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May 2020 – EP reviews – Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY’s ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ (“mysteries which slip into shadowed corners”)

7 May

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: 'CONFINEMENT-release3' EP

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’ EP

Following their pair of releases last month, Brighton’s Confinement Tapes project is back for a second round – this time with Confinementeers Jo Spratley and Bic Hayes joined by honorary family member Chris Anderson (of Worthing’s Crayola Lectern), who’s also worked with Bic in Brighton kosmische juggernaut ZOFFF alongside what seems like a good half of Brighton’s psychedelic contingent (and, occasionally, The House of Love’s Terry Bickers).

(The third original Confinementeer, Jesse Cutts, has his own follow-up single too, but more on that later…)

Unlike the archived cover versions refurbished for the previous EP, ‘Bright Fivers’ is an all-new, all-original April recording in which Chris contributes as the anagrammatic Cola Ray, collaborating with Bic and Jo’s MUMMY. Initially, it’s his arpeggiating pianos (distanced and tinny, as if pulled from a dusty old 78) which dominates ‘Bright Fivers’; a solemn setting for Jo’s singing, which is loaded with both trepidity and authority. That’s only the prelude, though, and it’s severed from the rest of the piece by a jump-cut edit as loud and merciless as a sucker punch or an axe blow. You even hear the clunk as the mood shifts; Jo switching abruptly into deadpan recitation against a Bic backdrop of guitar static and wind texture, as impassive as the prophetess taken over by the voice of the prophecy.

Whether sung or spoken, the sentences are broken off; dark, punching surrealist gobbets of foreseeing and ruin. “Silence in the air. / Things endure, things evolve. / Between the slopes fivers fly up onto the dream floor. / Fire spreads her text of flame as serious as food / Our towers of graph paper fold up into the silence, / delicate as the girl who leaves the stone and the water – / and the bright moan of the green, / the collapse of a black age. / In the end we never know what we know.” It sounds like something buried deep in peat in order to time-travel; transmitting a warning, or possibly a testament.


 
‘The United Kingdom’ is (mostly) another eleven-year-old recovering from Jo Spratley’s Babyskullz solo project: one which just happens to fit in with ‘Bright Fivers’. It’s another recitation, delivered by Jo to pattering drumbox and orchestrated in minimal, thrifty make-do fashion. Two-finger melodica. Guttural just-picked-it up guitar lines and milk-bottle vibraphone. Cobwebby analogue synth gurgles, dub distancings and dirty blats of fireworks.

Something about the rhythm and chant suggests the cheesy old white-rap anti-classic ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Everything about the words doesn’t, as Jo narrates (in newsprint monotone) a set of disappearances. “A man who hears bells who loves cars” misses his train only to drop out of routine and out of existence; a corporate lawyer vanishes during her solo boat trip; fifty years ago, a cancer specialist who “wraps her dolls in graph-paper by the light of the moon” is last seen in car headlights by the edge of a cliff. All three are obliquely connected by hearts: their rhythms or their interruption, their presence as eviscerated occult trophies or as enigmatic markers; presumably also by the locked-up desires, secrets and clues they contain. All cases are left open; mysteries which slip into shadowed corners of modern folklore or Lynchian dreams. There’s a stress on the regular and on the irregular, but no conclusion on either.


 
As haunting as this can be (and it does build on regular repetition, an inconclusion which nags to be solved), it’s still Bic’s dark-psychedelia project Mikrokosmos which dominates this particular set, providing three tracks out of the five. Two are brief snapshot instrumentals, deliberately left incomplete or brought to dismissive halts. Recorded in 1993 during Mikrokosmos’ cramped early sessions in west London, ‘In the Machine Room’ is an jarring but strangely satisfying hybrid of claustrophobic paranoia and sweet naivety. An uncomfortable electronic hum and weirdly organic rattling (like mice beginning to panic inside a generator housing) passes into a bright nursery march played on assorted guitars, drums and bombastic little synths. For forty-eight seconds, post-industrial grot tussles with twinkly daydream.


 
I assume that Bic escaped from whatever it was that was polluting him: ‘Frag. Familiar’, from 2014, was completed nearly two decades later (long after Bic had quit London), but it missed the boat for Mikrocosmos’ ‘Terra Familiar’ abum. It’s as confusing as its predecessor. A sustained cosmic slam: a huge guitar downchord which is allowed to trail away, while delicate waltzing keyboards come forward to shine over the top. They dance with another brutally distorted guitar line – butterflies courting Bigfoot – before everything hits the wall, topples over and cuts off. There’s a farcical humour to this music. It shows you the stars but then suddenly pulls away the rug, or drops the time-clock on the telescope viewing: almost deliberately crass in the way it brings you back down to earth with a bump. I suspect that there’s a touch of reverse psychology here. To move forward properly, you have to overcome the bumps, denials and trip-ups.


 
Another ‘Terra Familiar’ outtake, ‘Cell by Cell’, is more substantial and developed: a six-and-a-half minute song rather than a peculiar fragment. It’s also a dubbier return to Bic’s Dark Star days: almost a Massive Attack take on that band’s life-scarred fin-de-siècle urban psychedelia, taking in similar elements of Hawkwind space rock and Killing Joke post-punk grimness to offset Bic’s sighing, waify sweetness. There’s a Dark Star-ish sense of resignation too, a voice-of-the-casualty effect as Bic reflects on exhaustion and disassociation, on being swallowed by routine and self-absorption. ‘Just swim, / float to the surface – / as if it’s so easy, you show me again. / But time weighs me down so gently / and all our ideas just drift away, / sinking, / lost in the moment. / Ennui is so easy / and to the end we divide. / Cell by cell to solitary worlds – / undesigned, undesired. / Islands in an ocean of thought / turning inwards defied / to meet with the gaze of impermanence eyes…’


 
The formal Confinement message for this EP is one of “a constellation of songs brought together by this rarefied time. Pulled through the thickness of life and her knowing machine. Mixed and mastered in April 2020 and flung into the dark of these ends of days. Here we are. All alone, together, as one.” As a message of solidarity, it’s an ambiguous comfort: but, as they say, here we are. Questions unanswered. Brutal breaks in expectations. People disappearing, grips gradually lost. Name it, share the names, and perhaps fight it.

Mikrokosmos/Babyskullz/Cola Ray vs. MUMMY: ‘CONFINEMENT-release3’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT-release3
Download/streaming EP
Released: 7th May 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp (As with all Confinement Tapes releases, any money earned goes support care funds for Tim Smith, Tim Quy or Jon Poole of Cardiacs – see previous posts.)

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Crayola Lectern (Cola Ray) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Amazon Music

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp
 

April 2020 – single & track reviews – Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb’s ‘CONFINEMENT_release2’; Godcaster’s ‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’; Kryptograf’s ‘The Veil’

17 Apr

Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts: 'CONFINEMENT_release 2'

Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts: ‘CONFINEMENT_release 2’

Following up Jo Spratley and Bic Hayes’ disinterring of interesting outtake/buried gem cover versions for the first of the Confinement Tapes releases, Jo’s son Jesse Cutts offers his own familial reinterpretations.

Firstly, his intermittent Brighton odd-rock band Heavy Lamb (a deliverer of “loud demented pop” since 2014 and currently a duo, victims of persistent lineup changes and self-induced social media wipes) breaks cover again for a cover of a Cardiacs tune, ‘Odd Even’. Bar a dew-sprinkling new proggy midsection, it’s pretty true to the original: perky acoustic guitars, psychedelic organ crunchiness, and a happily teetering stack of chords. They even reproduce its Very Happy Caterpillar of a keyboard solo, down to the last charging feint and twiddle. Jo herself guests on lead vocals, and is less of a punk sphinx than usual – although with a tune as bouncy as this one, that can hardly be helped. Like the best Cardiacs songs, it defies easy comprehension. Odd Even embraces life, death, weeping, burial and trust, and flies to you and away from you like a friendly sparrow that can’t quite make its mind up.


