling him who he is. Too many of them are telling him that he’s obliged to be the twenty-first century’s Robert Fripp. They can’t get past his Frippic virtuosity on touch guitar, his past as a Fripp student, or his work with the man’s former King Crimson colleagues (in Stick Men and Tuner). They can’t even get over the fact that these days he plays all of the Fripp parts in the Crimson ProjeKCt…

Ah. Well, all right, but Markus’ vivid success in the sprawling latterday Crimson family shouldn’t have to box in a musician as stubbornly wide-ranging as he is. Yet it does, even though you don’t have to scratch him too deeply to discover that he’s not as enFrippened as he seems. When it comes to willful and wayward yet methodical 1970s virtuosi, Mike Oldfield is kernelled deeper in Markus’ heart than Fripp is. Hence this unexpected and open-armed cover of a long-forgotten Oldfield song, recorded by Markus in cahoots with long-term collaborators Lee and Lisa Fletcher, and demonstrating that Markus deals with more musical colours than just ‘Red’ ones.

A few sketchy parallels can be drawn here. When Oldfield released the original Islands single (back in 1987, towards the uglier end of his Virgin Records contract), he wasn’t entirely sure who he was. Though he’d made his name via intricate, acclaimed confections of multi-instrumental experimental rock, spatial Celtic folk and classical minimalism, by the mid-’80s Virgin had talked him into writing hit-and-miss pop songs dressed up with fat blobs of Fairlight, gated reverb and arena grease. The ‘Islands’ album floundered to cover both poles – a side of lengthy neoclassical fare (heavily spiced with chants, electric flourishes and whirring jazz flute) counterweighted a side of echoing pomp-rock (with straining guest singers and drums like torpid cannons). Even back then, this didn’t age well, despite spawning a vapid video album in which Bonnie Tyler and Kevin Ayers (in ‘Miami Vice’ regalia and power-frosted hairdos) sang and jostled their way through pastel-misted virtual realities and through corny CGI blizzards of New Age totems, ducking flying Tutankhamuns as they went.

At that point Mike Oldfield was pretty lost. Though he’d only stick the situation out for one more album (before rebelling and revitalizing himself via the inspired slice-and-dice music of ‘Amarok’) in 1987 he seemed beached. Islands – the song – ended up a little lost as well. Uniting strands of John Donne, Celtic Big Music and Dream Academy oboe, it could have triumphed over the crash of reverb: with its lyric of loneliness unclenching it could have become one of the decade’s all-join-hands power ballads. It even had Bonnie Tyler singing it, all sandpaper and yodels. What actually happened is that it floated round the middle of various European charts for a while and then sank.

In contrast to the lacquered, divided and ultimately stranded figure that Oldfield cut in the late ’80s, Lee Fletcher comes to Islands knowing himself and knowing what he’s doing. After a decade of quiet self-apprenticeship and networking, the Fletcher sound has blossomed into a rich pool of talented instrumentalists and instrumentation – digital blips to rattling jazz, frosty-fanged art-rock guitars to keening folk and glowing chamber music, choreographed with a mixture of precise delicacy and expansive flair. His auteur-producer take on Islands doesn’t just restore the song’s appeal. As a string quartet jumps from scratchy shellac recording to full live presence alongside uillean pipes and whistle – and as Markus rides happily at the centre of the song, his touch guitar chords and slithers fanning out like a nerve map – it restores the song’s lost Oldfield-ness. This could be as much rebuke as tribute. Either way, there’s the feel of setting things right as well as respecting the source.

There’s a little of the undulant Saharan patter of a Peter Gabriel song (reinforced by Tony Levin’s prowling spring of a bass part). There’s the spirit of an Irish pub session, too (Alan Burton’s pipework recalls other Oldfield moments, such as the haunted morning chills of ‘Ommadawn’ or Paddy Moloney’s warmer dip-ins on ‘Five Miles Out’ and ‘Amarok’). Finally, there’s the third side of the Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter team – Lisa Fletcher. Compared to Lee or to Markus, it’s less clear whether she knows who she is, musically. More to the point, it’s not even clear whether she thinks its important. She’s the only member of the F|F|R trio who’s got form for actual impersonation (if you don’t believe me, check out her startling Sinead O’Connor impression from an old series of ‘Stars In Their Eyes’) and for now, she’s keeping up that sensuous and welcoming vocal persona with which she helmed Lee’s ‘Faith In Worthless Things‘ last year – a flushed, de-gushed and beautifully controlled Kate Bush mezzo which slips supple invisible fingers round the lyrics, caresses them, and passes on by.