 
Jesse’s other offering is a solo track: his version of ‘Carefree Clothes’, originally by Cardiacs-family folk-poppers The Shrubbies (the perky precursors to North Sea Radio Orchestra). In all honesty, there’s little to tell the difference between Jesse and Heavy Lamb anymore. It’s all a fresh rejuvenation of the bouncy, wilful noisy Anglo-pop line which takes in XTC, Supergrass and Two Door Cinema Club, and which sneakily conceals its sophistication behind its enthusiasm and hookiness.


 
It sounds as if Jo may be on board for this one too, which features vocals recorded on Brighton beach “just after the world flipped on its side”. That’s the only hint of Confinement Tape lockdown blues in the whole effort, which is otherwise a springtime hit. Or, to be clearer, a glittering sun-tickled hit of springtime, romping in the garden and throwing concern to the wind. It’s like a little Deist singalong, pulled into raptures by budding daffodils, and not in the least bit embarrassed. As with the previous Confinement release, you can pick this up for nothing, but any cash that you do chuck into the hat goes to support various seriously incapacitated Cardiacs, so try to give generously.

Godcaster: 'Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth'

Godcaster: ‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’

Since their emergence at the start of last year, Godcaster have spat out a sequence of songs like technicolour hairballs. Sometimes they’ve been wild-haired funk followers, a set of white wastrels getting high off the Mothership’s exhaust; or tuneful noise-botherers in the vein of Mercury Rev or The Flaming Lips. At other times, they’ve been fiddly post-Zappa freaks hiding their own sophistication behind a clattery mask.

‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’ pins them to the more complex corner of their freak flag for now. It wouldn’t be out of place at a Cardiacs celebration: a garage knocking-out which won’t be constrained to basics. A hammering kinked (and Kinked) riff starts off immediate and direct, but then ladders off through far too many chord changes: just because it can, and because that kind of triumphant harmonic parkour is somehow just what it takes to con fleapit-venue punks into yelling bebop licks.

The lyrics fit admirably, wrapping themselves around delusions of grandeur and escalating through a violent shower of weirdness. “When I think about how I was born, / the tearing flesh and scales blow my horror horn… / Circumcision of my eye. / Widows cry, / punctured it was by Satan’s arrow. / Sic Red Sea Pharaoh – / Leaving all my wives to bear my children while I / die to my flesh, die to this world, eating the flesh, drinking the wine. / My soul the divine.” You get two minutes of jarring fireworks, and then that’s it; a micro-epic that does its job and then evaporates, like a ancient temple which suddenly explodes.


 

Krypograf: 'The Veil'

Krypograf: ‘The Veil’

No such flightiness for Kryptograf. The Norwegians give you heavy guitar psych in the late ’60s vein of The Groundhogs; and that’s what you get, seasoned by just a little Motorpsycho and Black Sabbath. It’s heads-down, well-trodden non-nonsense oogly for biker blokes who know what they like, their old acid trips hanging like brooding firefly sparks round their craggy brows.

If you know what that’s like, you’ll have no surprises with how ‘The Veil’ is. A ride around a well-trodden circuit, spinning a well-tended wheel; a journey in which no-one ever really gets off the saddle.


 

Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb: ‘CONFINEMENT_release2’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT_release2
Download/streaming single
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free/pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp
Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb online:
Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

Godcaster: ‘Serpentine Carcass Crux Birth’
Ramp Local (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 13th April 2020

Get it from: download from Bandcamp or Amazon Music; stream from Spotify
Godcaster online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Kryptograf: ‘The Veil’
Apollon Records, no catalogue number or barcode
Download/streaming single
Released: 17th April 2020

Get it from: download from Bandcamp, stream from Amazon Music or Spotify
Kryptograf online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

April 2020 – EP reviews – MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos – ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’ (“the triumph of love over fear and torpor”)

10 Apr

Family. Extended. Play. For life partners Jo Spratley (she of Spratleys Japs) and the elusive/ubiquitous Christian Hayes, a.k.a. Bic (who’s played howling, whirling, stuttering textural/post-punk/psych guitars for Dark Star, Cardiacs and Levitation, as well as adding extra noisy or unearthly touchs to projects by Julianne Regan, Heidi Berry and Pet Shop Boys) – plus Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (Spratleys Japs bass player and Heavy Lamb mainstay) – coronavirus lockdown is providing an opportunity to get their musical lives in better order.

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: 'CONFINEMENT​/_release1'

M U M M Y/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT​/_release1’

Being stuck at home on the Sussex coast means the initiation of the Confinement Tapes. They’re unearthing sundry old recordings from hard drives, biscuit tins, gutted harmoniums or wherever else they may have stashed or forgotten them. They’re polishing them up, and getting them out into the world, while simultaneously raising a bit of money for the ongoing care of various ailing Cardiacs members. (All cash raised from this is going into the support funds for Tims Smith and Quy, as well as the recently beset Jon Poole – if you want to save the Confinementeers a bit of trouble, you can always donate directly via the latter links and just download this lot for free afterwards).

Clearly the Confinementeers see this as something of a resurrection – Jo, in particular, has kept a very low profile for the past year (despite the Spratleys’ triumphant return to action in 2016) and for the past decade or so Bic has been more noted for low-key backups within (or behind) other people’s projects, rather than his own. In their Bandcamp text, they make metaphorical allusions to pregnancy and labour, to inward journeys, the delivery – in all senses – of a new world, and the renewal of loving connections. In many respects, what they actually seem to be talking about is the triumph of love over fear and torpor, and the way in which music embraces and enables this. What you get as this process begins is a window onto the particular, vivid field of English psychedelia which the Confinementeers belong to, both separately and together, and the sense of rootedness and inspiration which offsets emotional paralysis and impels action. I guess that that’s one of the reasons why the first Confinement release is a trio of cover versions – drawing on inspirations and altered perspectives both English and American, and on the soothings, sympathy and compassion behind apparent nonsense and weirdness; and then providing their own synthesis.

Microkosmos is Bic on his own. I could argue that Bic’s work reached a luminous plateau during the short brooding mid-‘90s life of Dark Star (with their atmospheric tales of vision casualties and burnout cases) but he’d be entitled to argue back. Since then, he’s put out three Mikrocosmos albums – scattered meditative space-dust to Dark Star’s supernova, they shucked off the full-band musculature and had Bic revelling in wan-boy spindliness and a ghostly tenderness. In fact, Mikrokosmos both post- and pre-dates Dark Star. This EP’s echoey cover of Pink Floyd’s Matilda Mother dates back to half-forgotten tapes from 1993, when Bic lived and recorded in London’s skinniest house. It’s pretty much a note-for-note cover: while the fey precision of Syd Barrett’s tones have been replaced by Bic’s drowsy starveling keen (and the Floyd’s pattering remnants of beat-band rhythms have been replaced by drumless harmonium roll and wasp-buzzing noise effects), the melting sleepiness and neediness of the original are absolutely recaptured, from the dusky organ washes to the glissando acid harmony vocals. It’s still centred on childlike wonder, and the pang of interrupted sensation; a door-opener.


 
MUMMY is Bic with Jo. They brought out a couple of EPs three or four years ago; strange, slowed-down skeletal garage-goth songs, like the workings of a pair of fasting spiderborgs, or like a distracted feminised/de-brutalised Swans. In this 2015 outtake, they’re reworking an early Breeders song, Oh! (which also happens to share a title with a Spratleys song). The strumming spass-country feel of the original (melancholy fiddle, close-ups, and of-the-moment neophytery) is replaced by MUMMY’s use of drum machine, Gothic reverb and distant angle-grinder guitar sheeting. Jo’s abstracted alley-queen vocal, emotional but enigmatic, is also very different from Kim Deal’s just-rolled-out-of-bed slur. What can one do with the peculiar original lyric, apparently the words of an insect urging others to run and live despite overwhelming and incomprehensible perils? Relate it back to plague fears and to resilience, I reckon.