It’s a low-key take compared to Bonnie’s hearts-and-guts original. What matters, though, is that it works: a vocal and a sentiment that’s a welling rather than a sobbing, and far better at catching the quickening thaw that’s being voiced in Oldfield’s lyrics. Beyond the beautiful sound, Lisa remains something of an enigma as a singer and as an adept interpreter – still playing a game of veils in which flashes of other singers, other sentiments distract our curiosity, and behind which she’s drawing out other people’s words and launching them with the subtlest of spins. It makes me wonder what she’ll sound like when she’s singing her own songs. For now, she’s transformed Islands into a shimmering welcome rather than an emotive wrack, and has kept her own mystery as she does it. No easy trick.

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th June 2013

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Two music crowdfunding campaigns (Utter:Jazz, Markus Reuter)

8 Jun

Partly for the sake of broadening ‘Misfit City’s music coverage – and partly because it makes me feel a little more involved in music – I’ve decided to start covering music crowdfunding campaigns which interest me. As I’m generally short of ready cash, I was late to the music pledge phenomenon as it grew, although I found it potentially fascinating when I did encounter it (see my wide-eyed response to some of Kickstarter’s more cultish implications in the middle of this review). Increasingly it’s a vision of the future – or at the very least, the future of the honest hustle – as the music industry continues to crumble and narrow down to a point where more and more of the interesting music is forced to turn self-propelled and troubadour, travelling hopefully to an unknown audience whom it’ll eventually all but know by name.

Before I get too lost in the theory, though, here are two campaigns which currently interest me:

The first is the Kickstarter campaign for the ‘Look, Stranger’ project by Utter:Jazz Collective, set up by Jazzberries singer Ruthie Culver. This is a ferment of Benjamin Britten’s music, W.H. Auden’s verse, the voices of Ruthie and several of Britain’s greatest stage actors, and the transformative flood of twenty-first century jazz. Sounds risky (the options for falling into camp or cuteness are legion) but the caliber of the people involved suggests that they’ll pull it off with flair. Ruthie’s a singer whose explorations have taken her from opera to chanson, Sondheim to cabaret, poetry to swing. Between them the Utter:Jazz instrumentalists – double bassist Jonny Gee, reeds player Mick Foster, pianist/trombonist Dan Hewson and drummer Andrea Trillo – have covered jazz, baroque music, contemporary classical music, opera, tango, pop and salsa; have worked with a swathe of bandleaders and situation-starters including Herbie Hancock, Ravi Shankar, Nigel Kennedy and Jarvis Cocker, and have tried everything from classical stand-up and serious education to writing their own string quartets.

Utter:Jazz: 'Look, Stranger'

Utter:Jazz: ‘Look, Stranger’

At time of posting Utter:Jazz are four days into their five-week campaign, and are 3% of the way towards their £8,000 goal. Here’s what Ruthie has to say about the project:

“Over the past year, my band and I have been through through a mind-boggling process of musical experimentation and harmonic analysis with twelve songs by Benjamin Britten, re-interpreting them through all the technicolour grooves and vibrant influences of 21st century jazz, including swing, samba, funk and blues… We chose Britten (whose centenary is this year) because his harmonies and melodies are delicious – something to get your teeth into – modern and beautiful. The song lyrics are satirical, romantic and witty, and all written by WH Auden (who wrote ‘Stop all the Clocks’, made famous in Four Weddings and a Funeral).

“I invited a few actors we’ve met over the years to read some Auden between the songs when we tour the project – they all said yes! Simon Russell Beale, Samuel West, Roger Lloyd Pack or Sir Derek Jacobi (one per gig) will be joining me and my brilliant quartet of world-class musicians. We have 18 performances lined up (details below) between July & November 2013, at festivals and theatres up and down the country including Northumberland, Devon, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Sussex, Suffolk, Hampshire, Herefordshire and London.”

The second crowdfunder I’m going to mention is the PledgeMusic campaign for the orchestral version of Todmorden 513, a long-form piece composed by Markus Reuter. Markus is best known for his work with centrozoon and his contributions to various King Crimson spinoffs (The Crimson ProjeKCt, Stick Men) but his work ranges beyond art-rock and explores a spectrum of ambient music, pop, systems work and contemporary classical composition.

Originally a recording for treated touch guitar and small ensemble, Todmorden 513 has now been arranged for full orchestra by Thomas Blomster who, once upon a time, was half of Pale Boy (and was responsible for the superb arrangements on their only album) but now runs the Youth Orchestra of the Rockies. The piece has recently been performed and recorded by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, with Thomas as conductor.

Here’s a little more on the piece:

“Todmorden 513 is a unique contemporary composition of an hours duration for orchestra. It is 513 measures long and is a Concerto for Orchestra, with each of the 50 string, woodwind, brass, and percussion musicians performing an individual solo part. These solo parts are in turn each a part of a trio or quartet, all joining together to form the orchestra. The Colorado Chamber Orchestra is very excited to present this enigmatic, mysterious, genre-bending music.”

And here’s some more background on the original Todmorden 513 in its small ensemble form:

“Employing violins, viola, cello, guitars, organ, glockenspiel, synthesisers and electronics, these instruments mesh together, in ensembles of varying size, creating a kind of gauzy web through which development takes place. Texturally its often like those wispy moments in the orchestral music of Debussy or Messiaen, combined with the tolling crawl of Feldman’s Coptic Light, but proceeding to its own rules. This is a truly stunning piece of music.” – Joshua Meggitt, Cyclic Defrost

“Markus Reuter’s Todmorden 513 is a complex work of algorithmic composition of an hour’s duration. Given Reuter’s linguistic background, one might think that the title is an exercise in existential dread in German as “Tod” means “death” and “morden” means “to murder” – forming a truly grim portmanteau. However, the title’s sourcing is actually of a small town in northern England, northeast of Manchester. 513 refers to its construction: it is a continuous movement and sequence of five hundred and thirteen harmonies and triads generated by a combinatorial compositional technique of Reuter’s own design. The notes of each harmony or triad is then fed back into the same algorithm, resulting in a progression of chords and note clusters of highly varied density, ranging from simple two note harmonies to dense twelve note chords spread across several octaves. Starting on an A flat, the sequences of pitches form a kind of melodic or thematic line throughout. The rhythms of the performing instrumental trios and quartets were derived from the chord sequences themselves, which were looped across the whole piece, mapped to the notes of each chord, then mixed together. From there it was split into three or four independent voices respectively. The result is a shifting set of harmonic densities — at times quite spare — ranging from a harmony of two instruments to other moments of thick and lush instrumentation.” – Henry Warwick (original liner notes for ensemble recording)

The difference between this and the Utter: Jazz campaign is that Markus’ project is technically complete – orchestrated, recorded, mastered and now moving towards release. However, that’s not the end of the story and any further pledging and involvement will help it move further into the next (and arguably more tortuous) phase of promotion and outreach to people who want to hear it (even if they don’t know it yet). Another incentive for involvement is that 5 % over goal will be donated to the Youth Orchestra of the Rockies. It’s a little late in the day, but there’s still an opportunity to get involved in this.

There’ll be more crowdfunders along as I find them…

May 2013 – live reviews – Chaos Theory presents ‘Jazz Market’ @ The Luxe, Spitalfields, London, 29th May 2013 (featuring A Sweet Niche, Macchina del Tempo, What?! – with guests Yasmyn Hendrix, Moo Clef, Chloe Herington) (“tunes and stutters and babels”)

30 May

Walking into the Luxe, I feel even shabbier than usual. I fear those spotless white napkins and wooden counters; I look sidelong at the pricey menu; I sidle off to the side door as soon as possible. Like most of the rest of Spitalfields, this place has gone upmarket and left me behind. Until about a decade ago, it was the Spitz – another restaurant, another bar, another venue. Much loved, and more boho-genteel: I’d come here for electronica, for rock of the post- and mathy variety, and for the occasional off-centre songwriter.