 
Babyskullz is Jo on her own: and although this is the first we’ve heard of this particular project, Abade is an eleven-year old track, so Jo’s been incubating her skulliness for a long time now. A 2009 take on a song by the Cardiacs psych-folk spinoff (and Spratleys Japs precursors) Sea Nymphs, this is the most directly familial cover on here. While the Breeders and Floyd covers may be the more familiar songs – and carry more of the psychedelic/indie kudos – this one is the most directly satisfying. Reinvented here as a trio of electronic harmonium, bossa-flavoured drum machine and throaty-to-celestial Jo chorale (punctuated by the surge of waves on Brighton beaches, and with a flurry of suspiciously Bic-ish feedback at the end), it keeps faith with the gentle walking pace and sympathy of the Sea Nymphs original. Its fractured lyric keeping step with the wounded, offering solidarity and – like Oh! – an offbeat encouragement. “And though he walks the mid-day sun / he carries his own vile dungeon around / with him and he’s of / all the more reason to be full of life, full of sound and fury. / Don’t be long, / where were we? / Where we belong.”


 

MUMMY/Babyskullz/Mikrokosmos: ‘CONFINEMENT/release1’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT/release1
Download/streaming EP
Released: 8th April 2020
Get it from:
free or pay-what-you-like fundraising downloads from Bandcamp. (Update, 9th May 2020 – these tracks were made available in the short term and are currently unavailable – if and when they’re restored, I’ll also restore the soundclips. Other Confinement Tapes items are available in the meantime.)

MUMMY online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Babyskullz (Jo Spratley) online:
Facebook Twitter

Mikrokosmos online:
Bandcamp Last FM
 

March 2020 – single & track reviews – Jack Hayter’s ‘The Dark End of the Street’; Bijou Noir’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’; Holly Penfield’s ‘Diggin’ It’

31 Mar

“This old earworm in my head while I take my lonesome walk in the time of Corona. A very rough and ready recording and, sorry, got some of the words wrong. Stay safe and stay well.” Warm, self-deprecatory sentiments from Jack Hayter; under voluntary lockdown in Gravesend, broadcasting via webcam, and toying with his pedal steel and with this venerable “best cheatin’ song ever”.

As ever, he plays himself down. Certainly he can’t complete with the deep Southern soul tones of James Carr from the original version: so regal that they transformed the Penn/Moman tale of stolen backstreet fumbles into the tragedy of a king felled by love. Jack’s voice, in contrast, sounds as if it’s been on the sticky end of about a hundred too many bar fights, losing a lung along the way. As ever, though, it’s a strength – a magnificent, humanising flaw which lends his originals and his interpretations a battered and compassionate humanity.

Compared to the majesty of Carr’s pair of cheaters, Jack’s pair of illicit lovers may be past their best; possibly ignorable shunt-asides in the game of life, perhaps stuck in wrecks of marriages, but neither age nor circumstances kills off instinctive passions. Jack’s rendition tempers the tragedy with an air of flinching defiance: his lovers are going to feel the weight come down on them eventually, but they’re going to drain these moments for whatever all-to-rare life savourings present themselves. “I know time is gonna take its toll / We have to pay for the love we stole / It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong / Oh but our love keeps coming on strong…”

 
Bijou Noir‘s Eurotrance version of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (originally broadcast as part of the Give|Take label’s COVID-20 Live Streaming Series) really ought to be laughable, but it isn’t. The original Beatles version was a benchmark, their front-and-centre pop suddenly kissed by raga and the avant-garde with none of any of the elements involved being diminished. Four decades of airplay might have dulled its impact, but that’s no reason to deny that impact: the feeling of a song curling up at the corners like a magic carpet, of time running every whichway; and beyond that, the ‘Book of the Dead’-inspired call for the death of ego and the willing surrender to the journey beyond it.

Staying true to his own methods, Bijou Noir’s Augustus Watkins sacrifices much. He ignores the original’s specific psychedelic dislocation; he strips the song back to the melody line; and then he refurbishes it with layer upon layer of blushing skirling synthwork, of the kind mined by Simple Minds back in the start of the ’80s. In many respects, it’s the clean edit, and we know what kind of butchery that can involve.


 
Augustus gets around this by tapping into a different egolessness: that of the communality of the dancefloor, where hundreds of solipsistic experiences can merge into a collective spiritual one. What’s left after all of the 1960s sonic wizardry is removed? Lennon’s instinct for tune and directness; a set of instructions which need no technology and, indeed, next to no culture; added to this, Bijou Noir’s knack for the triggers of clubland and the transcendent post-humanity of electronica.

In contrast to the two songs above, ‘Diggin’ It’ might be original, but perhaps it isn’t the best song that a revitalised Holly Penfield has to offer these days. The chorus is pure, hoary corn and it doesn’t have the tango grace of last year’s ‘La Recoleta’. Still, there’s a winning exuberance to its roadhouse rock swagger and its brassy flourishes. Further evidence of Holly’s ongoing trip into roots rock, it’s happy to be a simple celebration of love and contentment, and it brims over with the fulfilment that was missing from the angsty synthpop of her Fragile Human Monster years.


 
With time having added a little extra whisky grain to her gorgeous, gutsy voice, Holly’s spreading the satisfaction – “Never thought I could get this far, / but if love is all then that’s what you are. / With your secret smile and forgiving eyes / your laughing style makes you Buddha-wise / Drank from cups of tears and trust, / paradigms of pain. / Thirsting for / something more -/ and now my glass is overflowing in the pouring rain.” In the spirit of sharing, this is a free download from here, and you can cop a direct quick listen here

Jack Hayter: ‘The Dark End of the Street’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Video-only track
Released:
28th March 2020
Get it from: view on Vimeo and YouTube
Jack Hayter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Deezer Spotify Amazon Music

Bijou Noir: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
Give|Take, GT012 (no barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th March 2020
Get it from: free download from Give|Take online store oy pay-what-you-like from Bandcamp
Bijou Noir online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Holly Penfield: ‘Diggin’ It’
Raymond Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only free single
Released:
31st March 2020
Get it from: free download here
Holly Penfield online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

February 2020 – single & track reviews – Gallery 47’s ‘I Wish I Was’; Wugo’s ‘Océan’; The Powdered Earth’s ‘Blossom’

28 Feb

Gallery 47: 'I Wish I Was'

Gallery 47: ‘I Wish I Was’

From the land of drifting day-jobs and lo-fi song nights, Nottingham’s Jack Peachey, a.k.a. Gallery 47, moves into his second decade of music. As ever, he sounds like a slacker Jon Anderson; one who never left the shared flats and scruffy bedrooms, nor left the airy space of ’60s pop: there’s the high birdy voice, the elevated melodies, the melancholia that only faintly tinges the carefree tunes (cloud shadow on a fine afternoon). His drowsy electric folk-pop is fragile without being brittle or vulnerable: he’s a blade of grass in the breeze, capable of bending in the unwelcome currents.