Occasionally I’d come for jazz – something which, as a language, still sits oddly in London’s mouth. It’s not that the city spurns jazz – enough London musicians, venues and festivals give the lie to that. But I feel that sometime it seems a little deracinated here, even in a town where more recent arrivals like reggae and salsa now seem like part of tradition. Supper jazz might be healthy, foyer spaces still welcoming, but outside of grants or outright corporate sponsorship, it’s mostly a tribute to the tenacity and dedication of London’s jazzers that the music keeps its personal, inventive foothold here. The old Spitz was a place which welcomed jazz in plenty of its diverse strands and split-tongued digressions. When you were at a Spitz jazz event, you could feel the music striving, feel its life; and when all of that ended London jazz was diminished.

This picture’s a little too gloomy. There were – and are – other venues, and for those who still want it, the displaced spirit of the Spitz lives on elsewhere as a jazz collective. But it’s heartening that Chaos Theory Promotions (that mobile feast of wide-spanning musical interest, springing from place to place across London) seem to be paying a little homage to old times when they drop their Jazz Market night into the Luxe. Some things stay changed, sadly. I’ve not been here in years, but in Spitz days the music owned the top floor (and a Shoreditch panorama, such as it was). Now it’s down in the basement bar, sharing with the comedy and competing with the toilets: sidelined. Never mind. The Chaos brokers themselves are brimful of enthusiasm, and three jazz trios have come to chat.

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

If jazz is a language, What?! keep it as handfuls of sentences plunged into a deep baggy pocket, mixed up with anything else they’ve found during the week. Everything in the pocket is regularly hauled up for inspection, to be chucked and scattered casually across a table, just to see how it will fall. The boys certainly aren’t purists, although their taste for locating comfortable licks and riffs in whichever genre they’re toying with does keep you guessing as to how much of what they do is serious. In keeping with this, they’re acting as class clowns tonight. In fetching scarlet dressing-gown and shades, his white-man dreads spilling from a Rasta cap, guitarist Niels Bakx is part-Trustafarian and part-trannie. Bass guitarist Ago Collura, his back turned to the audience, is Reverse Man – a white mask strapped to the back of his head beneath his Tyrolean stovepipe hat, a collar and tie sprouting from the nape of his neck. Having apparently lost a bet, sparky drummer Raphael Lanthaler performs stripped to the waist and down to his underpants (though he’s been allowed to keep his hatful of bright rainbow-dyed feathers as well as his delighted grin).

On record, What?! strut and step like a cool-jazz function band about to be warmed-up and overcome by a sly sense of mischief. Both of their recent singles make a showing tonight – the Brubeck reggae of Tikka Masala (now with extra curlicues from Ago’s bass and curves of wah on the rhythm guitar); a spiked-up, rockier version of Schwaffelen, passing a swaying cats-cradle of jazz and ska touches over and over the tune. This kind of music is what they’re most at home with. It’s not, however, what they’re most drawn to doing. What?! like to stray – prancing into diced-up, chequered rock patterns dominated by the thwack of Raphael’s tom; laying out a sun-stroked Caribbean hiccup for a minute; or suddenly picking up and pelting through some driving motorbike music. Still very young (at an age where anything and everything can be hysterically funny), and still drunk on the musical options that surround them as busy session players and broad listeners, What?! can certainly groove: but they won’t settle.

What?! - unexpectedly naked drummer... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! – unexpectedly naked drummer… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

It’s unclear how many of the band’s disruptions, false halts and oblique quotes are written rather than improvised, but their sense of fun constantly overpowers their artfulness, and every so often their humour dips towards novelty territory. When they slip into a quick strum through Happy Birthday for a friend, it’s warm but a touch too crowd-pleasing. I doubt that What?! wouldn’t care if anyone told them that. An easy-going and sociable band, they’ve invited buddies up to play and clearly thrive on it.

Like a dayglo Tom Waits in his checkered-tablecloth bowler and green tints, the jazz-prankster Moo Clef sits in for a couple of songs. One he plays straight, blowing a fiesta trumpet over a reggae section, fluent and cool-fired. For the other, he adds various sung, rapped and chanted interjections that he tweaks and filters into cartoon oddities via effects pedals. At one point, a chipmunk-voiced cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit takes over, the band smoothly slipping into light-touch Nirvana riffage. The joke wobbles somewhere between Battles and Zappa: disarming romp, or sarcastic cheese. (Or lounge act. Ha.)

It’s a different story when Yasmyn Hendrix and her flower-child headscarf step up to front the trio for Stay With Me. Usually she’s found in unlikely venues, crafting herself castles out of her own vocal loops. Here she plays it straight and soulful, her light but bluesy vocals lounging and skittering over What?!’s skein of tango-funk and Come Together dub-shimmer. For a while, the band sit back and enjoy playing as accompanists. For a while, they stay rooted. They’re good at it. Those quick-cut style shifts and the metafoolery are just part of their choices, not their only option.

Still, in between clear individual pieces the band improvise loosely, and as much with genre as with anything else. They’ll roll out a strolling lunar echo (Raphael sighing and gusting on the drums with near-silent brushstrokes while Niels caresses out wide chords), or crawl through a fragmented, broken-backed jazz ballad that they’ve deconstructed to the point of disintegration. Once they spit out a talking-blues bossa (with Niels on vivid slide guitar), only to refit it midway and produce a tumbling complex skeleton of arpeggiated notes, traveling from Elmore James to Gilberto to Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in a matter of minutes. Towards the end, they throw in a grunge-rock climb complete with punk screaming. Raphael (tonight’s head joker) continually tosses in triggers: false stops and starts, or stalking who-blinks-first contests with Ago.

Again, how much of this is quick coin whipped out of a trick-bag is unclear. What is clear is What?!’s breadth of reference, be it a midsection of shoegazing-summer guitar-echo, a little reggae chip or a mass-less bridging passage of math-rock brewing like a disappearing wreath of mercury fumes. Sometimes their work is a puzzle; sometimes it’s cut-and-shunt. Sometimes, though, it seems as if they’ve scattered themselves out a bit too far, becoming a set of waggling jazz-hands where they should be a breathing, scatting jazz lung. They could do with a little time to breathe in and rethink, maybe.

On first sighting, Macchina del Tempo are raw-boned, hard-faced men. They look like the kind of band that shows up at remote and friendless small-town gigs, purely to prey on other bands. You could imagine them cornering some other, more hapless group in order to swipe and swig their beer in front of them, shake them down for their gig money and then steal their van, all without cracking those stony expressions.

Stocky guitarist Walter Fazio, glowering above his inverted Slayer goatee, looks particularly fearsome, purposeful and frowning – the kind of man who’d grunt one word and unleash hell. Then you see him play. As he smiles, broad and unguarded, while one of his liquid runs of notes hits the spot, then you understand what Macchina del Tempo are really about. Jazz Market regulars, this fusion trio made common cause a few years ago. Two Brits and an Italian, forged in and scarred by the grim working heat of innumerable cover bands, they made a leap to somewhere they could flower.

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What Macchina del Tempo provide tonight is a strong contrast to What?!’s permanent state of playful. Effortlessly inventive but tightly-drilled, they roll out four long and muscular pieces of driving jazz-rock ,each with a gritty core which suggests that there might be something to that initial hard-man appearance. If you’re imagining the kind of shrill sterile tech-wank that afflicted jazz-fusion when it gulped down the wrong bits of synthpop and heavy metal at the end of the ‘70s, think again – and think further back. There’s certainly plenty of rock in here, but from the organic end, in which sweat and texture add body and warmth as well as disrupting any shop-fresh sheen.

Certainly Macchina are as much Motorhead as they are Mahavishnu or Metheny (and, given the choice, they appear to be more Rush than Yellowjackets). One of their offerings blends a long-throw fusion funk with creamy jazz metal, a tight seethe of musicality with a laddering, gibbon swing to it. Another starts as a swinging Jimmy Page-meets-Sonny Sharrock hydra – tremendously fluent, ribbed with dissonant slashes but full of tight prog-rock pounces of unison guitar and bass, with a strong rumbling taste of Ace Of Spades (and a final united scurry like La Villa Strangiato).