 
Look a bit deeper, though, and there’s existential horror, treated with a feather-light touch, belying the Andersonian falsetto with a touch of Elliott Smith. Even more, perhaps, a shade of Love’s ‘Forever Changes’, in which everything under the sun also has an ominous shadow. Launching from a tabla zing but immediately settling for drums which flap and billow like a pair of antique flares, ‘I Wish I Was’ shows Jack gently adrift in a world of options, finding in each of them a nearing ghost of entrapment. “Did you know you can search for conditions online? / Read a graph of relative norms and real lives? / How close or far you are from the day you’re gonna die?” The gentle disappointments mass, almost imperceptibly, into a pall, neither family nor travel a solution, with escape into a spliff the only temporary remedy. “See, the jail we’re going to has no get-out card at all…” Throughout, though, the shrug is a gentle-spirited one. Jack doesn’t rail or sulk about things, just gently regrets them and lets them slip over him.

Wugo: ‘Océan’

Wugo: ‘Océan’

‘I Wish I Was’ is about helplessness settling around you like the flapping wings of a friendly pterodactyl. ‘Océan’, the latest song from French bedroom-popster Wugo, is apparently about “a sea change in people, a hope of a collective conscience to set things right.” It’s in his native French, so I can’t quote him directly. Translated, though, it’s a sighed state-of-the-world lament for a literal and figurative sea that’s been polluted by human short-sightedness and greed.

Wugo’s not slow to lay the blame, but he’s not quick to stagnate in despair either, travelling backwards in memory to honour how things once were, hoping that things will be in a better state in future decades, gently dropping a simple ultimatum. To catch the feeling for how it is, bask in the music: powder-blue puffs of synth and wriggly electronic lines like a kite-tail in the sky. Chillout minus the complacency.


 

The Powdered Earth: 'Blossom'

The Powdered Earth: ‘Blossom’

With their third single (after the curtain-raising instrumental of ‘The Atlantic‘ and the illustrative folk testimony of ‘Hold Your Breath‘), The Powdered Earth feel as if they’ve found their centre with ‘Blossom’. Neither of them men in the first flush of youth, they’re well aware that not all lives end in crashes or operatics: that some longer lives will fade delicately instead, like old watercolours.

While instrumental half George Moorey provides misty piano, gently lagging guitar and a touch of synth cello, vocalist Shane Young comes to the fore with a gently narrated observation of an ageing widower’s rituals as he gathers tree and hedge flowers for his empty house; male and meticulous, understated but kindly. If you’re looking for it, there are parallels with Wugo’s chillout in the overlaying of memory with the present (“he chuckles into space / at her disapproving face / as he takes the crystal glassware from its ornamental case. / Along the window sills, / beside dispenser packs of pills, / are the fragrance bottles salvaged from the sale. / She would joke his perfume was brown ale…” ), plus the overlapping of times and promises altered. What’s different is the matter-of-factness about the protracted aftermath of someone’s death, its quietus and continuance: “he ties each sandwich bag / with a disused Christmas tag / and documents the scent with studious care. / Then he shuffles round the house / that he once shared with his spouse / and he fills up every piece of crystalware.”).


 
The spoken poetry is deliberately workmanlike, relying on its sober intimations rather than on over-flowering, and it’s all the more effective for that. Last time around, I mentioned Arab Strap as an unlikely comparison; if Moffat and Middleton stood as witnesses and recounters to dirty realism and damn well made you care about it, Moorey and Young could be said to be doing the same thing for a more genteel and understated strand of realism. You could picture the lyric being spelled out on a bereavement card, or a silver-surfer web meme, but that doesn’t take anything away from its understated compassion. “So precious quick the petals start to brown – / once more into the fields in dressing gown…” Logging the quiet and unspectacular dignity of carrying on. Someone needs to do it.

Gallery 47: ‘I Wish I Was’
Bad Production Records/AWAL (Kobalt)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th February 2020
Get it from: download via Bandcamp or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, Apple Music, YouTube, Google Play or Spotify
Gallery 47 online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Spotify Instagram Amazon Music

Wugo: ‘Océan’
Echo Orange (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
24th February 2020
Get it from: download from Amazon Music; stream via Deezer, YouTube, Spotify
Wugo online:
Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

The Powdered Earth: ‘Blossom’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
28th February 2020
Get it from: now part of the ‘Singles’ EP on Bandcamp
The Powdered Earth online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube Deezer Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

January 2020 – single & track reviews – The Powdered Earth’s ‘Hold Your Breath’, Broads & Milly Hurst’s ‘Happisburgh’, Lifeboats’ ‘Hurt’

31 Jan

The Powdered Earth: 'Hold Your Breath'

The Powdered Earth: ‘Hold Your Breath’

After their gently atmospheric piano overture earlier in the month, it’s proper debut-single time for Gloucester’s The Powdered Earth: time to find out what they’re actually about. Their ethos is apparently one of writing “little fictions… bringing storytelling to the fore” with a backdrop of “minimalist, melodic melancholia”. With a spec like that, and the previous evidence, you’d expect something like a more genteel piano-based Arab Strap.

Well, not quite… or not yet. Initially, ‘Hold Your Breath’ goes for what seems to be a much bigger and non-fictional story – that of the struggle against deforestation in Brazil – but they tell it in an understated way. In Brazil itself, this tale would probably have come through first-hand, via rap consciência or funk carioca, or possibly as some kind of mournful retro-fado. In the United States, it would probably been plunked or punked out over a banjo as a raucous post-Seeger tale of injustice visited on the working man. From their quiet corner of England, The Powdered Earth tell it in their own soft and sober way, trying to stay true to their instinctive sound while letting the story tell itself.

It sounds like a minimalist piano lieder, sung by Shane Young in a small, precise, discreet voice. George Moorey’s bolstering of synths (squashed brass, mechanical choirs) is similarly small and discreet. The lyrics, too, have the simplicity and directness of a pared-down folk song: “there were many of them. / They were gathered near the wood. / We had only handmade tools / and the clothes in which we stood… The ruling party wielded / the means to terrify, / but evil only triumphs / when we good men stand by.”

Listening to this is an odd experience, since it’s both detached and authoritative. You’re pulled into the gaps in the arrangement, into the void where the anger should be raging, as The Powdered Earth clarify that this is an outrage that occurs over and over again. “Miners brought the mercury / that made the river bend,” Shane pronounces. “Bolsonaro’s loggers / will leave nothing to defend.” The title itself is never mentioned; an unspoken warning to be decoded once you move out from the local outrage and start considering it as a small sign of a bigger problem.


 

Broads & Milly Hurst: 'Happinsburgh'

Broads & Milly Hurst: ‘Happinsburgh’

Over on the other side of England, Norwich ambient ramblers Broads have teamed with kindred spirit Milly Hurst for an album of music inspired and partially built from field recordings made throughout the county of Norfolk. Named after a coastal village, ‘Happisburgh’ is a preview of that work; in itself, with its emphasis on widely-spaced reverberant piano, not too different from what The Powdered Earth are doing.

It’s wordless, though – their own sparse Debussian piano part backed up with a little glitch-static and a growing sweet, subliminal agreement of harmonium. The video is a sequence of slow pans across, and sustained shots of Happisburghian scenes: tumbled groyne stones on the sand, the red-banded lighthouse, blue-brown breakers under the wide Norfolk sky; a solitary cliff bench. The second part picks up speed with a rolling piano arpeggio, the sound of feet running through sand and gravel picked up, glitchified and looped. Towards the end, the footstep loop corrupts and stutters, becomes intermittent, vanishes.


 
Probing gently into location and inspiration, like an archaeologist with a fine brush, unlocks some of the messages. Like much of the Norfolk coast, Happisburgh is eroding, dropping fragment by fragment into the sea. It’s shored up by groynes and by its inhabitants’ reluctance to let it go; but has now been abandoned by government, its support withdrawn. It’s a vanishing village which also happens to be the oldest human settlement in Britain, with ancient flint tools in its earth strata, and with the earth’s oldest human footprints outside of Africa once discovered on its beach. Knowing this, the meanings of the sounds come into sombre and beautiful focus – the currents and tides in the shifting piano; the recorded footsteps, once clear as a bell, becoming obscured by time and processing, ultimately disintegrating out of the picture. Our history, even our deep history, vanishes in front of us.

Lifeboats: 'Hurt' (featuring Rena)

Lifeboats: ‘Hurt’ (featuring Rena)

While Lifeboats‘s ‘Hurt’ doesn’t share much musically with either ‘Happisburgh’ or ‘Hold Your Breath’ (being a piece of noisy post-shoegaze guitar pop) it does sort of fit in here by dint of a shared initial and a shared theme of loss, relinquishment and resistance. Lifeboats are a new teaming of Prod Pritchard (main songwriter for Oxfordshire bands Flow and Airstar, as well as being a right-hand man for Owen Paul) and Austrian singer-songwriter Rena (the latter listed as a guest on this single but, so far, very much part of the sound and craft).

‘Hurt’ bustles along on ahead-of-the-beat guitar thrums, not a million miles away from Ride, the Velvets or from Bowie’s “Heroes”. The last, in particular, serves as inspiration, since Rena’s vocal sings out a weathered but hopeful anthem of taking the blows but remaining resilient – “hurt is just a part of living / just like breathing. / We ache before we are – / and fate is beyond all reason; / and then, every season, / above what we control… / This life / we are born to live in, / and the darkness hiding / but the morning’s coming.” She imagines herself propelled, strengthened, along the airwaves, singing “though I’m cracked and shaking, / I will not be broken. / When life is taking its best shot, / say “is that really all you’ve got?” It’s a simple, solipsistic resistance compared to those implied or required in ‘Hold Your Breath’ and ‘Happisburgh’, but it’s there.

 
The Powdered Earth: ‘Hold Your Breath’
The Powdered Earth (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 31st January 2020

Get it from: now part of the ‘Singles’ EP on Bandcamp
The Powdered Earth online:
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Broads & Milly Hurst: ‘Happisburgh’
Humm Recordings, HUMM08 (no barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 31st January 2020

Get it from: download from Bandcamp or Amazon; stream from Deezer or Spotify
Broads online:
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Milly Hurst online:
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Lifeboats: ‘Hurt (featuring Rena)’
Nub Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 31st January 2020

Get it from: download from Qobuz or Amazon Music; stream via Soundcloud or Spotify
Lifeboats online:
Soundcloud Spotify

 

January/February 2020 – upcoming London folk/singer-songwriter/experimental gigs – Aga Ujma, Yoni Silver, Yael Roberts, Merlin Nova and Sophie Le Roux at Mortal Oil 2 (24th January) plus Aga Ujma and Nina Harries at PinDrop Session (28th February) and Aga Ujma and The Sages at SOAS (21st February)

22 Jan

Mortal Oil 2, 24th January 2020

More new-ish performance territories; this time down in south London by Nunhead Green, where a somewhat battered but much-loved and independent-spirited shopping local parade currently hosts the Strange Parade venue. The latter is hosting “a night of low-voltage experimental acoustic performance and visual art” at the end of the week, co-curated by Merlin Nova along with filmmaker and photographer Sophie le Roux. This is the second night in the series, which aims to “use no electronic machines (apart from a kettle) and aim to curate acts which have used as little electricity as possible during the processes of their practices.” Tea, whiskey and pom bears are provided as an extra audience incentive; and the last event, back in November, featured (in addition to Merlin) performances by avant-garde double bassist Otto Willberg, all-forms free dancer Sofia Filippou and visual artist Flora Hunt.

Merlin’s been in here several times before as a boundary-hopping singer-instrumentalist, sound artist, poet and monologuist who plunges her imagination and thirst for performance into any opportunity and shapes her art and the situation to fit. Initially a radio broadcaster and soundscaper, she’s the possessor of an unsettling vocal range and a ravenous perspective which she uses for everything from imaginary dronefolk music and the weirdest of weird pop to solo audio dramas…. here’s a selection of what she gets up to.


https://soundcloud.com/user-615512661/to-the-sun

 
Of the two other musicians featured this week, ‘Misfit City’ has previously crossed paths with bass clarinettist/saxophonist Yoni Silver while he was backing Charles Hayward in twisty groove ensemble Timestretch Alarmsong during October last year, and as part of the Ashley Paul Ensemble back in 2017, although he’s also noted for his work with the Hyperion Ensemble. He also sings and plays violin, piano and computer, sometimes simultaneously, so his options for noisemaking are pretty varied. Here’s the A-side of his recent ‘Nethertongue’ cassette, one of his Denis D’Or trio tracks and a solo…



 
As for Aga Ujma, I’ve been hearing about her for a while: a young Polish singer-songwriter and composer also enthralled by English and Indonesian music forms and the connections she makes between them. Though she can quite happily make her way as a singing guitarist with a nice line in Joanna Newson covers (an artist she sometimes resembles, not least in the reedy glory of her vocals) she’s a committed ethnologist who creates art in accordance with her extensive studies, and is as much likely to accompany herself on a quiverful of rarer instruments – the Javanese gamelan-related gender barung xylophone and plucked siter; or the Indonesian sasando, “a gorgeous thirty-two-string, butterfly-winged zither”.




 
The remainder of the evening’s visual art component comes from Yael Roberts, who “hand-prints from found wood to create large scale installations (exploring themes of death, mortality, repetition, and presence.” While she’s got a parallel line in performance art (much of which is captured on video and stills here), her contributions to this particular evening appear to be static art: a set of ceramics made in collaboration with Goldtapped Gallery’s Juliet Fleming.

* * * * * * * *

Aga Ujma + Nina Harries, 28th February 2020I should also mention that Aga Ujma is also playing a couple of other London gigs in February. One is a LaLa Records’ Pin Drop Sessions in Peckham where she’s in a double bill with double bass player singer-songwriter Nina Harries.

As a player, Nina follows in a family tradition (her father Tim Harries has double-bassed prominently for Steeleye Span, Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and Brian Eno, amongst others). That said, her musical development and appetites are very much her own; formed not just by parental example and extensive classical training but by immersion in dance theatre and in work with “story telling star gazing ukulele agit-pop” band The Burning Glass, gonzo bluesman John Fairhurst, folk-punkers Barbarella’s Bang Bang, electro-classicalists the London Electronic Orchestra and Symphonica. Her technique’s impeccable and her songwriter voice wide and unfettered, as happy with the whimsical as the mesmeric.




 
The other concert, a week earlier, is a SOAS music showcase in the centre of town which also features world fusion band The Sages (previously The Seven Sages), featuring Yijia Tu, Peadar Connolly-Davey and Gregor Bauer, and blending music strands from East Asian folk music and Chinese Sizhu with those of western forms of folk and indie rock.

The Sages + Aga Ujma, 21st February 2020

More about them here – “as a diverse cosmopolitan generation growing up under an age of globalization and other social changes, the band aims to explore to break through concepts such as “East” and “West,” cultural identity, and musical “genres” through both original composition and adaption of traditional folk music. Indeed the “The Sages 竹林七贤” is a reference to a group of seven literati, artists and scholars in ancient China who chose to escape mundane and hypocritical secular life and status to live in the remote natural countryside with the companionship of music, poetry, art (and wine) in search of a higher spiritual fulfilment.”