However, Walter’s persistently inventive guitar playing ensures that the band’s music never boils dry. There might be a bit of Hendrix in his floating horn-wail of lead line, continually playing a push, stroke’n’stretch game with its envelope. There’s probably a pinch of Allan Holdsworth ripple, some dirty Mike Stern blues or Foley McCrearey whumph, an occasional trilling coil of fretboard tapping… whatever there is, it’s subsumed into Walter’s own voice. For the forty minutes he’s onstage, he’s playing almost continually and never once puts a foot wrong. For the full set, he wraps you in the ins and outs of his conversation, his pauses for thought, his gently brooding reflections, frowns and unspoken implications. Guitarists this compelling and fertile are rare – and they’re a pleasure to encounter.

Macchina del Tempo - Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo – Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

From the start, it’s also been clear that Macchina have an utter mastery of the flexible groove. While drummer Mick Claridge can certainly swing, it’s only part of his vocabulary as the band drive and chivvy through their smooth shifts of time and tempo. On bass guitar, Jamie McKenzie plays neither the great soloist nor the staid, conservative backliner. Instead he firmly unzips the chords in all their glory, then fingers his way around and across the scales in a continous springy roam. A dextrous fretted fingerstylist, he knows where every note needs to go. His playing creates a webbing of involved, swung-baroque bass-line, over which Walter’s guitar can flicker like a sly chameleon whenever it needs to. Mick subtly supports the arc; swirls under it, drums cruising and lifting like a river-rise.

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)


They’re certainly making an impact – around me, bodies rapidly lose their reluctance, peeling up from the Luxe’s dark faux-leather sofas to sway and wave to the Macchina percolations. A third piece, though it starts with a crabby rock sidle strangely similar to You Really Got Me, soon turns into electric-chicken jazz funk. Mick slides greasy rhythms from hand to hand even as he pins the piece to the floor, a human nail-gun. For the last in their foursome of amplified groove, the band’s funk turns a little Mahavishnu: full of tensing stops, bullish balance and hot scraps sliding unregarding from that smouldering guitar. Even now, deep into their set, the three Macchina men seem transformed by their playing. Seeing those tough faces softened and gentled into something resembling reverence – it does the heart good.

What?! have the playful end of things covered tonight. Macchina del Tempo have so convincingly laid claim to solidity and substance that they’d be tough to follow with something similar. It falls to A Sweet Niche, then, to stagger splay-armed along the edge; to rake their nails down the rough wall of art and shout the appropriate odds.

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ben Handysides drums with dainty motions but powerful strikes. He looks like a handsome public-school rugger star who’s thinking about becoming a poet; he can play jazz, folk, progressive rock, kletzmer and sundry permutations of all of those and more. This makes him a shoo-in for A Sweet Niche when they play live. While they’ve already got an established drummer for composing and recording, he lives, rather disobligingly, far off in Cornwall (where he can presumably maintain the freshness required for their studio sessions). Everyone else in the band besides Ben seems to have intense sidelines in film, or theatre, or the spiky world of contemporary classical. Perhaps this explains the open-marriage, flyaway feel of the band; and why Ben currently seems like a blond bridge linking the two remaining poles of A Sweet Niche together.

A Sweet Niche - Oliver Sellwood's baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Oliver Sellwood’s baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

One of these two poles is Oliver Sellwood, on baritone sax. He’s a fluid rippling player (with plenty of bassy skronk in him whenever he needs it) and he’s as well turned out as his playing: neat haircut, neat glasses, unflappable demeanour. He can blow like a demon, but he delivers these storms coolly and professorial, as if chatting from a podium. The other pole is on the other side of Ben and looks as if he’ll rattle himself to bits at any moment. In his agony-scarlet sweat top, Keir Cooper is spindly and driven; bristle-bearded, and playing a guitar as if someone will nail him to it at set’s end. Everything about him screams “art lifer”. He’s the filmmaker. He probably sleeps once or twice every five years, if someone else talks him into it.

A Sweet Niche cast off with a clutch of snaking instrumental wiggles. Oliver’s baritone sax tattoo soon settles into a blaring drone, around which Ben casts up a ticking construction set before the band blaze up into distortion. Keir is clearly going to be the splinter in the jam – his face crumples into walnut creases as he drives shattered howls out of his guitar. Ben looks loose in comparison, his drumsticks dangling like plucked lilies. Oliver disregards them both, ripping off a sax solo as if he was wrenching a seam from a jacket: it’s a little Arabian in tone, a reproving and arrogant ripple of grace above the chaos, of which there’s plenty more to come.

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Their second salvo, Eye Music II is crash noise from the off. Their third begins as a kind of minimalist ska, then becomes Yaketty-Yak re-imagined for math-rockers. After Ben delivers a burst of horse-clopping rimshots, they break for another swirl of Arabian saxophone, heavy on the romance, before heading back towards the ska armed with hammer-swipes of noise. To top it off, the coda is a lullaby pop tune.

As a band – or, perhaps, as a spasm – A Sweet Niche seem to crouch somewhere between John Zorn (in his more impish Naked City moods) and the wracked, Maoist judders of English free jazz. Moments where a passage of brittle swing mutates into a kind of thrash samba could be put down to dark humour, but it’s difficult to calculate the shape of the band’s intent when a cheerful passage of saxophone sleaze is overtaken by screeching guitar alarm and then a taut, distant game of musical tag as Keir and Oliver dot each other with single notes and with silence.

It’s tricky to pin down whether what they do is political, or disruptive for its own sake, or just a natural expression of brain hiccups; or whether all of these options are equally valued or dismissed. Besides their wary body language – which could be a deceptive feint anyway – they give little away personally. There are no arcane jokes at the microphone, and few wacky titles (although the choppy ta-ta-ta and carousel echos of Bananagirl inspire even more confusion, as if Bagpuss had joined Slayer).

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ultimately A Sweet Niche’s aim seems to be to blow their education out of their minds, like a bolus of brain-snot. Chunks of structure regularly whiz past our ears (Oliver, in particular, has a knack for hurling fervent and compressed musical dialogue) while Keir is ceaseless in shaking off his thoughts as an urgent, committed racket. At one point, following a particularly intense bit of guitar wringing, he blinks with astonishment. For a few seconds, he looks relieved, with a surprised smile and the hint of shy laughter fluttering round his chops, and a “where did that come from?” shrug lifting his arms. As they head towards the end of their set, though, their disruptive peace-destroying turns into a dotted bounce. Bit by bit, they’re turning to a dance even if at the next song they’ll be trying to squash us against the wall with ripped slices of metallic thrash-hop.

They end with a thunderous, purging blast through Duodecimal. Then, bizarrely, they’re back for an encore, augmented by Chloe Herington (the unflappable reedswoman from Chrome Hoof, VALVE and Knifeworld) who suddenly pops up to moonlight and to add a new factor to the band’s unruly chemistry. There’s plenty of muttering, subtle stares and subliminal eyebrow gestures before they get started. It’s unclear whether they’re cueing each other, playing chicken or attempting some kind of disguised wink-murder.

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Just as I’m losing interest, they reel out a tremendous length of jazz-thrash-turned-sludge-metal. Her alto sax hovering, Chloe stays silent for most of it before jerking into place right at the pell-mell coda. She blows ten or fifteen seconds of twisting Coltrane overblowing over the roar, and then everything crashes to a halt. The night’s over, and so is A Sweet Niche’s psychological shell game. The strains and strange focusses slough away like last month’s bandages: with the instruments down, they’re suddenly warm with each other.

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ten minutes later, sleepy and stumbling, I’m making my way south-west of Spitalfields and I’m ever so slightly lost. Trying to find the tube, I’m wandering past the cluster of City skyscrapers by Bishopsgate – pushy assertions, half-formed nubbins and works-in-progress, garlanded by lights: and the finished statements, shoved heavenwards. Appropriate really.