Some examples of what The Sages play are here:

 
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Dates:

Mortal Oil 2: Aga Ujma + Yoni Silver + Yael Roberts + Merlin Nova + Sophie Le Roux
Strange Parade, 123 Evelina Road, Nunhead, London, SE15 3HB, England
Friday 24th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

SOAS Concert Series presents:
The Sages + Aga Ujma
Brunei Gallery @ SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1H 0XG, England
Friday 21st February 2020, 8.00pm
– information here and here

LaLa Records presents
PinDrop Session: Aga Ujma & Nina Harries
One & All Cafe, 28 Peckham Rye, Peckham, London, SE15 4JR, England
Friday 28th February 2020, 7.30pm
– £10 or pay-what-you-can event – information here and here
 

January 2020 – single & track reviews – The Powdered Earth’s ‘The Atlantic’, Simen Lyngroth’s ‘Morning Light’, Marle Thompson’s ‘Expectations’

17 Jan

Three quieter tracks – let’s start soft and get louder…

A couple of decades ago, George Moorey was the multi-instrumental half of the criminally-unknown Gloucester duo Ghosting, who gifted us with a succession of gorgeous and breathy low-key pop singles and a couple of obscure albums before their singer-songwriter half Dan Pierce followed another calling and headed off to County Durham to become a vicar. Since then, George has sometimes resurfaced as a producer, or as a sporadic instrumental illustrator of Gloucester history.

Now, however, he’s re-teamed with singing drummer Shane Young (from late-era Ghosting) to form The Powdered Earth. New songs and stories are promised; but for their curtain-raiser, ‘The Atlantic’ George briefly and wordlessly steps out on his own, sketching out the musical terrain at the break of dawn before coming back to lead us into it properly.


 
What wells out of the speakers at us has many of George’s hallmark Ghosting touches. There’s his sparse but luminous sonic touch (here, it’s mostly carried by softly-couched piano echoed by distant fluting synth, and impelled by deep-rooted waves of drone-bass). There’s that intimated, yet subtly forensic, focus on emotional detail, drawing you in. Pull the ingredients apart and you’ve got a typical piece of soft-edged film soundtracking; but put them together the way George is doing it, and you end up with the prelude to a kind of musical novel, something closer to Peter Chilvers’ intermittent work with Tim Bowness. Unexplicit; eschewing clumsy points; providing clues and pointers to something which only gradually comes together and reveals itself. It’s over in two-and-a-half minutes, brought to a delicate halt in mid-pace. I’m already looking forward to whatever comes next.

More stories are supposed to be coming from Norwegian singer-songwriter Simen Lyngroth‘, whose debut album ‘Take All the Land’ was a set of autumnal reflections and hauntings on jealousy, insecurity and secret trepidations. ‘Morning Light’ is the first song in a forthcoming set which wraps into a fairytale: a sort of Scandinavian slice of magic-realism in which a young man searches for “the spark”.

 
Perhaps it’s just a more mythical and sensitive way of tackling the sophomore album jitters. Certainly, ‘Morning Light’ has all of the indications of being a palate cleanser. It’s as simple as can be. An acoustic guitar, a voice, a frail harmony; the outline of a hometown visit, a return to childhood haunts. A revisiting of old views and landscapes in order to recharge, but at all times carefully skirting stagnation. “It’s what I need. / Lazy walks around the park… / I need this morning light to call my own – / these few moments awake / before I’m breathing in water again.” Another frangible overture.

Dutch singer-songwriter Marle Thomson has already made a mark at home, and while ‘Expectations’ sees her slipping a little deeper into Anglo territories, it’s still an indicator of how accomplished she is already and how little she needs to change. Mellow beat-pop – with its slow hip-hop jams, its crafty drop-outs and its rare-groove echoes – has been an over-populated territory for the past few decades: and refreshing that is a delicate matter of not messing too much with the formula, but polishing and emphasising particular isolated aspects as you build it around your core of song. Marle does just that with ‘Expectations’.

It’s not a game-changer by any means, but that’s part of the point. ‘Expectations’ is about anxieties and FOMO; it’s about the way that it’s not just celebrities who feel compelled to live out their lives broadcasting images, but the way that all of us now do via timelines and digital shopfronts, instagramming and influencing, feeding a general hunger while breeding another helpless hunger all of our own. (“Expectations, like a nail into the wall / I need everything, everything, or nothing at all.”) In response to its theme, it’s musically relaxed, with flickers of both Erykah Badu and early-’80s Steve Winwood – its rhythm ticking along like an old grandfather clock, its guitar line springy like a hair-curl rather than a disco pulse; its synths little warm, edgeless wellings and air-puffs which just happen to be there at precisely the right time.

Marle’s voice is breezy, intimate, unshowy but effortless winding itself around the blue notes needed to emphasis regret (“On my own, off the beaten track, / I didn’t know, I didn’t know – / I fell right through the cracks”) and understated revelation. By song’s end, everything is filtered, resolved and successfully reset, for now: “just ‘cause I’m giving it up, doesn’t mean I give up, no.” Next step coming.


 
The Powdered Earth: ‘The Atlantic’
The Powdered Earth (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 11th January 2020

Get it from: Bandcamp
The Powdered Earth online:
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Simen Lyngroth: ‘Morning Light’
Apollon Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 17th January 2020

Get it from: Apollon Records (parent album)
Simen Lyngroth online:
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Marle Thomson: ‘Expectations’
BERT music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released: 17th January 2020

Get it from: Apple Music, Soundcloud (stream only)
Marle Thompson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Spotify <Instagram Amazon Music
 

January/February 2020 – showcases in London with Ragga Gröndal in Earls Court (19th January) and Velveteen Orkestra, Ben Eaton, Hattie Erawan and Matt Ryan in Soho (21st January); plus Blair Coron’s ‘On The Nature Of Things’ quiet evening in London and Glasgow (21st January, 7th February) with Zoë Bestel, Anin Rose, Tom Blankenberg, Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach

14 Jan

A set of upcoming showcases happening at opposite corners of the country.

 
Ragga Gröndal’s currently a little-known name over here. In Iceland, though, she’s a much bigger deal – hailed as one of the country’s most remarkable singers. Performing in both Icelandic and English, she spans folk, pop and classical elements: less of an upsetter and groundbreaker, perhaps, than most of the Icelandic musicians who make the crossing over to Britain, but as the expounder of a kind of refined pop purity that’s actually a broad umbrella for a rich blend of other musical aspects, she does well. Here’s the blurb:

“The sound of Ragga Gröndal’s music is warm, adventurous and modern, yet accessible for curious music-lovers. (She) has worked with the same musicians for a decade and together they have toured all over Europe and created many beautiful and unforgettable moments. The band consists of musicians who are all independent artists in their own right; Guðmundur Pétursson (guitar), her brother Haukur Gröndal (woodwind player) and Claudio Spieler (percussion)… Each and every concert becomes a unique journey between the musicians, the audience and the performance space.”

For this special one-off show in London on the 19th, Ragga’s just bringing Guðmundur Pétursson: a musician whose work stretches from pop to his own classical guitar concertos, he’s an ideal and flexible foil.



 
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There’s a Success Express quadruple bill at Zebranos in Soho on the 21st, part of a new fortnightly showcase scheme. It’s all free to get in, but you pay Soho prices for your drinks and they suggest you book ahead for a table if you want to get in and sit down.

The Velveteen Orkestra + Ben Easton + Hattie Erawan + Matt Ryan, 21st January 2020As leader of The Velveteen Orkestra, Dan Shears dresses his dramatic sky-high vocals and rockabilly guitar in a wagon circle of string trio, piano and drums; sometimes evoking the country pop of Del Shannon or Dion, sometimes a Russian tundra shimmer, sometimes Muse-ian histrionics. Seasoned Aussie guitarist-singer-songwriter Ben Eaton is as smooth and gritty and no-nonsense as a well-maintained backroad: he’s a constantly busy professional with weddings, corporate events and similar cover-fests under his belt along with the gigs stuffed with originals, but don’t let that put you off too much. He’s a witty performance livewire who’s more than capable of transcending any workaday made-to-measure gig as well as pulling off blues-funk shows of his own.



 

Two more singer-songwriters are on the bill. Hattie Erawan – until recently known as Hattie Marsh – is Norfolk-born, has mingled Thai and English heritage and a forbidding expression, and also has about five years of playing London acoustica mainstays like the Bedford and St Pancras Old Church. She’s got Joni Mitchell, Nirvana, and Sheila Chandra down as influences: the outcome is bare, clear modern songs with a hard electric edge, sung with a hint of storms and in a tone like a steel statue. Sessioneer/producer Matt Ryan is embarking, or perhaps reembarking, on a solo career. His lone available track, a demo for The Last Time, is a polished bit of white R’n’B: while it’s a tad conservative and stripped-back in its current state, emotionally it’s a good deal more convincing than much of what reaches the charts. Worth keeping an eye on.

 

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'On The Nature Of Things' - 21st January and 7th February 2020Although it does have a lower-income ticket option, another upcoming showcase – ‘On The Nature Of Things’ – isn’t free; but, to be fair, it’s less likely to cover its expenses with beer money and upmarket bar food. Its aims are to be “quiet… introspective… an intimate evening of music. Immerse yourself as we relish in the more subdued side of music for one night through folk song, piano music, ambience/electronic and some modern classical. It is a space to listen. Expect fairy lights, darkness, and music to make you sit in awe, cry or sleep.

“‘On The Nature Of Things’, which this event is named after, is the debut album by Glasgow based musician and composer Blair Coron, who shall be hosting this event and is currently touring the UK with it. His intention is to create enchanting atmospheres allows for the audience to listen to the performers and to set course for introspection and meditation.”

Blair’s own work blurs around classical and near-ambient ideas for piano, acoustic guitar and string ensemble. He describes the album as “a delicate exploration of the intricacy and fragility of life, nature and the surrounding world. It is love…mortality…the sublime…a personal mantra…every thing.” So far, on spec, typically New Age-y and easily consumable; but he also mixes in poetry, chamber chorale, mandolins, birdsong and folksongs and (somewhere) a Nintendo handheld games console. If you’re worried that his deliberate gentleness places him on the wrong side of tentative, don’t. The results are edgeless and delicate, deliberately softened and frangible; but they have their own dainty logic and an openness which is rare. Streets away from the guarded blandness of much of the post-classical wash.




 
He’s been doing these shows for about a year now (from Edinburgh to Yorkshire to Inverness and Manchester) and I’ve not heard about them before this; but there are currently two OTNOT shows happening soon, both featuring Blair and ukulele-folkster Zoë Bestel. If you read that last phrase and thought cutesy versions of old pop and indie hits, think again. Zoë’s of that small number of people who turn the uke into a kind of perpendicular harp, using it to underpin a gorgeous art-pop folk soprano and a series of bewitching small-place songs. The kind of song and delivery that kills casual chat and has a roomful of people rapt and focussed entirely on what they’re seeing and hearing.

 
The London show – on the same night as Success Express – also features a couple of German musicians. Pianist, composer and sound designer Tom Blankenberg (who runs the Convoi Studios in Düsseldorf) works in a similar post-classical vein to Blair, although a more austere one. In recent years, he became interested in writing for solo piano: the result was his debut album ‘Atermus’, released last year and containing thirteen tracks in which strangely tender romantic melodies are concealed in minimalist sparseness, as if Bill Evans were communing with Arvo Pärt. In contrast, Anin Rose creates gospel-infused piano pop – not at the brassy end of either, but at the silky reverberant intersection of both. On record, a subtle reverb skitters almost imperceptibly around her songs and harmonies chase the main vocal like kissing clouds: live, I’m guessing that she does it all by presence.

 
The Glasgow show – in early February – features a pair of Scottish folk musicians, Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach. A fiddler and pianist respectively, they’re rooted in tradition but immersed in present impression, “interested in making music filled with spontaneity, sensitivity and freedom. Inspiration comes from their pasts and surroundings, feeding music that’s rooted in tradition, whilst stretching it’s possibilities through improvisation and imagination.” Their latest release, last summer’s ‘Air Iomall’, was inspired by a trip around the currently uninhabited Shiant Isles off Scotland’s west coast, and their instrumental responses to the history that hangs around the places.


 
I’m hoping that Blair continues with these shows: they have a potential for some serious beauty. Previous evenings have included appearances by fellow Glaswegian post-chamber composer Richard Luke, piano improviser Carla Sayer and harpist Esther Smith; jazz/soul/gospel harmony duo Canter Semper; The Silver Reserve (a.k.a classical guitarist/looper Matthew Sturgess, who “plays delicate, sparse music (and) songs about out-of-body experiences, monogamy, small-town community Facebook pages and much more”; alt.folker Thomas Matthew Bower as Thomas & The Empty Orchestra; Jamie Rob’s post-everything project Poür Me, ambient song trio Luthia and drift band Neuro Trash; plus a further spray of diverse singer-songwriters in the shape of Simon Herron, Leanne Smith, Kate Dempsey, Mathilde Fongen, Hollie “Haes” Arnold, Leanne Body and Megan Dixon Hood. There’s a whole softened and glorious world opening up here.

* * * * * * * *

Dates:

Sunday Hive Sessions with Buzz Music Group presents:
Ragga Gröndal
The Troubadour, 263-267 Old Brompton Road, Earls Court, London, SW5 9JA, England
Sunday 19th January 2020, 7.30pm
– information here, here and here

Success Express Music presents:
The Velveteen Orkestra + Ben Eaton + Hattie Erawan + Matt Ryan
Zebrano Bars, 18 Greek Street, Soho, London, W1D 4DS, England
Tuesday 21st January 2020, 7.00pm
– free event – information here and here

‘On The Nature Of Things’:

  • SET (SET Dalston Lane), 27a Dalston Lane, Dalston, London, E8 3DF, England – Tuesday 21st January 2020, 7.00pm (Blair Coron + Anin Rose + Zoë Bestel + Tom Blankenberg) – information here, here and here
  • Old Trinity College, 35 Lynedoch Street, Glasgow, G3 6AA, Scotland – Friday 7th February 2020, 7.00pm (Blair Coron + Zoë Bestel + Charlie Grey & Joseph Peach ) – information here and here

 

January to March 2020 – assorted London gigs – Holly Penfield at 100 Club (8th March) and with Ian Ritchie at the Fiddler’s Elbow (10th January); skewed surf, pop and acoustica with Kenny Process Team, Keith John Adams and The Happy Couple (13th January); Balkan/Gaelic folktronics with Arhai (18th January); plus Minute Taker’s ‘Wolf Hours’ in Manchester (24th January)

7 Jan

Holly PenfieldIf you missed Holly Penfield’s London launch gig for her ‘Tree Woman’ album back at Halloween last year – or if you attended and wanted to see it again – then she’s looping back on herself and staging another one at the 100 Club on 8th March. For those unfamiliar with her, here’s what I wrote (indeed, here’s what I recycled) last time.

“Raised in San Francisco (and a veteran of the 1980s LA pop scene with the scars to prove it) Holly spent much of the ‘90s writing and performing the psychodramatic one-woman pop show ‘Fragile Human Monster’ in London and elsewhere. A show with such troubled and intense undercurrents that it eventually blew itself apart, it’s now spawned a return… but under very different circumstances. The whirling mirror-glass synths and saxophones of the old days have been replaced by a gritty post-Americana rock band (which growls, gnaws and struts through her songs like a Cash or Waits ensemble) while Holly herself has mostly forsaken standing behind a keyboard (except for when a grand piano ballad calls for that set of skills).