Around my midnight bleariness (and as I’m passing the arrested concrete stump of the Pinnacle building, humiliated and frozen by market forces) I’m thinking dimly about language again, about tunes and stutters and babels and temporary silences. I don’t come to a conclusion, but as the last echoes of the gig swirl away in my mind I’m feeling glad that this part of town’s got some of its more unusual dialogues back.

What?! online:
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Macchina del Tempo online:
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A Sweet Niche online:
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Chaos Theory Promotions online:
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REVIEW – Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’ single, 2013 (“a joyride through the Day of the Dead”)

18 May

Kiran Leonard: 'Dear Lincoln'

Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’

Now here’s something.

Kiran Leonard’s already an established teenage wunderkind – a bedroom-industry frenzy act who’s rapidly gummed together a string of homemade albums and slung them out, via Soundcloud and Bandcamp, to a surprised and unsuspecting world. When he’s not doing that, he’s charging round his family’s Oldham house waving a caiman head, or shooting his own scratch videos on a budget of tuppence. He plays most of the instruments he needs, wrestling tunes out of pianos, drums and guitars; ukuleles, laptops, screwdrivers and radiators. While his music’s just about ramshackle -raw enough to avoid trouble with the indie-rock police, his ambitions and application have leaned closer to prog and to a grandiose psychedelia. In 2012, for instance, he cooked up a rambling, apocalyptic single about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. It topped out at around 24 minutes long and tied together the wilder bits of ‘Cloud Atlas’ and the paranoid, grinding Pink Floyd of 1977.

It’ll still be three years before Kiran turns twenty. I could wonder what he’s going to do when he grows up, but I almost hope that he doesn’t.

Dear Lincoln is something different for Kiran – much lighter and more immediate. Traveling backwards as he goes forwards, Kiran seems to have suddenly discovered pop in all of its concise hooks, blind momentum and smart throwaway logic. Actually, he’s rediscovered it – Dear Lincoln was written some time ago, while he was a ripe 14 – but now seems to be the perfect time to unveil it. Its a bust-out. It sounds like a joyride through the Day of the Dead. Kiran, hammering away at a tack piano and squawking like a glammed-up crow, drives the gauges into the red and embraces Bolan swagger, a swaying Robyn Hitchcock playfulness, some of the wild euphoria of Guillemots and even a needling tinge of Kevin Coyne. Earlier in 2013, there was the ‘Oakland Highball’ EP, which showed that he was getting interested in snappier, noisier forms. Dear Lincoln nails it. If we could work out what he was singing, it’d even be singalong.

What’s it about? God knows. The words are a babbling wodge of mondegreens-in-waiting about suit-crevices and moonlight, thrown out at us as Kiran carries out his lyrical handbrake turns. “Murderous plain,” he protests, in passing, but it certainly isn’t. Not unless he’s talking about death again. The song could be about gunned-down Presidents, it could just be about missing the family cat, but one thing Dear Lincoln does do is blur the lines between the living and the dead – a rollicking Halloween dance, or a resurrection day stomp. Even that long-croaked, ranting old herald of the Übermensch, Friedrich Nietzche, has a ghostly cameo; prowling the English parishes as a witness before succumbing to anxiety, melting away and vanishing. In the chopped froth of the lyrics, Kiran playfully juggles around ideas of resurrection, rousing, and where he’ll be standing when it all comes to pass; but constantly swats away any navel-gazing with onomatopoeic streams of Little Richard-isms. “Praying for the bodies to assemble and wake… / Come back today, bou-la-ray / oh, ta-hoo-lay.”

Don’t get the idea that this is all a casual throw-together. Anyone keeping half an eye on how Kiran thinks will know that he’s meticulous; that he worries like crazy about getting things right. But Dear Lincoln’s explosive delivery – its immediacy, its ability to swing round the story without stopping to count the words – suggest that he’s finally able to harness his particular genius and to let it live in the moment. This is by no means the first we’ve seen of Kiran Leonard, but it feels like the start of him.

Kiran Leonard: ‘Dear Lincoln’
Hand of Glory Records (catalogue number & barcode t.b.c.)
Vinyl/streamed single
Released: 16th May 2013 (streamed), 2nd September 2013 (vinyl)

Get it from:
Hand of Glory store (vinyl), or Soundcloud (stream)

Kiran Leonard online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

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