“It’s funny, sad, uplifting and stirring all at once. Once the very embodiment of storm-tossed waif and precarious survivor, Holly’s now a wiser and much happier woman. She still absolutely owns the stage, though, helping herself to a big dollop of the jazz and blues flavourings which shaped her initial development, playing a dash of ukulele and engaging in some zestful shimmying (and some delightfully ludicrous party outfits, worn with wit and flair – it seems as if her recent steps away from cabaret involved at least one sly step back).

“What hasn’t changed is the quality of her singing, and of her songs. While old FHM standards like Misfit, The Last Enemy, puddle-of-grief ballad Stay With Me, and slinking fingersnapper You Can’t Have The Beauty Without The Beast have shed skins and made the transition to the new show, Holly’s also been dipping into a trunk of neglected and mostly previously unheard work, including the tremendous state-of-the-world song Confessions (based around a lyrical hook she once dangled in front of an intrigued Joni Mitchell) and the vivacious Tree Woman (a more recent effort in which she vigorously embraces both her own ageing and the resilience that comes with it).”



 
Holly Penfield & Ian Ritchie, 10th January 2019If you can’t wait until March, Holly and her multi-instrumentalist husband Ian Ritchie (the latter an ex-Deaf School member recently fresh off playing sax on the Roger Waters tour) will be playing another London gig this coming Friday, up at the Fiddler’s Elbow. This one will be an “experimental thirty-minute duo gig of originals with vintage ‘80s drum machine… interesting, quirky,and challenging!”

Although Holly and Ian are going out under their Cricklewood Cats moniker (under which they’ve previously released a few synth-jazz swing songs), theirs has been a long and varied partnership also encompassing cabaret, out-and-out jazz balladry, noisy rock diva songs and the bewitching sequencer-torch-pop of the ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ album. So you could expect takes on all of the above and more, including some of Holly’s newer songs. At the moment she’s on a serious creative upswing, and there’s rarely been a better time to see her than now.


 

* * * * * * * *

Kenny Process Team + Keith John Adams + The Happy Couple, 13th January 2020On the following Monday, the reunited and reinvigorated Kenny Process Team launch their own new album, ‘Travlin’ Light With… Kenny Process Team’. Actually, it’s an old one, recorded as a live session over twenty years ago with the band’s 1998 lineup but lost in the abstracted shuffle of the band’s history, which has seen members swap out, disappear, impale themselves on fences and even join Oasis.

Part avant-surf, part Afro-prog and compared in their time to both The Ventures and Captain Beefheart (while proggies will also find parallels with Television and The League of Gentlemen), there’s more on the Kenny Process back story here. In the present, with the addition of Rhodri Marsden as new guitarist (replacing the late Simon King) and thanks to his existing connections with Lost Crowns and Prescott, they’re further cementing their links with London’s current crop of art/prog/psych/cellularists.



 
Also playing is KPT labelmate Keith John Adams. Once Rhodri’s bandmate in zestful 1990s avant-skifflers Zuno Men, for twenty years now Keith has been a solo act coming at acoustic pop from a gently skewed angle, buffeting around friendly lyrical ideas like a sozzled housefly bumping against a lampshade and turning out understated little song-gems as he does so. His accidental forebears might include Robyn Hitchcock, Kevin Ayers; you might also pretend that he’d been dreamed up from some lazy Walthamstow afternoon when Leon Redbone shared a sofa with the young Bill Oddie.



 

Opening the evening is The Happy Couple, the languid instrumental duo formed by Kenny Process drummer Dave Ross and his life partner Judith Goodman, born out of two decades of inseparable love mingling with the inspiration of the Epping Forest woodscapes where they live. Judith plays a variety of open-tuned guitars, predominantly a Weissenborn acoustic slide guitar but also a 4-string tenor and a 3-string cigar box model (plus a mysterious “early English” example which suggests a rewriting of instrumental history). Leaving his drumkit behind, Dave plays a variety of mouth-held lamellophones: a classic American jaw harp, Indian morchangs in both brass and iron, a Norwegian Munnharpe and a mouth bow harp created in Devon. As for the music, it’s a relaxed evocation of companionship, glissando and boing and intersecting rhythms: or, as Judith comments, “it’s about the sounds that happen when we put our sounds together. We just create a world we want to be in.”



 
* * * * * * * *

Arhai, 18th January 2020

The following Saturday, British/Serbian electronic folk project Arhai slip into the little cellar at the Harrison to deliver their own electro-acoustic atmospheres. A two-decade-long project led by singer/composer Jovana Backovic, they were a traditional Serbian acoustic octet for their first ten years, gradually shifting into electric terrain before dissolving and allowing Jovana to form the current duo with British multi-instrumental specialist Adrian Lever (mediaeval dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, guitar, tambura, Bulgarian lute etc). Now they’re Balkan-cum-Gaelic, intertwining ancient and technological: or, as they put it “rethinking the archetypal modes of music performance in the context of modernity”. Which sometimes means they’re ultra-accessible and synth-quilty in the familiar Clannad model, and sometimes means that they’re off and racing like a cross between izvorna and a hyperspatial hip hop track.




 
* * * * * * * *

All of the above events will be in London: for the next one, you’ll need to head up to Manchester, where singer, songwriter and electronic pop creator Ben McGarvey, a.k.a. Minute Taker, is unveiling his multi-media performance ‘Wolf Hours’. Ben is no stranger to mixing theatre and music, having already presented a love-and-ghosts story on tour with ‘To Love Somebody Melancholy’ featuring animations from Ana Stefaniak. ‘Wolf Hours’ is an even more ambitious undertaking – “a unique performance combining mesmerising film with a dynamic live soundtrack. From forbidden love in the First World War, to the pain and rage of AIDS, to contemporary hedonism and heartbreak, ‘Wolf Hours’ explores the stories of gay men at different points in time through their dreams. This series of stunning new short films (directed by John Lochland, Joe Stringer, Kirk Sylvester, Raphaël Neal and Ben McGarvey) are accompanied throughout by Minute Taker performing an intimate musical and vocal score that both builds the atmosphere and pulls on the heartstrings. Visually explosive and emotionally thrilling, ‘Wolf Hours’ transports the audience through pleasure, grief, lust, joy and our collective historical imagination.”



 
In this interview with ‘Superbia’, Ben expounds on the approach he took when putting together ‘Wolf Hours’, which he describes as “jumbled-up memories, fears and fantasies.. It’s presented a bit like late night TV from back in the ’80s and ’90s (when anything queer was relegated to an after-midnight slot!) with different programmes and images emerging out of the static as you drift in and out of sleep… I also decided to include lots of archive footage in the show, which explores the way homosexuality has been portrayed in the media over the years… all of the stuff that finds its way into the subconscious minds of the characters as they lie awake at night, having an effect on how they view themselves and the gay community.” He’s hoping to take the show out on a broader tour much later this year, but for now this is all that you’re getting…

* * * * * * * *
Dates:

Holly Penfield & Ian Ritchie: The Cricklewood Cats
The Fiddler’s Elbow, 1 Malden Road, Kentish Town, London, NW5 3HS, England
Friday 10th January, 2020, 8.20pm
– no information links, just turn up…

Kenny Process Team + Keith John Adams + The Happy Couple
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Monday 13th January 2020, 7.30pm
– information here, here and here

Folk and Roots presents:
Arhai
The Harrison, 28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, London, WC1H 8JF, England
Saturday 18th January 2020, 7.30pm
– information here, here and here

Minute Taker presents ‘Wolf Hours’
Hope Mill Theatre, 113 Pollard Street, Beswick, Manchester, M4 7JA, England
Friday 24th January 2020, 8:00pm
– information here and here

Holly Penfield
The 100 Club, 100 Oxford Street, Soho, London, W1D 1LL, England
Sunday 8th March 2020, time t.b.c.
– no information links yet
 

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